Inter-Services Intelligence: Intelligence Agency or Covert Operation?

The Inter-Services Intelligence (or ISI) of Pakistan, founded in 1948, is viewed as one of the best-organized and one of the most secretive intelligence agencies in the world. The intelligence agency came to power and prominence during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989. The ISI, the United States, and Saudi Arabia aided the Muslim holy war guerrillas in their fight to win the war against atheistic communism. The ISI also helped to train and create the Taliban, and still maintains connections with the terrorist group. Pakistan’s strained relations with India and the U.S. are shared with its intelligence agency, and the countries often clash over the ISI’s operations. One of the issues that causes conflict is the secrecy surrounding Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Inter-Services Intelligence has become increasingly distrusted because of its suspicious activities that lead to doubts as to whether the agency is controlled by the government or has begun to operate on its own.

The ISI is widely known for its secrecy, which leads to little communication between the intelligence agency and other groups, as well as, perhaps. its own government. An inquiry commission report exposed the lack of access there is to the ISI. Those who desire to convey information to the ISI do not have a way to share it with the Inter-Services Intelligence. The sole Pakistani intelligence agency has no website or email address, while nearly all other intelligence agencies had made their methods of contact public. This commision reported that this obscurity could serve “only…to remain aloof and unapproachable and therefore unquestionable and unaccountable.” 

For the most part, this unaccountability has led to uncertainty among foreign intelligence agencies as to the actions and motivations of the Inter-Services Intelligence. The historical connections between the ISI and the Taliban have led to many suspicions from other countries’ governments. Bruce Riedel of Brookings Institution writes that “Pakistan and its intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate of the army (ISI), have more influence over the Taliban than any other country or intelligence service.”  The agency gives the Taliban protection to the group’s leaders, military and diplomatic advice, and helps in fundraising. This close relationship has added fuel to fire when it comes to rumors of the ISI’s power to plan Taliban attacks. Pakistan has also been accused of maintaining connections with the Haqqani network, which the Inter-Services Intelligence has not denied, but the ISI has denied supporting the guerrilla group. These types of interactions with dangerous, unpredictable groups like the Taliban and the Haqqanis show an isolation of the ISI from the more regulated government.

The danger these relations pose incites a great deal of fear in many of the governments of other countries, most prominently in the United States and India. The struggle between these three countries makes the connections between the ISI and terrorist groups rather alarming. Conflict over control in Afghanistan has increased tensions between the countries in past years. There has also been a lack of communication between the Inter-Services Intelligence and the intelligence agencies of the U.S. and India. Therefore, as terrorist attacks become more of a security threat, the suspicions toward the ISI tend to increase proportionally. It is widely believed that the Pakistani intelligence agency directs some of these attacks. The U.S. and India then become less likely to communicate civilly, instead retaliating violently. The lack of communication between the groups leads to very unstable relationships that only exacerbate the situation.

The government of Pakistan is often held accountable for these issues, while the Inter-Services Intelligence remains largely off the grid, and so is disconnected from responsibility. Michael Georgy, of Reuters News Agency, writes that “the shadowy military intelligence agency has evolved into what some describe as a state within a state.” Though the ISI is disconnected from foreign intelligence agencies, it is dangerously connected to the Taliban and Haqqanis, making this lack of communication exponentially more frightening to foreign countries. This alarming conduct of the Pakistani intelligence agency does not seem to be controlled by Pakistan’s government, instead the Inter-Services Intelligence seems to be following its own agenda, independent from the government that it is supposedly a branch of, free from any restraint that the Pakistani government might have provided.

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