The Taliban Story: A brief history of troublemaker ISI (Part16)

By Arun Anand

The Taliban Story: A brief history of troublemaker ISI (Part16)

Photo Source: Orissa Post

Taliban has been created and mentored by Pakistan’s spy agency Inter Services Intelligence. We have talked about a clandestine unit ‘Directorate S’ earlier in brief. Here we would try to have a more detailed look at the origin and composition of ISI.


The ISI was established by an Australia born British officer Major General Walter Joseph Cawthorne who headed it from January to June 1948. There are many theories about the reason for setting up of ISI.  In a nutshell, there were two reasons that led to establishment of ISI-first, Pakistan’s crushing defeat in the 1947-48 war with India over Kashmir where severe intelligence gaps hurt the Pakistan’s campaign and second, to serve the British political interests in the post-colonial period.

This was spelled out in a letter from Sir Francis Mudie, Home Secretary during the British Raj and afterwards Governor of Sindh (in Pakistan). Engaged in the service of Pakistan after Partition, he wrote to a friend in Lucknow (in India):

‘The facts of the situation are that Pakistan is situated between hostile -a very hostile-India on the one side and…an expansionist and unscrupulous Russia (on the other). As long as the relations between Pakistan and Britain are good and Pakistan remains in the Commonwealth any attack by Russia-and also, I am inclined to believe an attack by India on Pakistan brings in the UK and the USA on Pakistan’s side.’1

The Melbourne-born Cawthorne was an experienced intelligence expert. (He) fought in the first World War with Australian troops in Turkey (Gallipoli), France and Belgium. In 1919, he joined the British Indian Army and participated in fighting in the North-West Frontier province against the Mohmand tribes in 1930 and 1935. During the second World War he was Head of Middle East Intelligence Centre (1939-41); then Director of Intelligence, Indian Command (1941-45); and Deputy Director of Intelligence, South East Asia Command (1943-45). After Partition (of India and Pakistan) in 1947, Cawthorne opted for the service in the new Pakistan Army; in 1951 he was promoted from Major General to Deputy Chief of Staff.  2

Cawthorne remained connected with Pakistan even after leaving military service in 1951. After an interlude as Director of Joint Intelligence Bureau, Department of Defense, Australia, he was posted as the first Australian High Commissioner in Karachi (1954-58). His last posting was as High Commissioner in Ottawa, Canada (1959-60). He died in 1970 in Australia.3

Cawthorne’s composition of the ISI included not only military but also Muslim civilian personnel from the former Indian intelligence Bureau. Pakistan’s military historians prefer to cite the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, as the blue print for the ISI, partly because the first training and equipment assistance came from MI6 and from the CIA. The initial tasks of the new agency were intelligence(reconnaissance) work outside Pakistan’s borders in India and Kashmir. In addition, there were the planning and coordination of the first Pakistan Military Attachés for foreign postings. But internally, apart from the Northern (Pakistan)and the (Pakistan occupied) Kashmir, the ISI had no intelligence mandate.4

Evolution and Composition of ISI

By the 1980s, ISI had overruled its mandate and had started getting transformed into the deep state- a state within the nation-state of Pakistan. By 1990s, it became the key mentor of terrorism and helped it export to the world through various radical Islamic outfits. It started controlling the fate of Pakistan’s political establishment to a large extent. Over a period of time, it became key enabler for Islamic terror groups across the world and continues to do so. It is directly driven by the Pakistan military’s top leadership.

Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize winning national security correspondent with the New York times who covered Pakistan and Afghanistan during the US war against Taliban reveals, “Pakistan’s top military leaders directed the ISI, an institution of about twenty-five thousand people. The spy service had three distinct categories of employees. There were senior leaders who spent the bulk of their careers in the army, navy, or air force and then rotated through the intelligence service in supervisory roles on tours of two to four years. The second group consisted of active military officers of the rank of colonel or below who had been directed into the ISI after failing to make cut for the promotion to generalship. Two thirds or more of Pakistan Army officers rising through the ranks were not destined to become generals, so at a certain point they were assigned to branches of service where they could rise as high as colonel. Some went into logistics, others into administration and some entered into careers in intelligence, which allowed some of them to serve in Uniform for years. The presence of these officers in the middle-upper ranks of ISI further connected the institution to the Pakistan’s military leadership. Still the day-to-day work even within the ISI’s less secretive directorates could be very different from that of the military, because of the strict compartmentalization of information. An officer would not have any idea what the man in the next office was doing. Information was telescoped to the top, where only the most senior generals had complete visibility.”5

Coll further adds, “There was also a large civilian component of ISI, working under the contract. These ranks included watchers and thugs who kept track of foreign diplomats and other surveillance targets in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and elsewhere. They also included specialists who manipulated and intimidated politicians and journalists. The civilians cultivated an aura of menace and self-importance. They allowed military officers to keep their distance from the roughest business, including murder, if they chose.

The range of ISI’s activity within Pakistan and outside the country was vast. The service was organized into a series of directorates underneath the director-general, who was always a serving three-star General. Two-star Generals led the major directorates. There were full directorates or subsidiary wings dedicated to counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and Pakistani domestic politics, for example. The analysis directorate was a prestigious post that produced white papers and memos and managed international liaison. ISI ran stations in Pakistani embassies devoted to spying abroad. A technical directorate managed eavesdropping in consent with the army’s Signal Corps.”6

Financing ISI’s Operations

Hein G. Kiessling wrote in 2016, “The ISI’s budget is officially and secretly set by the Ministry of Defense; only a few people know the exact figures…. The “official” ISI budget is estimated to stand today at US$300 million.”7 In addition the ISI also finances its operations through the drug trade, counterfeit money and donations from abroad.

The Afghanistan adventure proved to be a golden option for the organization. Financial inputs from US and Saudi Arabia totalled around US $6 billion with additional private donations and support from other countries. By the early 1990s, over US$10 billion had been earmarked for Afghanistan. As coordinator and distributor for US and Saudi Arabia aid, the ISI could divert a considerable proportion of these funds to their own ends. 8

The drug trade never stopped and continued to fill the coffers of ISI at a greater speed than before after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989. It didn’t matter whether it was the Mujahideen warlords or Taliban in power, the drug trade from Afghanistan flourished as opium was cultivated extensively and then processed to convert it into heroin before smuggling it across the globe.

In fact, after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, the ISI-backed drug trade went from strength to strength. The proceeds contributed to the purchase of weapons and the stabilization of Pakistan’s budget, which could have been totally shattered without the heroin money, according to expert opinion. A group of Army and ISI officers also became very wealthy through their involvement in the drug trade…In March 2003, the US Senate held a hearing of its Subcommittee for Asia and the Pacific, questioning the former American Ambassador (to Pakistan) Nancy Chamberlin about the State Department report. After persistent inquiry, she was forced to admit to a substantial estimated value relating to the ISI’s participation in the heroin trade from 1997-2003.9

In the 2010 report of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, heroin exports from Afghanistan each year amount to some 3750 tons, half of which is exported via Baluchistan (in Pakistan). Since the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti in summer 2006, the province is de facto under control and run by Pakistan’s Military and Intelligence agencies. It would be naïve to believe that the routes of drug trade are not well known to them.10


  1. The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G Kiessing (Pp14)
  2. The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G Kiessing (Pp14-15)
  3. The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G Kiessing (Pp15)
  4. The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G Kiessing (Pp16-17)
  5. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp45-46)
  6. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp46)
  7. The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G Kiessing (Pp172)
  8. The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G Kiessing (Pp172)
  9. The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G Kiessing (Pp172-173)
  10. The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G Kiessing (Pp173)

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