Whenever military commanders fail to achieve their stated objectives, intelligence agencies are convenient scapegoats for their operational shortcomings. US President Carter’s “de-humanizing” of CIA in favour of high-tech did not cater for the present “war on terrorism” waged against a technologically backward country like Afghanistan. During Reagen’s term, CIA’s William Casey, one-time agent of the OSS, CIA’s predecessor agency, turned this policy around 180 degrees, running the war in Afghanistan with help from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). ISI coordinated logistics and operations with the Afghan Mujhahideen, with officers and men on “Extra Regimental Employment” (ERE) duties, from Pakistan’s elite commando brigade, Special Services Group (SSG) taking part in actual fighting. SSG prides itself in wearing the winged dagger and having the universal motto of Special Forces everywhere, “Who Dares Wins”. Having done two SSG tenures, prime product General Pervez Musharraf is presently SSG’s Colonel-in-Chief.
Raised from 19 Baluch (old 17/10 Baluch) at Cherat, a hill station not far from Peshawar, dedicated CIA and US Special Forces personnel trained the SSG as part of US “Military Aid to Pakistan” Program (US MAP), among the instructors Chuck Lord, Robert Buckley, Robert Dunn, Maj Murray, Lt Hicks, Sommers, etc. Pakistani SSG officers travelled to Fort Bragg and/or Fort Benning for advanced training. Robert Dunn knew most SSG personnel by name, having spent almost his whole life in this area. Casey chose him to be CIA’s Operations Chief for the Afghan War.
Pakistan remained aloof from Afghan affairs pre-1973. Bhutto’s toppling of the ANP-led Provincial Govts in NWFP and Balochistan in early 1973 frustrated leaders like Ajmal Khattak who went off to Kabul. Sardar Daood who had overthrown his cousin, King Zahir Shah, was only too happy to foster the Afghan dream of a greater Pakhtunistan. Marri and Mengal tribesmen, trained by the KGB/KHAD combine in Afghanistan, carried out an armed insurrection for several years in Balochistan. Pakistani students (belonging to elite families none of whom were Baloch) studying in UK were recruited under the cover of “consultants” to supply guns, ammunition and information. The ISI deliberately gave them rope to trace out their local contacts, this “magnanimity” ran out after the Sabtalang Feature (near Kohlu) incident, most were then hauled up and “re-educated” by ISI, eventually forgiven their youthful “indiscretions”. Bhutto mandated Maj Gen N K Babar (then IG Frontier Corps and later Governor NWFP) to pay the Afghans back in the same coin. The first trainees were many young Afghan doctors and engineers rabidly against the monarchy and the Soviets successor influenced government of PM Sardar Daood Khan, among the “rebels” Gulbadin Hikmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, late Ahmed Shah Masood, etc.
CIA and friendly Arab States funded hundreds of millions of US dollars and supplies to the major (nine) Mujhahideen factions, some directly but mostly through ISI. Funds were skimmed off but only at the very top, the money that did flow through went mostly to favourite Mujhahideen commanders alongwith supply of arms and equipment. Illicit sales of arms and equipment by the recipient Mujhahideen and by a handful of corrupt, unscrupulous intelligence operatives did take place. To whom was US $ 100000 or thereabouts transferred from BCCI Karachi (now Bank Alfalah) to bank accounts in Canada almost on a daily basis uptil mid-1988? Why is a government committed to accountability not hauling up the beneficiaries who live in affluence, and in positions of influence, while the tarnishing of the name and reputation of the Pakistan Army goes on, many of whose valiant sons lie in unmarked graves across Afghanistan? By the time, the Talibaan had chased the interim government out of Kabul in 1996 the ISI’s intelligence potential had gone into decline, diminishing drastically on the ground, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On becoming Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC), Zia’s long-serving DG ISI, Gen Akhtar Abdur Rahman handed over to Lt Gen Hamid Gul. The new Persian-speaking DG ISI’s visions were of a crescent of Pan-Islamic countries across Central Asia but he came to grief at Jalalabad. He was eased out of ISI by then PM Ms Benazir in early 1989 into commanding a Corps. Lt Gen SR Kallue, a retired officer, was brought in to head the ISI, essentially as an anti-coup mechanism. When the time came he badly failed his mentor, some of ISI’s own detachments were used under his nose to topple Ms Benazir in early August 1990. Gen Aslam Beg immediately moved his DG MI Asad Durrani to handle both ISI and MI concurrently for some time. Asad Durrani lasted a year before the new PM Mian Nawaz Sharif requested the new Army Chief, Lt Gen Asif Nawaz for his then favourite, Lt Gen Javed Nasir, the Army’s Engineer-in-Chief as DG ISI. Despite his heart being in the right place, Javed Nasir attempt to create Pakistan’s place under an Islamic sun almost got us declared “a terrorist state”. Between Kallue and Javed Nasir, Afghanistan slid down the priority ladder. Lt Gen Hamid Gul was prematurely retired by Asif Nawaz. Soon after Gen Asif Nawaz’s demise, the new COAS Gen Waheed Kakar sent both Lt Gen Asad Durrani, and Lt Gen Javed Nasir home for violating the channels of command. Gen Waheed mandated the DG MI, Lt Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi (presently Federal Minister for Communications), not only to cleanse the ISI of “Islamists” but to rein in the “Jehadis” in Kashmir.
Qazi went at ISI like knife through butter, bringing in another artillery officer Maj Gen Iftikhar (presently Lt Gen (Retd) Iftikhar Governor NWFP) to handle the External Wing. The ISI’s priceless intelligence network was dismantled, all Afghan veterans were posted back to the Army, most headed into retirement. By 1995, the ISI had been totally purged, except for a handful of favourites, no officer who had physically served in Afghanistan remained in ISI. Lacking either Afghan or combat experience, the ISI hierarchy developed an inferiority complex that made them petty, including ordering the surveillance of those patriots who had fought so hard for their country, risking life and limb without asking for reward or recognition. Incidentally, the new hierarchy took the credit for creating the Talibaan (now they don’t do so) whereas the Talibaan were an indigenous self-made creation, later adopted by the ISI for support.
Unlike other intelligence agencies like CIA, RAW, MI-5, etc the ISI is not a career service. Civilian operatives do not rise beyond fieldgrade (ie. equivalent of a major), never get involved in policy-making. Majors and above are rotated from the Pakistan Army for 2-3 years, during the Afghan War they did longer tenures. Successive DGs ISI starting with Lt Gens Akhtar Abdur Rahman, Hamid Gul, SR Kallue, Javed Nasir, Asad Durrani, Javed Ashraf Qazi, Nasim Rana, Ziauddin, Mahmood and Ehsan (the incumbent DG ISI), never served in the ISI before being appointed DG, some had served in MI. It is ridiculous to suggest that the ISI is a State within a State and has an agenda of its own. Their agenda is the pursuit of national policy, dictated by the Head of State and/or Government, politicians in power always look to the Army Chief for “advice” on Kashmir and Afghanistan. In any case, for more than half of ISI’s existence the Army has been in power.
The Talibaan’s arrival in Kabul in 1996 gave ISI an inroad back in Afghanistan after literally four years in the cold. Since Pakistan is always worried about a second front at its back when facing an implacable foe like India, the ISI shored up the Talibaan with money and food. The Soviets had left hundreds of tons of arms in packed/crated condition, arms and equipment were never required. The Talibaan almost never acquiesced to anything Pakistan requested of them, including not giving sanctuary to wanted terrorists like Riaz Basra. Contrary to public perception, the ISI never had any control or influence over the Talibaan, at most an open channel for dialogue. Till Sep 11, 2001 this channel was frequently used, the Talibaan listened when it suited them. As recent events have shown, not only have the Talibaan been their own masters, the ISI has very little field intelligence about them. By the time it mattered most to the world, the ISI had been emasculated of its superb potential. As a one-of-a-kind weapon par excellence, ISI has been badly misused by leadership of indifferent quality, its having personal ambitions but with a singular lack of vision for the country.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).