Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence Directorate. Friend or Foe? An Intelligence Dilemma.

di Marco Capriz


Since the early 80s, we can observe two major factors that pushed the United States in to shaky alliances with Pakistan’s Intelligence services. Both were driven by the need to have knowledgeable personnel on the ground, something that America lacked during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and again in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In both cases it is arguable that the tactical and strategic needs of the United States were evaluated by the Pakistanis in the context of their main strategic aim, that has been their raison d’être ever since the country was born out of bloody conflict in 1947: countering a perceived existential threat from India. When American interests in the region do not conflict with the strategic views held by Pakistan, the rulers of the country will appear meet to US requirements. Unfortunately the problem with US-Pakistani relationships has always been the undeniable fact that the main tool that Pakistan uses against India is also the tool that is used to fight Soviet, American and Allied forces in Afghanistan: Islamic extremism. History shows that this tool, which was honed by Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was primarily developed to be a Fifth Column against India in the Kashmir region. It is hard to see any US-Pakistani relationship scenarios with a long-term successful outcome, while Pakistan continues to believe its survival depends on an aggressive policy towards India and the need for keeping Afghanistan an unstable place that therefore cannot be exploited effectively by any of its adversaries. 

The Durant Line.

Large parts of the blame for the instability in Afghanistan can be traced back to the way borders between countries were drawn up by the British in the 19th Century.

In 1893 Henry Durant, the Foreign Secretary of British India, decided completely arbitrarily, to draw the boundary line that to this day still separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first problem this boundary line presents is that at the time it was drawn, Pakistan did not exist. And it could hardly be said that Afghanistan existed either as the British surveyors bribed local warlords to accept the demarcation line, which was (and still is) an arbitrary Western construct.

The second and more fundamental issue created by the border is that it artificially separates an ethic group: the Pashtuns.

Ignoring the Durant line benefits Pakistan, as it allows the country to exert huge control over the affairs of Afghanistan through effective programs of radicalisation in all Pashtun areas, either side of the line. This is what has been happening since general (and the president) Zia ul Haq sent Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the gallows in 1979. Zia convinced the US to fund a program of resistance against the Soviets that would be based on the radicalisation of Pashtun tribes across the Durant line. The CIA had little visibility of how Zia’s Islamic extremists (with whom he had staffed the Pakistani Intelligence community) spent the money they were receiving from the US, and at the time the consequences of this lack of oversight were overlooked as long as the larger objectives of countering a Soviet advance towards the Arabian Sea were met. Unfortunately, as the last Soviet troops retreated across the Oxus River in 1989, the US lost interest in the region. Zia’s Islamisation strategy, however, did not end with the Soviet withdrawal. Control of Afghanistan’s Pashtun areas was always half of the equation, the other half being the radicalisation of Kashmir to counter real or imaginary threats from India. It is the fear of India that drives Pakistan’s motives, and as the Durant line allows Pakistan to exert mischief in Afghanistan, the Line of Control dividing another ethnic group, the Kashmiris, allows for the same mischief to be exerted towards India in an area that, while predominantly Muslim, also is home to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. One of Zia’s biggest legacies is his reshaping of the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID), an agency that arguably has been both a necessity and a hindrance to US and Allied efforts in the pacification of Afghanistan.


Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate. Origins and US support

Although Pakistan has an extensive police, military and civilian Intelligence community, the single organization that most affects the relationships with the United States is the ISID. Created in 1948, the ISID was given sweeping powers in domestic and foreign Intelligence in the 80s by Zia ul Haq. As it did when the US fought a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, in the post-9/11 era the ISID returned to its role as the main power broker in the region, with a fundamental difference, however. In the 80s Pakistan and the US had coincident interests in eliminating a Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Post 9/11 the Pakistani ISI, who had groomed, trained and equipped most of the Taliban fighters that were supporting Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, had little interest in abandoning a political and military group that would ensure that India could never seek an alliance with Afghanistan.

When the alliance between the US Intelligence community and the Pakistani ISID is viewed in this context it is not surprising to see that there have been rifts in the relationship. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 politics in Pakistan played a role in minimizing these. The then president Pervez Musharraf’s command of the Army was in part linked to his ability to persuade America to abandon the embargo on arms sales that followed Pakistan’s first nuclear test in 1998. A CRS report for Congress, authored by Richard F. Grimmett summarizes what happened after 9/11:

[A]fter the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, […] the Bush Administration chose to re-engage with Pakistan in the area of defense cooperation, and was willing, once again, to consider and approve major weapons sales to that country. […] The rationale for this change of policy regarding arms sales to Pakistan was to secure its government’s support for the U.S. counter-terrorism program. In June 2004, President George W. Bush designated Pakistan a Major Non-NATO ally (Grimmett 2007).


A problematic ally

Between the end of 2001 and 2006 Pakistan received over US$ 3.6B in military aid. It is arguable that because of this assistance, that would be used to shore up Pakistan’s defenses against India, Musharraf managed to keep the ISID’s pro-Taliban factions in check. Musharraf’s grip on power waned after 2006 and by 2008 he had resigned as Pakistan’s president. It is the opinion of many that by 2005 the militant factions with the ISID had regained control of the Directorate with detrimental effects on the joint US-Pakistani Intelligence cooperation and revived Zia’s legacy. Writing recently for the Toronto Star Hamida Ghafour recalls that Zia’s policies contributed to the “proliferation of jihadist outfits supported by the state. (Ghafour 2013)” and goes on to observe that Zia’s Islamist legacy within the structures of Pakistan’s security services is as strong today as it was when he was president.  The effects of these policies quickly spilled beyond Pakistan’s borders.

In September 2006 the British Broadcasting Corporation reported on a document supposedly leaked from the UK’s Ministry of Defence in which the unnamed author stated

Indirectly Pakistan (through the ISID) has been supporting terrorism and extremism – whether in London on 7/7 or in Afghanistan or Iraq (UK Ministry of Defence 2006).

In an assessment of the alleged links between Pakistan and terrorism for the Council of Foreign Relations, Jayshree Bajoria and Eben Kaplan recall a 2009 interview in which then US Defense Secretary Bill Gates describes the ISID position by stating “to a certain extent, they play both sides. (Bajoria and Kaplan 2011)”, and note that Wikileaks released “documents [that] described ISI’s links to militant groups fighting U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan.” By all accounts the US already knew they were in the middle of a troubled relationship. Wikileaks released a treasure trove of documents in July 2010, nearly 79,000 of which covered the war in Afghanistan. Among the documents was a classified US Embassy cable sent on 23 September 2009 in which Ambassador Anne W. Patterson describes the Pakistani rationale behind their on again / off again relationship with the Taliban:

Fear that the ISAF mission in Afghanistan will end without the establishment of a non-Taliban, Pakhtoon-led government friendly to Pakistan adds to the Pakistani establishment’s determination not to cut its ties irrevocably to the Afghan Taliban […] In such a scenario, the Pakistan establishment will dramatically increase support for Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which they see either as ultimately likely to take over the Afghan government or at least an important counter-weight to an Indian controlled Northern Alliance (Patterson 2010).

Again Pakistan’s fear of India is revealed to be the main driver of their Afghan policy and it appears to be the main factor that overrides any other considerations, especially culturally awkward relationships with the Western allies.

The Wikileaks documents also exposed other stark realities in the relationship between the US Intelligence community and the ISID. In one of the leaked documents originating from the Joint Task Force – Guantanamo, the authors list a Threat Assessment Matrix to determine if detainees should be considered a terrorist threat. As important as membership of a Taliban or Al Qaeda faction in this determination is “Association with Pakistan ISID, especially in the late 1990s up to 2003. (JTG GTMO n.d.)”

Whatever advantages the US and Allied Intelligence communities may have derived from an alliance of convenience with the ISID (and these are not clear most probably due to classification procedures), it is clearly observable what the drawbacks were, as these have been made very public. The cases of the outings of at least two CIA station chiefs in Pakistan, whose names were made public allegedly by ISID leaks (Goldman 2011), the statements from various ISAF, NATO and US commanders in Afghanistan on the troubled relationship with the ISI, and finally the Bin Laden debacle, clearly show how tenuous, and quite arguably unsustainable, this relationship is.


What can be done?

The extent and objective assessment of what is now being called the Long War should prompt a serious review of US alliances in Central Asia in general and with Pakistan in particular. The tactical advantages of an alliance with the ISID are clearly over, and have been so for some time. The overriding strategic goals that Pakistan has are also clearly incompatible with US policies and strategic objectives in the region. Although in late 2013, when the new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that US-Pakistan ties “could not be more important (BBC News 2013)”, a few days later the New York Times’ editorial board observed that the relationship was still constrained by uncertainty (New York Times Editorial Board 2013). Once again the US is using the carrot of money to Pakistan (in this case the release of $ 1.5B in aid) to entice it to follow a policy that is historically at odds with the country’s views. American attempts at curtailing Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, for example, clearly run counter to the country’s existential beliefs. However, as problematic as it may be, America’s presence in South Asia might just be what keeps a simmering low intensity conflict between the region’s two largest countries to explode in to a full blown nuclear one. This is also the opinion of Seth Jones of the RAND Organization. Through the proxies of the Haqqani network (based in the Tribal areas of North West Pakistan) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist group, the ISID has increased its attacks on India. Jones recalls Haqqani’s attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and LeT’s Mumbai attack, both in 2008. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece he writes

After both cases, the U.S. helped ease tensions. When Indian officials strongly considered air strikes against terrorist bases inside Pakistan in December 2008, for example, the White House dispatched U.S. officials to the region and worked feverishly to prevent an Indian military response that could have sent the nuclear rivals into a dangerous spiral (Jones 2013).

The need for mediation between the two countries may be what will keep the US and some of its allies in the region for years to come. Beyond a diplomatic presence, the Intelligence communities of all stakeholders will have to be involved as well. But this involvement will be under a very different scenario in this case. Whereas in the immediate 9/11 aftermath the US and its allies needed tactical help from the ISID to meet their own needs (that ran counter to Pakistan’s strategic objectives), the objectives of diplomatic rapprochement this time should be closer to what Pakistan’s existential needs are. So it is hopeful that such a dynamic shift may result in a greater cooperation among the Intelligence communities of all the parties involved.


Bajoria, Jayshree, and Eben Kaplan. “The ISI and Terrorism: Behind the Accusations.” Council on Foreign Relations. 4 May 2011. (accessed May 30, 2014).

BBC News. “US-Pakistan ties ‘could not be more important’ – Kerry.” BBC News Asia. 21 Ocotber 2013. (accessed June 1, 2014).

Ghafour, Hamida. “Zia ul-Haq’s legacy in Pakistan ‘enduring and toxic’.” The Toronto Star, 26 ugust 2013.

Goldman, Adam. Pakistan Media Out Alleged Name Of CIA Station Chief. 9 May 2011. (accessed June 1, 2014).

Grimmett, Richard F. U.S. Arms Sales to Pakistan. Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress, 2007.

Jones, Seth. “Preventing a Nuclear ‘Great Game’.” The Wall Street Journal, 29 May 2013.

JTG GTMO. “JTF-GTMO Matrix of Threat Indicators for Enemy Combatants.” (accessed June 1, 2014).

New York Times Editorial Borad. “Seeking a New Relationship With Pakistan.” The New Yor Times, October 2013.

Patterson, Ambassador Anne W. “Reviewing our Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.” The Guardian. London, 30 November 2010.

UK Ministry of Defence. “Key quotes from the document.” BBC Newsnight. British Broadcasting Corporation. 28 September 2006. (accessed May 30, 2014).



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