The ISI Role in Pakistan's Politics

Dr. Bidanda M. Chengappa, Senior Fellow, IDSA


The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate has over five decades of nationhood emerged into a powerful institution in Pakistan. It has been active as an organisation both under military rule and civilian regimes. The ISI gains importance from the fact that the political and military leaderships have always perceived threats to their national security since independence. The role of an intelligence agency is to serve as the first line of defence by providing the government with advance information about threats to national security.

The ISI has a monolithic organisational structure which oversees both external and internal intelligence operations in the country. The organisation's internal intelligence operations tend to be generally associated with the abuse of power. This negative view needs to be linked to whether or not the government has clearly defined their charter of duties for internal operations. Considering this problem remains a grey area even in a liberal democracy like the United Kingdom, the case of Pakistan as a 'limited' democracy may well be far worse. To that extent both the government and the intelligence agency are to blame for the latter's misuse of power.

Pakistan like other countries has serious problems in managing its intelligence agencies. This is evident from the fact that in over five decades of nationhood there have been six committees to review their functioning. To complicate matters, the country has experienced 24 years of military rule in 52 years of nationhood, which enables greater scope for misuse of intelligence agencies. It is clear from journalistic reportage, writings of politicians, bureaucrats and political commentators that both military and democratic regimes alike have abused intelligence agencies for promoting their party/personal rather than constitutional interests.

The ISI concentrated more on internal rather than external intelligence for the first three decades. Till the 1970s, the organisation had a limited external agenda which was largely India-centric. This was due to the fact that Pakistan had fought three wars with India and remained preoccupied with an Indian military threat to her national security. Thereafter the ISI altered its focus with the Russian military entry into Afghanistan and has since evolved a greater external orientation. The ISI was closely involved with the guerilla war against Soviet forces through the 1980s. Despite these commitments the ISI retained its internal-orientation due to the compulsions of military rule which involved tracking political personalities and parties who could prove problematic for the generals who wielded power.

Prior to the creation of the ISI, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) as the sole intelligence agency was already in existence and was primarily a quasi-police organisation headed by a senior police officer. The IB's poor performance in the 1947-8 Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir resulted in the decision to create the ISI with an India-centric focus in 1948. The civilian government in the initial decade of independence depended on the IB for its intelligence inputs. Thereafter with the switch to military rule in 1958, the ISI was on the ascendant largely because the generals preferred to rely on an organisation with a military character rather than a quasi-police outfit. To an extent, the ISI-IB relationship was an extension of the civil-military equation in the country wherein the civil bureacracy had weakened due to political interference, corruption and lateral entries from the armed forces, besides other sectors. The military however remained insulated from political interference and largely maintained its professionalism.

While discussing the role of intelligence agencies in internal politics some cases are justifiable wherein there is a national security angle. For instance, the need for the ISI and/or the IB to keep track of domestic politics is necessary owing to the separatist demands by various ethnic groups to break away from the nation. This refers to the problem in Sind and Pakhtunistan which have acquired ethno-nationalistic dimensions. It poses a serious threat to the integrity of Pakistan and therefore the involvement of intelligence agencies in principle may not be questionable. However intelligence operations are usually suspect in their modus operandi which often merits scrutiny.

The aim of this paper is to examine the ISI role in Pakistani politics during the post-Zia period which begins from September 1988 till the late 1990s. It would be useful to provide a theoretical perspective for a better understanding of the subject. This would include a discussion on the various models of intelligence agencies and the nature of their operations. The major issues are: (a) the formation of the Islamic Jamouhri Ittehad (IJI) in September 1988 as a counter to the PPP (b) the taping of the private conversation between former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the late Rajiv Gandhi in Islamabad in July 1989, (c) an abortive attempt to topple Benazir Bhutto through a vote of no-confidence in October 1989 (d) Benazir's ouster from premiership in August 1990 (e) the split in the MQM party during April 1992 (d) the death of General Asif Nawaz Janjua in January 1993.

To understand the ISI's domestic intelligence activities in the 1990s it would be useful to review its internal role under earlier regimes. The paper therefore outlines the ISI internal role under leaders like Ayub Khan, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul Haq. Though the paper primarily deals with the ISI, it also discusses some instances of IB involvement in internal politics. The four main intelligence agencies in the country are the Intelligence Bureau, the ISI, the Military Intelligence (MI) and the state police Special Branch (which provides intelligence from the provinces).

Theoretical Framework

The main sources of the 'idea' of the state are to be found in the concept of nation and the organising ideology. Invariably a strong state apparatus might compensate for a weak organising ideology or legitimacy. A weak state has an overriding concern with domestic security threats and is characterised by insufficient political and societal consensus to enable them to eliminate the large-scale use of force.

The characteristics of a weak state are: (a) high levels of political violence (b) active role of political police affecting the daily life of citizenry (c) political conflict over nature of the organising political ideology (d) lack of coherent national identity (e) no clearly defined hierarchy of political authority (f) high degree of state control over the media.1

In a scheme for the classification of intelligence agencies there are three models: (a) bureau of domestic intelligence (b) political police (c) independent security state. (a) The bureau would have specific powers derived from a charter or statute and it is primarily concerned with information-gathering about criminal prosecution of security offences and it does not conduct aggressive countering operations against citizens or political groups. (b) the political police is different from the bureau because it enjoys greater autonomy from the democratic policy-making and is adequately insulated from the legislative and judicial scrutiny. It is close to the groups in power wherein its powers and responsibilities flow from loosely defined delegations of executive power. It could also gather political intelligence and conduct aggressive countering operations against political opposition. (c) The independent security state has no external controls and differs from the political police because its goals are determined by agency officials and could be dissimilar to that of the political elite. Its operations are directed by the agency officials rather than the elected officials.2

The internal role of an intelligence agency essentially revolves around counter-intelligence activities and domestic intelligence duties. Counter-intelligence aims to thwart the efforts of hostile countries which threaten national security through activities like espionage, subversion, sabotage or assassination. Whereas domestic intelligence is concerned with:

"…threats against its ability to govern, or its very existence, that arise from individuals or groups within the nation's borders. Such threats could come from groups that seek to overthrow the government by illegal means, that seek to use violence to change government policies, or that seek to exclude from the body politic members of a given ethnic,racial, or religious group."3

There are different definitions of domestic intelligence which need to be highlighted. According to one view "gathering information on individuals within a country who allegedly attempt to overthrow the government or deprive others of their civil liberties or rights." To quote another : " information-gathering and record keeping which is unrelated to a particular, known crime and is directed at persons and groups engaged in political activity."4 The various definitions share a commonality about the political nature of their targets of domestic intelligence. This therefore gives rise to the label 'political police' which makes its role different from other internal functions which focus on intelligence generated to deter criminal activity or for law enforcement purposes.

What the state seeks from an intelligence organisation is information which can provide assistance in the maintenance of control in order to achieve the desired policies. If an intelligence agency does not confine its activities within a framework of the law then it proves detrimental to the pursuit of democracy. National security policy makers are forced to balance security needs with pluralistic interests and expectations. Therefore an intelligence organisation must be subject to civilian control:

… the growth of an unrepresentative and unaccountable state within the State has been a product of the twentieth century . Its growth was, paradoxically, actually aided by the unpopularity of security and policing agencies; forced by this into the lowest possible visibility, they learned to develop techniques of invisible influence and control.5

The study of intelligence agencies necessarily involves the three inter-linked concepts of information, power and law. The objective of intelligence organisations is to obtain information often by transgressing the law in order to ensure there is no threat to the power of the state.

Theoretically, decision-making in government is supposed to have the benefit of intelligence inputs. To that extent an intelligence agency has the ability to influence decisions in its own way by providing or withholding information from decision makers. In turn this affects the manner in which the government is able to exercise its power.

Intelligence agencies often feel the need to obtain information through illegal means like telephone tapping, audio-surveillance or bugging, breaking into buildings to access documents, torture individuals etc. These activities of intelligence agencies if exposed in the media can prove to be highly detrimental to the position and image of the government. Yet the government becomes a party to the acts of omission and commission of the intelligence organisations.

For the politico-bureaucratic leadership often intelligence-related activities could prove to be an enormous embarrassment and therefore these agencies remain low-profile faceless organisations. This particularly pays the government dividends when it has to publicly deny any involvement about the role of an intelligence agency which comes to light. Invariably such a situation arises when the agency has mishandled an operation which then gives rise to a problem. It could either be related to human rights or to a violation of a citizen's privacy. Thus intelligence organisations as a faceless facet of governance amount to an invisible government.

An intelligence agency, though a part of the bureaucracy, has some notable differences which stem from the nature of its relationship to the state and society. The agency attempts to maintain its autonomy from the state in terms of targets, nature of operations and counter-strategies. It also helps an agency to resist encroachment by other state agencies and thereby ensure its autonomy. Significantly, secrecy is integral to sustain such autonomy.

The other issue is the intelligence agency-society relationship. The agency in its information-gathering operations has to neccesssarily penetrate society. These operations which are conducted on some occasions against resistance and otherwise unheeded are aimed at the state's endeavour to maintain security and order.

Governments often tend to confuse their own security with security of the state in the context of domestic politics.6 For instance the government often invokes 'national security' to identify domestic opponents with some foreign threat to indulge in 'legitimate' violence.7

These threats have three dimensions-internal, external and externally fostered internal security vulnerabilities. In view of such a situation an intelligence organisation tasked with ensuring the security of state, is involved with both internal and external security functions. Some countries have separate intelligence organisations to operate internally and externally while others have a single organisation for both internal and external operations.

While internal and external threats do not merit further elaboration, the externally fostered internal security threat needs definition. It is an amalgam of these two threats wherein a foreign power is involved with providing assistance to insurgency or ethnic groups pursuing separatist demands. Similarly a foreign power attempting to destabilise another country's government using the latter's citizens through economic warfare or other means also falls under this category.

It would therefore be relevant to make a distinction between the role intended of an intelligence agency in promoting internal security functions and its track record gleaned from the print media or book length studies. In the case of the ISI it appears that the agency has attempted to pursue its intended role as well as interfere in domestic politics. The latter role gains importance from the fact that it directly impacts on the political instability in Pakistan.

Introduction: pre-Zia period

This section discusses the ISI role in Pakistani politics under the various leaders like Ayub Khan, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul Haq. Initially the ISI lacked an internal role which was the domain of the Intelligence Bureau. However as the first signs of seccessionism surfaced in the erstwhile East Pakistan during the late 1950s the politco-bureaucratic leadership suspected the sympathies of Bengali IB officers and directed the ISI to operate there.

This explains how the ISI role in domestic politics developed over the years. Thereafter the government- of- the-day determined the priorities and directions of the intelligence agencies. In turn these directives shaped the professional culture and orientation of intelligence agencies in the country. One commonality between these regimes whether military or civil was that they used intelligence agencies to dabble in domestic politics.

Former Pakistan President Iskandar Mirza in an interview to the Pakistan High Commissioner MAH Isapahani in Great Britain makes a reference to the Ayub era. He highlights the priorities of military intelligence being more on internal intelligence rather than on external intelligence. Mirza attributes Pakistan's military failure in one of the Indo-Pakistan wars, among others issues, to this incorrect orientation of the military intelligence apparatus.8

The late Editor Mazhar Ali Khan wrote in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn:

The ISI is seen by many people to be an unwanted legacy of military rule. While under martial law regimes, the agency's expanding constitutional role was at least understandable, because with the Constitution suspended, the will of the military dictator took precedence over every rule, law and tradition; but after the end of military rule and restoration of the Constitution, for ISI's functioning to go beyond its parameters was violative of the Constitution. It also defied the regulations that govern the network of agencies and institutions that serve the armed forces.9

The ISI and the Intelligence Bureau from time to time participated in influencing the domestic politics of Pakistan. The late President Ayub Khan abused the ISI for political ends as did his successors Yahya Khan and late Prime Minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto. Under the Ayub regime, the ISI after the commencement of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war was apparently unable to locate an Indian armoured division due to its preoccupation with political affairs.

During the Ayub Khan years the ISI's professionalism comes across when it convinced him against a particular course of action related to involvement in internal politics. This incident relates to the military dictator's decision to assassinate his political rival Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan. However the ISI told the President that he would soil his hands as the proposed victim had no personal enemities and the murder could be easily traced back especially if committed by a state organ.10

Similarly during the Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto regime the IB was accused of malpractices going by the fact that its chief was shunted out of office unlike his ISI counterpart. One reason for this could be that while the head of the IB did not cooperate with the Pakistan Army in working against Bhutto the DG ISI on the other hand must have supported the Generals.

Z.A. Bhutto has been credited with strengthening the ISI role in domestic politics and in the mid 1970s, during his leadership there were problems in Balochistan and North-West Frontier Province which neccessitated the creation of ISI political cells in these areas. This was because the leadership distrusted Pathan and Baloch IB officers.

The other reference to the ISI is available in Stanley Wolpert's latest book 'Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: His Life and Times'.11 The author states how the ISI and the IB cooperated with each other to interfere in domestic politics during the late Prime Minister ZA Bhutto's regime. According to him the Director of the IB, M Akram Sheik and the Joint Director (IB) Muhammad Isa were busy with the compilation of dossiers, analyses and detailed reports on National Assembly candidates and their respective election prospects. He discusses how on February 19, 1977 the ISI headed by Director General Ghulam Jillani Khan alongwith the IB jointly compiled an assessment of the PPP's election prospects. Brigadier (retd) Syed Tirmazi, a former ISI officer states:

"It may be noteworthy that we hardly carried out any surveillance of politicians. The activities of some were, however, kept under discreet, decent, unobtrusive and invisible 'watch'. At times, we were also ordered to bug the telephones of some individuals. Such orders came in writing from the Prime Minister himself. This authority he had not delegated to anyone else. We would compile the report and sent it to the PM with appropriate recommendations to continue or discontinue the watch. In most cases it was discontinued".12

The Pakistan Government brought out a White Paper which focuses on the role of intelligence agencies in the country and particularly their internal involvement. Z A Bhutto has extensively referred to this White Paper in his autobiography "If I Am Assassinated…" To quote:

The role of the Intelligence agencies of the State as a political arm of the PPP regime, particularly in relation to the general elections, raises many questions. When politics permeates such sensitive institutions as the Intelligence Bureau or the Inter-Services-Intelligence Directorate, it naturally deflects them from their prime concern with the State's external and internal security. Political bias against dissenting political parties which are a very necessary component of a democratic society, also tends to complicate and distort the task of State security.13

Thereafter during the Zia years the role of the ISI is quite evident in Benazir Bhutto's autobiography 'Daughter of the East' on how the martial law regime sought to suppress the PPP. The ISI not only kept tabs on the Bhutto family when they were in the country but also during their stay abroad. In one instance a Pakistani surveillance team attempted to keep track of Benazir even while she was in political exile in London. She then telephoned Scotland Yard and complained about a car-load of men waiting outside her house. Only after that the Pakistani intelligence ceased to intimidate her in London.14

A former Punjab Governor the late Lt General Ghulam Jillani Khan himself once reportedly expressed apprehensions about being under surveillance during the Zia regime. The General is supposed to have asked Brigadier Syed AI Tirmazi who was then serving as the director—joint counter-intelligence—ISI Directorate, whether he was under surveillance. General Ghulam Jillani Khan was a father figure credited with nurturing the ISI rise from a peripheral to a powerful organisation in Pakistan. He had served as the DGI under three regimes beginning with President Yahya Khan, Prime Minister Ali Bhutto and President Zia. Given his intimate knowledge of ISI's policy directives he may not have had misplaced fears.15 Like his predecessors, Zia too did not hesitate to use the ISI for promoting his political interests of retaining power. It is well known that the military dictator instructed the ISI to unite all the opposition parties into the IJI in order to neutralise the PPP from regaining power.

Information and Governance

The inability of democracy to take root in Pakistan provides scope for martial law to assert itself which in turn gives rise to the ISI—as an adjunct of the military—to get involved with internal politics. In a genuine democracy symbolised by committed party workers and a free press the role of an intelligence agency tends to get diluted due to the active role of democratic institutions. Similarly in a 'limited' or 'guided' democracy which prevails in Pakistan the converse is true.

Pakistan since creation faces a problem of political leadership which can be traced to the colonial rule. During the British Indian regime local influentials proved to be suitable candidates for elections to the provincial assemblies. Thereafter with the ascendance of the Muslim League in nationalist politics a problem arose because it was not an indigenous or "homegrown" party. It was an external element in the provincial politics. Hence provincial political leaders and bureaucrats developed a degree of suspicion towards the Muslim League. To that extent the Muslim League was unable to substitute the provincial administrative machinery "as a rival source of patronage". In the process bureaucracy controlled the flow of funds rather than the political party. These factors enabled the bureaucracy to eclipse the political leadership and assert itself in the first decade of independence. Subsequently power shifted from the bureaucracy to the military which then assumed the mantle of leadership for almost two and a half decades. On account of these factors the development of democracy remained dwarfed in the country.

In the absence of democracy there was no scope for political parties to develop into strong organisations. In the sense that a politically well-managed party voted to power would depend on its workers for information about political, economic and social developments around the country. Similarly democracy is also synonymous with a free press which provides the pulse of the nation and amounts to an information channel for the government. Moreover, the hallmark of news media being timely and credible news-reportage, it provides the best source of information to the leadership as a tool for governance. Thus the lack of democracy for almost two and a half decades has denied the nation two important information channels, namely, the political parties and the press, which are so necessary for good governance.

The Pakistani generals during their two and a half decades of military rule did not opt for these democratic sources of information available to them. Instead they had to rely on their intelligence agency as the sole source of information as a tool for governance. So much so that in a martial law regime the intelligence organisation played the dual role of political parties and the press vis-à-vis the government. While the military has directly ruled the country for almost half its existence earlier it has also indirectly ruled during the other half through its intelligence agency. Evidently the military never wanted to release its hold on political power and preferred to remain a 'back seat driver' guiding or limiting the evolution of democracy in the country. Moreover the generals were keen on supporting a friendly political regime that would agree to their terms and conditions in running the government. The intelligence agency owing to its close relationship with the military government was therefore able to emerge into a power centre in the country.

Post Zia period

During this period there was an uneasy relationship between the military and the political leadership when the country last experienced a decade of democracy. While the military did not directly intervene in the political process the generals used the ISI as a lever to manipulate the course of politics to suit their interests. Essentially the generals wanted a civilian government that would not curtail their power and to that extent such democracy came to be termed 'limited', 'guided' or Islamic democracy. The ISI was variously used to prop up friendly political persona who enjoyed good relations with the military leadership and conversely to minimise the chances of success for a hostile leader through the creation of unfavourable conditions.16 It was also involved with the creation of new parties or split existing ones in order to act as a counter-weight against other parties.

Apparently the ISI proved to be more useful to the military leadership—in the post-Zia decade—which could not exercise its power over state and society overtly but had to do so covertly. The ISI under a civilian government had to tread with care and caution so as not to embarrass the government. In the post-Zia period the military as an institution had become unpopular among the people just like it had earned a bad name for itself following the partition of Pakistan post-1971. The military after a loss of face on both occasions therefore preferred to withdraw to their cantonments. During these 'democratic' interregnums the ISI political cell always remained active to ensure that the elected leaders did not pose a threat to the power of the military leadership.This threat to the generalship could emanate from an attempt to interfere with areas that were declared military turf, like for instance the Kashmir policy or nuclear policy.

During the post-Zia period former President Ghulam Ishaq Khan's dismissal of then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from office on August 6, 1990 was a significant development highlighting the role of an intelligence agency in national politics. The reasons officially stated were charges of corruption, failure to work with the provinces and attempts to question the powers of the armed forces.

However Benazir said that the ISI was involved against her government which could be analysed in terms of the power of information. This is linked to the concept of persuasion which is defined as "the process of making sure that the other people obtain and believe information you want them to have"17 aptly applies to this case. The ISI as the 'eyes' and 'ears' of the military would have had the power to influence the President to take a decision against Benazir.

Benazir Bhutto—December 1988-August 1990

The ISI in September 1988 headed by Lt General Hamid Gul cobbled together the Opposition parties in Pakistan and formed the IJI in order to defeat the Benazir Bhutto-led PPP from coming to power. Clearly, caretaker President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the COAS General Beg were not keen on Benazir winning the elections and they used all the resources at their command namely the ISI, the MI, the IB and the police special branches to thwart her political victory.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was "in office but out of power" as she was compelled to adhere to certain conditions of the military leadership in order to assume office. These conditions included: (a) to continue the late General Zia's Afghan policy (b) allow General Mirza Aslam Beg and Lt General Hamid Gul to continue in their appointments as Chief of Army Staff and Director General ISI respectively (c) not to depress the defence budget (d) not to initiate any accountability proceedings against army personnel.

After Benazir became the Prime Minister she had a problem with the ISI in the sense that an agency which was working against her till the other day now formed part of her government. She associated the agency with her father's judicial execution and saw it as a repressive arm of the military which therefore amounted to an attitudinal problem towards the ISI. In tune with this mindset one of her first moves was to sack Brigadier (retd) Imtiaz from the ISI and close down its political division in early 1989. She appointed Major (retd) Masood Sharif, a close friend of her husband, Asif Zardari as the Director IB.

Benazir had serious differences with the ISI over its Afghan policy in early 1989 and this resulted in a rift between the PM and the ISI leadership. The DG ISI Lt General Hamid Gul was eased out from office and a retired Lt General Shamsur Rehman Kallue was appointed the new DGI. According to one version the COAS General Beg had transferred the dossiers on political leaders and other records/materials related to political intelligence from the ISI headquarters to the GHQ soon after Hamid Gul's relinquishing the appointment of the DGI.18 This move neutralised the appointment of Lt General Kallue as DGI and also the effectiveness of the ISI in domestic politics.

She also set up a committee under a former Air Chief Marshal Zulfiquar Ali Khan to review the functioning of intelligence agencies in the country. The objective of this exercise also aimed at a reorientation of the ISI exclusively for external intelligence and the IB for internal intelligence roles in the country. However Benazir was out of office before the implementation of these reforms on the intelligence front were possible.

Lt General Gul when questioned about this involvement by Air Marshal (retd) Zulfiquar Ali Khan (who headed the Intelligence review committee under the Benazir regime ) said that, "If I had not formed the IJI, there would have been no elections because the smaller parties have been fearful of taking on the PPP individually".19

Benazir Bhutto strengthened the role of the Intelligence Bureau for intelligence-gathering within the country in order to marginalise the participation of the ISI in this self-appointed mission. This reflected in the IB's budget increase to four times the existing figure. Benazir created 20 senior positions at the joint director level to strengthen the management structure in the organisation.

She increased the numerical strength of the subordinate-level operational staff by thrice the existing level and new IB cells were created at the tehsil headquarters and at all the police stations. Another feature was computerisation of the IB offices around the country. The IB was activated against terrorism and narcotics related crimes by participating in liaison with foreign investigative agencies. Importantly, the IB charter expanded to include support for Taliban operations in Afghanistan.

Rajiv Gandhi-Benazir Bhutto conversation taped

In post–Zia Pakistan, intelligence agencies were effectively used to topple governments. One such case pertains to how an intelligence agency was used to remove then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from office. It has been reported that on July 17, 1989 an intelligence agency clandestinely recorded the. conversation between then Prime Ministers Benazir and Rajiv Gandhi while the latter was on a state visit to Pakistan. The room was bugged by the intelligence agency and the two leaders in the course of their private meeting at Islamabad discussed, among other issues, the possibility of mutual troop reduction. Apparently, Benazir was supposed to have agreed in principle to the proposal.

Soon thereafter the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Mirza Aslam Beg and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan met each other on July 24, 1989 and decided to topple the Benazir government. In order to convince the Opposition and obtain their backing for the need to destabilise the government these tapes were reportedly played to them. 20 It essentially had the desired effect and successfully influenced the Opposition parties to side with the COAS and the President against Benazir Bhutto.

Operation 'Midnight Jackals'

Rahimullah Yusufzai writes in the Newsline of January 1991 that the ruling party and the opposition were involved in big time spying against each other during the PPP's eventful 20 month rule. IB tape records of clandestine "Operation Midnight Jackals" provide a bizarre account of the PPP-IJI tussle to buy over a Member of National Assembly on the eve of the no-confidence motion against Benazir Bhutto.21

The "Operation Midnight Jackals" began with Mohammad Arif Awan a PPP activist and MNA from Shiekupura district, who offered himself for sale in order to penetrate the group working on behalf of the IJI. In other words he was a PPP 'plant' aimed at neutralising the hostile strategy of the IJI. According to his version the IJI leader Malik Naeem, Senator Gulsher Khan from the Khyber Agency, Brigadier (retd) Imtiaz, Major Aamer and Arif Awan's nephew, Malik Mumtaz were the group who initially established contact with Mohammad Arif Awan.22

The PPP MNA Arif Awan, from September 28 to October 6, 1989, on his part recorded the conversations between members of the group which were conducted at his nephew Malik Mumtaz's residence. The plan of action was for Arif Awan alongwith three other PPP MNAs to offer to switch sides and a deal was clinched for Rs 50 lakh. On their part the PPP MNAs promised to vote along with the Combined Opposition Parties MNAs in the no-confidence motion. The deal also assured that one of the defectors would be made a Federal Minister if the IJI proved successful in its venture.

The attempt however proved to be abortive in the first attempt on November 1, 1989 when the vote of no confidence could go through. Thereafter they were successful the next year in the next attempt to do so. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto accused the ISI of deposing her from power. She said that the ISI influences the Army through the power of information. While the Army respected her, its leadership was briefed by the ISI and therefore went against her interests23.

Caretaker Prime Minister Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi—August 1990-November 1990

The caretaker government had appointed Major General Mohammad Assad Durrani after the dismissal of the previous regime. During its brief tenure the government through the ISI funded the political alliance of the Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad led by the PML(N) President Nawaz Sharif.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—November 1990-July 1993

After assuming office on November 19, 1990 the DGI Major General Mohd Assad Durrani was promoted to Lt General and the government sought to reverse the Benazir regime's move to downsize the ISI. The next logical step was to reduce the importance of the IB which Benazir had strengthened as a counter-weight to the ISI.

Nawaz Sharif headed the IJI-led government which also resorted to using intelligence agencies to gain unfair advantage in domestic politics. This refers to an incident when the IJI-led coalition government chose to spy on their alliance partners the MQM which came to light on December 1990. The IB had installed bugging devices in some rooms of MQM MNAs. Thereafter as a precautionary measure other MQM MNAs also checked their rooms for bugging devices and surprisingly they also made hitherto unknown discoveries there. For instance, Mr Aminul Haq, parliamentary leader subsequently searched his room Number 45 at the MNAs Hostel and found a transmitter behind the window.24

This proved to be a major embarrassment for the ruling IJI considering it was an MQM ally at that time. Sharif somehow had to avoid any splintering of the MQM from the alliance at that point in time. To remedy the problem the Federal government sent a two member team to explain the situation and apologise to Altaf Hussain in Karachi.

The Mohajir Quami Movement split

The conspiracy to divide the MQM was initiated during the Benazir regime but took shape thereafter. At that time Lt General Asif Nawaz Janjua was a corps commander Karachi and was keen on eliminating the anti-state elements like the MQM. The MQM leader Altaf Hussain had in February 1991 itself sensed the army's plans to split his party. This was because on March 2, 1991 he had expelled 19 members from the party and the ISI and MI were in touch with them. Altaf Hussain even complained to the President that the ISI was conspiring to divide the MQM.25 During May 1991 there were newspaper reports that a couple of prominent MQM leaders were killed in Karachi by masked gunmen.26 The question is whether these MQM leaders were shot by intelligence personnel or not ? Subsequently the split formally took place on August 21 at a convention of the MQM (Haqiqi) wherein Amir and Afaq expelled Altaf Hussain from their party.27

General Asif Nawaz Janjua's 'political assassination'

The untimely demise of General Asif Nawaz Janjua fuelled a fair amount of controversy with First Information Reports being filed against Brigadier (retd) Imtiaz the Director Intelligence Bureau (DIB). The issue gathered momentum following his widow Nuzhat Janjua's formal complaint to then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan about the unnatural nature of the death.28 She clearly stated her strong suspicions that her husband had been poisoned because he had told her about threats to his life. Also there were anonymous letters which sought to caution the general about threats to his life. Apparently the General and the the DIB had developed some serious differences in their inter-personal relationship with each other.

There are essentially two arguments for and against the conspiracy theories regarding the death. The general trend of arguments tend to support a conspiracy theory involving the general's death. However it should also be noted that one element goes against the conspiracy theory. This is a fact that General Zia-ul Haq had eliminated the need for Lt Generals to undergo medical check-ups. Given this consideration the state of the general's health remains a grey area and his death though untimely could be attributed to a heart attack.

Nuzhat Janjua suspected that her late husband had been poisoned with arsenic administered in a cup of tea served to him at a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting. Some political commentators have also pointed out that his widow must have made the formal complaint on the basis of some strong grounds and that the bereaved lady would not make such an attempt for political purposes. Interestingly the government posted a police picket at the general's grave in order to ensure that the body was not exhumed for medical inspection. There were rumours that the general's stomach was removed prior to the burial to avoid detection of foul play.

The issue snowballed in April 1993 as the Army adopted an open-minded approach to the possibility of foul play behind the general's death.29 The rationale for discussing General Asif Nawaz Janjua's death in such great detail is only because if the conspiracy theory is valid then the tacit role of intelligence agencies is bound to assume relevance. To that extent this could well be one more instance of intelligence agencies interfering in internal politics. The incident illustrates how even an Army chief was vulnerable to the machinations of the intelligence agencies despite the power that is associated with his office.

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto: October 1993-November 1996

The involvement of intelligence agencies in politics is clear from an interesting development during the mid-point of Benazir's second tenure when the Director IB (DIB) requested to quit service. In April 1994 the then DIB Mr Noor Ellahi Leghari had formally requested Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to relieve him from office. He had held the same appointment during Benazirs first Prime Ministerial tenure.30

The DIB had reportedly suggested that the appointment of the head of the civilian intelligence agency merited some continuity of tenure regardless of the change of political governments. Ellahi Leghari had suggested some institutional mechanisms aimed at better working of the IB. Apparently the unholy nexus between intelligence agency chiefs and political leaders in power has been useful to hound opposition parties in disregard to all norms of decency, justice and fairplay. To that extent the DIB request to the PM appears to set a healthy precedent.

The use of intelligence agencies in politics comes out clearly when Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif released secretly recorded tapes of a conversation to gain political advantage against Benazir. These tapes contained a conversation between NWFP chief minister, Aftab Sherpao and top officials of Mehran Bank as "conclusive evidence of horse-trading" in order to challenge the PML government of Sabir Shah on December 1, 1994.

Pakistani political leaders have been making public statements from time to time that the intelligence agencies are the real power centers in the country. Dr Mubashir Hassan former Finance Minister and founder- secretary general of the PPP speaking at a function to launch a political movement on May 3, 1996 said "…at present the political system is the outcome of manipulation at the top and the rulers had become helpless before the Intelligence agencies."31

Mehran Bank scandal

The Mehran Bank scandal clearly establishes the ISI involvement in Pakistani politics during the 1990s. The incident exposes the abuse of public funds by the military and intelligence agencies in order to manipulate political change in the country. The bank proved to be a club for spies and politicians to collaborate illegally with each other against other elected leaders. The intelligence agencies prevailed upon politicians from different parties to trade their loyalties for a price. The objective of the intelligence agencies was to destabilise a hostile government and then put in place a 'friendly' regime. The scandal comprises the entire gamut of financial crimes like fake loans, kickbacks, illegal transactions and bribes and involved several high profile names of politicians and a serving Army chief.32

The financial scandal came to light on March 24, 1994 when the MBL President Younus Habib was arrested for siphoning off money from both Habib Bank and MBL. According to media reports Younus Habib had paid five billion rupees to prominent politicians from both the PML(N) and the PPP besides former Army chief General Aslam Beg and other provincial politicians. The discrepancy was discovered when the MBL could not produce the ISI deposited money in the MBL account.33

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif added fuel to the fire on May 31, 1994 and announced that President Farooq Leghari was involved in the scandal and had used the bank to inflate prices in a land deal involving a Rs 15 million transaction. The President confirmed that Younus Habib had facilitated the deal but denied charge about any illegalities. The government then appointed two judicial commissions to investigate the MBL scandal and the President filed libel charges against Sharif.

Air Chief Marshal (retd) Asghar Khan , who now practises politics wrote to the Chief Justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court Sajjad Ali Shah that the ISI's acceptance of money from private parties for political purposes damaged the shining image of the armed forces. The Chief Justice then treated this as a public interest litigation and started a hearing on the ISI role in domestic politics. On June 16, 1997 General (retd) Mirza Aslam Beg said that Lt General Assad Durrani had received the money and spent Rs 60 million for funding certain candidates and the remainder on other operations. He added that Durrani had kept him informed about the developments.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif: March 1997-October 1999

Former Prime Minister Sharif used the ISI effectively to investigate financial dealings abroad by various politicians and bureaucrats particularly those of Benazir Bhutto. These investigations included the major contracts signed with foreign companies and the kick-backs deposited in Swiss Bank accounts. To that extent, the ISI as an intelligence organisation was misused considering the existence of an investigative agency namely the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) precisely for such a purpose.

Sharif realised that intelligence services were a useful tool in governance and reportedly sought to start a new intelligence wing in the FIA.34 Had this move fructified there would have been a fourth intelligence agency in addition to the existing three in the country. For a leader as the beneficiary of intelligence inputs the multiplicity of agencies would only help in corraborating information from various agencies to ensure its authenticity. Besides, the other advantage in terms of political information would be that developments unreported by one agency would be compensated by another one. However, the drawback of having another additional agency would only create scope for unhealthy competition and give rise to inter-agency rivalry between the IB, ISI, MI and the proposed FIA intelligence wing.

During the months preceding the ouster of the Sharif regime the various intelligence agencies worked against each other. The ISI and the MI were pitted against one another as the DG ISI reports to the PM (but is under the COAS only for organisational control) whereas the DGMI comes under the COAS. In the process the political and military leaderships were at loggerheads with each other and the competition between their respective intelligence agencies only proved to be an extension of this clash of interests.

The Pakistani newspaper Nation on June 28, 1997 commenting on the ISI involvement in the Mehran Bank scandal stated, "The case has refocussed public attention on what is widely perceived to be a government within a government—the intelligence agencies and their virtually autonomous role in the political affairs of the country. The baneful influence of the intelligence agencies has spread its malign shadow over the political destiny of the country."

According to an Awami National Party leader Ghulam Ahmad Bilour the ISI is the real power in the country. He said that the ISI is not even in the control of the President or the Prime Minister. The political leader said , " Neither Mr Nawaz Sharif knows what they (ISI) are doing, nor did they keep Ms Benazir Bhutto informed about their activities".35

A 105 page report on the lack of utility of Pakistan's intelligence community, was prepared by intelligence officers and submitted to the DGI in October 1998 according to the News. The authors of the report, with long experience in clandestine operations and technical collection., categorically stated that the national intelligence apparatus has considerably lost its usefulness in fulfilling the intelligence needs of the policy makers. They further added that the entire intelligence network suffers from grave disconnection between the military and civilian efforts, leading to what may be described as anarchy undercover.36

The intertwining of politics and intelligence agencies results in political instability with the latter attempting to destabilise governments through various resources at their command. The intelligence agencies have served as a tool for the military leadership to exercise their power over the political leadership and thereby ensures the absence of democracy in the country.


Statements by two different political leaders, Mubashir Hassan and Ghulam Ahmed Bilour with different party affiliations made at two different points in time with a common theme about the role of intelligence agencies in domestic politics cannot afford to be dismissed lightly. To that extent there is bound to be some substance in their observations.

The rationale for the ISI involvement in domestic politics could be attributed to three reasons (a) the need for the military to manipulate politics and indirectly rule the country (b) to marginalise the civilian intelligence agency which could become powerful with patronage from an elected government (c) the absence of a genuine external threat to national security.

Whenever the ISI was controlled by a civilian government the MI reoriented itself to political intelligence activity to keep the generals informed about the relevant developments around the country. In the process the IB by design and not default has been relegated to a 'runners up' or second slot in the intelligence community with the first place reserved for the ISI. Also the MI appears to be peripherally involved with an internal role, especially counter-insurgency duties in Sind, which by its very nature would imply an element of an involvement in provincial politics.

The theoretical framework conceived three models of intelligence agencies namely (a) bureau of domestic intelligence (b) political police (c) independent security state. The ISI would fall under the category of an independent security state with the following characteristics. It lacks external controls and differs from the political police because its goals are determined by agency officials and are likely to differ from that of the political elite. Importantly, agency officials rather than elected officials direct its operations.

The rationale for the ISI turning into an 'invisible government' has much to do with Pakistan being a 'weak state' which depends on a strong state apparatus to compensate for the problem of ideology. The two-nation theory advocating a Muslim homeland as an ideology proved to be a failure for various reasons. Besides, all the characteristics of a weak state are applicable to Pakistan even in the 1990s.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif successfully used the ISI to collect evidence of corruption by political rivals like Benazir Bhutto and other bureaucrats involved in major contracts with foreign companies. The intelligence agencies have played a frontline role in the struggle for power between the PPP and the PML (N). So much so, the political leadership in the post-Zia period has not really used these intelligence agencies for promoting good governance; it has instead only used them in their internecine warfare which has contributed to instability and led to a crisis of governance in the country.

The import of the ISI wielding power in the country has a strong bearing on Islamabad's national security and foreign policy. It is a major decision influencing element in the security and foreign policy formulation process and tends to adopt an anti-India policy. For instance, a viable solution to improve the cooperation and friendship in India-Pakistan ties is through the promotion of trade and commerce between the two sides. However, Pakistani intelligence personnel are used as an instrument to impede development of trade ties between the two neighbours. It has been reported that Pakistani businessmen keen on exploring opportunities for trade with India who visit the Indian High Commission in Islamabad are discouraged from doing so. The Pakistani intelligence personnel tend to harass these businessmen.

The other aspect of ISI involvement in domestic politics is its linkages with Islamic fundamentalist groups which are anti-India in character. The ISI is known to have close connections with the Harkat ul Ansar and the Lashkar-e-Toiba which are extremely active in waging terrorist operations against the Indian state and its people in Jammu and Kashmir for the past decade. This relationship between the ISI and fundamentalists, fostered among other objectives on anti-India interests, clearly characterises a close-minded approach to any improvement in relations with India.



1. Peter Gill ' Policing Politics: Security Intelligence and the Liberal Democratic State' (Frank Cass, London, 1994) p. 70.

2. Ibid., p. 60 -61.

3. Ibid., p. 6.

4. Ibid

5. Ibid., p. 77.

6. Ibid., p. 70.

7. Ibid., p. 69.

8. President Iskandar Mirza's Memoirs (Exclusive) published in Newsline, June 1996, p. 136.

9. Mazhar Ali Khan, 'The Transgressers', Dawn, January 12, 1993, cited in John Kaniyalil "ISI: The Master Manipulator", Strategic Analysis, November 1993, p. 993.

10. Mushahid Hussain and Akmal Hussain, 'Pakistan : Problems of Governance' (Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1993) p. 73-4.

11. Stanley Wolpert, 'Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: His Life and Times' (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 279.

12. Brigadier (retd) Syed A.I. Tirmazi, 'Profiles of Intelligence' (Lahore: Combined Printers, 1995) p. 225.

13. Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, 'If I Am Assassinated…' (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1979) p 56.

14. Benazir Bhutto, 'Daughter of the East' (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988) p. 218-9.

15. Brig (retd) Tirmazi, n. 12, p. 19.

16. Munir Ahmed writes that the ISI, MI and state Special Branch police all did their best to thwart the PPP from winning the elections but failed to do so in 'Pakistan Toot Jayega' (Urdu) (Pakistan Will Break Up) (Lahore: Taklikat Publishers, April 1996) p. 24.

17. Gill, n. 1, p. 53.

18. Ahmed, n. 16, p. 26.

19. POT Pakistan, p. 443-47, 1992.

20. Ahmed, n. 16, p. 37.

21. 'Secret September Operation to Dislodge Benazir Bhutto Revealed' in POT Pakistan, vol. xix, no. 25, January 31 , 1991, p. 560-3.

22. Ibid.

23. 'Benazir Blames GHQ, Military Intelligence for Her Ouster' POT Pakistan, vol. xviii, no. 167, August 10, 1990, p. 3198-93.

24. "Bugging Devices Found in MQM MNA's Hostel Rooms", POT Pakistan, vol. xviii, no. 267, December 29, 1990, p. 5154-55; 'Growth of Pakistan's Intelligence Agencies', POT Pakistan, vol. xix, p. 304, and "IB Official Suspended for Bugging MNA's Hostel", POT Pakistan, vol. xix, no. 2, January 2, 1991, p. 29.

25. "Altaf Alleges New Plan to Eliminate MQM From Political Scene' POT Pakistan, May 22, 1992, vol. xx, no 119, p. 2553; also see n. 18, p. 205.

26. Ibid., "MQM Activist Killed After Being Kidnapped", p. 2554.

27. Ahmed n 16, p. 210.

28. It was reported that General Janjua had serious differences with President Ishaq Khan a week before his death after being questioned over a raid conducted by an army team to arrest a district and sessions judge for allegedly accepting illegal gratification in Karachi in ' President's Differences With Asif Nawaz' POT Pakistan, vol. xxi, no. 14, January 16, 1993, p. 280.

29. "Asif Nawaz Was Murdered, Says General's Wife" POT Pakistan, vol. xxi, no. 84, April 13, 1993, pp. 1754-5.

30. "IB Chief Wants to be Relieved of Appointment" POT Pakistan, vol. xii, no. 87, April 18, 1994, p. 864.

31. P0T Pakistan, vol. xxiv, no. 107, May 7, 1996, p. 1026.

32. Zakir Siddiqui, "The Mehran Bank Scam" April 1994, Newsline, pp. 49-52.

33. "Mehran Bank Deals Raise Many Awkward Questions" and "Comments: Mehran Bank Scandal" April 28, 1994, vol. xxii, no. 96, pp. 941-2 and 943-4.

34. "FIA To Have Intelligence Wing Soon" POT Pakistan, August 31, 1999, p. 3160.

35. "ISI is Real Power in Country Says ANP leader" POT Pakistan, vol. xxvi, no. 280, November 16, 1998, p. 3622.

36. "Intelligence Gathering Systems Need to be Redefined" POT Pakistan, vol. xxvi, no. 255, October 22, 1998, p. 3303.