Recent news linking Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) unit to Islamic militants really isn’t news at all, because these reports are simply derivatives of the same story that’s plagued Afghanistan since the spy agency was founded by British Major General William Cawthorne in 1948, when Pakistan also inherited Britain’s “forward policy” of using Afghanistan as a pawn in achieving certain geopolitical interests.
In Britain’s case Afghanistan served as a buffer against Russian advances while the ISI used the Afghan homeland to employ Pakistan’s “strategic depth” doctrine to offset India’s size and military superiority, covertly training and using religiously-motivated warriors from the Pashtun tribal belt during three wars with India – albeit to no avail.
The name of Pakistan’s spy agency itself is misleading, because it has never refrained from going beyond its original mandate which was purported to be the gathering of military intelligence for sharing amongst the country’s three main military services (army, navy, and air force).
The ISI’s charter was expanded furthur by General Ayub Khan after a 1958 coup, who used the ISI to monitor domestic opposition to sustain military rule, which included phone-tapping, conducting media campaigns and the occasional assassination.
In 1975 Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first to use ISI-trained clandestine agents directly against Afghanistan. Although the one-week proxy war failed militarily, it allowed Bhutto to achieve his political aim of forcing Afghan President Daoud to seek Pakistani assistance to clamp down on the Young Muslims.
Bhutto’s appetite for Islamic extremism led to a decision that would change the course of Pakistan history in the worst possible way. According to former U.S. ambassador Peter Tomsen in his new book The Wars of Afghanistan, Bhutto “reached outside the cohort of anglicized, scotch-guzzling, secular Pakistani generals trained during the colonial period” to chose General Zia ul-Haq as his new army chief. It was a decision that changed Bhutto’s life as well when Zia overthrew Bhutto in 1977 and then hung him a year later.
General Zia planned on using ISI’s radical clients to not only establish an Islamabad-friendly Islamist regime in Kabul and pry Kashmir from India, but sought to use jihad as a tool to establish a caliphate across the Middle East and beyond.
Zia’s vision was founded on the Islamization of Pakistan society and likened Pakistan to Israel, saying if one took Judaism from Israel it would fall “like a house of cards”, and the same would happen to Pakistan if one tried to make it a secular state. The general established sharia law, implemented Wahabbi-style penalties and introduced “holy war” doctrine as a subject in Pakistan’s military curriculum.
The CIA funded the ISI with billions to train the mujahideen to fight the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Yet 70% of CIA funding was allocated to Islamic extremists while moderate commanders like Abdul Haq were neglected.
According to Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald in their book Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story, President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski secured an agreement with King Khalid of Saudi Arabia in 1980 to match U.S. contributions to the ISI dollar for dollar to counter the spread of communist ideology.
Yet it also ended up funding the spread of extremist Deobandi and Wahhabist teachings throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, which seemed like a good idea to the U.S. at the time so long as the evil empire was defeated, as Zia built thousands of madrassas in the tribal region to manufacture countless anti-Shia, anti-Sufi and – ironically – anti-Western militants.
Just as it did for the British Empire, a strong, moderate and independent Afghanistan ran contrary to Pakistan’s strategic objectives, because a fractured and unstable Afghanistan was one easier for Pakistan to exploit and bend to its wishes.
Hence, General Zia continuously undermined Afghan self-determination and nationalism, including thwarting loya jirgas in Quetta and Peshawar in the early 1980s which Afghan elders tried to convene to establish a legitimate Afghan government in exile.
The General wanted his favored Afghan Islamists, not moderate nationalists, to lead post-Soviet Afghanistan. Denied the ability to form a legitimate consensus, the atomized Afghan refugees in Pakistan disintegrated into hundreds of political groups divided across ethnic, tribal and sectarian lines.
After Zia’s death in a plane crash in 1988, army chief Mirza Aslam Beg and ISI chief Hamid Gul continued his vision. However, the near universal ideological solidarity that kept the fractured resistance together came crashing down when the Soviets left in 1989. As a result, the ISI and CIA wrongly estimated that Najib’s PDPA communist regime in Kabul would fall easily.
The ISI and CIA’s favorite client was Ghilzai Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received the bulk of the funding despite the fact he was virulently anti-American and the most radical of the mujahideen leaders known as the Peshawar seven.
When 26-year old Osama bin Laden moved to Peshawar in 1984 as an ISI guest he became closely aligned with Hekmatyar. In 1987 bin Laden bulldozers built a “military academy” in the Kurram tribal agency. Bin Laden befriended Jalaluddin Haqqani and helped him expand his base in North Waziristan, from where Haqqani launches attacks on coalition forces and Afghan troops and civilians to this very day with covert support from Pakistan’s spy agency.
Bin Laden also built roads in poverty-stricken Pashtun mountain villages on both sides of the Durand Line in the Tora Bora area, garnering bin Laden local support which later paid off in facilitating his escape into the Pakistani tribal lands after 9/11, with alot of help from Haqqani. A decade later bin Laden, of course, was found and killed by Navy SEALs next door, believe it or not, to a Pakistani military academy outside Islamabad.
The ISI’s scheme to install Hekmatyar as the ruler of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan was a recipe for failure considering Hekmatyar had little support among the Afghans, primarily because his violent Muslim radicalism was an affront to the Afghans’ traditional moderate version of Islam.
In fact, an Afghanistan Information Center survey found that 70% of the Afghan refugees at the time supported the return of King Zahir Shah as head of state over the Peshawar-based radicals. Zahir Shah was considered a symbol of tolerance, nationalism and political moderation who ruled during a 40-year era of peace in Afghanistan until his ouster in 1973.
Knowing this, Gul and Beg didn’t consider Najib’s communist regime in Kabul as their chief threat but saw pro-Zahir Shah Durranis as their biggest obstacle, thus worked tirelessly to block the revival of the traditional Durrani power structure in southern Afghanistan.
In 1989 Mohammad Sabir tried to play the same role as Mawlawi did at the historic 1747 jirga which selected Ahmad Shah Durrani as Afghan king, and organized a large gathering of elders outside of Kandahar who appealed for Zahir Shah to return.
To counter the jirga initiative, the ISI established the Argestan Shura led by mullahs who would later become Taliban leaders. The ISI’s Quetta office chief, Colonel Faizan, told an American visitor that his shura had “decisively reversed three hundred years of Durrani rule in Afghanistan.”
Shortly after, the Argestan Shura fired ISI-supplied rockets into Kandahar city as the ISI and Hekmatyar collaborated to assassinate the “Lion of Kandahar”, Barakzai commander Haji Latif, which dealt a devastating blow to the Durrani moderate cause.
All the while, Pakistani leaders told Americans officials they were interested in a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan. However, their actions contradicted their words. After 1989 the CIA mentality remained trapped in Cold War constructs, blinding them to the radical Islamic menace gathering on the Pakistani Frontier, as the U.S. essentially outsourced its foreign policy in Central Asia to the ISI until 9/11.
The CIA behind the scenes worked to ensure the U.S. continued funding the Pakistani “pivot”. Pakistan’s strategic shift in 1988 – 1989 was more than obvious yet hundreds of classified CIA documents mysteriously failed to reflect this reality. Tomsen attributed this to the CIA’s willful ignorance, incompetence and hyper-focus on tactical rather than strategic “taskings”.
CIA tactics ran counter to the stated American policy of supporting a political solution to restore Afghan independence through a process of grassroots self-determination. In contrast, Langley collaborated with Pakistani and Saudi intelligence to implement a top-down military solution which featured replacing Najib with Hekmatyar, as CIA assistance to the ISI continued until the early 1990s.
The truth is, the Afghans didn’t want Najib or Hekmatyar because both were creations placed on the Afghan political terrain by foreign powers that would survive only as long as their external backers provided support.
The ISI’s “freedom fighters” soon became the very warlords that divided and terrified Afghanistan as it spiraled into civil war, moral decay and chaos between 1992 and 1996, which led to conditions ripe for the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Taliban forced its Deobandi-Wahhabist perversion of Islam upon the Afghans, further weakening the tribal structure.
The ISI directly provided weapons, funding, manpower and logistical support to the Taliban and helped them capture Kabul in 1996, although they continued fighting Massoud’s forces in the north. By 1998, of the roughly 45,000 Taliban fighting against Massoud only 14,000 were Afghan, the rest were Pakistani nationals and Al Qaeda Arabs.
After 9/11 the moderate mujahideen commander Abdul Haq had a plan to topple the Taliban without the need for a U.S. invasion. Support for the Taliban inside Afghanistan had withered as Haq won the loyalty of key Taliban division commanders who committed to help overthrow Mullah Omar.
However, the CIA ignored Haq while Haq made the tragic mistake of telling the ISI about his endeavor in an effort to win their support. The U.S. began bombing Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 and on October 26 Abdul Haq was assassinated while trying to put his plan in motion, a plan that would reinstall the monarchy and restore the tribal balance – in other words, the only plan with a reasonable chance of ever bringing peace to Afghanistan.
Since 9/11 Pakistan has continued playing its double game but now it appears the ISI is at war with its benefactor. Pakistani military leaders tell Washington one thing while they continue to support militant attacks inside Afghanistan against U.S. and Afghan targets.
Meanwhile, it appears the U.S. is, once again, attempting to implement a top-down military solution. In addition, the U.S. has propped its own puppet in Kabul who is just as illegitimate as Najib and Hekmatyar were.
When will the U.S. quit repeating the mistakes of the past that allowed the ISI to rise to prominence in the first place? Now, that would be a news flash.