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Thursday, February 15, 2024

The De-focusing of ISI

The ISI gained global recognition and fame in the 1980s when it backed the Afghan Mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.ISI was also actively involved in securing Pakistan’s national interests during the US invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Al-Qaeda attack on New York’s Twin Towers in September 2001.

According to the media reports, PM Shehbaz Sharif has tasked the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to screen government officials before their induction, appointments, and postings, as well as promotions. Presently, this task is performed by the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

The ISI is the premier intelligence agency of Pakistan. It is responsible for gathering, processing, and analyzing any information from around the world that is deemed relevant to Pakistan’s national security and counter-intelligence operations.

Read more: The politics of audio-visual leaks

The ISI gained global recognition and fame in the 1980s when it backed the Afghan Mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.ISI was also actively involved in securing Pakistan’s national interests during the US invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Al-Qaeda attack on New York’s Twin Towers in September 2001.

ISI played a major role in snuffing out the TTP terrorists from North and South Waziristan agencies and facilitating negotiations between the US and the Afghan Taliban.

The negotiations resulted in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan

For the last many years, ISI is fighting the hybrid war against the CIA/RAW-sponsored insurgency in Balochistan – an insurgency in which Iranian territory is being used by the insurgents to launch operations against Pakistan. ISI is also taking on the terrorists who, from time to time, launch sabotage operations against the Chinese aided infrastructure projects along the CPEC.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on the Christmas Eve of 1979. The United States and its allies initially reacted stoically as, according to their reasoning, Afghanistan, since long, had been considered a country within the Soviet sphere of influence. It was some months before the U.S assistance would be made available to Pakistan for fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.On the pretext of helping the Afghan people fight for their freedom from the Soviet yoke, the US had its ax to grind. For almost a year after the Soviet invasion, Pakistan Army had been fighting alone while the world, particularly the US and its allies, remained spectators.

Read more: Arabs, Pakistan, and Israel

In 1984, during the fourth year of the Afghan War, William Casey, the then CIA chief, advocated that the ISI launch operations against the Soviets inside their territory. According to Yousuf & Adkin (1992), it was the US that initiated a major escalation of the war, which, over the next three years, culminated in numerous cross-border raids and sabotage missions north of the Amu Darya, the international boundary between Afghanistan and the three Soviet Republics – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. During this period, ISI specifically trained and dispatched hundreds of Mujahideen up to 25 kilometers deep inside the Soviet Union. They were probably the most secret and sensitive operations, anywhere in the world, after WWII.

While using Pakistan as bait for the Russian bear, the Americans, with their characteristic duplicity, told ISI that it would be on its own and that no maps of the Soviet territory would be provided. It was not that their satellites were not taking pictures, they were, but somebody at the top in the American administration was getting cold feet. The CIA produced detailed maps of anywhere the ISI asked in Afghanistan, but when the sheet covered a part of the Soviet Union, that part was always blank.

When the ISI started killing and causing damage to the Soviets in the Soviet Union proper, the CIA was shaken. The local CIA chief told his ISI counterpart, “Please be careful not to start the Third World War”.  

ISI Operations inside the Soviet Union 

The covert operation inside Afghanistan was supported by the CIA and various other intelligence agencies that, though accorded due respect by the ISI, were not allowed to act beyond providing the finances, weapons, and equipment for the insurgency. The distribution of funds, materiel and tasking to the seven-party coalition of warlords was done by ISI.

The operations undertaken by the Mujahideen outfits were cumbersome and slow-moving, at times taking more than two months to accomplish an assigned task. Out of the funds and materiel provided by ISI, the warlord would pay his operators (transporters and fighters), bribe the Afghan Army officials, and also give the local Communist Party apparatchik his cut. The firing team or raid/ambush party would, in turn, arrange for the logistics, transport the free-flying rockets and their launchers or explosives in the vicinity of the intended target (in case it was a bombing/ sabotage operation), or move the fighters to the likely concentration area, and execute the operation.

Read more: Pakistan’s multi-dimensional war for survival

The entire chain of operation, starting from the receiving of money by the warlord and his tasking by the ISI operative, to the actual execution, had that many beneficiaries. This was the modus operandi of Mujahideen operations fueled by the Afghan War economy.

These cross-border strikes were at their peak during 1986

Scores of attacks were launched across the Amu Darya from Jozjan to Badakhshan Provinces. Virtually every incursion provoked massive aerial bombing and gunship attacks on all villages south of the river in the vicinity of the Mujahideen strike. These were punitive Soviet missions, both inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, with no other purpose than razing houses, killing people, and forcing the survivors to flee, thus creating a belt of scorched earth all along the Pak-Afghan, and Afghan-Soviet border. This was the price Pakistan had to pay for fighting, in exchange for a measly amount of a few million US dollars – America’s dirty war in Afghanistan.

In so far as destroying villages, killing women and children, and driving the survivors into Pakistani refugee camps were concerned, the Soviets succeeded. But if stopping Pakistan’s resolve to trap the Russian bear were concerned, the Russians miserably failed. Pakistan continued to bait the Russian bear until April 1987, when the Soviet diplomatic reaction rather than military action, made Pakistani politicians stop. According to Yousaf and Adkin (1992), “Perhaps our April attacks had been just that much over-ambitious and represented too deep a cut in the Soviet anatomy”.

Read more: Pakistani politicians and their nemesis

Reporting on civil bureaucrats will distract ISI from its primary role of security and counter-intelligence. Is it prudent to involve ISI in tasks formerly performed by IB?



Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.