Best Defense

Pakistan’s ISI: What up with that?

Pakistan’s ISI: What up with that?

By Anna Coll
Best Defense bureau of frenemy relations

This past Monday, SAIS and the Middle East Institute hosted the Washington Post‘s Karen DeYoung, RAND’s Arturo Munoz, and the Atlantic Council’s Shuja Nawaz for a timely panel on the intelligence service that everyone loves to hate, Pakistan‘s ISI. From the outset, moderator Walter Andersen and the panelists confessed that the panel’s title “Inside Pakistan’s ISI” was misleading, correctly pointing out that any attempt to dissect an intelligence service from the outside is at best an extremely difficult task, let alone a “Janus-faced” one, as Andersen himself noted. The panelists nonetheless raised some interesting issues:

  1. On the question of how much Pakistani military leadership knew about bin Laden’s whereabouts, DeYoung described that both ISI head Pasha and Chief of the Army Staff Kayani don’t appear to have known very much at all: voice analyses of their initial reactions to bin Laden’s death reveal “genuine surprise” on their parts. Either that or their skills at duping foreign authorities have become remarkably sophisticated.
  2. Recent incidents in which IED facilities were abandoned shortly after the U.S. informed the Pakistanis of the facilities’ locations suggest the existence of rogue elements or individuals within the ISI, but the panelists said this does not mean the ISI itself has gone rogue.
  3. The ISI’s role is two-fold, said Nawaz: to control the domestic situation and penetrate neighboring countries. While it tends to do the latter quite well, the ISI’s dismal record in terms of predicting domestic election results (Nawaz described the agency as always being “180 degrees off-target”) is just one indicator that the ISI has a long way to go on the former. The diffusion of new technologies including mobile phones and the Internet will only magnify the difficulty of controlling information flows domestically, Nawaz reminded the audience.
  4. Nawaz offered interesting insight into the significance of the agency as a professional stepping stone. He described that while the ISI was traditionally seen as the “backwater for appointments” with the exception of those at the highest echelons, now some of the key Corps Commanders in the Pakistani army are those who held the position of Major General within the ISI. Service in the ISI is thus “not a dead end anymore,” but rather becoming a necessary rung on the professional ladder for members of the Pakistani military.