June 13, 2011, 12:00 pm - July 9, 2019, 8:34 pm


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On June 13, 2011, the Middle East Institute and the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University co-hosted a panel entitled “Inside Pakistan’s ISI,” addressing the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency’s role in regional and domestic security. The panelists were Karen DeYoung, national security correspondent with the Washington Post; Shuja Nawaz, Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council; and Arturo Munoz, Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. The discussion was moderated by Walter Andersen, Associate Director of the South Asia Studies Program at SAIS.

The conversation was dominated by several topics. Most pressingly, in light of recent developments in the US-Pakistani intelligence relationship, most notably the fallout from the killing of Osama bin Laden by the US without prior consultation with the Pakistani government, panelists examined the nature of the CIA’s relationship with the ISI. Additionally, they spoke at length about concerns regarding the ISI’s support for militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai hotel bombings. The panelists agreed that there is substantial evidence of links between ISI and these militant groups, but it is unknown whether ISI supports them as an institution or whether support comes on the level of individual “rogue agents.” Finally, the discussion turned to the relationship between the ISI and the rest of the Pakistani political-military apparatus, and how this is essential to understanding the agency’s influence throughout the country.

Karen DeYoung began by acknowledging how little the US can definitively know about the ISI’s work in the region; even the CIA is frustrated when collaborating with the agency. She stressed that in many ways the ISI is equivalent to the military in Pakistan, and that many of its officers come from an active-duty military background. As a result, the agency has come to possess a wide range of responsibilities and powers both inside and outside Pakistan’s borders, such as maintaining Pakistan as a regional power base by promoting an unstable Afghanistan and by entrenching against perceived threats from India.

Shuja Nawaz echoed DeYoung’s sentiment that discussing the ISI requires a great deal of realism and humility, comparing the enterprise to the fable of the blind men and the elephant. He traced the historical evolution of the ISI, which began as part of the state military apparatus, and was later transferred to the prime minister’s control during the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who also created the agency’s political wing. The political wing was used to monitor and manipulate Pakistani internal affairs, including elections. This pattern continued despite repeated failure in influencing electoral victories.

Nawaz warned that the ISI’s role runs counter to the rule that the best intelligence is policy-neutral. Having to second-guess policymakers’ intentions ultimately hampers the agency’s effectiveness in supplying impartial intelligence. Read moreover, the ISI’s role in Pakistani political and military culture is changing quickly, and the presence of many ex- ISI officers in the upper echelons of the army is erasing the old stigma associated with the agency as a “backwater for appointments.” He concluded by saying that the ISI’s new prestige has led to a degree of image-consciousness and paranoia of foreigners with potential intelligence ties, particularly in the fallout from the Raymond Davis incident.

Arturo Munoz pointed to the Zia ul-Haq period as a turning point for the ISI, when the agency was employed in the training of mujahideen for the Soviet-Afghan war and served as a main conduit of American military aid. The origins of the modern ISI, therefore, are inextricably linked to United States foreign policy. Since then, the agency has been both cooperative and competitive with US intelligence interests in the region. Key contrasting examples are the respective captures of Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Read more to the point, the ISI has cooperated in intelligence sharing with the CIA while continuing relations with the Afghan Taliban and other groups. Munoz compared the supporting and refuting claims that backing the Taliban continues to be a covert action of the ISI, concluding that whatever the ISI’s current activities are, its main motives are fear of encirclement by India and Indian surrogates in Afghanistan, lack of trust in America’s commitment to Afghan security, and ongoing stability after an American withdrawal from the region.

The question-and-answer period primarily focused on Pakistani security strategy in the region, particularly in the face of perceived threats from India. Panelists also discussed the relationship between the Pakistani government and the ISI, debating how strongly the government reacts to the agency’s illegal or anti-policy actions. Nawaz raised the point that the Pakistani legal framework is very weak in addressing terrorism, so the US paradoxically demands an authoritarian response while insisting on the rule of law and respect for democratic institutions.

This Event Summary was written by Ivan Plis, an intern in MEI’s Communications Department.

Assertions and opinions in this event summary are solely those of the above-mentioned speaker(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.