Expert Commentary

Pakistan’s Double Game, Unpacked

Ambassador William Milam
Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is one of most powerful intelligence agencies in the world, as it works to further Pakistani interests in South Asia. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with William Milam, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, to discuss ISI’s role within Pakistan’s political and military structure as well as if the organization is a true counterterrorism partner for the U.S.

The Cipher Brief: How was Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) formed? What is the organization’s current role within the Pakistani government? How much influence does it wield?

Bill Milam: The 1947 Partition of British India divided the Indian subcontinent into two nations – Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan – based upon the so–called “two nations” theory, which proposes that Hindus and Muslims are separate nations and cannot live together. This division explains much of the subsequent history of both countries.

In 1948, the failure of Pakistan to secure the province of Kashmir by military action in the first war between the two new nations was thought by Pakistani military leaders to be the fault of inadequate military intelligence.  They created Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as the intelligence arm of the Pakistani military. The ISI was born out of failure to capture the majority Muslim province that got away, Kashmir. Much of its focus, its “raison d’etre” for the next 70 years, was to get Kashmir away from India. The Pakistan Army used militant fighters from the hill tribal areas to fight that war.  The practice of using proxies against a larger, more powerful Indian military came to be doctrine. 

The ISI role within the Pakistani government has expanded substantially over the years, from a simple military intelligence agency to a pervasive and powerful intelligence agency with wide domestic as well as foreign and military functions. While it is possible that some rogue officers or small units have acted outside hierarchical parameters, there is no evidence that the ISI, as an organization, is not subject to usual constraints of a military chain of command.

TCB: What is the relationship between the ISI, the Pakistani government, and the Pakistani Army?

Milam: As is well known, Pakistan has been ruled by the its army for close to half of its existence, so the key question is, what the relationship is between the elected civilian government (when there is one, as is currently the case) and the army. The answer to that is that the civilian government, in reality, rules in tandem with the army, but questions of national security and foreign policy (relations with India most importantly) in particular, are basically decided by the army. Within that context, the ISI, being a subordinate part of the military, is both an intelligence agency advising the civilian government and surveilling it.

TCB: In the 1980s, the ISI worked with the U.S. to funnel money and weapons to mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan. How has it changed since then? What is the current level of coordination and cooperation between the U.S. and the ISI?

Milam: Since those “glory” days of the 1980s, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been on a roller coaster, diving downward in the early 1990s, when the U.S. placed economic and political sanctions on Pakistan to try to dissuade it from building nuclear weapons. The sanctions failed to deter Pakistan.  It successfully tested nuclear weapons in 1998, an act that called forth another round of U.S. sanctions. Cooperation and coordination between the ISI and the U.S. military in these sanction years were, understandably, restrained and very transactional – i.e. cooperative actions were undertaken with the expectation of reciprocation.  However, everything changed on September 11, 2001, as the U.S. government realized it needed Pakistan to eliminate the threat of al Qaeda, which was headquartered in Afghanistan. The sanctions were reversed, and cooperation and coordination improved greatly, but not without some hitches.

TCB: Many in the U.S. have accused the ISI of supporting hostile combatants such as the Haqqani network, the Taliban, and the Leshkar-e-Taiba. How accurate are these accusations? What interests does the ISI have in supporting them? Is there anything the U.S. can do to change this behavior?

Milam: These accusations are generally believed by Western experts to be correct, but evidence for them is all highly classified and held closely. However, 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. 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.  

As for the Leshkar-e-Taiba, it is the reminder that Pakistan still sees India as its primary existential threat and still relies on proxies to keep India off balance. A virulently anti-Indian extremist organization, Leshkar-e-Taiba serves as one proxy.  Inside India, in the last several years, it has carried out very serious raids which appear to have had ISI help. (Could they have been rogue ISI units? We don’t know.)

TCB: For years, it appears that ISI has played a double game with respect to the U.S. and the Taliban. Does the U.S. need ISI as a counterterrorism partner? If so, why? If not, what alternatives does the U.S. have?

Milam: It is not so simple as this question implies. First we must remember that Pakistan itself has suffered greatly from terrorism; attacks by the Pakistani Taliban have killed many hundreds, if not thousands of innocent citizens. While the assertions of Pakistani support for terrorist groups described above are generally accepted by most Western experts, and there have been wild swings in the level of counterterrorism cooperation and coordination between the ISI and U.S. military and intel agencies, the ISI has been helpful on important parts of the U.S. counterterrorism program, such as the drone program, which serve its own interests. It has not cooperated on others which it considers contrary to those interests.

The real question is whether, given the differences in the two countries’ interests, Pakistan will play a positive role in the search for a political solution to the Afghanistan war – a solution that would leave the Afghans free to choose their own system and build their own country, safe from the Islamist extremists such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Afghan Taliban.

The Author is Ambassador William Milam

Ambassador William B. Milam is currently a Senior Scholar at the Wilson Center's Asia Program. He previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 until 2001. Milam also served as Ambassador to Bangladesh from 1990-93, and in a number of other capacities at the Department of State.

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