Published:  12:00 AM, 26 February 2017

Intelligence, failure and success

Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G. Kiessling, Publisher -Harper Collin, October 6, 2016
Sushant Singh scrutinizes the hitherto shady world of Pakistan's secret service, defines by the writer

From the circulation of fake Indian currency notes to arming and training terrorists, the Inter Services Intelligence or ISI of Pakistan is associated in most Indian minds with everything that is ugly about the Pakistani establishment. Not that the current view is any different in Western minds, where the agency has gone from being hailed as an outstanding Cold War ally to a perfidious actor in the post 9/11 era.

Whether these actions are necessary to the functioning of an intelligence agency - as some Pakistani officials suggest - is a moot question, but there is no denying that the ISI remains one of the most important institutions not only in Pakistan or the Indian subcontinent but also in the global war on jihadi terror.

It is thus surprising that no serious, in-depth scholarship about the ISI is publicly available. Hein G. Kiessling's Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan fills that gap to a considerable extent. The ISI, it is often forgotten, was established during the 1948 Kashmir War between India and Pakistan by the Melbourne-born British army officer, Major General Walter Joseph Cawthorne.

Contrary to some accounts, the ISI was not modelled after Iran's intelligence service, the SAVAK (set up in 1950), nor was it trained by the SDECE, the French intelligence agency established in 1947. The first training and equipment for the ISI came from the MI6 and the CIA.

Cawthorne's ISI included officials not only from the Pakistan army but also Muslim intelligence personnel from the pre-Partition Intelligence Bureau. These civilian experts formed the backbone of the ISI in the early years, when it had no internal intelligence collection role in Pakistan, except for in the Northern Areas and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

By the time Ayub Khan took over the reins of power in 1958, the role of ISI had changed. Internal political intelligence became its focus of activity, which included warning, threatening and, in some cases, even eliminating political personalities opposed to the military administration.

The effect of ISI's meddling in domestic politics took its toll on the professional capabilities of the agency, which became obvious during the 1965 India-Pakistan War. ISI had been given a major responsibility in Operation Gibraltar to instigate the Kashmiris to rise against the Indian rule, but it failed miserably. Its contacts in Kashmir and in India simply went incommunicado and the ISI was blinded politically and militarily.

During the military conflict that followed, the ISI was unable to locate and pinpoint the movement of Indian troops. After the war, Kiessling tells us, Ayub set up a committee under Yahya Khan to enquire into the shortcomings of the intelligence agencies. The report passed most of the blame on to the civilian IB, thereby shielding the military-run ISI - and MI - from criticism.

The ISI's record in the 1971 War was slightly better. It was able to get a lot of information about Indian plans but that came on the back of its failure to read the domestic political scene in East Pakistan. The ISI really came into own, as the book shows in great detail, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in July 1979, when it became the conduit and controller for all financial and military assistance to the Afghan fighters. Although ISI had started creating trouble in Afghanistan during the Bhutto years, the American dream, in President Carter's NSA Zbigniew Brzenisnki's words, "to give the USSR their Vietnam war" played into Pakistan's hands.

India had to bear the brunt of ISI's power in Punjab, as it started actively supporting the Khalistan movement. The Indian agencies responded in kind, most famously, as is believed, by taking off the Ojhri ammunition depot outside Rawalpindi. It was followed by a thaw between the two sides. The heads of ISI and R&AW even met on a couple of occasions to discuss a détente. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the ISI devoted its resources towards fomenting an insurgency in Kashmir, which continues to this day.

The terror strikes seen across India in the last two decades are believed to bear ISI's imprint, which the world was finally convinced of after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Hurt by the global ostracism, the ISI seems to have since taken a less visible role in anti-India operations.

But it is an intelligence agency India and Indians remain wary of. Writing a book about any intelligence agency is a challenge and it becomes manifold in case of a country like Pakistan where the army and the ISI dominate the state and the society.

The book is largely based on open source material and confidential interviews with retired military officials. Kiessling, a political scientist and historian, is helped by the fact that he lived for 13 years in Pakistan and has travelled twice every year to the region since 2004. Those looking for new revelations about the ISI may be disappointed but it remains invaluable as a detailed chronology of the intelligence agency since its formation.

The reviewer is a Columnist at

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