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Inside The ISI, Pakistan’s Spy Agency

FILE: A cyclist rides past a banner bearing the image of former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief Lt. General Zaheerul Islam in Islamabad, April 2014.
FILE: A cyclist rides past a banner bearing the image of former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief Lt. General Zaheerul Islam in Islamabad, April 2014.

How does one go about researching and writing about an organization tasked with deception which must by its very nature conceal its cloak-and-dagger intelligence work?

In writing a book about Pakistan’s premier intelligence service, German scholar Hein Kiessling offers an in-depth look at the highly secretive service.

Faith, Unity, Discipline: The Inter-Service-Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan is the story of one of today’s most talked-about spy agencies. It is a rigorous account of an organization engaged paradoxically in both fomenting and crushing insurgencies, shaping domestic policy, politics, and perhaps above all protecting the military’s supremacy in Pakistan.

The book is strong on its history. Its traces the evolution of the ISI from an anemic, humble spy service into one of the leading practitioners of asymmetrical warfare in the 1980s. Oddly, the spy service often criticized for aiding and creating some of the most well-known militant Islamist organizations today -- such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e Taiba -- was established by an Australian Army officer, Major General Walter Cawthrone.

Kiessling correctly identifies the late 1970s and 1980s as a transformative period that contributed a great deal toward shaping the formidable ISI of today. Years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, the ISI was busy (somewhat unsuccessfully) in fomenting an Islamist rebellion inside its western neighbor to weaken Afghan nationalism and its irredentist claims.

The ISI’s monopoly over the distribution of Western and Arab aid to the Afghan Islamist resistance against the Soviet occupation of their country provided it with the resources to not only attempt to shape Afghanistan’s destiny but also supervise an internal transformation of Pakistan.

FILE: The current head of ISI Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar
FILE: The current head of ISI Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar

The results were disastrous for both countries. The ISI played a key role in manipulating domestic Pakistani politics in the 1990s by coercing and bribing politicians who relentlessly engaged in squabbling. This resulted in weakening democracy, prompted insecurity and instability, and prevented the country from realizing its economic potential.

The agency’s penchant for shaping Afghanistan’s future has made Pakistan one of the most despised countries among Afghans. It is telling that while Islamabad might still manage to recruit Afghan insurgent leaders and foot soldiers, it has few friends and allies among the Afghan elites.

The book offers insights into the inner workings of the ISI. Kiessling’s contacts with past military leaders and within the agency itself has helped him shed light on the secret service. Nevertheless, he could have probed in more depth the agency’s role following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Instead of including an ISI statement on Balochistan as an appendix, the author should have devoted some energy to examining its role in the vast region, which borders Afghanistan and Iran with a long Arabian Sea coast. Based on what we have heard from politicians, activists, and journalists, the ISI has been at the forefront of brutally suppressing the now decade-old Baluch separatist insurrection. The region is particularly significant because its port at Gwadar is slated to be a linchpin for a major trade corridor linking northwestern China to the Gulf.

Similarly, the book makes only passing reference to the Taliban insurgency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where tens of thousands have been killed and millions displaced in a Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency lasting more than a decade since 2004.​

​Many Pakistanis are puzzled by the ISI’s failure to prevent the insurgency, and some even blame it for fomenting the unrest to protect what it sees as Pakistan’s interests irrespective of the cost that millions of Pakistani civilians have paid.

Kiessling, however, has not shied away from covering the controversies surrounding the ISI. He backs the theory that a special cell within the organization was protecting Osama bin Laden and his family; U.S. Special Forces killed the former Al-Qaeda leader on May 2, 2011, a stone’s throw away from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point in the northwestern garrison town of Abbottabad.

Four years later, a former ISI chief, Asad Durrani, appeared to support the theory that the Pakistani secret service had orchestrated the whole affair.

“My assessment was that it is quite possible they did not know, but it was more probable that they did -- and the idea was that at the right time, his location would be revealed,” he told Al Jazeera television last year. “The right time would be if you could get the right quid pro quo. If you had someone like Osama bin Laden, you are unlikely to hand him over to the United States. The quid pro quo to my mind … ‘you get your Osama bin Laden, now let’s agree on how to bring the Afghan problem to an end.’”

Indeed, such brinkmanship has defined the tenure of successive ISI and army chiefs in Pakistan. The book illuminates in detail that the ISI is “strictly led and managed and it contains no groups that pursue independent political agenda,” which inevitably means that a lot of its energy is focused on keeping the military firmly in charge of Pakistan’s levers of power. The two institutions achieve this successfully by first manipulating the definition of what constitutes Pakistan’s national interests and then controlling and guiding the state’s power to achieve and protect those interests.

Rich insights into the shadowy world of the ISI makes Faith, Unity, Discipline a required reading for Pakistani and Western policymakers.

Perhaps for many Pakistanis the book hints that their country's bright future lies in establishing the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution, which inevitably means its current and future military leaders will have to give up their monopoly over power and national decision-making.