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Review of Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G Kiessling

books Updated: May 13, 2017 19:05 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
ISI,Pakistan,Hein G Kiessling

Handiwork of the ISI: The serial bomb blasts in Bombay on 13 March, 1993 that left 257 people dead.(Sanjay Sharma/HT Photo)

There are two stories about the Inter-Services Intelligence of the Pakistan military. One is about its support for various jihadi groups which it then throws against India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The other is the ISI’s role as an instrument used by the Pakistani military to keep their country’s civil society under its thumb. This book is largely about the first story but what also becomes clear is that the ISI’s two functions, ultimately, are the sides of a single coin.

The ISI had innocuous origins as a not particularly effective military intelligence agency founded soon after Pakistan was born. A covert operations division was created within the agency by the 1960s with an eye to helping Northeast and, later, Khalistani insurgents in India. However, as Kiessling argues, its primary task was the “consolidation of the political situation at home.” The ISI’s principal task was “internal political intelligence”. It tried to outdo the Intelligence Bureau to act as an “early warning system for the political establishment.” The ISI was the more thuggish one “responsible for applying pressure and delivering warnings” – and even considered for assassinations. Ayub Khan, for example, asked then ISI director Brigadier Riaz Hussain to eliminate a political critic.

The ISI may have a larger-than-life profile in India today, but its early history was one of bungling. It was at sea during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, at one point accused of losing track of an entire Indian division.

The ISI director, Riaz Hussain, asked by Ayub Khan to explain his agency’s shortcomings, complained, “All these years we were not doing our real work of counterintelligence, because we were too busy chasing your domestic political opponents.” A remarkable amount of the ISI’s energy was spent on monitoring Pakistani politicians and even civil servants – at a later point it even tapped the line of an army chief.

Its greatest failure was to completely misread the Bengali revolt in East Pakistan, the civil war that followed and the subsequent Indian military victory. The ISI was able to get a copy of the Indian military’s combat plan but it made little material difference. In any case this success was overshadowed by the ISI’s attempts to build up the Jamaat-e-Islami in a belief it could counter the Awami League and Bengali nationalism, “a task that failed due to self-delusion and wishful thinking.”

Worli, on 13 March, 1993 after the bomb blasts in Bombay. ( Sanjay Sharma/HT Photo )

Pakistan’s men in khakhi were not the only ones who found the ISI useful. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto boosted the ISI’s domestic capabilities by setting up an internal political agency inside the agency in 1975 and he used the agency to watch both the opposition and his own party members. Of course, to counter the ISI, the ever suspicious Bhutto also set up a Federal Investigation Agency and then to watch both, a Federal Security Force. Yet it was Bhutto “who helped a demoralized secret service regain its self-confidence” after the 1971 disaster.

The turning point in the ISI’s external abilities was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US-Pakistan covert alliance that followed. It also saw the ISI being led by Lieutenant General Akhtar Abdul Rehman, “the most interesting, most successful but also the most controversial of all ISI directors.” During his seven years the ISI trained tens of thousands of mujahedins, received billions of dollars in US funds and weapons, and in driving out the Soviet Union became imbued with a sense of religion and mission that was soon to be turned against India. “We are second to none” was a common refrain within the ISI’s ranks after the Soviet defeat.

Author Hein G Kiessling ( HarperCollins )

By the early 1990s, Kashmir had been added to the ISI’s main concerns of Pakistani politics and Afghanistan. An Islamicist ISI director, Javed Nasir, was appointed by the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and looked the other way as Nasir took the ISI across the world. The agency operated as far away as Bosnia but its priority was terrorist strikes against India including the 1993 Mumbai blasts. Sharif eventually removed Nasir, but only after intense US pressure.

The ISI was a late convert to supporting the Taliban, but became and remain their most fervent supporters. Today, Kashmir remains “an area of activity sui generis” and as for Al Qaeda, “for the author, with his 13 years’ experience in Pakistan, there is no doubt that some ISI personnel must have known Osama bin Laden’s place of residence.” Keissling dismisses talk of an “ISI within the ISI” or the idea of rogue elements within the agency: “it is strictly led and managed.”

The book’s strength is the detail it provides about the ISI’s role in the byzantine and ruthless internal politics of Pakistan.

Devastation after the bomb blasts in Bombay on 13 March, 1993. ( Sanjay Sharma/HT Photo )

Thus the ISI was used by Pakistani dictator Zia ul Haque to create the Mohajir Quami Movement to eat into the Sindhi political base of Benazir Bhutto. By the end of the 1980s, the ISI was arming Sindhi nationalists to fight the MQM which had become a headache for Islamabad. Civilian leaders are no better. Sharif is almost addicted to using the ISI for dirty tricks at home and then ending up being the victim of the ISI joining the rest of the military and having the last joke on him.

There are some ISI heads who tried to re-invent their agency into a professional intelligence service, minus the politics -- Lieutenant General Nasim Rana who served till 1998 among them -- but they are rare and their reigns short-lived.

Read more: Flashback: How the Mumbai police cracked the 1993 bomb blast case

The complexity of the manoeuvring between military and civilian parties, presidents and prime ministers, spies and generals that went into the coups against the Bhuttos and, later, Sharif, would be the stuff of a cable TV mini-series. In Pakistan it is par for the course. The ISI comes out as one among many power centres, its role defined by the personality of its directors and the state of play between Pakistan’s ever-shifting civilian and military players. What emerges is a sense that the ISI is not a resident evil of Pakistan, it is merely a symptom of a malignant national polity for which there is no obvious cure.

Kiessling ends the book by saying that the next battleground for Pakistan and the ISI will be Balochistan, “the venue of geopolitics and battlefield of economic interests between global and regional power players.”

First Published: May 12, 2017 19:13 IST