As tension between Delhi and Islamabad mounts towards an incendiary level following the Mumbai massacre, the shadowy activities of Pakistan’s intelligence service, ISI, has come under renewed critical spotlight.
Pakistan is expected to face huge pressure from the US and the West to take action to curb the organisation which has sponsored an array of Islamist terrorists, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group being blamed for the attacks which led to 170 deaths.
However, Pakistan’s recently elected civilian government has very limited room for manoeuvre against this secret state within a state. Many of those who are ministers now have had to deal with the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) in the past to safeguard their careers, and the intelligence service knows where the bodies are buried in the violent and murky political history of the country.
The agency also has a vast coffer, with revenues coming from an array of sources including a vast official budget and proceeds from the opium trade, and is not likely to surrender its considerable political and economic clout without a fight.
American and British commanders in Afghanistan and President Hamid Karzai’s administration have repeatedly claimed that the ISI had been playing a key role in training and supplying arms to Taliban fighters carrying out cross border attacks from Pakistan. Nato’s commander in the country, the US General David McKiernan, charged that there was “ a level of ISI complicity” between the organisation and the insurgents. ISI was accused of having a direct role in a suicide bomb attack at the Indian embassy in Kabul after US electronics interception revealed contact between the intelligence agency and the Taliban.
Last week the Pakistani government announced that it had taken major steps towards reforming the ISI by ordering the shutting down of its political unit. The move aims to halt the organisation’s domestic spying operations on politicians.
In theory this should help protect public figures like President Asif Ali Zardari who himself has a long shadow of corruption hanging over him.
Analysts point out that the move would have little practical effect. The staff from the political unit have not been dismissed but absorbed within the organisation would carry on their work under another guise. Even if the ban worked, it would not, it is claimed, curtail the organisation’s close links with Islamist extremists.
The Pakistani government and military insist that Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who took over as the head of the organisation with a staff of 10,400 and tens of thousands of informers, will oversee structural changes which will make it more accountable to the government. There is, however, little sign of this at the moment. Daniel Markey, a senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said “it is an enormous, secretive organisation, you can always create new cells to serve similar purposes under different names, that is what obviously we would have to be watching out for as we move ahead.”
The ISI was set up in 1966 by the then Pakistani military dictator, General Ayub Khan, following intelligence failures in the war against India the previous year. It was originally primarily used by Gen Khan internally against his political opponents in West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). It suffered a reversal under the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhuto who accused the organisation of trying to undermine him.
However the organisation revived under General Zia-ul-Haq who deposed him and then executed Bhutto. The new leader, a committed conservative Muslim, increased the size and funding of the ISI not just against domestic opposition but also for operations abroad with the use of Kashmiri separatist groups.
But it was the West’s proxy war against the Russians through the Afghan mujaheddin which made the ISI’s fortune. The organisation was used by the CIA as a conduit for sending arms and cash to Afghan fighters. Some of the money was siphoned off by the agency while much of the rest and weaponry was selectively given to mujaheddin commanders who could be manipulated and then later to the Taliban.
The long reach of the ISI was demonstrated at the 2006 trial of a group of British Muslims accused of plotting to blow up the Bluewater shopping centre and the Ministry of Sound nightclub one of the defendants, Omar Khayyam, 24, had given evidence at the Old Bailey that he was at a training camp in Pakistan where he had seen ISI officials giving lessons in bomb-making.
Then, at the start of a day's proceedings, he said: "I just want to say that the ISI has had a word with my family in Pakistan regarding what I have been saying about them. I think they are worried I might end up revealing more about them and right now the priority for me has to be the safety of my family there. Much as I might want to go on and clarify matters I am going to stop. I am not going to discuss anything relating to the ISI any more."