News / Asia

US Empowered Pakistan Spy Agency

U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2011 (file photo).
U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2011 (file photo).
Gary Thomas

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.”

Undermining reconciliation
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.

You May Like

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More