Change of Leadership May Not Reform Pakistan’s Terrorist-Friendly Spy Agency

By Patrick Goodenough | October 1, 2008 | 5:22 AM EDT

It will take more than a change at the helm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to allay concerns about its links to terrorism, a leading security analyst said Wednesday.

( – It will take more than a change at the helm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to allay concerns about its links to terrorism, a leading security analyst said Wednesday. He noted that Islamabad faces an uphill battle in convincing critics it is serious about reform.
The ISI’s support for terrorism “is part the Pakistani establishment’s long-standing strategic assessment and commitment, and is not dependent on the presence or removal of an individual officer,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi.
He said he saw no evidence of any decision within Pakistan’s power elites to radically change course.
“For such a transformation to occur, the Pakistani establishment, crucially including the military leadership, would have to unambiguously abandon radical Islamist mobilization as a tool of domestic political management and foreign policy projection, as well as all forms of terrorism as instruments of state policy,” Sahni said.
Lt.-Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, formerly head of military operations, was named Tuesday as the new ISI director-general, replacing an appointee and distant relative of former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan’s leaders have come under pressure from Washington to clean up the agency, particularly in the wake of last summer’s bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul and strong suspicions of an ISI hand behind the attack.
Pasha’s appointment was part of a reshuffle and promotion of the echelon of top officers, seen as an effort by Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who succeeded Musharraf as head of the army last November, to stamp his mark on the military. Kayani is himself a former ISI head.
Bahukutumbi Raman, director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai, India, said the changes place crucial posts in the hands of officers who will owe their promotions to Kayani, and not to Musharraf.
Sahni, too, saw the move as one by Kayani to “consolidate his loyalists” and “remove the taint of the Musharraf appointees.”
For the past over two years, Pasha has been overseeing security operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal belt and frontier province.
He accompanied Kayani for talks with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen onboard a U.S. Navy carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, in the Arabian Sea in late August.
Relations between the two allies have been strained over U.S. strikes against terror targets on Pakistan soil amid ongoing violence against coalition forces in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper suggested that the decision to appoint a new head had been made easier by public unhappiness over intelligence agencies’ inability to stop terrorism at home, including the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad last month.
“Its ability to intercept and interdict moves by the terrorists … remains limited if not suspiciously defective,” the paper said in an editorial. “This has led many to assess the ISI negatively, accusing it of not letting go of the former proxy elements it nurtured who have turned against Pakistan and are killing innocent citizens.”
Sahni says the ISI and military are trying to manage the contradictions arising from their long support for terrorist groups on one hand, “and the imperatives of acting against some of these groups under U.S. pressure since 9/11” on the other.
While some “renegade” terror groups now count the Pakistan government and military as the enemy, the ISI continues to use other, “loyal” groups to engineer instability in Afghanistan and India.
Islamabad sought “to manage activities of the ‘loyal’ groups, even as it exerts all efforts to neutralize the ‘renegades,’” he charged.
Taliban sponsor
Formed 60 years ago, the ISI’s role inside and outside Pakistan has long been a controversial one.
For more than half of its existence as an independent country Pakistan has been under military rule, and the ISI has been a key player in the life of the state. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, when in power in the 1990s, accused the agency of planning her overthrow and years later said it was plotting to kill her. Her eventual assassination, in a shooting and bombing attack last December, remains unresolved.
Beyond Pakistan’s borders, the ISI was active in Afghanistan, serving as a conduit for U.S. aid to mujahideen fighting Soviet occupation forces during the 1980s. The ISI subsequently helped to set up the Taliban, the militia that seized control of most of Afghanistan by the mid-1990s and allowed al-Qaeda allies to shelter there.
Pakistan was one of just three countries – the others were Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to have diplomatic relations with the Taliban “emirate,” and when Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, the policy remained intact.
After 9/11, Musharraf under American pressure formally broke ties with the Taliban, whose regime was toppled by a U.S.-led coalition in late 2001.
Suspicions persisted, however, that the ISI – or elements within the agency – remained sympathetic towards and continued to support the militants, despite “purges” ordered by Musharraf.
Last June, Pakistan dismissed accusations by Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government that the ISI was behind a failed attempt by Taliban gunmen to assassinate President Hamid Karzai during a military parade in April.
Pakistan’s opposite neighbor, India, has been the ISI’s primary focus.
Much of the terror faced by India over recent decades – both in the Indian-controlled portion of disputed Kashmir and in metropolitan areas – has emanated from groups based in or allegedly sponsored by Pakistan.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal, an ICM project, has compiled data on more than 100 instances of ISI-linked arrests inside India – not including Kashmir – between 2004 and August 2008.
ICM research fellow Kanchan Lakshman says the wide range of activities and targets revealed by the arrests show that the ISI’s strategy has been “to provoke communal confrontations, engineer terrorist incidents, and recruit soldiers for a pan-Islamist jihad in pockets of Muslim populations across India.”
Many of those arrested are members of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), terrorist organizations formed in Pakistan in the 1980s and 90s, and allegedly supported by the ISI.
Attacks attributed to them include an audacious assault on India’s national parliament three months after 9/11, and deadly bombings in Mumbai in March 1993, in Delhi in October 2005, in Varanasi in March 2006, and again in Mumbai in July 2006.
Embassy bombing
While affirming its moral support for Kashmiris’ “struggle for self determination” Pakistan repeatedly has denied India’s allegations of sponsorship, which have gained little public support beyond the region.
But after the Indian Embassy in Kabul was bombed on July 7, the Indian and Afghan governments both strongly hinted at ISI involvement, and the New York Times later that month reported that U.S. intelligence officials had intercepted communications providing evidence backing the claim.
It was after the embassy attack that President Bush reportedly gave the go-ahead for incursions across the border into Pakistani territory, with the first occurring on September 3.
Noting that the embassy attack led to a growing acknowledgment of “Pakistan’s pernicious role,” K.P.S. Gill, a former police director-general and president of the ICM, says it is regrettable that that recognition did not take place earlier.
“Had this recognition come in the first weeks after 9/11, that could have saved thousands of lives, most significantly in Afghanistan and India, but also in Europe and across Asia,” he wrote earlier this month.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow