Adm. Mike Mullen set off a firestorm on September 22 when he bluntly accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the ISI, of backing militants’ attacks on U.S. facilities in Afghanistan.
In a Congressional testimony that the White House has since refused to endorse, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff alleged ISI agents have been using militants as proxies to maintain regional influence.
"In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan jeopardizes ... the prospect of our strategic partnership," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
But the U.S. bears some responsibility for putting the ISI directorate in its current position of prominence.
The ISI first used Islamic militants to foster policy goals in neighboring Afghanistan in the 1980's war against Soviet occupation, and did so with active assistance from the CIA. Professor Owen Sirrs of the University of Montana, who is researching a new book on the ISI, says the CIA let the ISI decide how huge amounts of cash, weapons and other aid would be allocated among the Afghan anti-Soviet fighting groups.
"We acknowledged that ISI was going to be the filter between us and the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviets," he says. "That gave ISI tremendous power because then they could essentially decide who was going to be the future kings of Afghanistan, the future leadership of Afghanistan. ISI played a kingmaker role, and we essentially allowed this to happen.”
Sirrs says the ISI favored Islamist radicals like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani with the most funds and weapons, building ties that still endure and now bedevil the Washington-Islamabad relationship. The U.S. blames the Haqqani network, now a Taliban ally, for many of the attacks on U.S. and allied facilities in Afghanistan.
A complex history
The ISI was founded in 1948 by a British army officer just after the partition of the Indian subcontinent into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-dominated India. It was then, as it is now, one of several competing Pakistani intelligence agencies, and it was charged with countering Indian infiltration into the Pakistani army.
But the ISI’s power gradually grew. Intermittent civilian governments sought to turn it to their own purposes, such as spying on political opponents. Although officially answerable to the prime minister, however, the ISI remains firmly under control of the military, which saw it as tool to check what it considered to be incompetent civilian rule. Late prime minister Benazir Bhutto famously called the ISI a “state within a state,” underscoring the government’s inability to control the agency’s power.
Sirrs says it was a former military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, who started using the ISI as a tool of covert action. General Zia got huge sums of money for the anti-Soviet effort, some of which, he says, ISI officers skimmed. But it was contact with radical Islamists that rubbed off on ISI officers.
"They had a shared world view of 'hey, we defeated a superpower’ - the Soviet Union - ‘this just shows the power of our ideology, the power of our faith, and we can do great things with it,' " he says. "And I think this definitely had an impact on a whole generation of ISI officers, some of whom you heard about later on who were involved with backing the Taliban."
Analysts widely agree that the ISI had a hand in creating and supporting the Taliban as it came to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Mullen’s comments underscore how Western intelligence agencies believe ties between the ISI and the Taliban - even though it is now an insurgency instead of a government - remain strong.
Pakistan, however, repeatedly denies any such linkage.
"The allegations betray confusion and policy disarray within the U.S. establishment on the way forward in Afghanistan," said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in response to Mullen's testimony. "We strongly reject assertions of complicity with the Haqqanis or of proxy war [in Afghanistan]."
Professor Christine Fair of Georgetown University, who has long studied Pakistani security and political affairs, says the ISI’s relationships with the Taliban and allied groups do exist, but are complex.
"There’s a constellation of Taliban actors, basically overlapping networks that have ties with [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar, Haqqani, all of which is sort of on a tactical basis when it suits them," she says. "They all have different sort of relationships with what reconciliation means, and they all have different relationships with the ISI. So I think we have really been erroneous in not understanding the degree to which the Taliban have changed in the last 10 years. They’ve changed but our thinking has not.”
Sirrs says the ISI keeps a sharp eye on any potential negotiations that might bring about political reconciliation in Afghanistan, because it wants to control the outcome.
"If the Afghan Taliban is at all interested in negotiating with the United States or the Afghan government, it’s the Pakistani ISI saying 'we are the ones who dictate your final interests, and if you negotiate any agreement that we don’t buy into, we - ISI, the Pakistani army - we’re going to pull you back.'"
Analysts say that 63 years after its creation, the ISI and the Pakistani security establishment remains obsessed with India and its expanding political and economic influence in the region, including in Afghanistan.