Interview: Ehsan ul-Haq

Pakistan's former head of Inter-Services Intelligence discusses 9/11, bin Laden and Pakistani security.


Gen. Ehsan ul-Haq took office as the head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate in October 2001, and by the time he retired six years later he had risen to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.* Those positions placed him at the center of the post-9/11 hunt for Osama bin Laden and prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, in which the relationship between Pakistan and the United States on intelligence and military matters was a roller coaster of collaboration and suspicion. Haq spoke with Foreign Policy‘s Charles Homans in London — where the general was addressing reporters at a Thomson Reuters Foundation seminar on security and terrorism — about the Afghanistan war, Pakistan’s recent security troubles, and just how much the ISI knew about where bin Laden was.

Foreign Policy: Where were you when you heard about the 9/11 attacks?

Ehsan ul-Haq: On 9/11 I was corps commander* in Peshawar, with responsibility for the western border with Afghanistan and security in the tribal areas of Pakistan and our northwestern province, what is now called Khyber-PK. And of course, it was shocking news for everybody — it was for me personally. And I didn’t realize how much it would impact on my personal life, how the world would change, how Pakistan would change.

FP: From there to the end of your tenure in 2007, what was your understanding or suspicion of where bin Laden was?

EH: I was asked [to take over as lead of the ISI] on Oct. 7, 2001, when the bombing of Kabul began.… Of course, our awareness of al Qaeda at that stage was very limited because al Qaeda was not operating in Afghanistan — it was an Arab phenomenon. Yes, it was transiting through Pakistan and Iran and other countries, but since they had not really operated in Pakistan, so we were not much aware of its dimensions, its role, its intentions, its objectives-these were things that were new to us, and it took time for us to really reconcile with it. But very quickly, we did achieve very substantial successes and close cooperation with other intelligence services, particularly the CIA.

As far as Osama bin Laden is concerned, frankly speaking, after Tora Bora we only heard the information that was shared with us at the time. After that, there were never any authentic reports on Osama bin Laden until his killing in Abbottabad.

FP: Did you have suspicious as to where he would have been?

EH: There were all sorts of insinuations; there were all sorts of assessments … that [bin Laden] might possibly have been killed … [or] that he was possibly in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was sometimes a finger raised that he was in Pakistan. We would reject that and say simply, "Look, if you have information that he is in Pakistan, say he is in Pakistan. If you don’t have information, to say that since there is no information, therefore he is in Pakistan, is not fair." My view was, we don’t know where he is, so he may well be here, or he may be in Afghanistan, or he may be anywhere. But since we don’t know, to conclude … he is in Pakistan is wrong.

FP: It would appear that the lessons the U.S. intelligence community and the Obama administration have taken away from the last couple years is that they have seen more success operating unilaterally in Pakistan than they have collaborating with the ISI. We’ve seen this in the Raymond Davis case, the bin Laden raid, the drone strikes. Let’s say you’re still at the ISI: You’re sitting down at the table with Gen. David Petraeus as he’s starting out as CIA director. What’s your pitch? How do you convince him to go back to a collaborative relationship?

EH: I think that if [General Patreaus] looks at the relationship, if not earlier than post-9/11, he will find that there were far greater successes in our collaborative relationship between the ISI and the CIA than in unilateral actions by the CIA. Secondly, if they expect us to be a partner, and they accuse us of a double game, then we should be very transparent partners. Don’t they realize, since they have picked up Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad, have there been any casualties in the United States? Where have the casualties, the consequences of Osama bin Laden’s capture been? In Pakistan. Isn’t it fair for Pakistan to seek that there should be close cooperation, that Pakistan should be on board with anything that is done?

FP: The recent attack on the naval base in Karachi has raised alarming questions about the ability of militants to infiltrate the military’s infrastructure in Pakistan. What’s your take on that incident? Does this raise serious questions?

EH: This is a failure of the security arrangements of that base, which are being investigated. But one must look at tactical actions in their true perspective. When you look at the strategic capabilities of Pakistan’s armed forces, those are much, much bigger. When there are terrorists operating, and it’s a very volatile environment post-bin Laden’s death, one would expect incidents like these. But to think that they would create some strategic failures, I think, is far-fetched. Strategically, Pakistan’s armed forces, Pakistan’s defense capabilities, Pakistan’s security capabilities, are adequate for the security of Pakistan and for safeguarding its vital national assets and security assets. This, of course, is a failure, a failure that could occur anywhere. It has occurred, and I think it is being investigated. It shouldn’t have occurred.

FP: The Syed Saleem Shahzad assassination — the suspicion that many have taken away from this, considering the extent of his sources in and reporting on the ISI, is that the ISI is a plausible suspect in this. Is it? Has the ISI done this kind of thing before?

EH: There is no history of the ISI being involved in the killing of any journalist or media person in the past. Yes, there have been reports or accusations of harassment. But harassment and killing are two very, very different things. And, I do not think this journalist had any piece of information that was so critical of Pakistan or its security system that it would warrant such a response. So I don’t agree that the ISI is involved. But I think this whole thing is being investigated on a very responsible level. And I’m confident that if there is any complicity of any individual, this certainly is not the policy. But if there is some individual, the law will take its own course.

FP: What do you envision as the endgame in Afghanistan? How does this conflict end?

EH: There is no other way except for seeking a political solution. There is no military solution. And as long as we keep using the military instrument to seek a solution, we will continue to push back the possibility of a political solution.

FP: By which you mean some sort of deal between the Karzai government and the Taliban.

EH: Of course. There has to be some kind of dialogue. Of course there is ISAF, NATO, Karzai, everybody, but the principals in my view are the United States on one side and the Taliban on the other side. The rest are all there, but primarily it is the United States that has to decide what sort of an exit strategy it wants. And it must be a political one.

*Corrections: Ehsan ul-Haq’s final position before retirement was originally misstated in the opening paragraph. Also, due to a transcription error, Haq’s position on 9/11 was originally misstated.

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