The Americans made no bones about their dislike for this agency, blaming it for working against their interests in Afghanistan. The Indians also see an ISI agent behind every rock in Kashmir and in Afghanistan where they are trying to dig their heels. They do not hesitate to pin on ISI the blame for the freedom struggle in Kashmir or for acts of terrorism by Indian extremists. Until recently the Karzai government dominated by the anti-Pakistan Northern Alliance also remained hostile to ISI.
Not too long ago, under intense American pressure the weak Zardari government made an unsuccessful attempt at neutralizing and subduing this agency in disregard to the existing sensitive regional security environment, by moving it out of the army control and placing it under the controversial and embattled Zardari loyalist interior minister - Rehman Malik. This did not succeed for a simple reason. The role of ISI as the eyes and ears of the Pakistan’s military - the bedrock of country’s security, is critical particularly at a time when the country faces multiple threats to its security.
Washington's darling in the Afghan-Soviet war
But as soon as the Americans had negotiated a quid pro quo - Russian withdrawal from South America in exchange for safe Soviet exit from Afghanistan, they disappeared in the middle of the night leaving Afghanistan in a quandary. The political turmoil that followed created chaos and instability owing to the failure of mujahedeen leadership, presenting as a result a security nightmare for Pakistan.
Taliban-US-Pakistan relations and the Indian Threat
While the Taliban government was in control, Pakistan too maintained friendly relations with them in the interest of keeping its western border secure, extending whatever support it could. The ISI played a role through the contacts it had developed during war against the Soviets.
In the wake of 9/11 things began to change. Having invaded Afghanistan in the name of war on terror, branding Taliban as brutes and their resistance as terrorism, the Americans wanted the Pakistan army and the ISI to join the war.
This posed a serious security concern for Pakistan. It could destabilize the Pak-Afghan border and strain relations with the Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Durand Line, the British drawn boundary that cut through the Pashtun region to divide British India and Afghanistan and which Pakistan had inherited. The fact that Pakistan’s border region, called Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is autonomous where the writ of the Pakistan Government does not prevail made matters more complex.
U.S. projection of its military failures onto Pakistan
Despite the state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and military hardware, the US and NATO forces failed to stop the Taliban fighters from moving back and forth into the unmarked Pak-Afghan border that passes through a treacherous mountainous region to regroup and strike on the invading foreign troops. The American commanders reacted by demanding that the Pakistan army engage these fighters and seal the border. Those with even the slightest knowledge of the area would know that the Americans were asking for the moon. This was physically impossible.
Pakistan army’s operations failed. In the process it earned a severe backlash from the local tribes who resented army’s action against their kinsmen from across the border who sought refuge in their area, as it violated the old tribal custom of providing sanctuary to any one who asked for it, even it was an enemy. The Pakistan army paid a heavy price. More soldiers died in this action than the combined number of casualties that the US and NATO troops have suffered in Afghanistan so far.
President Musharraf under advice of his army commanders and the intelligence community called off the action and resorted to persuasion instead. Through jirgas (assembly of tribal elders) effort was made for the tribesmen to voluntarily stop the influx of Taliban fighters. It didn’t succeed either. This was not to the liking of the American commanders. They blamed the ISI for working against their interests.
Washington and the American media frequently alleged that elements within ISI were maintaining contacts with the Taliban and attributed the failure of American troops in combating the Taliban to these contacts. Such allegations were also found to be part of the raw, unverified and even fabricated field reports ‘leaked’ in Afghanistan recently and splashed in the western media. The Americans have in the past also described the ISI to be out of control and demanded of the Pakistan government to purge the agency of Taliban sympathizers.
This is ridiculous. Firstly, ISI is a military organization operating under strict organizational control and discipline where officers are rotated in the normal course. It functions according to a defined mandate, unlike armed forces in some other countries and unlike the CIA which is known to be an invisible government on its own. Above all, Pakistan and its military are committed to weeding out religious extremism as a matter of state policy.
Secondly, if the American troops are so incapable of overcoming a rag tag army of Taliban and if the complicity of ISI with the Taliban can be instrumental in changing the course of the American war, then it is a sad day for America as a super power and the strength of NATO forces becomes questionable.
Thirdly, in the world of intelligence, contacts are kept even with the enemy and at all times. CIA keeps contacts within Russia and other hostile countries. Israel, the great American ally, spies on America itself. It is common for all intelligence agencies to do this in the security interests of their countries. Why then should America expect an exception to be made in case of ISI? Why should contacts that ISI developed with the mujahedeen and the Taliban earlier, and which if it does still maintain, become a source of such great concern for the American administration?
Demanding that the ISI subordinate Pakistan security to U.S. interests.
It has often been argued that America expects Pakistan to be actively engaged in the Afghan war in return for the military assistance it provides. The answer is quite simple. The American establishment is doing all that needs to be done in support of its own war and not for the love of Pakistan. The war is theirs, not Pakistan’s. Pakistan should do and is doing what is necessary and feasible, without jeopardizing its own security.
As for the assistance, bulk of the $10 billion that America gave in the past and was branded as “aid” was in fact the reimbursement of expenses that Pakistan had already incurred in supporting the war effort. The rest was to meet Pakistan’s needs for operations in the border areas and for fighting terrorism that arose out of the war. The Americans still owe $35 billion to reimburse the losses Pakistan has incurred due to this war. As for the F16s that Pakistan is getting from the US, it pays for them, despite strict restrictions over their usage.
The Indian-Israeli attempt to destabilize Pakistan
Evidence was also unearthed by ISI about how the Indians bought the loyalties of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a grouping of Pakistani tribesmen from FATA and Uzbek fighters from previous wars who settled in the region. The TTP were influenced by the same orthodox religious beliefs as the Taliban in Afghanistan and were active in propagating them in their own areas. They were recruited to launch terror activities in the urban centers of Pakistan, including the capital Islamabad, and were funded, trained and equipped in Afghanistan jointly by the Indian, Israeli and Afghan intelligence agencies. A group from amongst them managed to gain control of Swat area adjoining FATA through coercion of the local population, which was later cleared by the Pakistan army after a major surgical intervention.
The ISI also laid bare strong physical evidence of Indian involvement in supporting insurgency in Balochistan by way of funding, training and equipping misguided and disgruntled Baloch elements grouped under various names including the Balochistan Liberation Army that was led by the fugitive grandson of the notable Bugti tribal chief – Akbar Bugti. His comings and goings in the Indian consulate at Kandahar and the Indian intelligence HQ in Delhi were photographed and his communications intercepted. Numerous training camps in the wilderness of Balochistan were detected where Indian trainers imparted training in guerilla warfare and the use of sophisticated weapons, which otherwise could not be available to the Baloch tribesmen. Flow of huge funds from Afghan border areas to the insurgents was detected that was traced back to the Indian consulates.
It should be no surprise to the Americans, Indians and the Israelis if they find in ISI an adversary to reckon with. It is also not surprising that the ISI is in their perception, a rogue organization, for it has stood between them and Pakistan’s national security interests. Their frustration and ire, therefore, is understandable.