Pakistan’s intelligence organization, known as Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has ensnared the U.S. in a double game for years.
Operating in the shadows of the Pakistani “deep state” – a term used to reference the country’s political system, which is dictated by unelected military and security officials – the ISI has strategically fashioned a mutually beneficial relationship with the U.S. since the late 1970s and 1980s, when it worked alongside the CIA to funnel money and weapons to mujahideen fighters battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of 9/11, ISI officials claimed to have aided U.S. forces in capturing or killing several top al Qaeda leaders, including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
At the same time, however, the ISI has never lost sight of its own agenda, which gives priority to counteracting the activities of India and to ensuring that any government in Kabul owes no allegiance to India. To that end, the ISI helped facilitate the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan during the 1990s by supplying it with weapons and cash. Despite denials from senior Pakistani officials, many experts agree that the ISI continues to protect and assist the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), all designated as terrorists by the U.S. government, as part of its strategy to keep Afghanistan on unstable footing and advance its ambitions in the disputed Kashmir region bordering India and Pakistan.
“We know that Pakistan has no interest in a peaceful Afghanistan that would be under the influence of its archenemy India and feels keenly the need for a proxy to protect its interests there,” William Milam, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, told The Cipher Brief. “We know that Pakistan was present at the creation of the Taliban in the mid-1990s and gave them much support in their fight to take over the country. And we know that the Haqqani network, which is allied with the Afghan Taliban, has become a good substitute proxy.”
The ISI was established in 1948 after the conclusion of the first Indo-Pakistan war, when Pakistani leaders decided that they needed a much more robust and effective unit to monitor India’s military activities and provide intelligence to the Pakistani army.
In his book The Idea of Pakistan, Stephen Cohen, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and expert on South Asia, writes that the ISI was originally responsible for overseeing Pakistan’s foreign intelligence, meaning, “in practical terms, a dominant focus on India but with some attention to Afghanistan, Iran, and other regional states.”
The ISI’s responsibilities expanded into the domestic realm in 1958, when Muhammad Ayub Khan, then-leader of the Pakistani military, seized control of the Pakistani government in a bloody coup and tasked the intelligence agency with collecting information on his political opponents.
But during the second Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, the ISI suffered many intelligence failures. These stumbles led Khan to restructure the agency into seven main divisions, which remain today:
- Joint Intelligence X (JIX) – coordinates all other ISI departments, prepares reports and assessments, accounts for all funds, and conducts administrative tasks
- Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) – collects political intelligence inside Pakistan and maintains a special division devoted to operations involving India
- Joint Counterintelligence Bureau (JCB) – conducts surveillance of Pakistani diplomats stationed abroad and intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and specifically in Afghanistan, China, Russia, and Israel
- Joint Intelligence North (JIN) – collects intelligence in Jammu and Kashmir
- Joint Intelligence Miscellaneous (JIM) – executes covert operations and espionage missions
- Joint Signal Intelligence Bureau (JSIB) – collects signals intelligence and provides communication support along the border with India and in Kashmir
- Joint Intelligence Technical (JIT) – researches and develops new technology
Although the ISI technically falls under the jurisdiction of Pakistan’s Prime Minster, the head of the ISI is appointed by Pakistan’s army chief. For that reason, the organization has stayed loyal to the Pakistani army throughout the years. In fact, Phillip Reiner, former Senior Director for South Asia at the National Security Council during the Obama Administration, writes that “whenever an elected civilian has been in power in Pakistan, the Chief of Army Staff ensured that the elected Prime Minister did not develop control over ISI.”
Currently, the ISI employs over 10,000 military and civilian personnel, plus a network of thousands of informants inside and outside of Pakistan. In many respects, it acts as a secret police agency.
“ISI’s role over time has included brutal suppression of anti-state rhetoric, fomenting and countering insurgency, providing illicit channels for drug smuggling, acquiring nuclear weapons components, and developing proxy organizations to splinter domestic opposition political parties,” Reiner says.
The ISI exerts a strong grip on Pakistan’s national security apparatus. It pulls strings from behind the scenes to dominate Pakistan’s foreign and domestic policies. Many Americans are wary of the ISI, accusing it of harboring the Haqqani network and Taliban, which are responsible for many U.S. and allied deaths in Afghanistan.
Yet the U.S. still looks to the ISI for intelligence on terrorists operating in the Afghan-Pakistan region. The U.S. also has little choice but to enlist the ISI’s assistance in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table if Washington eventually hopes to stabilize Afghanistan and end the longest war in U.S. history. Furthermore, by keeping a line of communication with the ISI open, the U.S. retains some ability to keep an eye on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and can help prevent radioactive elements from falling into the wrong hands.
In the end, the ISI will always put Pakistan’s national security and interests first. And it appears that the U.S. is stuck playing this double game as long as it bears tangible results for U.S. interests and national security.
Bennett Seftel is deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.