Magazine article New Internationalist

The ISI

Magazine article New Internationalist

The ISI

Article excerpt

By anyone's standards Pakistani politics is not for the faint of heart. Hardly surprising, when the country's main secret police agency, the Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence, or ISI, remains a major player in domestic politics. Using all the means available to a security police force - spying, surveillance, blackmail, interrogation, torture and even assassination - it is the 'shadow state' that stands behind Pakistani raison d'état. The ISI manages and sometimes shapes Pakistani governance asa watchdog for the interests of the powerful armed forces. When the military rules the country directly (as it has for more than half of Pakistan's history) the ISI plays a role in keeping track of, and destabilizing if necessary, civilian opposition. In the country's periodic shifts back to civilian (and sometimes democratic) rule, the ISI keeps tabs on the Government, and conspires in its overthrow if it threatens military interests and prerogatives.

The ISI is very much a colonial inheritance. It is the 1948 brain-child of an Australian-born British army officer, Major-General R Cawthorne, who ended up as Deputy Chief of Staff of the newly minted Pakistani army. Originally the agency was seen as an orthodox intelligence-gathering institution, focusing on perceived external threats (India, in other words). But under Pakistan's first post-independence military dictator, General Ayub Khan, it became involved in suppressing discontent in East Pakistan, which felt it was getting a bad deal from Islamabad. In the end this proved futile as, despite a policy of bloody suppression, an independent Bangladesh split away from Pakistan. But there was to be no putting the ISI genie back into the bottle. It was subsequently used and misused by successive governments for both domestic manipulation and foreign adventures.

Under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s the ISI really flowered as a kind of 'state within a state'. It played a key role in manipulating the domestic political process to the disadvantage of Zia's main political opponents: the Bhutto family and the Pakistani People's Party. The ISI forged a close alliance with the US Central Intelligence Agency, whether in dealing with domestic leftists or -particularly -the Russians in Afghanistan. The main goal was to arm the Afghan resistance and bid up the cost of Russian intervention. It was an odd combination of Pakistani barracks nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism and US imperial might. Authoritarianism was the glue that held this disparate group together and the ISI was its main instrument. Although not without its tensions, this alliance held until the attacks of 11 September 2001, when it fell spectacularly apart.

Today the ISI is reputed to have a staff of 10,000, which includes 2,500 core officers. The Pakistani military has always been comfortable with the ISI's military-style command structure, and latterly its adherence to rigid Islamic doctrine. This has been crucial in protecting 'turf the military regards as no-go areas for civilian governments: a large military budget; the secret nuclear state and all that surrounds it; and support for anti-Indian agitation in Kashmir.

Aside from the Afghan and Kashmiri operations, other highlights of ISI 'black bag' politics include: bringing together political opposition to the PPP to get rid of Benazir Bhutto; splitting the opposition Mohajir Quami Movement; harassing the Bhutto family in and out of power, including bugging telephone conversations between Benazir and Rajiv Gandhi to derail peace talks with India in July 1989. …

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