The advent of ISI as a key player: the Afghan War in the 1980s8
Prior to the formation of the ISI, the IB was the only Pakistani intelligence agency that operated after the country's independence. However, the IB’s performance was generally regarded as very poor during the first Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir in October 1947. The Pakistani leadership realized that a strong intelligence system, along with a capable military, was vital to counter external threats after independence. As a consequence, the ISI was established in 1948 (Chengappa 2000). It is a semi-military organization and reports to the prime minister or the military chief during periods of military rule. The director general (DG) of the ISI is normally a serving army officer, either a lieutenant general or a major general, appointed by the COAS. Most of the ISI’s officers are serving army personnel who are on secondment. However, a small number of ISI cadres are recruited from among civilians as well. Initially, the ISI’s primary job was to focus on India and collect other related foreign intelligence (Cohen 2004).
The ISI comprises two branches: the Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) and the Joint Counter Intelligence Bureau (JCIB). The JIB’s primary function was to collect information on military geography, ports, airports, beaches, communications, economics, logistics, and various scientific and technical subjects. On the other hand, the JCIB operated within the military sendees by supervising counter-intelligence operations. However, the JCIB has only handled cases in which personnel of at least two services were involved (Sirrs 2016). The ISI has also formed close relations with other military services, such as the Special Service Group (SSG) of the Pakistani military.
The ISI got a bigger role in the bloody civil war in East Pakistan in 1971. The federal government became convinced that Bengali IB officers could not be trusted in operations against the Mukti Bahini insurgency in East Pakistan. Consequently, the military government assigned a primary role to the ISI to deal with the insurgency. The ISI’s major problem was a limited understanding of the Bengali language and culture. They recruited heavily from the Urdu-speaking Bihari community in East Pakistan and relied mainly on Islamist groups, particularly JI to
Pakistan’s national security state 57 counter the insurgency (Haqqani 2005; Sirrs 2016). Interestingly, the alliance between the ISI and JI was strengthened during the civil war in East Pakistan. Stephen Cohen (2004), a historian and expert on South Asia, pointed out: “This began a long and sordid history of the Pakistani state and its intelligence services using Islamist radicals to terrorize regime opponents, ethnic separatists, the moderate politicians, and, where necessary, radical Islamists.” Thereafter, this alliance between the ISI and JI became a prominent feature in Pakistan’s national security state. In fact, an unholy alliance was established between the religious class and the ISI which has been involved in the manipulation of political parties, extremist groups, and the Islamists. More specifically, the ISI used Islamist militants as a foreign policy tool to achieve their strategic interests in South Asia during and after the Cold War era and far-right groups to deter anti-military groups and individuals. Nonetheless, asymmetric warfare to balance a hegemonic India and far-right groups to counter anti-military voices became another key feather of Pakistan’s national security state.
The ISI emerged as a more effective actor on the external front by demonstrating that it could provide solid information about India’s armed forces and its operational planning in the 1971 war. However, the ISI was unable to accurately gauge the anger and frustration of the Bengali resistance movement, and public support for it in East Pakistan, or foresee the formation of the Mukti Bahini insurgency in India. In East Pakistan, the ISI was often viewed as a brutal force suppressing the local Bengali population. Despite the ISI’s failure in 1971, the experience was a turning point in the transformation of the ISI into a prominent organization in both internal and external matters of the state.
In 1979, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan created major security concerns for Pakistan owing to the fact that Islamabad shared a long, porous border with Afghanistan. Consequently, the external threat from Afghanistan became more apparent following the Soviet invasion. This was because Afghanistan’s political instability and insecurity would have caused possible fallout in its provinces bordering Afghanistan, including KP, Balochistan, and former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA),9 due to the ethnic affiliations shared on both sides of the border. Afghanistan had been used as a buffer state between the Soviet Union and South Asia but could no longer serve this role with the direct presence of Soviet forces in Afghanistan. It was feared that the Soviet forces might also interfere in the western part of Pakistan to reach the deep Arabian Sea in Balochistan province that could play a key role in the Soviet Union’s expansionist designs (Rizvi 1988). As a result, Pakistan became more security-oriented after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
In this situation, General Zia asked the ISI’s leadership to prepare a detailed report about the nature of the Soviet threat to Pakistan. General Akhtar, the then DG ISI, reported that the Soviets could invade Pakistan to have access to warm waters in the Arabian Sea through the Balochistan province of the country. At the same time, General Akhtar noted, the Soviets could also join hands with India to undermine Pakistan. As an outcome, General Akhtar recommended neutralizing the perceived Soviet threat by backing the Afghan mujahideen in a proxy war with Moscow. General Zia accepted the ISI’s proposal to step up support for the resistance movement in Afghanistan. However, the main concern was to avoid negative fallout from the Afghan jihad on the internal security situation in Pakistan (Riedel 2014). It was believed in Islamabad that the war should be fought within Afghanistan and should not be allowed to spill over into Pakistan.
But the ISI required external support to fight the war in Afghanistan. The ISI asked the Saudi government to provide financial assistance to the Afghan resistance movement. Saudi’s financial support was key as it would not only make a real difference to the capabilities of the mujahideen, but also signify the backing of a significant Muslim country. The Saudi state not only provided economic aid to the ISI for the Afghan jihad but also encouraged its citizens to give financial aid and volunteer to join the Afghan mujahideen (Riedel 2014). The US also entered into the Afghan proxy war against the Soviet Union two years later. According to General Asad Durrani (interview by author, Rawalpindi, 22 November 2017),
The US did bandwagon into Pakistan when we were fighting the Soviet Union. Two years later, the US came and found out that the Afghan mujahideen with [the] help of Pakistan were doing not too badly. So it was not the America but Pakistan and Afghan mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union.
After the US joined the Afghan war, the ISI closely worked with Washington to stiffen resistance to the Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan. Many ISI officers were sent to the US for training with US Delta Forces, an elite special services branch of the US Army. This training was designed to develop skills connected to insurgency, infiltrations, and covert operations. The trainees were also taught to handle explosives, master various weapons, and engage paramilitary operations (Datta 2014). Such training played an important role in the professional development of the ISI as an intelligence institution. Together with the CIA, the ISI carried out the world’s biggest covert operation against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The two agencies recmited many Afghans from their refugee camps in Peshawar. Meanwhile, the ISI was directly in charge of financing and arming the Afghan mujahideen to fight a guerrilla war in Afghanistan. According to various estimates, the ISI distributed covert aid worth more than US$2 billion to resistance groups. The ISI also received a roughly equal amount of aid from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries (Haqqani 2005; Datta 2014). A prominent Pakistani journalist, Ahmad Rashid (2008), noted:
General Zia did not allow the CIA or any other foreign intelligence agency to aid the mujahideen directly, enter Afghanistan, or plan the mujahideen’s battles and strategy. That became the prerogative of the ISI, which, with its newfound wealth and American patronage, had become a state within a state, employing thousands of officers in order to run what was now also Pakistan’s Afghan war.
Thus, the mujahideen mainly relied on Pakistan for financial and military aid during the Afghan war, with most aid going to those resistance groups that followed the Pakistani government's approach to the Afghan war. The mujahideen groups that received this aid included the Hezb-e-Islami party of Hekmatyar, the Hezb-e-Islami of Yunus Khalis, the Ittihad-e-Islami of the Saudi proxy, Sayyaf, and the Jamiat-e-Islami led by Rabbani. Pakistan’s frontline position during the Afghan conflict served to professionalize the ISI and gave it new regional leverage over the warring resistance factions in Afghanistan. For example, the ISI used its position to deny military and financial aid to groups such as those of Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq that acted independently (Sirrs 2016).
In addition, ISI personnel fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. General Akhtar planned these operations and sent dozens of ISI undercover teams inside Afghanistan to fight alongside Afghan mujahideen against the formidable Soviet forces. The ISI officers did not wear military uniforms and carried no sources of identification that could link them to the ISI and provoke direct retaliation from the Soviet Union. In this process, Pakistan’s ISI emerged as a key player during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The size of the agency increased significantly during the 1980s. The ISI’s staff was estimated to be around 2,000 in 1978, but grew to 40,000 strong, with a budget of billions of dollars at its disposal (Riedel 2014). As one Pakistani journalist observed (in Sirrs 2016):
The ISI is powerful, ubiquitous and has functioned with so much authority from the central government that it almost became a state within a state. It is not only responsible for intelligence gathering, but also acts as a determinant of Pakistan’s foreign policy and a vehicle for its implementation.
So Pakistan fought the proxy war in the form of a jihad funded by the CIA against the Soviet Union. Subsequently, the proxy war became another characteristic of Pakistan’s national security state. Against this context, Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed said (interview by author, Islamabad, 8 December 2017).
Pakistan went too far ahead in the so called jihad and the reason was General Zia felt it was helping in the conservation and perpetuation of his regime. But this damaged Pakistan as the state was spawning a culture of Kalashnikovs. So we [Pakistan] made a mistake we go all out and this has serious implication for Pakistan state and society.
Thus, Pakistan’s proxy wars have severe consequences on the Pakistani state and society which we will see in Chapter 6.
Meanwhile, General Zia utilized the ISI’s political wing to monitor domestic politics and influence political parties on sectarian and political lines. The primary objective was to weaken or prevent opposition to military rale in Pakistan. In this connection, the prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, was removed from his office by General Zia with the support from the ISI. Junejo’s interest in rejuvenating civilian rule in Pakistan had created serious tensions between him and General Zia (Datta 2014). The removal of Prime Minister Junejo set down a clear red line that the military would not tolerate any government officials that wanted to civilianize power in the country.
In February 1989, the Soviet Union finally withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. However, the US did not have an exit plan for Afghanistan. And the US left Pakistan alone to deal with around 22,000 well-trained guerrilla fighters with radical Islamist leanings that no longer had a battle to fight against foreign occupiers. Pakistan also did not have a programme to reintegrate the mujahideen into mainstream society (Dr Khuram Iqbal, interview by author, Islamabad, 8 November 2017). However, the ISI began to divert this ready-made force of guerrillas to Kashmir to intensify the armed uprising there, following the rigged elections of the late 1980s (Murphy and Malik 2009).
In the space of a nine-year involvement in the Afghan war, the Pakistani military in general and the ISI in particular had further increased the weight and influence of the national security state in Pakistan. A military-centred national security infrastructure had been established, which emphasized the pivotal role of the nation’s military in countering the apparent external threat from India. Within the framework of Pakistan’s national security state, the interests and concerns of institutions like the Pakistan army and the ISI were given priority from the outset over civilian political institutions. This institutional imbalance created structural problems in the numing of the Pakistani state. For instance, the military directly ruled the country for about 24 years between 1947 and 1988. For much of the Cold War era, a tacit alignment between the public bureaucracy and the military was cemented at the expense of the civilian political leadership in Pakistan. The parliamentary system of government was diluted by a number of military dictators into more of a guided democracy, which became the norm. It proved relatively easy for military leaders to manipulate the political system to favour the military establishment in Pakistan. Thus, the military leadership played a decisive role in shaping foreign and security policies as well as domestic politics. Alongside the military, the ISI also played a pivotal role in determining Pakistan’s national security policy, especially during the Afghan war.