Pakistan's double agents

Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, works with both the U.S. and the Taliban. Whose side is it really on?

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who controlled the ISI, was forced to step down as Pakistan's president in 2008.
(Image credit: Getty)

What are the ISI’s official duties?

The ISI—the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence—is Pakistan’s pre-eminent intelligence agency. Its duties are vast, comparable to those of the CIA and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency combined, with a bit of the FBI’s role thrown in for good measure. After 1948, when Pakistan was founded, the agency worked for decades to maintain military rule there, spying on domestic political opponents and foreign diplomats alike, and sponsoring covert operations at home and abroad. There are few areas of Pakistani politics in which the ISI is not active.

Who controls it?

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That’s not always clear. Ostensibly, the ISI answers to Pakistan’s civilian government, but for decades it operated as an adjunct of the military. When Gen. Pervez Musharraf was Pakistan’s authoritarian president, he controlled the military and the ISI. But in 2007, Musharraf was forced to step down after a wave of protests against his abuses of power. The civilian government, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, that succeeded Musharraf has little influence over the military and appears routinely outmaneuvered by the ISI. In 2008, for example, the government announced that, henceforth, the ISI would answer to the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for police and domestic security. Within hours the order was rescinded, presumably because the ISI refused to follow it. Some Pakistani lawmakers, including slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (see below), have called the agency “a state within a state.”

What’s the ISI’s agenda?

Like other elements of the military, the ISI is preoccupied with Pakistan’s chief rival, India. It battles India by proxy in the disputed province of Kashmir, where ISI-trained militants fight Indian troops. The ISI has funded, armed, and trained an array of militant groups, not all of which it controls. Some have been implicated in attacks in India, notably Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been linked to the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai; the attacks killed 173 and wounded more than 300. But in recent years, some of those militants have forged ties to the Taliban and al Qaida, and have turned their violence on Pakistan itself. Militants had long sought the ISI’s help in promoting fundamentalist sharia law in Pakistan. But Musharraf purged fundamentalists from the ISI leadership—including the then-head of the agency—after 9/11. Many analysts believe the ISI has now come to view the most extreme Islamist groups as a threat to Pakistani security.

Does the ISI support the Taliban and al Qaida?

It certainly has supported the Taliban in the past. After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the ISI and the CIA worked together to fund, arm, and train the Afghan mujahedin. When the Soviets withdrew, the ISI continued to support the militants, some of whom evolved into the Taliban. After the Taliban gained power, Pakistan was one of just three countries—along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—to officially recognize their government. There is also evidence that the ISI has supported al Qaida. In 1998, President Clinton ordered airstrikes against terrorist camps in Afghanistan in an attempt to assassinate Osama bin Laden. While bin Laden escaped, casualties included militants from a Kashmiri group supported by the ISI. Many U.S. intelligence analysts believe the ISI secretly supports the Taliban still.

Why would the ISI support the Taliban?

Money, for starters: As long as the U.S. remains terrified of Taliban gains in Afghanistan, dollars flow freely to Pakistan. (The U.S. announced another $2 billion in aid to the Pakistani military just last month.) But the ISI also seeks to increase Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan while freezing out India. The U.S. won’t be in Afghanistan forever, and the ISI is not alone in believing that the Taliban may well return to power. The ISI could even play a stabilizing role in Afghanistan. Analysts believe the ISI may be able to use its influence with the Taliban to broker a deal between Taliban factions and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. “This could be a turning point,” said Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid. An ISI-sponsored settlement could provide “a breakthrough” to end the conflict.

Is that why the U.S. tolerates the double cross?

Yes—but also because it has little choice. With the Afghan war in its 10th year, U.S. reliance on Pakistan is undiminished, and the ISI’s duplicity is simply an accepted fact. Both Taliban and al Qaida leaders appear to move freely throughout western Pakistan, which analysts consider proof of ISI complicity. But the agency’s Taliban relations may extend far beyond protection. A London School of Economics report this summer, based on interviews with Taliban commanders, found that the ISI continued to fund and train Taliban militants and even sent agents to Taliban supreme council meetings. By some accounts, half the members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s chief council, report directly to the ISI. “Pakistan,” said the report’s author, Harvard analyst Matt Waldman, “appears to be playing a double game of astonishing magnitude.”

Did the ISI kill Bhutto?

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed on Dec. 27, 2007. She had just returned from exile to run for prime minister, a post she was expected to win, and was standing in her armored car, waving at supporters through the sunroof, when a gunman opened fire and a suicide bomber struck simultaneously. Bhutto died of a head wound one

hour later. No autopsy was performed, and the crime scene and her car were both hosed down before investigators could gather evidence. Members of her Pakistan Peoples Party said the facts pointed to a coverup. “The ISI is No. 1 accused for the murder,” said party leader Amanullah Khan. Aides said Bhutto had been about to reveal evidence that the ISI was planning to rig the upcoming elections in favor of Pervez Musharraf. A U.N. report released this year said the ISI had “severely hampered” the investigation of the killing, but it stopped short of blaming the agency for her death.

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