Pakistan’s ISI From The Inside


The best places to meet the world’s most interesting national security
and foreign policy personalities are no longer Washington or London or
Paris. Rather, highest on the list are Beijing, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and

Many years ago, I met Lt General Asad Durrani in Beijing thanks to a
conference organised by Australia’s Monash University. We have been
acquainted and communicating since. I remember arriving late to the
conference and rushing in as the brash, younger-than-I-am-now upstart
and sitting down at one of the lunch tables of ten. I quickly met
everyone and heard that Durrani was a general from Pakistan. That’s all I
knew. I asked him quickly, “Do you think President Musharraf really
doesn’t control the ISI?” Several faces went white at the table. A jaw
dropped. Durrani’s eyes narrowed and he slowly said, “It may be in
General Musharraf’s interests to pretend he has little control over the
ISI.” This is pure Durrani – layers, meaningful, informed, and no one’s

Then I realised looking at bios that he was the former chief of the ISI –
and our accidental bluntness and candour has glued us together since.

On Sunday night, General Durrani sent me an essay he wrote, with very
light editing by me. These are his words, his insights into how Pakistan
sees the Taliban and Afghanistan – as well as its competition with the
US in the region.

I have permission to post the entire essay which I am doing. I think
that those interested in understanding the other side of the complex and
stressed US-Pakistan relationship need to read a bit about the history
of the ISI in the words of one of their own.

When I last met General Durrani at a conference organised by Al Jazeera in Doha, he said to me:

Steve, it is very hard for me to overstate to you the enthusiasm for which Pakistan’s generals have for the Taliban.

Durrani is not a booster for the Taliban; he is a hard core realist –
and his view is that Pakistan’s generals prize the Taliban for its
ability to give them “strategic depth”. Whether you agree or not, his
assessments are very much worth reading in full.

So, the rest from Lt. General and former ISI Chief Assad Durrani:


By Lt. General Asad Durrani

When Smashing Lists, a relatively unknown website, declared Pakistan’s
Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI, the best of its kind, it gladdened
my heart but also had me worried.

Soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I met an old colleague, a
Special Forces officer recently inducted in the ISI. He whispered in my
ears: “we have decided to support the Afghan resistance”.

Understandably. With the “archenemy” India in the East and now not a
very friendly Soviet Union on our Western borders, Pakistan had fallen
between “nutcrackers”.

We therefore had to take our chances to rollback the occupation; but did
we have any against a ‘superpower’, and the only one in the region at
that? Soon after the Soviet withdrawal, as the Director General of
Military Intelligence, I was assigned to a team constituted to review
Pakistan’s Afghan Policy. That, followed by a stint in the ISI, provided
the answer.

The Afghan tradition of resisting foreign invaders was indeed the sine
qua non for this gamble to succeed. American support took two years in
coming but when it arrived, US support was one of the decisive factors.
The ISI’s role – essentially logistical in that it channelled all aid
and helped organise the resistance – turned out to be pivotal. In the
process, from a small time player that undertook to punch above its
weight, rubbing shoulders with the best in the game, the Americans,
catapulted the Agency into the big league. Unsurprisingly, the ISI
became a matter of great concern not only for its foes.

Cooperation amongst secret services, even within the country, is not the
norm. It took a 9/11 for the US to create a halfway-coordinating
mechanism. Between the CIA and the ISI, however, communication and
coordination worked out well as long as the Soviets were in Afghanistan.
The shared objective – defeat of the occupation forces – was one
reason; respect for each other’s turf, the more important other.

The CIA hardly ever questioned how its Pakistani counterpart dispensed
with the resources provided for the Jihad or for that matter how it was
conducted. And the ISI never asked if the American providers were over
invoicing the ordnance or undermining the Saudi contribution. It did not
mean that they trusted each other.

Differences, however, surfaced as soon as the Soviets withdrew. To start
with, some of the key ISI operatives were vilified, allegedly for
having favoured the more radical of the Afghan groups. The charge that
the Agency was infested with rogue elements is thus an old one. Twice
these vilification campaigns led, under American pressure, to major
purges of ISI’s rank and file. If these episodes ever led to changes in
policy is another matter. In the early 1990s, we in the ISI understood
this shift in American attitude as a big-brother’s desire to establish
hegemony, but more crucially – now that the Soviet Union after its
withdrawal from Afghanistan had ceased to exist – to cut this upstart
service to size.

The CIA was clearly at odds with our declared objective to help the
Mujahedeen lead the new dispensation in Kabul, especially if individuals
like Hikmatyar were to play an important part in it. And the US was
indeed unhappy with Pakistan’s efforts to seek Iran’s cooperation after
the Islamic Republic had made peace with Iraq. But what seemed to have
caused the most anguish amongst our American friends were the prospects
of an increasingly confident ISI, vain enough to throw spanners in the
work of the sole surviving superpower. These apprehensions were not
entirely ill-founded as the Iraq-Kuwait crisis of 1990-91 was soon to

Sometimes in 1992, General Brent Scowcroft, former national security
advisor to US Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush, reportedly conceded
that the ISI’s assessment of Saddam’s forces was closer to the mark than
their own, which highly exaggerated Saddam’s capacity. Now, if anyone
else in the business too was to broadcast its account every time the CIA
“sexed-up” a threat to suit American objectives (next time on Iraq’s
WMD holding for example), some pre-emption was obviously in order.

Soon thereafter the ISI was cleansed of the old guard, most of them
ostensibly for their infatuation with the “Jihadists” in Afghanistan and
Kashmir. These purges must have served a few careers but when it came
to taking decisions and making policies, the new guard had no choice but
to put its shoulder behind the Taliban bandwagon. The Militia was now,
like it or not, the only group with a chance to reunify the war torn
country; the inviolable and in principle the only condition for
Pakistan’s support for the “endgame”, with no ideological or
geo-political caveats.

Initially the Americans and the Saudis too had wooed Mullah Omar, though
for a different reason: their interest in a pipeline that was to pass
through territories under the Taliban control. If Pakistan should have
ceased all support when this militant regime rejected its advice – on
accommodating the Northern Alliance or sparing the Bamyan Statues, for
example – remains a moot point. After all, post 9/11 the Taliban did
agree to our request to extradite Osama bin Laden, albeit to a third
country. That was rejected by the US for reasons not for me to

The ISI was thereafter subjected to another purge in the hope that the
refurbished setup would put its heart and soul behind the new decree:
‘chase anyone resisting the American military operations in Afghanistan
all the way to hell’. That came to millions on both sides of the
Pak-Afghan borders; likely to be around long after the US troops had
gone home, with some of them turning their guns inwards as one must have
noticed. Under the circumstances, neither the ISI nor other organs of
the state had any will to operate against groups primarily primed to
fight “foreign occupation”. If they also had the right to do so, or how
this intrusion was otherwise to be defined, can be discussed
ad-infinitum. Pakistan in the meantime has to fight a number of running

So, this time around as well, it is not any “rogue elements” in the ISI
but the complexity of the crisis that necessitates selective use of
force; essentially against the “rogue groups”, some of them undoubtedly
planted or supported by forces inimical to our past and present
policies. (Thanks to the Wikileaks, we now know a bit more about the
“counter-terrorism pursuit teams”.)

If our political and military leadership also had the gumption to
support the war against the Nato forces – in the belief that some of the
present turmoil in the area would not recede as long as the world’s
most powerful alliance was still around – does not seem very likely.

Indeed, the ISI suffers from many ailments, most of them a corollary of
its being predominantly a military organisation and of the Army’s
exceptional role in Pakistani politics. But that is of no great
relevance to this piece which is basically about the Agency’s role in
the so-called “war on terror”; a euphemism for the war raging in the
AfPak Region.

The most important takeaway from this fascinating snapshot of the ISI,
the Taliban, and Pakistan’s view of America and its strategic choices is
that Pakistan will never be a predictable puppet of US interests. –

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