Profile of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence

Men inspect an assault rifle at a gun factory in western Pakistan that produces and sells weapons near the porous border with Afghanistan

John Moore/Getty Images

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is the largest of the country's 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.” Its tendency to operate outside of the Pakistani government’s control is often at odds 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 the ISI Became 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, such funds aided the fight against Soviet occupation there in the 1980s.

Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's military dictator from 1977 to 1988 and the country's first Islamist leader, positioned himself as the indispensable ally of American interests against Soviet expansion in South Asia. Zia promoted ISI as the indispensable clearinghouse through which all aid and armament would flow. Zia, not the CIA, decided which insurgent groups received financial support. The arrangement had far-reaching implications that the CIA didn't foresee, making Zia and the ISI the unlikely (and disastrous, in retrospect) 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—often used 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 financed, armed, and kept in business to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan.

Either directly or indirectly, the ISI never stopped supporting the Taliban even after 2001, when Pakistan ostensibly became an ally of the U.S. in the war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. British-Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid writes in his 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. Here, Taliban militants are likely warned by ISI operatives of impending American military action.

A Call for the ISI’s Dismantling

According to a report by the Defense Academy, a British Ministry of Defense think tank, “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, plus militants under its influence or patronage. These include the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and several extremist groups in Kashmir, a province Pakistan and India have been disputing for decades.

The ISI’s Complicity With al-Qaeda

As described in Steve Coll's history of the CIA and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan since 1979:

By the fall of 1998, CIA and other American intelligence reporting had documented many links between ISI, the Taliban, 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

This pattern reflects Pakistan’s late-90s agenda⁠—which has changed little since⁠—to bleed India in Kashmir and ensure Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, where Iran and India also compete for clout, power, and authority. These controlling factors explain Pakistan’s shifty relationship with the Taliban, bombing in one place while propping it up in another. Should U.S. and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan (just as American aid ended after the Soviet withdrawal from that country in 1988), Pakistan wants a controlling hand there. Supporting the Taliban is Pakistan’s insurance policy against repeating the situation left behind after American withdrawal at the end of the cold war.

As told by Bhutto in 2007, during one of her last interviews:

Today, 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 and enable the Taliban, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and other militant groups to call the northwestern part of the country their sanctuary.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: the Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Penguin, 2005.
  • Hussain, Yasir. The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Epitome, 2008.
  • Key Quotes from the Document.” Newsnight, BBC, 28 Sept. 2006.
  • Rashid, Ahmed. Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Penguin, 2009.
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Tristam, Pierre. "Profile of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Tristam, Pierre. (2020, August 28). Profile of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. Retrieved from Tristam, Pierre. "Profile of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 15, 2021).