From the archives

Pakistan's Intelligence Agencies: The Inside Story

Updated Sep 14, 2017 05:45pm

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*Note: This was originally published in the Herald's January 1991 issue*
Note: This was originally published in the Herald's January 1991 issue

Over the last two decades, the role and scale of Pakistan's intelligence agencies has grown over and above their prescribed functions, to the extent that their operations, often undercover and at odds with even each other, have earned them the reputation of being a "State within a State".

Expanding the theatre of their operations to cover major foreign and domestic policy areas, the workings of the three key intelligence agencies, the ISI, the MI and the IB, have assumed more controversial proportions than ever before.

On a freezing December day in Islamabad, MNA Dr Imran Farooq, ordered the maintenance staff of the MNA hostel to service his room heater. The staff took down the gas heater, only to discover a device that didn't belong there taped to its back. Noticing that there were batteries attached to it, they immediately became alarmed and summoned the bomb disposal squad.

Being experts at their job, the members of the bomb squad soon allayed the perturbed MNA's fears that the device was not a bomb of any sort. Instead, they said, they had discovered a powerful transmitter that was being used to bug the MQM MNA's room.

While the federal interior minister was quick to order an inquiry into the affair, the MQM blamed the former PPP government for bugging Dr Farooq's room. The real culprit, however, is still to be identified.

A few days earlier, a heated debate in parliament had focused on the activities of our intelligence agencies as being "rather over-extended”. As the range of intelligence operations came under discussion, the fact that their agencies were maintaining files and tapes – not only on all politicians in the country, but many non-political civilians as well – drew the wrath of many MNAs of all political shades. Finally, Speaker Gohar Ayub tried to round up the debate, not only by ordering a select committee to look into the matter, but also admitting that “we have all been the target of intelligence agencies.” He even quipped that in the seventies, he knew that he had been code-named ‘Sabra-7’, by the intelligence agencies, which were constantly shadowing him.

Clearly, one constant factor emerged from all the grievances aired in parliament — everyone, under every regime, had either ordered spying on the opposition or had themselves been the target of such ‘special attention’. What was debated in the open forum of the National Assembly, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, as far as the scope and direction of the operation that the intelligence units now take under their purview.

The other thing that can be said with certainty about them is that the intelligence set up in the country is one of the best organised in the business, functioning like a well-oiled, super-efficient machine.

National security theorists in Rawalpindi argue that such a setup is vital to any country which is placed in Pakistan’s strategic geo-political situation. “Given the hostility that the very creation of the country generated and the consequent environment in the subcontinent, Pakistan’s security concerns are legitimate and genuine,” says a retired officer who has served in one of the key intelligence cells of the country.

While this view links the country’s security, and even survival, to the efficiency of its intelligence agencies, it is becoming increasingly clear that the civilian psyche on the other hand, can never appreciate the thorough institutionalisation of these agencies in the running of foreign and domestic policies. One of the reasons for this is because, by their very definition, secret intelligence agencies do not subscribe to the open way of consultative or accountable operation that is central to any democratic system.


The mushroom growth in the size and scope of intelligence agency activities may be linked, to some extent, to the role they have been assigned in Pakistan’s short but eventful history. The events of the last 43 years teach us that the line between the concession of an inch and the taking of a mile has become very thin in this country.

The evolution of the ISI (the Inter-services Intelligence Directorate) in its present form can be traced to the assumption of office by former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He took over power after the disastrous 1971 war with India, which saw the Pakistan defence forces take a humiliating beating, followed by the creation of Bangladesh.

"You see, Bhutto had served as Ayub’s foreign minister. His education and orientation made him develop an international vision. He realised that an intelligence agency organised on modern scientific lines would enhance foreign policy options at his command,” says an ex-army officer, as he explains the rise of the ISI from his viewpoint.

“Although the ISI existed well before Bhutto came to power, it grew tremendously at that point, because the prime minister sought a greater role in the region for Pakistan. In fact, as the country embarked on its nuclear programme, more and more funds and leeway came the ISI's way," says another officer who served in a senior position during the Bhutto years before retiring in the late seventies.

Another interesting insight is offered by a defence expert. According to him, Bhutto chose the ISI to be the premier agency because he could accomplish two tasks with it. The first related to the country's foreign policy and the second to self­ preservation, as only a services intelligence agency could look into the army itself and keep Bhutto abreast with the mood and the sentiment in the forces.

This part of history also had its ironical twists. It is widely believed that Bhutto promoted General Zia as the army chief, superseding several far more senior and well-reputed lieutenant generals, because the DG of the ISI had recommended him as the most “reliable and loyal” choice for the coveted post.

It was no coincidence then, that when Bhutto was overthrown, Lt General Ghulam Jilani was retained as the DG of the ISI. Jilani remained one of the most trusted Zia lieutenants for a number of years, both as DG and later as the governor of Punjab.

While Jilani was the governor of Punjab, he made a decision that would create obstacles in the path of the PPP for years to come. He plucked a young industrialist from relative obscurity and nurtured him as a civilian alternative to the PPP leadership. The young man would be prime minister one day. To this day, Jilani remains Nawaz Sharif’s key mentor.

However, many army officers agree that much of the disrepute that came the ISI's way also dates back to the post-Bhutto years. General Zia naturally saw the PPP as an arch enemy which had to be contained at all costs.

Consequently, the whole state apparatus, and the key intelligence agencies in particular, were all geared up to attain this objective. To this end, the agencies were given a full clearance to operate as they chose, so that very soon their reputation as 'surveillance agencies' catapulted to that of a much higher-profile operation that came to be labelled and feared as 'the state within a state'. Midnight knocks, arrests, extorted confessions and phone taps became the order of the day.

The man who directed a major part of this operation from his relatively modest and obscure office in the ISI headquarters in Islamabad in the eighties was a certain Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmad, better known in the army circles both for his cunning and the colour of his eyes, as 'BiIIa' (the cat).

As a young colonel, Imtiaz Ahmed was in charge of the ISI Karachi Det (detachment) when Bhutto was overthrown. He led the famous raid on Bhutto’s 70 Clifton residence, which led to the discovery of some ‘‘important and incriminating” documents. Imtiaz, belonging to a family from Mianwali that was close to General Jilani, reportedly soon earned Zia's admiration and trust.

He was elevated to the influential position of assistant director-general (internal security) at the ISI and headed the dreaded political cell there for several years. Imtiaz wielded enormous power and at times was said to have even bypassed his own DG to report directly to Zia.

Knowledgeable quarters credit Imtiaz with masterminding the idea that would later cause irreparable damage to the PPP. Slowly but surely, he built up an image of the PPP that would convince the whole defence set-up that the Benazir Bhutto-led party was a national security threat. In fact, it has often been said in army circles that it was his national security threat perception, coupled with the blundering style of government, that resulted in Benazir's sacking as the prime minister years later.

ISI observers claim that for many years Imtiaz remained the eyes and the ears of the establishment and watched every move that Benazir made. In fact, sources close to General Zia say that Imtiaz, a master at fabricating evidence, once even sought the general's permission to plant certain photographs in the newspapers that would bring the PPP leader into disrepute. Despite his known antipathy for the PPP, Zia was reportedly firm in denying permission for this excess and did not allow manufactured photographs to be published.

The growth of tile ISI, however, did not remain restricted to the regional role that Bhutto sought for it, nor did it expand solely on the basis of the role that Zia assigned to it in domestic politics. In 1979, Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan, and Pakistan suddenly found itself as a frontline state in the US-Soviet Cold War.

With the exit of Democratic President Jimmy Carter and the arrival on the scene of Republican Ronald Reagan, the US stepped up a covert operation to organise resistance in Afghanistan. By the mid-eighties, this operation had become a multibillion dollar exercise. Although the CIA was solely handling the Washington end, the ISI became actively involved at the Pakistan end of it and neatly transformed itself into a major conduit for arms and money earmarked for the mujahideen.

But again, it was not only these changed circumstances that propelled the ISI into this task. To some extent, the agency was prepared for it already. During the Bhutto years, for instance, after the prime minister had identified the western neighbour as a threat that had to be addressed, the ISI had found and nurtured a young Kabul engineering graduate named Gulbadin Hekmatyar. The ISI not only funded and armed Hekmatyar, but also organised his line of communication inside Afghanistan.

All this manoeuvring was to be used to exert pressure on any Kabul government that harboured any wish of rekindling the Pakhtunistan issue. And these pressure tactics had worked wonders when they were applied to President Daud in the seventies. In a quick volte-face from the belligerent posture he had adopted, Daud had rushed to Murree for talks with Bhutto and had promptly made very conciliatory noises.

However, when the CIA-ISI tie-up went into effect, the Pakistani agency slowly acquired a far more sophisticated and scientific outlook. It is said that some officials, including the then DG, Lt General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, benefited in more than one way from the covert operation. In fact, the explosion at Ojhri camp (the munitions depot for the Afghan resistance in Rawalpindi) was described by some quarters as having occurred because 'stock taking' measures were on their way after charges of pilferage.

The inquiry ordered by the then prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, into the incident, according to knowledgeable quarters, was one of the reasons for his undoing. The major factor, perhaps, was the very system that General Zia had visualised for the country in the mid-eighties. This system not only created friction between the parties that shared power in the country, but also contributed to the growth of intelligence agencies which worked at cross purposes with one another.

Although Junejo was handpicked by Zia to be the prime minister, the man soon showed that he had a mind of his own. As Junejo's ambitions grew, so did the Directorate of the Intelligence Bureau (DIB), the civilian intelligence agency which had previously played second fiddle to the ISI. Although the stated functions of the DIB assign it an important role, for years it had suffered neglect both in terms of staffing, funding and orientation. All that the rulers, including Bhutto, assigned to the DIB was the policing of opposing politicians.

Under Junejo, the DIB chief, Rathore turned the once sleepy agency into a vibrant organisation, but all its counter-intelligence was restricted to looking out for anti-Junejo government moves rather than anti-state actions. The irony, of course, with intelligence agencies the world over, is that, though they work for the same country, they often become each other's bitterest rivals. The same was the case with the DIB. It embarked on an ambitious exercise in which it started tapping the telephones of the Army House – where General Zia lived – to the extent that the DIB was monitoring every move made by Zia and the members of government close to him.

For its part, the ISI was monitoring Junejo and his cronies. And though by the time the Ojhri blast took place, General Rehman was serving as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, he still wielded considerable influence over the ISI. Even though Major­ General Hamid Gul had been appointed as DG of the ISI, General Rehman was still running the Afghan wing of the ISI. Therefore, Junejo’s inquiry into the Ojhri explosion so angered Rehman that, apparently, he presented Zia with doctored tapes of Junejo’s alleged phone conversations. Sources say that despite the fact that until then Zia had been willing to tolerate Junejo, these tapes quickly changed his mind and he finally decided to get rid of his prime minister.

Months after Junejo's sacking, both Zia and Rehman died in the Bahawalpur crash. But their legacy remained, to the extent that the system that Zia had evolved continued to remain intact, in the sense that the intelligence agencies continued to transcend the parameters of the growing role assigned to them.

Although Brigadier Imtiaz had operated in obscurity until then, his name exploded to the fore as he became instrumental in the formation of the IJI before the 1988 polls and pioneered the concept of one-to-one contests in the elections. An expert in ‘psych-war ', he was the main architect of the IJI election strategy, to the extent that image-building slogans such as “jaag Punjabi jaag, teray pag noon laga daag” were attributed to his genius.

When Ms Bhutto took over as prime minister, she insisted on the removal of Brigadier Imtiaz from the ISI. Naively perhaps, she forced the appointment of a retired Lt. General, Shamsur Rehman Kallue, in place of Hamid Gul, who was promoted and given command of the prestigious armoured corps in Multan. Having a man of her choice posted as DG of the ISI and naming a retired major, Masud Sharif — who was described as a "blundering fool" — to head DIB, she relaxed. Obviously, she had not realised that the agencies that had been described as a 'state within a state' could hardly be neutralised through a couple of postings and transfers.

Moreover, she was never even chastened by the fact that, instead of her nominees, a couple of serving officers nominated by the COAS General Mirza Aslam Beg, remained in charge of the Afghan and Kashmir policies.

Subsequently, whatever was removed from the jurisdiction of the ISI after Kallue took over, was soon thrown into the lap of the military intelligence. The military intelligence immediately expanded its theatre of operations, as Benazir sought to cut the ISI to size. In effect, therefore, no qualitative change really occurred in the system of the intelligence units that had become used to conducting independent foreign, and to some extent, domestic policy operations.

However, the Benazir Bhutto government did make one decision of real consequence. It appointed a committee headed by a former chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal (retd) Zulfikar Ali Khan, to look into the working of the intelligence agencies, and to suggest measures to delink them from politics as well as to improve their functioning. But the report of this committee, which was reportedly compiled after the air marshal interviewed scores of intelligence personnel, is now unlikely to see the light of day in the changed circumstances.

In the present situation, however, it is not clear what roles are being assigned to the three major agencies. But with the appointment of Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmad as the chief of the IB, it can be surmised that the establishment still sees the PPP as a major threat.

What one can hope for is that the days of the midnight knock do not return to Pakistan. The intelligence agencies, which now have to counter the Raw-Mossad nexus – particularly in the regional nuclear context – could do well to draw a clear distinction between anti­-government and anti-state activities.

The crucial question that still needs to be addressed is whether these agencies operate under the watchful eyes of an elected government or are they still so strong that they are themselves instrumental in installing or toppling such governments.


This was originally published in the Herald's January 1991 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.