Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Two new books on Pakistan’s ISI and its ‘War for National Survival’

With all the press on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate’s (ISI) activities over the years, our shelves should be bulging with books dissecting the service.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) logo (Wikimedia Commons).
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) logo (Wikimedia Commons).


By Diana Bolsinger

Best Defense office of Pakistani affairs


By Diana Bolsinger
Best Defense office of Pakistani affairs

With all the press on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate’s (ISI) activities over the years, our shelves should be bulging with books dissecting the service. Plenty of works do discuss ISI links with terrorist groups, liaison with the CIA, and impact on domestic stability in the context of larger stories — think Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos, or Hussain Haqqani’s Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.

Surprisingly, until recently, no serious publication has focused exclusively on the ISI as an intelligence service. Two works — one released last July and the other newly-translated into English — address this gap. Neither solves the big questions, such as who knew Bin Laden was in Abbottabad, or who killed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto or President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, but they do offer new perspectives on ISI’s impact on Pakistani democracy and regional stability.

Former DIA Senior Intelligence Analyst Owen L. Sirrs’ Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence Directorate: Covert Action and Internal Operations  is the strongest of the pair. Sirrs traces ISI’s “existential war for national survival” to the trauma of Partition, highlighting how many of Pakistan’s early military and intelligence leaders survived the dangerous trek to the new country. The ISI, a “start-up operation born out of a collapsed empire,” leveraged its ties with the CIA to build the capabilities it used to support covert action operations in neighboring India and Afghanistan. Sirrs’ discussion of the transformational role of the Afghan Program — from the early support to Islamists in 1973 through the 1991 creation of the Taliban — is strong, as are his descriptions of how Islamization undermined ISI internal discipline.

Sirrs works to “puncturing the myth of ISI as a ‘rogue’ agency operating beyond the knowledge and consent of national authorities.” He makes a convincing case that ISI operates under firm GCHQ (General Headquarters) control. I suspect, though, that Sirrs overestimates civilian leaders’ access and influence over ISI operations. Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and others tried to harness ISI against their enemies, but these attempts to manipulate the service fall far short of reliable control. With so little transparency into Pakistan’s civil-military relations, we are forced into a form of Kremlinology, weighing competing claims by players with every reason to spin.

Sirrs’ argument that ISI poses a “fundamental” threat to Pakistani democracy is not new, but he does break some new ground. He goes beyond existing accounts of ISI’s role manipulating elections, silencing critics, and supporting military coups to argue the service’s weaknesses as an intelligence service also are destabilizing. ISI can and does conduct covert operations, at home and abroad. What ISI does not do well is perform the basic functions of an intelligence service: collection, analysis, and counterintelligence. Good intelligence is fundamental to avoiding the miscalculations that spark war. ISI has repeatedly failed the test, from its assessment in 1970 that the Bangladeshi secession movement could be preempted with a little “butchery,” to the 2008 proxy attack in Mumbai. Ideology, wishful thinking, and a deep suspicion of civilian commitment to Pakistan’s well-being dominate intelligence assessments, ensuring future cycles of crisis.

The other book, Hein G. Kiessling’s Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan, could have been extraordinary. Kiessling lived in Pakistan for nearly two decades and had direct access to most former ISI Director Generals. He covers the same history as Sirrs (also dismissing allegations that the “strictly led and managed” service conducts rogue operations). In contrast to Sirrs’ chronological march through ISI’s development, Kiessling’s narrative veers between ISI’s organization, historical controversies, and personality clashes among military and civilian leaders. His on-the-record interviews of former ISI Directors, including the reclusive General Mahmood Ahmed, highlight service leaders’ continuing suspicions over civilian leaders’ competence and goodwill.

Unfortunately, Kiessling undermines his account with unsourced judgments and a low threshold for conspiracy theories. He dismisses accounts of ISI kidnappings and assassinations as political propaganda, proposes an unusually low estimate of ISI personnel strength, and asserts that “all fingers point towards the Americans” in the unsolved mystery of the 1988 plane crash that killed Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq and U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel. Kiessling’s stated premise is that ISI is the unjustified target of “frenzied and often ill-informed discussion” and conspiracy theory, while the rival Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is “largely let off the hook.”

In attempting to address this perceived imbalance, Kiessling allows his sources’ whoppers to go unchallenged. Thus, he republishes an ISI statement that the well-documented civilian disappearances in Baluchistan are either (a) nonexistent; (b) terrorists KIA, their bodies hidden by partners-in-crime; or (c) “mentally retarded individuals, who leave their homes and move to other parts of the country.” Elsewhere he cites claims that 9/11 was “an inside job.” The result is an unfocused narrative with some new insights, but one I would hesitate to consider reliable.

Together, these two books highlight the need to better understand the role of intelligence services in developing democracies such as Pakistan.  Many ISI operations are deeply problematic, from domestic attacks on critics to support for terrorist proxies abroad. All the same, no country can thrive in the modern world without some form of reliable intelligence, if only for warning. The road to cleaning up Pakistani politics may, as Sirrs claims, run through GCHQ, but the best chance for averting future Indo-Pakistani War lies in the creation of a credible, professional, and depoliticized intelligence service under functional civilian control. Today’s ISI is far below that standard, but increased public understanding of its operations provides a small step in the right direction.

Diana Bolsinger is a doctoral student at the LBJ School of Public Policy at the University of Texas, Austin. She specializes in U.S. national security strategy and is a Graduate Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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