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Monday, July 25, 2011

Pakistan’s ISI from the inside

The best places to meet the world’s most interesting national security and foreign policy personalities are no longer Washington or London or Paris. Rather, highest on the list are Beijing, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha.

Many years ago, I met Lt General Asad Durrani in 
Beijing thanks to a conference organised by Australia’s Monash University. We have been acquainted and communicating since. I remember arriving late to the conference and rushing in as the brash, younger-than-I-am-now ups
tart and sitting down at one of the lunch tables of ten. I quickly met everyone and heard that Durrani was a general from Pakistan. That’s all I knew. I asked him quickly, “Do you think President Musharraf really doesn’t control the ISI?” Several faces went white at the table. A jaw dropped. Durrani’s eyes narrowed and he slowly said, “It may be in General Musharraf’s interests to pretend he has little control over the ISI.” This is pure Durrani - layers, meaningful, informed, and no one’s flack.
Then I realised looking at bios that he was the former chief of the ISI - and our accidental bluntness and candour has glued us together since.
On Sunday night, General Durrani sent me an essay he wrote, with very light editing by me. These are his words, his insights into how Pakistan sees the Taliban and Afghanistan - as well as its competition with the US in the region.
I have permission to post the entire essay which I am doing. I think that those interested in understanding the other side of the complex and stressed US-Pakistan relationship need to read a bit about the history of the ISI in the words of one of their own.
When I last met General Durrani at a conference organised by Al Jazeera in Doha, he said to me:
Steve, it is very hard for me to overstate to you the enthusiasm for which Pakistan’s generals have for the Taliban.
Durrani is not a booster for the Taliban; he is a hard core realist - and his view is that Pakistan’s generals prize the Taliban for its ability to give them “strategic depth”. Whether you agree or not, his assessments are very much worth reading in full.
So, the rest from Lt. General and former ISI Chief Assad Durrani:
By Lt. General Asad Durrani
When Smashing Lists, a relatively unknown website, declared Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI, the best of its kind, it gladdened my heart but also had me worried.
Soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I met an old colleague, a Special Forces officer recently inducted in the ISI. He whispered in my ears: “we have decided to support the Afghan resistance”. Understandably. With the “archenemy” India in the East and now not a very friendly Soviet Union on our Western borders, Pakistan had fallen between “nutcrackers”. 
We therefore had to take our chances to rollback the occupation; but did we have any against a ‘superpower’, and the only one in the region at that? Soon after the Soviet withdrawal, as the Director General of Military Intelligence, I was assigned to a team constituted to review Pakistan’s Afghan Policy. That, followed by a stint in the ISI, provided the answer. 
The Afghan tradition of resisting foreign invaders was indeed the sine qua non for this gamble to succeed. American support took two years in coming but when it arrived, US support was one of the decisive factors. The ISI’s role - essentially logistical in that it channelled all aid and helped organise the resistance - turned out to be pivotal. In the process, from a small time player that undertook to punch above its weight, rubbing shoulders with the best in the game, the Americans, catapulted the Agency into the big league. Unsurprisingly, the ISI became a matter of great concern not only for its foes.
Cooperation amongst secret services, even within the country, is not the norm. It took a 9/11 for the US to create a halfway-coordinating mechanism. Between the CIA and the ISI, however, communication and coordination worked out well as long as the Soviets were in Afghanistan. The shared objective - defeat of the occupation forces - was one reason; respect for each other’s turf, the more important other.
The CIA hardly ever questioned how its Pakistani counterpart dispensed with the resources provided for the Jihad or for that matter how it was conducted. And the ISI never asked if the American providers were over invoicing the ordnance or undermining the Saudi contribution. It did not mean that they trusted each other.
Differences, however, surfaced as soon as the Soviets withdrew. To start with, some of the key ISI operatives were vilified, allegedly for having favoured the more radical of the Afghan groups. The charge that the Agency was infested with rogue elements is thus an old one. Twice these vilification campaigns led, under American pressure, to major purges of ISI’s rank and file. If these episodes ever led to changes in policy is another matter. In the early 1990s, we in the ISI understood this shift in American attitude as a big-brother’s desire to establish hegemony, but more crucially - now that the Soviet Union after its withdrawal from Afghanistan had ceased to exist - to cut this upstart service to size.

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