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Pakistani Intelligence on the Defensive

Posted by The Agonist on May 10th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

I know it was you, Fredo.

That Osama bin Laden has been living comfortably in Abbottabad and evidently directing al Qaeda from there – all within earshot of a Pakistani military facility – has been a tremendous embarrassment to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), but it comes as no surprise to Indian or many other intelligence services, though realization in Washington has been too long in coming. Paradoxically, US intelligence’s recent success in Abbottabad has underscored a long-running failure.

ISI has long been complicit in aiding al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-i-Mohammed, and a slew of other militant groups operating along the Af-Pak line and in Kashmir. ISI organized Sipah-i-Sahaba to intimidate and kill Shia and Christians inside its country.

In the US, key members of congress are questioning the large subsidies given to Pakistan, including its military and intelligence services. Hostility toward Pakistan is building in the public. Congress is looking for further evidence of ISI links to al Qaeda; the public has seen enough.

Pakistani intelligence has had discernible ties with Osama bin Laden from his days with the mujahadin to his death last week. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979) led to international support for the resistance. Inserting itself between donors and fighters, ISI controlled funds to various mujahadin groups, including the band of Arab volunteers which bin Laden led. ISI grew tremendously in size and power, becoming an army within the army and a benefactor to numerous militant groups.

After the war’s successful conclusion, ISI remained a hub connecting various militant groups, transnational brotherhoods, and generous donors. Soon enough, bin Laden founded a veteran network in Pakistan – al Qaeda. It maintained ties among the former mujahadin and sought new campaigns around the world. Events did not refuse them.

Al Qaeda was part of an array of ISI-supported militant groups that trained in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan for various theaters. The groups shared their deadly expertise and put it into practice in India-controlled Kashmir and alongside the Taliban as they battled the Northern Alliance for several years. The Pakistani army even sent troops to aid the latter effort.

As the Northern Alliance and the US drove the Taliban and their allies out of the country, the Pakistani army arranged to airlift its own and al Qaeda fighters out of harm’s way in Kunduz province to the north. To the south, US intelligence could only listen to radio intercepts as Pakistani officers directed al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to havens inside Pakistan. Leaders were brought to safe houses in Karachi, far away from the frontier and the US’s reach.

ISI, it is well known now, has only intermittently and selectively aided the US against the Taliban and al Qaeda. It has helped to capture only one high-ranking al Qaeda figure (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), but few if any of the Taliban leaders known to be in Quetta, Peshawar, and Karachi.

US intelligence became increasingly loth to share intelligence with ISI as suspicion of its loyalties grew. The US built its own spy network inside Pakistan, which in the last few months led to deep strains with ISI, and in the last week to the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.

Irrefutable evidence in the world of intelligence organizations and covert ops and militant groups is rare, even many years after events take place. India has been apprising intelligence services for years of the array of militant groups ISI has been nurturing along Af-Pak. The US is poring over the storage drives taken from bin Laden’s Abbottabad estate for still more evidence, and ISI is bracing itself. As well it should.

Meanwhile, serious and protracted intelligence failure has contributed to our being tied to a duplicitous and failing partner in the war in Afghanistan.

©2011 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and the author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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