Pakistan's premier intelligence agency is labelled as an obstacle to peace in Afghanistan and blamed for a host of other issues affecting South Asia. Does it deserve its reputation, or is the media hype misguided?

Every two to three years when there is a change of command at the famed Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI), there is much speculation in the regional and international press about the incoming Lieutenant-General who takes over Pakistan’s premier spy agency.

Not even the newly appointed heads of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have the hype and furore, either negative or positive, associated as comes with the ISI.

In the last 18 months there have been at least four major books on the ISI by leading authors. The ISI chief has in recent history been the only intelligence chief to be on the Forbes power list, when former Director General (DG) of the ISI, Lt-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha appeared in the famed list in 2012. He was also in the top 100 power list in Time Magazine in 2011.

The only other Pakistanis in the list are unsurprisingly the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff (COAS) that appears on the list annually, with the incumbent General Qamar Javed Bajwa appearing in the Forbes 2018 list.

So as Lt-General Asim Munir takes over as the new chief, once again the world’s press is talking about the ISI. 

What is that makes the ISI so newsworthy? Is it the war in Afghanistan? The potential nuclear flashpoint with India or is it the influence it wields over the wider region and globally?

What they say about the ISI 

Adrian Levy is a bestselling and award-winning author and filmmaker, who has been a regular visitor to Pakistan and the region for over twenty years. He knows the region intimately and better than most of his contemporaries.

His last book co-authored with Cathy Scott-Clark, The Exile, is widely seen as a definitive and unparalleled account of Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, and his years on the run. 

Levy has had a decade of access to meeting top intelligence officials from Pakistan, Iran, the Arab world, the US, Israel and the UK. He also tackles the sensitive subject of alleged ISI involvement in terrorism. 

Far from accusing the ISI of terrorism - Levy, reckons that the Pakistan Army and the ISI played the key role in decapitating the top leadership of Al Qaeda with virtually all the top ten most wanted captured in raids and through intelligence tips by the ISI.

While the Afghans and other regional countries blame the ISI for sheltering bin Laden – Levy’s views echo that of the top American officials including President Obama i.e. that the ISI and Pakistan did not know the world’s most wanted terrorist was hiding in Abbottabad. 

Levy also believes that with the help of the ISI, the CIA were able to cripple Al Qaeda in South and Central Asia.

The German author and Central Asia expert, Hein Kiessling, also published a book in 2017 titled Faith, Unity, Discipline: The Inter-Service-Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. Kiessling has lived in Pakistan for over a decade and has met almost all the Director Generals of the ISI and crafted a historical narrative of the history and politics of the agency. 

He dispels the myth of a rogue organisation – and says it is no different to any other intelligence agency in the world that maintains dark links for the survival of the state. Kiessling also goes into the relationship between the Indian Intelligence and Indian politics – contending that they are as prominent in the internal affairs of India but do not get the same bad press that the ISI gets.

Steve Coll’s bestselling Directorate Sis an up-to-date account of how American policies in Afghanistan were foiled by Pakistan’s ISI. He also goes into some detail about the war between the Afghan and Pakistan intelligence agencies and how Pakistan came out on top in securing domination of Afghanistan. 

Steve Coll does say that whatever the intention of Pakistan in Afghanistan, one thing that cannot be disputed is that the US and Western intelligence agencies got it wrong: they simply were not well briefed on what’s what in Afghanistan.

Coll does give credibility to Amrullah Saleh, former head of Afghan Intelligence, that Pakistan wanted more than just some skin in the game. Lt-General Mike Flynn, the former director of intelligence in Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and Director of Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) wrote what is considered in the intelligence community the bible of how intelligence operates, Fixing Intel

Flynn had long pointed out the main reason Pakistan was winning because they had superior intelligence whilst the CIA simply did not have the expertise to win the war in Afghanistan.

Former DIA analyst, Owen Stirrs, in his book, Pakistan’s ISI, is of the opinion that the ISI is more than just an intelligence agency and runs the state – something he views wholly as a negative. He also goes into a thesis that all of the happenings internally are attributable to the ISI meaning that no government can function as long as the ISI remains at the helm of political power.

Certainly the written material on the ISI in the last 18 months has called for a lot of analysis on how the ISI operates but the reality on the ground remains that as the United States needs the ISI and cannot do without it and given geopolitical trends with respect to China and Afghanistan, the ISI is a key player – whether for good or for bad.

The anti-terror force or headline grabbing agency?

Aside from the media hype and other theories, what remains as a fact is that the ISI plays a key role in the ‘War on Terror’.

Unlike the CIA or Indian intelligence agencies, the ISI remains a military force with a very detailed and disciplined hierarchy. The OBL raid aside, the top most wanted men such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Faraj al Libbi, Ibn Sheikh al Libbi, and Abu Zubaidah were all captured by the ISI.

The fact that the Americans themselves verified that OBL was not hidden by Pakistan and furthermore the key arrests of all Al Qaeda leaders globally were spearheaded by Pakistan and the ISI means that the ISI stands as a key strand in the global war against terrorism.

Despite President Trump’s tweet early in 2018, and the cutting of military aid, now the Americans are once again keeping the Pakistan military as a pivot to ending the quagmire of the Afghan war.

By talking to the Taliban directly, the Americans are now fulfilling what the ISI told them 17 years ago – peace in Afghanistan begins with talking to the Taliban.

While the Afghans have a legitimate grievance in complaining about ISI involvement in the affairs of their country – the Americans seem to be of the opinion that working with them as a counter-terror force is the only option. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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