IDSA COMMENT

Pakistan ISI: The Patron and the Victim

December 24, 2009

The December 8, 2009 Taliban attack on an Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) facility in Multan was the third such attack against Pakistan’s foremost intelligence agency in the last six months. The previous two attacks were reported at Lahore and Peshawar in May and November 2009. While the latest attack led to the killing of twelve civilians and the wounding of another 47, the most brazen of all was the one at Lahore which targeted the provincial headquarters of the agency and also killed a number of ISI officials. Till recently, the dreaded Taliban tactic of combining suicide bombings with sporadic fire assaults was restricted to the frontier provinces and a few cities in North Punjab. The Multan attack evidently signals the expanding reach of the Tehrik-i-Taliban, and in essence its ability to actively coalesce with the Punjabi Taliban in the Pakistani heartland.1 The Taliban and its cohorts would much like to expand the reach of operations – the intent being to thin out the military footprint. An operationally stretched force could soon cease to be effective and provide jehadis the tactical space to spread their radical influence.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) has been quite active following the launch of the ground offensive in South Waziristan. The important cities of Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Peshawar have since been subjected to repeated attacks and bombings. Incidentally, October 2009 was reported to be the bloodiest month in Pakistan’s recent history – with 32 bomb explosions and some 314 civilian deaths. And since the insurgency gained prominence in the frontier provinces, Pakistan has witnessed 966 blasts resulting in 2389 dead and 6121 wounded.2 Peshawar has been the epicentre of violence – eight bomb blasts in October 2009 alone, with 206 civilians killed and 410 wounded. But while suicide attacks have increased – apparently in retaliation to the military counter offensive in South Waziristan – the incidence of direct attacks against the security forces have dropped sharply. A recent survey by the Brookings Institution highlights that the frequency of monthly attacks since June 2009 has fallen from more than 250 incidents to about 170.3 The decline has been the sharpest in NWFP, falling from about 160 to 70.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban’s continued ability to press home suicide attacks could be attributed to several reasons. The escape of the TTP command and control structure prior to the launch of the military campaign in South Waziristan could be the prime reason. Several analysts claim that much of the mid-rung leadership escaped while the military high command was busy contemplating the launch of operations in Waziristan. Secondly, over time, the TTP cadres seem to have established close links with the Punjabi Taliban, and these linkages now seem to be playing up. Third is the important aspect of the insurgent modus operandi – the planning and execution of bomb blasts do not necessarily require hardened militants but only a sharp and crafty mind. Often these daring actions are planned and executed by overground workers who possess the craft and motivation for the cause. The pattern and intensity of blasts clearly suggests that the TTP operatives are fairly well entrenched in the civil society. And here, the dubious role of the ISI in scouting, recruiting and indoctrinating these “invisible hands” of terror cannot be discounted.

The Taliban strike in Multan, Pakistan’s fifth largest city and the most prominent in South Punjab, is worrisome for several reasons. Multan billets Pakistan Army’s foremost strike corps. It also happens to be the native place of the country’s prime minister and foreign minister. Having struck in Multan, the TTP have signalled that they can strike at will in any part of the Pakistani heartland. This also in a way implies that Karachi – the commercial capital of Pakistan – is within striking distance. An attack on Karachi can have severe political and economic ramifications. The Karachi police had once arrested five militants belonging to Lashkar-i-Janghvi in April 2009, who were reportedly planning attacks in Karachi. The targets included the home of the interior minister, the city police headquarters, a few Shiite religious places and local contractors co-ordinating NATO’s land based supplies in Afghanistan. Even as recent as December 21, 2009, the Karachi police arrested three people who were supposedly planning suicide attacks.

The current situation in the province could complicate the ethnic tensions between the Mohajirs and Pashtuns. The large Pashtun population in Karachi can be exploited by rogue elements to bring the commercial city to a grinding halt. The ruling MQM party already seems nervous, and at a time when the province is suffering from divisive internal politics, any further worsening of the situation may not be desirable. Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) have also not been left untouched. But then the relative calm in these provinces needs to be questioned. The Taliban leadership may not like to disturb their traditional safe havens in North Balochistan, Karachi and Muzafarabad. And this logic could well restrain them from extending their operational reach. The TTP command and control structure would surely build deep inroads into these provinces, but then also ensure safety of these havens for rest and recoup, financial and logistical support. The Taliban terror strikes in Karachi or Quetta could be more out of compulsion rather than to drive the radical cause.

The fact that the ISI patron is now becoming the victim of jehadi terrorism does not bode well for Pakistan. A bit of history may be relevant here. The ISI came to the limelight when it helped in running the United States and Saudi Arabia funded mujahideen campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Deep involvement turned the ISI into an over zealous organisation, which not only played favourites in domestic politics but also threw its weight behind the separatist forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Besides, it was also credited with supporting the movement to realise the goal of securing strategic depth in Afghanistan. In recent times, its role in masterminding the attacks against the Indian embassy in Kabul and the 26/11 Mumbai incident is well known. While the Pakistani leadership and establishment outrightly reject the linkage between the ISI and radical militant groups, there is more than sufficient evidence to prove the connection.

The United States too has had serious apprehensions on the role play of the ISI, and this is supposedly reflected in the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report of September 1999. The DIA report presented for public scrutiny in 2002 highlights the role of ISI in sponsoring not only the Taliban but also its al-Qaeda connection. But then the Bush administration chose to ignore the linkages for a long time. In recent times, the Pakistani establishment seems to have made some organisational changes, but those are far from enough. Imtiaz Gul in his recent book The Al-Qaida Connection writes that the Afghan cell does not exist any more and its support to outfits in Kashmir is also much subdued. But then out of strategic concerns, it still continues to maintain contacts with jehadi groups operating in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

There is no denying the fact that retired ISI officers and some officials from within the organisation are maintaining contact with the Haqqani network, Mullah Omar and several other militant groups including those active in Kashmir. The Karzai government has often criticised this policy of duplicity, arguing that the ISI is manipulating the Afghan militant groups residing in the frontier provinces to de-stabilze Afghanistan. Several analysts from within Pakistan have also questioned the agency’s role and expressed the need to rein in its activities. The stigma of abetting terrorist groups is deep and would require more than a normal correction to purge its ranks of pan-Islamists. The Pakistan government’s recent attempts to induce scrutiny into the organisation have not worked. The July 2008 notification of bringing the ISI under civilian control was revoked within 24 hours. Obviously, the military and the ISI were not happy with the decision, and the PPP government was forced to reverse the decision.

The Taliban connection now seems to be turning around. For years the Pakistan establishment had supported the indoctrination, motivation and training of jehadi cadres for export in the neighbourhood. Since 9/11, many militant groups went the al-Qaeda way in co-opting suicide bombing into their modus operandi for jihad. As Imtiaz Gul aptly describes, “these human bombs originally designed and nurtured to destroy enemies of Islam and Pakistan, have [now] started exploding themselves inside their own country, killing their fellow countrymen – civilians and military alike.” The terror factories that were conceived and nurtured in the frontier provinces are now knocking at the Pakistani heartland. The recent bomb attacks on ISI establishments have taken the battle a step beyond. Perhaps this could also suggest the cutting of the umbilical cord between the patron and the client. But then the resulting scenario could be even more worrisome – with no one to take control of the radical militant groups, they would be free to act. A strong alliance with al-Qaeda operatives could gather steam in the absence of ISI mentors.

Pakistan could do well to re-cast the ISI’s role and the organisational ethos to contain the Taliban. Left on its own, the “al-qaida-ised” Taliban insurgency could transform itself into an even more serious threat. The biggest challenge facing the establishment will be how to transform the organisation. Being a force largely drawn from the military makes it practically unaccountable for its actions in the public domain. More importantly, the radical and divisive agendas pursued by some retired officers are not only a cause of concern but an impediment to the well being of the state. There could be a few suggestions to correct the organisation – re-define its role and context of field operations, infuse new blood in the organisation, “cosmopolitise” the staff by recruiting from different organisational streams, and bring in accountability amongst its retired and serving cadres. The ISI may well require a personnel reliability programme and due diligence checks in the long term. If the Pakistani establishment now fails to rehab the organisation, the collapse of the Pakistani state, in the words of Sushant Sareen, would have been “written, directed and produced” by the ISI.

  1. 1. The accompanying map is sourced from Stratfor.
  2. 2. The Indian National Interest Review, December 2009, p. 32.
  3. 3. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/2009/1215/Pakistan-suicide-attacks-spike-but-overall-attacks-are-down.