Abubakar Farooqui

The year 2016 was important for the students of intelligence studies as it rolled out two books that aimed at describing and explaining Pakistan’s premier Intelligence agency ISI, the first of which was  Sirrs’s ‘Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate’. The other, of course was ‘The ISI of Pakistan’ by Hein G. Kiessling whose comprehensive review has already been done and can be read on the site.

The book under review authored by Owen L. Sirrs, an adjunct professor at the University of Montana USA, is based on extensive research which sheds light on various phases of ISI’s history since 1948 along with an explanation of the geo-political context, particularly vis a vis India threat. With that it explains the agency’s transformation from a negligible domestic force into Pakistan’s National Security Force multiplier and even a regional actor that went on to play a complex and critical role in the US War on Terror launched in the aftermath of 9/11.

The book is divided into 21 chapters which are arranged under five parts on the basis of various eras of the ISI. The first part features the rudimentary stages of the ISI in which it was set up and began its role of gathering intelligence and analysing it to multiply the effectiveness of Pakistan Army’s offensive and defensive capabilities. ISI’s covert action in North East India began as early as in 1950 with the experience of Unconventional Warfare gained by the Pakistan Army in 1948 in Kashmir. In 1957, the ISI with the support of CIA, set up a Special Services Group within the Army to operationalise its Unconventional Warfare strategy against India. The SSG would train Naga and Mizo rebels in the East Pakistan to wage a proxy war in North East India. Sirrs believes that ISI’s Unconventional Warfare Strategy is built on the principle of ‘Plausible Deniability’ and it conducts operations that are ‘plausibly deniable’ by the state and its army.

The ISI successfully generated the warning of Indian invasion on August 30, 1965 as it successfully picked up indications of an offensive however Foreign Secretary Aziz Ahmed dismissed the threat in the conference called by President Ayub to discuss the options and response. On September 3, Pakistani High Commissioner to New Delhi was provided intelligence of Indian invasion on September 6. An ISI Counter Intelligence Expert had also met Director IB and conveyed the intelligence of Indian Invasion on September 6, which was dumped by the DG IB on the pretext that this would turn out to be fake and would only generate panic in the country. Hein G. Kiessling’s narrative is contrary to SIrrs’s in ‘The ISI of Pakistan’ as he declared ISI blind in the 1965 war.

The ISI successfully generated the warning of Indian invasion on August 30, 1965 as it successfully picked up indications of an offensive

The second part features ISI’s domestic role in the eras of Ayub and Bhutto. President Ayub gave ISI a lead role in intelligence and formed a covert action division within the agency. Ayub also gave more emphasis to ISI compared to other intelligence agencies. In the 1971 war, Sirrs’s assessment is not different from Kiessling as both the authors agree on ISI’s blindness in the 1971 Civil war as ISI’s Intelligence system had been badly broken down and the GHQ in Rawalpindi remained blind and deaf to what was going on in more than 1000 km away in the Eastern wing.

Ironically, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto gave ISI a boost after 1971 as he gave the DG ISI a third star and promoted him from Brigadier to Lieutenant General that earned him participation the Corps Commanders’ Conference. During Bhutto’s regime, a charter for ISI was drafted in 1975 that officially gave the mandate to interfere in the domestic politics as the agency was made responsible for elections analysis and forecasting. Bhutto was bent on making ISI stronger as he profoundly trusted DG ISI Lt. Gen Ghulam Jillani Khan and relied upon his judgement regarding military matters. Bhutto was the man who was bent on acquiring nuclear bomb for Pakistan and only the ISI could provide security for the uranium enrichment facility at Kahuta by putting effective check on unauthorised personnel, including foreign spies, away.

Part III discusses ISI’s primetime during President General Zia ul Haq’s regime when it became Pakistan’s most powerful player second only to the GHQ. During these times, the ISI became a CIA ally as both intelligence agencies formed a bond of intelligence sharing to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Saudi GID would pump money for the Afghan Mujahideen along with the CIA that would also procure weapons and ship to Karachi port from where ISI would decide where they went. ISI’s Quetta detachment was responsible for war in Southern Afghanistan while Peshawar Detachment took care of the North. Hence it was the American and Saudi money, Pakistani guidance and Afghan courage that defeated USSR in the impossible terrains of Afghanistan.

The Saudi GID would pump money for the Afghan Mujahideen along with the CIA that would also procure weapons and ship to Karachi port from where ISI would decide where they went.

Sirrs discusses the role of ISI in BRASSTACKS Crisis 1986-87 and paints a picture in which ISI remains Pakistan’s key intelligence agency in detecting Indian motives behind the military exercise in Rajhastan. The ISI was able to collect timely intelligence and was able to track the movement of Indian strike corps. Pakistan’s then Vice COAS Gen. Arif praised ISI for playing a vital role in collection, analysis and dissemination of vital intelligence with ‘clock-like precision’.

Part IV discusses  ISI operation in Afghanistan post USSR withdrawal. Sirrs argues that the intelligence agency could not set up a pro-Pakistan regime in Afghanistan until the rise of Taliban. Under Lt. Gen. Hameed Gul, the ISI failed in Jalalabad offensive as the Afghan Interim Government failed to seize Jalalabad. This failure led Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to replace the then DG ISI Gul. H

By 1994, ISI was looking for new options to replace Hekmatyar who had repeatedly failed Islamabad’s strategy. The best bet was a new group of Pashtoon fighters who called themselves ‘Taliban’. The ISI under Colonel Amir Sultan AKA Colonel Imam and a Pashtoon ISI colonel only known as Colonel Gul, gave access to huge cache of ammunition in Spin Boldak to the Taliban who then managed to capture Kandahar in November that year. ISI found a new partner in Taliban that managed to seize Jalalabad and finally Kabul in September 1996.

Final Part discusses Post 9/11 situation which marked a new era of ISI-CIA collaboration as ISI stood with the CIA once again in hunt for Al-Qaeda. However, the ISI did not break its contacts with Jihadis including Al-Qaeda, Taliban, LeJ, LeT and other militant groups. The ISI argues that contacts have to be maintained which is completely different from providing operation support. Sirrs argues that ISI was complicit in supporting Taliban against USA in Afghanistan via a compartmentalised secret cell within known as the ‘Directorate S’. The author argues that ISI takes care of the Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and always takes into account the future of Afghanistan when the US leaves. This argument is similar to that of Steve Coll in his ‘Directorate S’.

The ISI under Colonel Amir Sultan AKA Colonel Imam and a Pashtoon ISI colonel only known as Colonel Gul, gave access to huge cache of ammunition in Spin Boldak to the Taliban who then managed to capture Kandahar

The author believes the ISI dominates Pakistan’s larger Intelligence Community ‘PIC’ because of its resources and experience and is the biggest impediment in the smooth running of democracy in the country. While explaining ISI’s behaviour, which at times has been irrational, Sirrs discusses the ‘Rogue’ theory and the ‘Rogue elements’ theory. The first assumes ISI as a rogue organisation while the second assumes rogue elements within ISI at the bottom, however the author dismisses both on the pretext that ISI is a very disciplined force and has complete control over all its elements too. He believes the ISI uses its retired officers to maintain the cover of ‘plausible deniability’ which has been the agency’s unconventional warfare strategy since the very beginning.

Own L. Sirrs bashes ISI for its notorious human rights record and believes that the all-powerful agency is the self-assumed guardian of Pakistan’s interests, which are also defined by agency itself. This self-assumed role of the guardian of Pakistan, provides legitimacy to its internal operations on abducting and torturing journalists and curbing dissenting voices in the country. He believes that containing ISI’s role and even dismantling it would do good for Pakistan’s democracy but it is not all, since ISI is a shadow of a larger power and that is Pakistan’s Army that effectively shapes the country’s national security policies to date. The author believes that a securitised Pakistan helps embolden the agency to go beyond its set roles and for that, only an improvement in India-Pakistan relations can do good which is only possible under a popular civilian government.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate is an excellent account of ISI’s evolution as a powerful force in the region and covers a good chunk of Pakistan’s foreign affairs’ history too. However, the author has shed no light on ISI’s role vis a vis Pakistan’s war of national survival against the Indian proxies that operated in the then FATA region and Balochistan. Kiessling had shed light on this role of the ISI and also argued that India was bent on destabilising Pakistan via an unconventional warfare in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan which Sirrs completely ignored, probably because Sirrs believes it was ISI’s own Frankenstein which now jeopardised the state of Pakistan but then almost all subversions are exploited on internal grievances and loopholes.

The author has shed no light on ISI’s role vis a vis Pakistan’s war of national survival against the Indian proxies that operated in the then FATA region and Balochistan

To sum this all up, the book delivers what it promises as it helps understand ISI’s role in depth with respect to Pakistan’s national interests in Afghanistan in the midst of a bloody war ensuing next door. It also offers insight into Pakistan’s Strategic culture and the strategic depth policy and its evolution and gradual transformation over the years in the ISI’s Afghan Bureau and then more compartmentalised Directorate S. It also helps in understanding the vicissitudes of CIA-ISI cooperation and the US-Pakistan relations at large and in figuring out the factors involves in this. From an academic point of view, the book is an interesting addition to the study of Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence agency and is certainly a treat to read and analyse for the students of International Relations and Security studies, for a lot of what is going on in Afghan peace process right now, can only be understood by studying ISI and its complex roles.


About The Author
Abubakar Farooqui is the brains behind Rationale-47. He Studied International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His areas of interest include National Security of Pakistan and International Politics, particularly of Afghanistan and Middle East. He tweets @AbubakarTweets


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