The ISI manages and sometimes shapes Pakistani governance as a watchdog for the interests of the powerful armed forces.

Former ISI director Mahmud Ahmed.

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 as a 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 brainchild 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. Hard-to-prove rumours implicate the ISI in the assassination of renegade General Asif Nawaz Janjua and members of the Bhutto clan. Harassment of political opponents, while pretty standard fare for political police everywhere, is carried to extreme lengths by the ISI.

But it doesn’t stop there. The ISI was also involved in a massive corruption scandal dubbed ‘Mehrangate’ when it broke in 1994, in which top ISI and army brass were given large sums of money by Yunus Habib to deposit ISI’s foreign exchange reserves in Mehran Bank, which he owned.

The advent of the War on Terror meant serious issues for the ruling clique in the ISI. Several of them, including the director, Lieutenant-General Mahmud Ahmed, were sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism and committed to the Taliban, in whose installation in power in Kabul in 1992 they had played a key role. But times had changed. The ISI’s enemies list – Russia, India, democratic opponents of the Pakistani military, regional secessionists – were no longer necessarily ‘bad guys’ in Washington’s view. But Islamic fundamentalists in general, and the Taliban in particular, definitely were. Under heavy pressure from the Bush regime, the current Pakistani dictator, the flamboyant General Pervez Musharraf, moved to bring the ISI into line. Those who resisted, including Mahmud Ahmed, were forced out. But most observers believe that pockets of operatives committed to a fundamentalist programme remain in place. Musharraf himself admits that some ‘retired’ ISI officers may still be helping the Taliban. On the other hand, the $5,000 the US pays for handing over a terrorist ‘suspect’ can buy a lot of groceries in Karachi or Lahore.

Musharraf is walking a tightrope between his fealty to the Bush regime and a growing chorus of domestic opposition coming from both the Islamic Right and a growing civilian opposition, sparked by the corrupt practices and high-handed authoritarianism of his regime. But Musharraf is no fool. In the time-honoured manner of the Pakistani military, he refuses to give in to demands for the dissolution of the political police. ‘I totally, 200-per-cent, reject it. I reject it from anybody – MOD (Ministry of Defence) or anyone else who tells me to dismantle ISI.’ After all, you can never tell when the increasingly isolated Musharraf might need to call on their services. •