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Threat to Pakistan's External Security:No Change in ISI's Assessment

The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan is a joint agency of the armed forces, normally headed by an officer of the Army, which is responsible for the collection, analysis and assessment of tactical and strategic intelligence having a bearing on Pakistan’s internal and external security.

2. Pakistan does not have separate set-ups for the analysis and assessment of tactical and strategic intelligence similar to India’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). India follows the British principle that the same agency should not handle collection as well as analysis and assessment. Pakistan did have an NSC under Gen.Pervez Musharraf, but it has been dispensed with by the present Government.As a result, the Armed Forces, particularly the Army, dominate the process of assessment of likely threats to national security—-internal and external.

3. The ISI is also an action agency which undertakes covert actions in Pakistan as well as abroad.As examples of its covert actions, one can mention its operations in Pakistan against the Bengali nationalists before Bangladesh was born in 1971 and its subsequent operations against Sindhi, Baloch and Pashtun nationalists and its role in the clandestine acquisition of nuclear and missile capabilities. Its use of terrorism against India and its operations in Afghanistan to protect Pakistan’s interests would also come under this category.

4.The ISI views its use of terrorism against India as meant to dilute the asymmetric advantage enjoyed by the Indian armed forces over their Pakistani counterparts.Lt.Gen.Hamid Gul, who was the Director-General of the ISI during Benazir Bhutto’s first term as the Prime Minister (1988-90), used to argue that keeping India preoccupied with internal security problems was equivalent to the Pakistan Army having two extra Divisions at no cost.

5. It has been the assessment of the ISI that India is the principal threat to Pakistan’s external and internal security. The threat to its external security arises from India’s military and nuclear capabilities. In the ISI’s perception, India is also a major threat to Pakistan’s internal security because of its alleged links with the Sindhi and Pashtun nationalists when Gen.Zia-ul Haq was in power and with the Baloch nationalists when Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto was in power before 1977 and even presently.

6. Influenced by the ISI’s assessment, Pakistan’s national security management is focussed on five pre-requisites to protect the integrity of Pakistan:

Firstly, maintaining a high level of preparedness and capability on the Indian border to deter a military conflict initiated by India. Secondly, constantly improving its nuclear and missile capabilities to deter India from using its capabilities against Pakistan. Thirdly, keeping the Indian security forces preoccupied with internal security problems. Fourthly, preventing the Indian security agencies from exploiting the feelings of alienation of the non-Punjabi segments of the Pakistani population. Fifthly, preventing India from acquiring a second front capability in Afghanistan. 7. Since the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988-89, Pakistan’s internal security problems have been aggravated by developments and elements, that have had nothing to do with India. As examples one could mention the following:

The return to Pakistan of its Wahabis who had fought in Afghanistan. They assumed control of the madrasas and started using them for spreading the cult of jihad in Pakistan and abroad. The return to Pakistan of the Arab mercenaries of the Afghan Mujahideen groups. They became the forerunners of Al Qaeda. The return to Pakistan from Afghanistan of anti-Shia sectarian organisations which stepped up anti-Shia violence. 8. The ISI tried to deal with the resulting situation in the following manner:

By diverting the Pakistani returness from Afghanistan to Indian territory to wage a jihad against the Indian security forces. By persuading or pressuring the Arabs to return to their country. Many did, but some who had married local women stayed behind and became the initial recruits of Al Qaeda. By using the madrasas to raise a new crop of volunteers to found the Taliban in 1994 and helping it to capture power in Afghanistan from the Afghan Mujahideen of the 1980s vintage. By creating splits in the anti-Shia sectarian movement in the hope of weakening it. 9. As a result of these developments, the post-9/11 internal security situation in Pakistan has been aggravated by the presence and activities of a hotch-potch of ethnic nationalist, indigenous jihadi and global jihadi groups. These groups could be divided into the following categories:

(a).Nationalist groups which the ISI suspects to be having links with India. (b).Jihadi groups originally supported by the ISI for use against India which have now gone out of the control of the ISI and have been operating in Indian as well as Pakistani territory against the security forces of these two countries.Under this category would come the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM).These are essentially Punjabi groups. (c). Jihadi groups sponsored and supported by the ISI for use in India and Afghanistan, which have retained their loyalty to the ISI and the Pakistani security forces, but have at the same time been helping Al Qaeda in its global jihad. Examples: The Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Hizbe-Islami of Gulbuddin Heckmatyar, the Afghan Taliban headed by Mulla Mohammad Omar and the Haqqani network. (d).New organisations that have come up on their own after the raid of the Pakistani Army into the Lal Masjid of Islamabad in July 2007. They are concentrating their attacks on the ISI, the Pakistani security forces and sections of the mainstream politicians.They have formed the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), known as the Pakistani Taliban. They are essentially Pashtuns and joined hands with the anti-Army Punjabi groups known as the Punjabi Taliban. (e). The anti-Shia Sunni organisations which have been helping Al Qaeda in its operations in Pakistani territory.The most active of them are the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. 10. A consequence of these developments is that the principal threat to Pakistan’s internal security now arises not from nationalist organisations, which are accused by the ISI of having links with India, but from jihadi Frankenstein’s monsters.It is concern over the activities of these monsters which is reflected in the ISI’s assessment as reported by the Wall Street Journal of August 16. According to the WSJ: “A recent internal assessment of security by the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s powerful military spy agency, determined that for the first time in 63 years it expects a majority of threats to come from Islamist militants, according to a senior ISI officer.The assessment, a regular review of national security, allocates a two-thirds likelihood of a major threat to the state coming from militants rather than from India or elsewhere. It is the first time since the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947 that India hasn’t been viewed as the top threat. Decades into one of the most bitter neighborly rivalries in modern history, both countries maintain huge troop deployments along their Himalayan border”.

11. Indications from reliable sources in Pakistan are that the ISI still views India as posing the principal threat to Pakistan’s external security and has advised against any major changes in Pakistani capabilities and deployments on the Indian border. This assessment, which was prepared before the recent visit of Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the Chief of the Army Staff, to China, is understood to have stressed the importance of continued nuclear and missile supply relationship with China and seeking additional Chinese help for strengthening the Pakistani Navy.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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