The political role of the ISI

Published: March 17, 2012

The writer is a retired brigadier who has served in senior intelligence postings in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata

A constitutional petition has been filed in the Supreme Court, seeking the abolition of the political wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In the Asghar Khan case, the then DG-ISI General (retd) Asad Durani has admitted that funds were distributed by the organisation to manipulate the 1990 elections against the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Both these cases relate to the involvement of the ISI in politics and its interference in the election process in favour of those parties considered more patriotic and suitable for promoting a certain kind of ideology. An impression has been created that it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who for ulterior motives established a political cell of the ISI in 1975 and involved it in politics. However, there is evidence that intelligence agencies had been involved in politics since the 1950s.

The interviews and articles of some retired officials point to the involvement of the military in political manipulations since 1957, if not earlier. Their involvement was enhanced with the imposition of martial law in 1958 and they remained involved in political activities during the Ayub Khan era. During Yahya Khan’s rule, the agencies got more deeply involved in politics. They monitored and reported the prospects of political parties taking part in the 1970 elections. Funds were placed at the disposal of General Umer, who was the head of the National Security Council. These funds were distributed to ‘Islam pasand’ right wing parties.

Let us now examine the notorious so-called ‘political cell’ of the ISI. In 1975, during the Balochistan insurgency, the Hyderabad tribunal was set up to try over 50 Pakistanis, mainly Baloch and Pashtun politicians from the National Awami Party, who were charged with various crimes including treason. The evidence against the accused was mainly based on intelligence reports compiled by the ISI. According to the late Naseerullah Babar, Attorney General Yahya Bakhtiar was of the view that since the ISI had no defined role that mandated it to monitor political activities, therefore, these reports would not be accepted by the tribunal. To make the evidence legally admissible, an administrative order was issued, mandating the ISI to monitor the activities of political parties. However, this order did not authorise it to make alliances, distribute funds or manipulate elections.

With every successive military dispensation, the ISI has gained in strength and its involvement in affairs of the state has grown. The Afghan jihad turned the ISI into the most powerful department of the country. The officers of that era were involved in political manipulations for the 1985 elections.

From 1988 onwards, the ISI was actively involved in political manipulations targeting PPP. They had plans for waging jihad and considered Benazir Bhutto a hurdle in its plans. The military was also actively involved in political activities throughout General Pervez Musharraf’s rule.

In 1989, Benazir Bhutto constituted the Zulfikar Commission to review the workings of the intelligence agencies. The Commission recommended that the ISI should not be entrusted with formulation of foreign policy and should be relieved of responsibilities related to political matters. These recommendations were never implemented.

The 1975 order should be withdrawn by the government. The ISI should realise that with a vibrant media and an active judiciary, political wheeling and dealing cannot remain hidden. The ISI is an efficient and well-organised agency. It should not undertake functions beyond its charter. There has to be a paradigm shift in its functioning that corresponds to the changing environment.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2012.

Reader Comments (19)

  • Mar 17, 2012 - 10:47PM

    Excellent:) Bold enough to unearth a Historical Fact that it was General Ayub Khan who drag ISI in the filth of Politics.

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  • Falcon
    Mar 17, 2012 - 11:52PM

    Coming from an ex-insider (author) , I consider this constructive criticism helpful. Political intervention also shifts the energy away from the agency’s core competency, which is intelligence gathering about national security threats. Had the brightest minds of our nation been focusing more on detecting the likes of OBL in the country, we won’t have gone through the global embarrassment of having a renowned terrorist in our backyard.

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  • Mar 17, 2012 - 11:55PM

    I think the “analysis” made in this article is far from truth. I have been a student activist during 1968-69 during the mass upsurge against Ayub and in journalism since 1973. It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who in collaboration with a bunch of generals paved the way for the break-up of Pakistan.
    And believe me I am not defending ISI or any other intelligence agencies. It was Bhutto who said in an interview published in TIME magazine that he did more than America to contain communism. And I am a witness that when Gen. Yahya got stuck up in former East Pakistan, Bhutto went to Peshawar and proposed that National Awami Party led by Khan Abdul Wali Khan should start agitation in NWFP and Balochistan while the PPP will do so in Punjab and Sindh. Wali Khan refused. Then Khan left for London.

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  • Mar 18, 2012 - 6:26AM

    @Shahid Husain:
    “It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who in collaboration with a bunch of generals paved the way for the break-up of Pakistan.”

    Thanks for exposing the barrage of propaganda. If truth is coming out at the same time nefarious propaganda is flooding the cybersphere, the downside of the so called freedom of expression. A daunting task to separate wheat from the chaff.

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  • naji ullah shah
    Mar 18, 2012 - 9:06AM

    it is not true that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was involved in break up of pakistan.He was a jenuine leader .

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  • Mirza
    Mar 18, 2012 - 9:26AM

    Here are few facts not opinion. By hanging ZAB, bombing 80 years old Akbar Bugti to death, distributing money among rightwing parties to prevent PPP to come to power and throwing 60 plus judges and their families in detention, the generals have proved beyond a shadow of doubt that only they are the rulers and nobody else and they can get away with worst crimes against the state. Yet you make a couple of victims of the army and leaders of relatively secular parties responsible as if they are the ones who actually committed all atrocities in East Pakistan and multiple acts of high treason.

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  • lawangeen
    Mar 18, 2012 - 9:46AM

    In this new age of revelations, maybe the good Brigadier should expose how much he paid to which politico-religious group as a ISI rep for KP and reveal the true colors of MMA instead of half hearted defence of the indefensible role of ISI in the politics of this unfortunate nation.The truth will free you!

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  • Rashed Aurakzai
    Mar 18, 2012 - 9:54AM

    Asad Seb,

    Efficient they are not to know world most wanted fugitive hidden under their butt (OBL compound is 500m away from ISI Station HQ in Abbottabad). And yes it can even interrogate PM’s husband for murder charges or kill and dump Balochs and can blame all TTP fireworks on RAW and MOSAD but cannot catch even a single of their Ajmal Kassab.

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  • Rashed Aurakzai
    Mar 18, 2012 - 10:06AM

    And Asad Seb, Mehrangate is alone about 90′s election whereas Gen Gul has openly admitted to have rigged 88 elections to avoid PPP’s clean sweep, so as to save the military of their wrath.Recommend

  • Feroz
    Mar 18, 2012 - 10:18AM

    You can write tomes on why Intelligence agencies should not interfere in Politics. The larger point is that every institution must be made accountable and transparent. It is the Politician who must decide what should be the Military budget, not a General. Secondly, every department of the Government must be responsible for funds provided and all Accounts must be audited. Without this guideline adventures and misadventures will thrive. Intelligence is not about espionage that can lead to profitable blackmail.

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  • Muhammad Tayyab
    Mar 18, 2012 - 10:34AM

    Its good article but not enough. We know ISI has been interfering into politics but the question is who dragged it into politics? Has it come itself? off course not. Its very well organized agency and defending the motherland at any cost. Those who criticize ISI for interfering into politics should keep in their minds that each govt. used this patriot agency to strengthen itself and to let down their opponents. Are our politicians enough eligible or competent to use this weapon for the sake of country? No whenever they came in power, they misused power that they got from public. When rulers are busy in corruption and looting the country and nobody is their to guide this agency then it must does whatever it considers good for country however its good in our eyes or not. If there is a man who we know, will work for country and its interest then ISI would love to work under him for Pakistan.

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  • Farooq Khan
    Mar 18, 2012 - 10:45AM

    Who knows it may still be doing the same. Did anyone know at the time of forming of IJI that funds were being distributed. Very informative articleRecommend

  • ayesha khan
    Mar 18, 2012 - 12:02PM

    and yet again…. the conspiratorial statements, that ISI has been behind almost everything should be stopped too because of a handful of people making the worst mistakes, the entire institution should not be blamed… but the people should have guts to bring out those faces that have ruined our country by abusing power nationally and inter nationally… and its good to know that today ppl r speaking up :)

    its only the magic of democracy

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  • Mirza
    Mar 18, 2012 - 5:29PM

    Thanks for a good Op Ed.
    The main question is why army/ISI hate democracy especially they conspire to keep the secular parties out of power at all costs? Why are the secular parties their victims and why do they continue to eliminate their leaders. At the same time the rightwing touts are enemies of democracy as if it is the worst thing in the word for Pakistan. Till the respect of constitution and democracy is respected and people’s mandate is accepted, nothing can happen except the hate and extreme fanaticism. Recommend

  • Mar 18, 2012 - 6:43PM

    Very objective article and also very apt comments. How ever I always admire the ISI for successfully fooling all the people all the time. Gathering huge crowds, propping incompetent people as great leaders, keeping mullah brigade dancing to their tune and at the same time being darling of the common people. Well done I must admit.

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  • DILU
    Mar 18, 2012 - 8:03PM

    Massive character assassination compaign of Pak army in progress on Tribune.

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  • Akbar
    Mar 18, 2012 - 8:04PM

    The last few lines say it all. Times have changed. ISI should be given pride of performance with a letter of thanks which should relieve it from any political duties or atleast limits its role. However, even in countries like Germany the intelligence agencies are used to keep an eye on “Pro Communist” political leaders. I am sure if we close ISI’s political wing, it will be IB who will be doing that job. The only difference would be rather then reporting to COAS it will report to PM who will use it to screw oposition. Whatever the approach would be, everyone should stay within the defined boundries of law. Courts should continue to play an effective, independent role. Media is free but it has failed to play impartial role.

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  • Mar 18, 2012 - 8:29PM

    its our politicians who bring ISI in politics, name a single Government who have not used ISI against its political opponents

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  • Mar 20, 2012 - 8:44PM

    @Pakistan politics:
    “name a single Government who have not used ISI against its political opponents”

    For what payments, a hefty sum was withdrawn by BB, from ISI’s funds, on the eve of elections?

    Sad to realise that very little truth reaches the voters. Very selective and agenda based drivel and outright lies are fed to a loyal choir. Journalism has to take greater responsibility by participating in the democratization process of the society. It should not act as a mouthpiece of the established order, by reprinting official handouts,

    It would take generations for democratic values to take roots.

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