The Sinister History of the ISI

If Stanley Wolpert were to write a book on the ISI today on the lines of his work on Jinnah several decades back, he would probably have begun as follows: “Few external intelligence agencies are powerful enough to back governments of other nation-states. Fewer still have their own terrorist outfits. Hardly anyone can be credited with toppling their own governments. The ISI of Pakistan has done all three.”

That summarises Hein Kiessling’s Faith, Unity, Discipline — the first book-length study on the history, organisation, and activities of the ISI. The agency had humble beginnings in 1948, and remained the least important of the three main intelligence-gathering organisations for the next two decades, the other two being Military Intelligence (MI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB). Kiessling narrates how the fortunes of the ISI turned around with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and it soon rose to become a major power broker in Pakistan, both internally and externally. In fact, since the early 1980s, the ISI’s story cannot be told without narrating every major historical event in Pakistan’s politics during this period.

Today the position of the ISI chief is de facto the third most important political institution in the country, behind only the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and the Prime Minister. From operating ‘jackals at midnight‘ to rigging elections, from giving stinger blueprints to North Korea to sending mujahids in Bosnia, the ISI has done it all. And hence, my only grouse with the author is that the  title Fundamentalism, Upmanship, Deceit would have described the ISI’s pedigree better.

About the author

Pranay Kotasthane

Pranay Kotasthane heads the geostrategy programme at the Takshashila Institution. His research interests focus on geostrategy, geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent, public policy, economic reasoning and urban issues.