The Rise and Rise of ISI

  • Wajahat Ahmad
  • Publish Date: Mar 16 2017 9:02PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Mar 16 2017 9:02PM
The Rise and Rise of ISI


Hein Kiessling’s dispassionate work provides a lucid history of Pak military’s and ISI’s domination of the political system in Pakistan



Prior to the 1988 Azadi uprising, most Kashmiris knew of “ISI” as a certification mark printed on Indian electrical and kitchen appliances, which was understood as an assurance for quality. When the movement for Azadi gained momentum, Kashmiris became more aware of the existence of the Pakistani ISI. It was seen as an aggressive intelligence agency, rivalling the best of its kind in the world of espionage, like the CIA, the MI 6, the KGB or the Mossad.

Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan is primarily a story of the intelligence agency’s interventions in Pakistan’s domestic politics. The book is by Hein G Kiessling, a political scientist and historian at the reputed Ludwig Maxmillian University in Muenich. Kiessling spent 13 years in Pakistan fraternizing with the Pakistani military, intelligence and political elite. However, nowhere in the book does he come across as an apologist of the ISI or the political elite of Pakistan.

Kiessling gives a good account of the organizational structure of ISI and its chain of command. Out of some nine wings, the one responsible for overseeing its operations in Kashmir, is the Joint Intelligence North (JIN), humorously referred to as Djinn by some pro Azadi activists. He argues that ISI is a highly disciplined organization and all its Director Generals and officers pursue the core objectives and policies of the organization. There are hardly any rogue agents.

Barring a few places, Kiessling’s academic rigor shines in the book as he marshals diverse sources to deftly analyze key episodes in the history of the ISI from multiple standpoints. Possibly influenced by the Weberian tradition of doing an “objective” social sciences, Kiessling "seeks to present an objective history of the ISI, its origin and development, tasks and objectives, successes and failures". The intentionality and the effort is worthy of appreciation but one cannot ignore the methodological point that knowledge production is always dialogical. Notwithstanding the potentialities and affordances that a social encounter has to offer, each interaction between a scholar and an interlocutor is informed by their positionalities and relations of power. Their perceptions of the self and the other are not only relational but are mediated by an intersectionality of class, gender, ethnicity, religion and other markers of the self.

It was quite likely that the top officers of an intelligence agency like ISI forced on a defensive in the post 9/11 scenario would engage in some degree of perception management while dealing with a scholar from a major Western power like Germany, especially when it came to the agency’s handling of Pakistan’s foreign policy issues or of democratic institutions in the country. Keeping in mind the methodological caveat, Kiessling’s work nonetheless offers us a mine of information regarding the activities of ISI in Pakistan’s domestic theatre of politics.

It is also revealing in terms of ISI’s role in Pakistan’s near abroad: the support provided by the agency to Mizo and Naga nationalists from late 1950s and to the leaders of the Khalistan movement in the U.K as early as 1971; Benazir Bhutto government’s support to a nascent Taliban to secure the road to Central Asian countries in the wake of robbery attacks on trucks in Afghanistan carrying Asif Ali Zardari’s cotton imports from Turkeminstan; or ISI’s airlift of anti-tank rockets and bazookas to help Bosnian Muslims to fight Serb forces in the 1990s Civil War in Yugoslavia. However, the author tends to skim the surface of some of the political episodes rather than render an in-depth treatment of the subject matter.

The book sheds good light on the power of the ISI and the Pakistani military elite in shaping Pakistan’s domestic politics and foreign policy and on an unhealthy relationship between Pakistani military and political elite, which has had a deleterious effect on state-building in the country.

The origin story of ISI dates back to the tumultuous years of 1947-48 when India and Pakistan locked horns on Kashmir. The organization, according to Kiessling, was founded in 1948 by Sir Walter Joseph Cawthorne, an Australian born, military officer in the British India army. One of the major push factors behind its foundation is believed to be Pakistan army’s poor performance on the intelligence front during the 1947-48 war in Kashmir.

Ironically, the British Officer who had fought the Mohamand tribes in the North-West Frontier Province in 1930 and 1945, would become the founding father of Pakistan’s premier national intelligence agency. ISI was modelled after the British secret service MI 6 and the American CIA.  During the first two decades, ISI was an unexceptional organization of small size, mostly headed by Brigadier rank officers. Its profile grew under General Ayub Khan’s rule, who used it to spy on critics, political rivals and Bengali military officers in East Pakistan.

Underlining ISI’s entanglement with Pakistan’s domestic politics in the Ayub era, which would only grow with time, Kiessing contends, “The ISI and IB reported directly to the Martial Law Administrator. Additionally, political and military opponents were kept under observation, a task undertaken by ISI’s Colonel Khwaja Muhammad Azhar... At the end of his military career, he was a three star General under Yahya Khan and afterwards became Governor of NWFP…The agencies became an early warning system for the political leadership and tried to surpass each other in their professional dedication. Those under observation were individuals, parties, organizations, universities and the press. The ISI was used to apply pressure and delivering warnings. Even the physical elimination of political opponents could be considered”.

ISI’s first major intervention outside Pakistan was to occur across the Cease-fire Line in Kashmir, which, however, proved a failure. In February1965, the Deputy Director of ISI, T.S Jan would draft a plan to foment an uprising in Kashmir by infiltrating armed men from Pakistan to engage in sabotage and subversive activities. However, the expected uprising did not materialize. Initially, the plan namedOperation Gibraltar, was rejected by President Ayub Khan. The General later accepted its modified version in May 1965, which came to be known as Operation Grand Slam. It culminated in the India –Pakistan war of 1965, and the performance of ISI and MI (Military Intelligence) turned out to be unimpressive. Their intelligence agents in Kashmir and India went underground and failed to deliver any significant intelligence inputs. Kiessing contends. “...The 1965 war over Kashmir was a total failure for the Pakistani intelligence services. More used to being involved in internal monitoring and shadowing their own politicians, they failed in enemy intelligence. The ISI and MI appeared unable to locate and pinpoint the movements of Indian troops. Later reports on the 1965 war often referred maliciously to the fact that ISI had lost contact with a whole Indian division and could not determine where they were”.

Likewise, ISI’s intelligence gathering in East Pakistan was unable to gauge the true extent of Bengali alienation from the Pakistani state. Notwithstanding these failures, ISI would rise to become a formidable organization when it would play a leading role in supporting Afghan Mujahidin against Soviet Occupation. The author’s treatment of ISI’s role in Afghan war is limited to the extent that it forms a part of a chapter focusing on the history of ISI in the Zia regime. The chapter is mostly based on a critical reading of Brigadier Muhammad Yusuf’s book on ISI’s role in the Afghan War: Afghanistan: The Bear Trap: The Defeat of a Superpower.

In contrast, Brigadier Yusuf, who headed the Afghan Bureau of ISI under the tutelage of the then Director General, ISI, Akhter Abdul Rehman, has given a very comprehensive account of ISI’s operations in the Afghan war effort. Kiessling largely reproduces Yusuf on Afghanistan, “The ISI Afghanistan Bureau had in total 60 officers, 100 JCOs and 300 NCOs. They trained over 80,000 mujahideen through the 1980s and distributed thousands of tons of weapons and material.” The author, possibly lacking Urdu language skills, doesn’t reference any Urdu work on ISI or its officers. Books like Faateh, a biography of General Akhter Abdul Rehman by Pakistani journalist Haroon Rasheed, do not make it to the bibliography.

The book’s weakest chapter is the one on Kashmir, titled as the “The Troubled Valley: Kashmir”. In the six page long chapter on Kashmir, the author claims that Hurriyat Conference was created “with the help of ISI.” Without furnishing any details he attributes the split of Hurriyat Conference to the “unstable political situation in Pakistan”.

Unlike Owen L Sirrs, who damns ISI in his 2016 work, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate: Covert Action and Internal Operations, Hein Kiessling’s is a rather dispassionate telling which avoids overt judgment. Though Kiessling provides us with a lucid history of the military’s or ISI’s domination of the political system in Pakistan, he does not provide us with any causal explanations. Political scientist Aqil Shah’s book, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan does explain that the perceived military threat from India led to the early militarization of the Pakistani state. Moreover, the homogenizing nation-state policies of the Muslim League elite triggered ethno-national movements, sparking military elites’ fears of fragmentation of Pakistan, which in turn gave rise to military intervention in the politics of the country.



(Wajahat Ahmad teaches Sociology at O P Jindal University)