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Pakistan: The Power of Intelligence Agencies

by Hassan N. Gardezi, 12 July 2011

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Pakistan: The Power of Intelligence Agencies


The discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad and his killing by US commandos has raised serious concerns about the performance of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. The country’s interior minister Rehman Malik, besieged by allegations of incompetence and complicity went on the defensive, pleading that his government was not aware of Osama’s whereabouts until the US attack on his fortified mansion on May 2. He insisted that it was just a case of accidental failure of Pakistani intelligence agencies, similar to the failure of the US intelligence to detect the perpetrators of 9/11 as they planed their attacks within America.

While giving a briefing on the Abbotabad incident to the in-camera session of both houses of parliament on May13, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, chief of the Inter-services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), also reportedly admitted the “failure” of his agency, offering to resign from his post while adding that it was “not intentional” failure. In the following days the US senator John Kerry, secretary of defence, Robert Gates and secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, all reiterated that there is no evidence that anyone at the highest level of Pakistani government knew the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. That leaves failure of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies as the only official explanation of Osama bin Laden’s undetected presence in Pakistan.

While Pakistanis were still wondering why their country’s extensive intelligence network failed to detect Osama bin Laden, a foreign national and alleged terrorist of great notoriety living under the very noses of Pakistan’s civil and military authorities, they were jolted by another dramatic event. On May 22 the highly protected naval base in Karachi was attacked by militants causing much death and destruction.

On May 27 a news story appeared in Asia Times (on line), claiming that the deadly attack on the base was carried out by al-Qaeda after talks failed between it and Pakistan Navy over the release of some naval officers arrested on suspicion of links with al-Qaeda. Shortly after the appearance of the Asia Times story its contributor, Saleem Shahzad, was kidnapped from the streets of Islamabad allegedly by ISI operatives and his dead body was discovered on May31. Although the ISI has since denied its hand in the killing of the journalist, its role as the secret arm of the state has again become a matter of concern.

The government, after much dillydallying, grandstanding and intervention by the Supreme Court has confirmed the appointment of two commissions of inquiry, one to investigate the Abbotabad incident and the other to probe into the kidnapping and murder of the journalist Saleem Shahzad. Hopefully the findings of these commissions will, if and when made public, throw some light on the precipitating events and personae dramatis of the two incidents which have caused much public dismay and dejection in Pakistan. What is needed in the meanwhile is a broader institutional analysis of Pakistan’s Intelligence agencies, their historical roots, their institutionalised goals and mode of functioning in order to understand what they actually do and why. Without this shared understanding there can be no objective criteria of determining failure or success of these organizations or any prospect of avoiding the catastrophic consequences of their operations or lack thereof.

The Heritage: Conspiracy to Deprive the King

The history of Pakistan’s modern intelligence agencies goes back to the colonial times. In those days the intelligence services, particularly the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the colonial police, were primarily concerned with protecting the British Raj from any threat to its existence and continuity, and the greatest of that threat was perceived to come from the political left.

Thus in the 1920s, when anti- imperialist movements were stirring around the world and in South Asia, the British intensified their surveillance of the left in their Indian colony. Several “criminal conspiracy” cases were orchestrated by the provincial CID networks against a number of trade union leaders and left intellectuals. Two of these cases that attracted much publicity at home and abroad became known as the Kanpur Conspiracy case (1925) and the Meerut Conspiracy case (1929). The accused, in both of these cases were charged with entering into conspiracy to “deprive the King of the sovereignty of British India” under Section 121-A of the Indian Penal Code (1860).

After the creation of Pakistan this pattern of surveillance and harassment of the left continued. In March 1951, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan broke the news of a conspiracy to overthrow his government. Soon thereafter a number of left political activists were arrested and jailed. The veteran communist and anti-imperialist activist, Dada Amir Haider Khan, who was already imprisoned in the Rawalpindi jail at the time, writes in his memoirs that there was a sudden influx of “well educated” people into his adjacent cells, among them Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Zaheer Kashmiri and Hamid Akhtar. A few days later the famous poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the communist leader Syed Sajad Zaheer were arrested to stand trial in what became known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case.

Interestingly, the accused in this case were also charged under Section 121-A of the 1860 Penal Code which listed it a crime to “deprive the King of sovereignty of British India.” The Muslim League leaders who came to power after independence had yet to finish the work of constitution making for the new state of Pakistan, and neither had they suitably amended or replaced the penal code of 1860.

Intelligence for What?

Yet, little time was lost in expanding the network of intelligence agencies after independence. A brand new agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), was created in 1948 within the army which was destined to become Pakistan’s largest and most dreaded spying agency. It has since been labelled “state within a state” by some. Two years later in 1950 another agency, the Military Intelligence (MI) was created which too has transgressed into civilian affairs, often in competition with ISI. When Gen. Ayub Khan ceased power in 1958 he made extensive use of these agencies to monitor and control his political opposition with a view to sustain his rule.

The main brunt of this monitoring and control was, however, borne by the political left and the progressive sections of society in general. Soon after the declaration of 1958 martial law left-leaning political workers, trade unionists, journalists, writers, artists, teachers and students were arrested and jailed throughout the country. The aging Dada Amir Haider Khan was arrested for the forth time since his marathon anti-colonial struggle against the British rule culminated in 1947 with independence. When taken to the Rawalpindi jail this time he found already locked up there Afzal Bangash, the leader of Mazdoor Kisan Party, along with his comrades Kaka Snowber, Khushal Khtak and Hameesh Gul. Later Basheer Javed and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi were brought in along with several other political prisoners from Punjab.

A few months later these prisoners were escorted one by one to the Lahore fort, transformed partly into a maze of torture chambers by the CID of British colonial police to interrogate freedom fighters. In the wake of Pakistan’s first military rule in these same dungeons could be found anyone known to have anything to do with leftist or progressive politics, ideas, art, literature or journalism, recalls Dada Amir Haider Khan in his memoirs. Just a few he was able to recognize on arrival there were Fazal Elahi Qurban, Feroz-ud-Din Mansoor, Qaswar Gardezi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Haider Bakhsh Jatoi and Sobho Gianchandani. This was also the place where the young communist leader, Hassan Nasir, was tortured to death in 1960, just 2 years after Ayub Khan’s takeover. According to Dada Amir Haider Khan the roundup and confinement of the so called leftists in the Lahore fort in those days was the work of Main Anwar Ali, a senior intelligence officer who wanted to be in the good books of both Gen. Ayub Khan and the American CIA.

The left had become a favourite target of intelligence agencies because of its vocal opposition to Pakistan’s entry into US sponsored Cold War military pacts led by Gen. (later self appointed Field Marshall) Ayub Khan. The second reason for persecuting the left was its firm rejection of Ayub Khan’s merger of West Pakistan’s provinces into “one Unit,” a device to impose by dictatorial ordinance the semblance of artificial unity on the ethnically diverse state of Pakistan.

At the same time the ISI and MI were being used to watch and harass the politicians, intellectuals, and academics of East Pakistan who were demanding equitable economic, political and linguistic rights for their Bengali province. The 1958 martial law, the subsequent military coup staged by Gen. Ayub Khan, and the implementation of “One Unit” scheme were all in fact political manoeuvres intended to thwart East Pakistan’s aspirations for economic equality and preservation of its distinct cultural heritage.

Lacking any popular mandate Ayub became increasingly reliant on the state intelligence agencies to sustain his rule. In 1964 he decided to acquire electoral legitimacy by contesting presidential elections through an electoral college of “basic democrats” created for this purpose. His political opposition put up Miss Fatima Jinnah, the respected sister of M.A. Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan to run against Ayub. The intelligence agencies again went into action to harass the electors in order to manufacture a majority vote for the dictator.

From “Spilling the Beans” to the Loss of East Pakistan

Never known for their political impartiality, the professional ability of ISI and MI was really exposed during the 1965 war with India. The Ayub government’s decision to send infiltrators across the line of control to foment a mass uprising in the Indian held Kashmir was based on extremely poor intelligence about the readiness of Kashmiri Muslims to resist Indian rule. No uprising materialised and the Pakistani infiltrators were captured by the Indian forces. A greater intelligence failure was the assumption that Pakistan’s covert breach of the line of control in Kashmir will not provoke India to attack Pakistan across the international border. Pakistani Armed forces were caught totally off guard when the Indian army invaded Pakistan across the international border near Lahore on September 8, 1965. Altaf Gauhar, a close confidant of Ayub Khan and secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in his government, writes that when he informed the MI chief Brig. Irshad about confessions made by the captured Pakistani infiltrators on All India Radio, he simply fell back on his chair and moaned “the bastards spilled the beans.”

Still brimming with confidence, the military intelligence agencies entered the fray when Gen Yahya Khan, having succeeded Ayub Khan, announced general elections to take place in 1970. The ISI posted its agents in every district to monitor these elections and launched an operation in East Pakistan to prevent any political party from gaining an overall majority. Nevertheless, the Awami League of East Pakistan swept the elections and emerged with an absolute majority qualifying to form the national government.

Taken by surprise, Gen. Yahya and his political advisors in West Pakistan refused to transfer power to an independent minded “East Pakistani prime minister” i.e. the leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman. When this refusal to accept the electoral mandate resulted in mass protests in the East Pakistan, ISI and MI again jumped to the forefront of brutal crackdown, in collusion with the Jamat-e-Islami, on known Bengali nationalists including university students, academics, journalist, Awami League leaders and leftist politicians. The atrocities committed by the army against their fellow Bengali citizens and other events leading to the secession of East Pakistan are a matter of record that needn’t be repeated here.

After the East Pakistan fiasco, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the elected prime minister of territorially diminished Pakistan, but he too proved vulnerable to the temptation of using the state Intelligence Agencies to keep his political opposition under surveillance. The ISI was also inducted into a surveillance operation to suppress the nationalist movement in Balochistan during the rule of Zulfikar Bhutto.

The ISI reached the pinnacle of its stature during Gen. Zia-ul-haq’s rule (1977-1988). The single most important factor that contributed to this was Zia’s induction of ISI into America’s proxy war, the so-called jihad against the Soviet supported PDPA government of Afghanistan. By taking over management of the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan the ISI got control of billions of US and Saudi dollars pumped in by CIA to finance the holly war, mostly in the form of payments to the mujahedeen, Islamic warriors, converging on the region from all over the world. Overnight the ISI became world’s best financed intelligence agency, and with financial control came the independence to make political decisions and act in its own right.

With its newfound power and strength ISI got more deeply involved in matters of governance and policy making within Pakistan. A few of the outstanding acts attributed to it during the Zia rule and its immediate aftermath are worth noting here.

From Killing Nazeer Abassi to Courting the Taliban

In August 1980, the ISI operatives picked up a number professed communists from Karachi, among them Nazeer Abbasi, a young Sindhi political activist and student leader. A few days later the dead body of Abbasi was found with marks of severe physical torture, reminiscent of the death in custody of Hassan Nasir two decades earlier in Lahore. All public demands for an official inquiry into the death of Nazeer Abbasi fell on deaf ears of the Zia regime, while the family and friends of the victim pointed accusing fingers at the ISI officer, Col. Imtiaz Ahmed alias Billa, who was later promoted to the rank of brigadier and deputy director of ISI. Torture and death in custody of police and intelligence agencies in Pakistan has a long history but with the advent of Zia rule, and his introduction of so called sharia punishments, the physical brutalization of people took a great leap forward.

Similarly, while Pakistan’s intelligence agencies always meddled in domestic politics, with the advent of the Zia regime this became a regular and normal practice. Zia had announced holding of national elections for November, 1988 but died suddenly in the crash of his plane on August 17. While Zia’s succeeding army chief, Gen Aslam Beg found it hard to offend public opinion by reneging on the holding of elections, the director general of the ISI Gen. Hamid Gul along with his deputy, Brig. Imtiaz Ahmed Billa immediately went to work, cobbling together a political coalition of right wing Islamist parties under the name of Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), to counter the electoral prospects of PPP, the party led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto.

The PPP still won the 1988 elections, although without being able to gain an absolute majority of parliamentary seats. The military brass and the ISI allowed Benazir Bhutto to form a government, but only to plan her defeat in the next round of elections which came earlier than expected. Benazir’s PPP government was dismissed within two years by the bureaucrat president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, announcing fresh elections for October 1990.

This time the army chief, Gen. Aslam Beg himself got into the act. He commandeered Rs. 140 million from Karachi banks and deposited the amount in ISI accounts to finance the election of the opponents of Benazir and her party. The scheme worked giving a landslide victory to IJI and its leader Nawaz Sharif was chosen prime minister.

Having established itself as a force in Pakistan’s domestic politics the ISI turned its attention back to Afghanistan where warlords, erstwhile holy warriors (mujahedeen), having defeated the godless communists were now literally at each other’s throats for the possession of spoils. In this chaotic situation emerged yet another fanatically religious militia in Kandahar around 1994 under the leadership of Mullah Omar, promising to restore order by implementing Islamic legal code (sharia). This militia, named Taliban, was raised mainly from the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Saudi funded madrassas (Islamic schools) run by Pakistan’s Islamist parties. The ISI, disenchanted with mutually warring mujahedeen, saw the opportunity to establish a permanent foothold in Afghanistan by throwing its military and financial support behind the Taliban. This was called the policy of Strategic Depth. With the active support of Pakistan army the Taliban established their “Islamic Emirate” over all of Afghanistan by 1996, except a small area in the north controlled by the Northern Alliance.

Fast forward, on the domestic front the post-Zia democratic interregnum ended rather suddenly on 12 October, 1999 when Nawaz Shrif’s second elected government was toppled by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, ironically with the help of another chief of the ISI. With the Military back in the saddle in Pakistan and the Taliban muddling along with their atrocious “Islamic” rule in Afghanistan, the only superpower on earth remained fairly contended with the situation in the region until shook by the attacks on US sites in New York and Washington which occurred on 11 September 2001 for which Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was to be blamed.

Within two days of these attacks Gen. Pervez Musharraf was presented with and promptly agreed to the demand by US President George W. Bush to break ties with the Taliban and join the US led coalition in “War on Terror.” That compliance by Musharraf has since loomed large in the subsequent bloodied history of Pakistan.


Much can be learned from this very brief history of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. To begin with, it makes meaningless the words like failure, incompetence, complicity etc. which have been thrown around in the context of recent events, be it the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and his killing by US commandos, the deadly attack on the naval base in Karachi or kidnapping and murder of the journalist Saleem Shahzad. The Intelligence community of Pakistan has since 1940s evolved and pursued a mission doggedly and with a fair degree of success within the dominant paradigm of governance that has emerged in Pakistan.

Several factors have gone into the making of the mission being referred to here. These factors include the ideological heritage and socialization in the political culture of the intelligence community, needs of the predominantly authoritarian military regimes of Pakistan to sustain themselves, and inputs by their ally the United States and its première intelligence agency the CIA.

Historically, the left became the primary target of surveillance and other agency operations as dictated by the mission of the intelligence community. From an academic point of view the left may sound to be too broad and vague a category, but for the practical purposes of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies it has always comprised of a well marked group. At one end of this group are to be found communists and socialists formally organized into political parties, trade unions and student associations, while at the other end there are rather arbitrarily labelled advocates of progressive causes (human rights, Women’s liberation, secularism etc) found in different spheres of life such as literature, law, education and so on. In the colloquial jargon of the not-so-sophisticated “sub-inspector” type field workers within the intelligence community they are all lumped together and labelled surkhey. Those who work for the agencies are socialized, rather brainwashed, to abhor the people so labelled as irreligious persons contaminated by un-Islamic Western ideas.

The second group most frequently targeted by intelligence agencies consists of those identified as Sindhi, Baloch, or Pakhtun nationalists for their advocacy of political, economic and cultural rights of the underprivileged provinces. The intelligence community is led to believe that these people are against the unity of Pakistan which is based on faith in Islam and Islamic Ideology, despite the contrary lessons that emerge from the secession of East Pakistan.

The Baloch nationalist movement is as old as Pakistan itself, erupting periodically into militant uprisings which the successive central governments have tried to crush with sheer military force. The latest and bloodiest phase of the movement was triggered in the winter of 2005 when sui natural gas pipeline was blown up near Dera Bugti, apparently by Baloch militants seeking greater control over their natural resources. Although by no means a rare occurrence in the tense history of Balochistan’s relations with the centre, this time Gen. Musharraf registered his presidential reaction to the news of the incident by warning that “they (Baloch nationalists) will not even know what and from where something has come and hit them.”

True to his warning, that “something” has since been hitting hard many Baloch and even some non-Baloch people of the province, political activists, young students, journalists, intellectuals, university professors and ordinary workers. Hundreds of these victims continue to disappear and then, in most cases, their mutilated dead bodies are found dumped in ditches and roadsides. Others are simply shot dead by “unknown” gunmen, as in the case of well known professor Dr. Saba Dastiyari who was recently gunned down on the streets of Quetta.

Gen. Musharraf also turned out to be correct in predicting that they will not know from where the deadly blows are coming from. No one can tell for sure. Are they coming from the dreaded ISI or MI? Are they coming from India, as some official and non official sources are prone to assert? Are they coming from the Baloch nationalists themselves? The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in its most recent report titled, Balochistan: Blinkered Slide into Chaos, assigns responsibility to the “state agencies” and the Frontier Constabulary (FC), with some exceptions.

Be it as it may, apart from the leftists and ethno-provincial nationalists who get regularly targeted there are also other groups and individuals that find themselves frequently caught in the net of state intelligence agencies, for example those suspected of being too close to India, the widely perceived enemy of Pakistan. But where do the militant Islamists stand in all this? After all they are the ones who constitute the core of terrorists against whom Pakistan has been waging a war since 2001. One will have to admit quite frankly that by and large they remain outside the purview of Pakistan’s spy agencies.

This does not mean that there is complicity between these agencies and the Islamists. Complicity involves partnership in wrongdoing or guilt. Not targeting the militant Islamists as objects of surveillance and other intelligence operations is by no means a wrongdoing within the shared norms of the intelligence community.

It is therefore not surprising that Pakistan’s intelligence operatives did not take any notice of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad or ISI and its naval branch did not keep the Karachi base infiltrators under surveillance. Going after the Islamist militants is just not part of their mission. One can cite many examples to illustrate this point, but none is as poignant as the takeover of the beautiful Swat valley by Sufi Muhammad and his throat slitting Islamists. For a long time these Islamists were merrily going around in the Swat valley and neighbouring districts, kidnapping government officials, burning girl’s schools, stoning women to death, bombing tourist facilities, and converting the main square of the city of Mangora into a human slaughterhouse, before the Pakistan army intervened rather reluctantly with an operation called Rah-e-Haq in 2007.

Even then it took another two years of futile negotiations and broken treaties with Sufi Muhammad before the army was forced to launch a decisive military battle against his barbaric Islamists under the name of Rah-e-rast in 2009 to drive them out of Swat and area. (The Islamic symbolism of the terms Rah-e-haq and rah-e-rast is not without its own significance here)

It will be naive to conclude that these happenings in Pakistan are accidents of history or failures of the country’s ruling elite who do not know what they are doing. These incidents and other events which have brought Pakistan to where it stands today are part of the logical unfolding of the paradigm of governance adopted consciously and purposefully by successive governments of Pakistan since the inception of the state in 1947. More on this later, but what is pertinent to note here is that the core of this ruling paradigm is the political use of Islam, the essence of the Islamist enterprise. In this respect the present governing establishment is in competition with the militant Islamists, not in conflict.


Hassan N. Gardezi (Ed.), Chains to Lose: Life and Struggle of a Revolutionary, Memoirs of Dada Amir Haider Khan, Karachi: Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi, 2007.

Altaf Gauhar, “How Intelligence Agencies Run Our Politics,” The Nation, 17 August, 1997.


The above paper was written for Viewpoint online and has been republished here at the suggestion of Prof. Hasan Gardezi, the author