What Is Pakistan's ISI or Inter-Services Intelligence?

The ISI is Pakistan's powerful and feared intelligence service

Taliban in Pakistan
In places like Pakistan's Sakhacot Tribal Area, where weaponry is part of the local fauna, the shadows make it difficult to tell Taliban from ISI operatives. John Moore/Getty Images

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is the country’s largest of its five intelligence services. It is a controversial, sometimes rogue organization that Benazir Bhutto, the late Pakistani prime minister, once termed a “state within a state” for its tendency to operate outside of the Pakistani government’s control and at cross-purposes with American anti-terror policy in South Asia. The International Business Times ranked the ISI as the top intelligence agency in the world in 2011.

How Did the ISI Become So Powerful?

The ISI became that “state within a state” only after 1979, largely thanks to billions of dollars in American and Saudi aid and armament covertly channeled exclusively through the ISI to the mujahideen of Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation of that country in the 1980s.

Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's military dictator from 1977-1988 and the country's first Islamist leader, had positioned himself as the indispensable ally of American interests against Soviet expansion in South Asia and the ISI as the indispensable clearinghouse through which all aid and armament would flow. Zia, not the CIA, decided what insurgent groups got what. The arrangement was to have far-reaching implications the CIA didn't foresee, making Zia and the ISI the unlikely (and, in retrospect, disastrous) hinge of U.S. policy in South Asia.

The ISI’s Complicity With the Taliban

For their part, Pakistan’s leaders--Zia, Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf among them--seldom hesitated to use the ISI’s double-dealing skills to their advantage.

That’s especially true regarding Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban, which the ISI helped create in the mid-1990s and subsequently finance, arm and keep in business as a hedge against India’s influence in Afghanistan.

Either directly or indirectly, the ISI has never stopped supporting the Taliban, even after 2001 when Pakistan ostensibly became an ally of the United States in the war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

“Thus,” British-Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid wrote in "Descent Into Chaos," Rashid’s analysis of the failed American mission in South Asia between 2001 and 2008, “even as some ISI officers were helping U.S. officers locate Taliban targets for U.S. bombers [in 2002], other ISI officers were pumping in fresh armaments to the Taliban. On the Afghan side of the border, [Northern Alliance] intelligence operatives compiled lists of the arriving ISI trucks and handed them to the CIA.” Similar patterns continue to this day, especially on the Afghan-Pakistani border, where Taliban militants are believed often to be tipped off by ISI operatives of impending American military action.

A Call for the ISI’s Dismantling

As a report by the Defense Academy, a British Ministry of Defense think tank, concluded in 2006, “Indirectly, Pakistan [through the ISI] has been supporting terrorism and extremism--whether in London on 7/7 or in Afghanistan or Iraq.” The report called for the dismantling of the ISI. In July 2008, the Pakistani government attempted to bring the ISI under civilian rule. The decision was reversed within hours, thus underscoring the power of the ISI and the weakness of the civilian government.

On paper (according to the Pakistani Constitution), the ISI is answerable to the prime minister. In reality, the ISI is officially and effectively a branch of the Pakistani military, itself a semi-autonomous institution that has either overthrown Pakistan’s civilian leadership or ruled over the country for most of its independence since 1947. Located in Islamabad, the ISI boasts a staff of tens of thousands, much of it army officers and enlisted men, but its reach is much more vast. It exercises that reach through retired ISI agents and militants under its influence or patronage--including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and several extremists groups in Kashmir, the province Pakistan and India have been disputing for decades.

The ISI’s Complicity With al-Qaeda

“By the fall of 1998,” Steve Coll writes in "Ghost Wars," a history of the CIA and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan since 1979, “CIA and other American intelligence reporting had documented many links between ISI, the Taliban, [Osama] bin Laden and other Islamic militants operating from Afghanistan.

Classified American reporting showed that Pakistani intelligence maintained about eight stations inside Afghanistan, staffed by active ISI officers or retired officers on contract. CIA reporting showed that Pakistani intelligence officers at about the colonel level met with bin Laden or his representatives to coordinate access to training camps for volunteer fighters headed for Kashmir.”

Pakistan’s Overriding Interests in South Asia

The pattern reflected Pakistan’s agenda in the late 1990s, which has changed little in subsequent years: Bleed India in Kashmir and ensure Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, where Iran and India also compete for influence. Those are the controlling factors that explain Pakistan’s apparently schizophrenic relationship with the Taliban: bombing it in one place while propping it up in another. Should American and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan (just as American aid ended after the Soviet withdrawal from that country in 1988), Pakistan doesn’t want to find itself without a controlling hand there. Supporting the Taliban is Pakistan’s insurance policy against a repeat of American withdrawal at the end of the cold war.

“Today,” Benazir Bhutto said in one of her last interviews in 2007, “it's not just the intelligence services who were previously called a state within a state. Today, it's the militants who are becoming yet another little state within the state, and this is leading some people to say that Pakistan is on the slippery slope of being called a failed state.

But this is a crisis for Pakistan, that unless we deal with the extremists and the terrorists, our entire state could founder.”

Pakistan’s successive governments, in large part through the ISI, created the now seemingly out-of-control conditions that prevail in Pakistan that enable the Taliban, al-Qaeda offshoot al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and other militant groups to call the northwestern part of the country their sanctuary.