Pakistan is a fertile land for conspiracy theories. From ‘Confessions of an economic hitman’ to ‘The Arrivals’, we have got it all covered. To further complicate things, we have people like Zaid Hamid in our midst, a conspiracy theorist of international standards. A few weeks ago, Zarrar Khuhro devoted a whole article on why conspiracy theories are so popular in Pakistan (and elsewhere) and he concluded that these theories offer relief and comfort amidst the chaotic world we are inhabiting. I find it particularly fascinating that conspiracy theories are as popular in the conservative, right-wing section of our society as they are in the well-educated, progressive left-wing circles. Among the theories favored by the ‘lefties’, our country has been run since its inception by dark forces including the CIA and our own intelligence agencies. There is some credence to this claim as we find in archival material that is made public with time. As far as the CIA is concerned, they sent a political scientist named Dr. Charles Burton to spend two years in Pakistan as a ‘constitutional adviser’ during the 1950s.

When it comes to our domestic intelligence services, there is scant evidence to point fingers at their involvement in pivotal moments in our history (other than conspiracy theories). This is partially because of a lack of transparency on the agencies’ part and partially because no one wants shady-looking shalwar-kameez clad men trailing them all day long. There has been some recent scholarship on the dynamics and evolution of the ‘mother of all agencies’ in Pakistan, by foreign authors. ‘Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan’ by German author Hein G. Kiessling and ‘Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate: Covert Action and Internal Operations’ by American Professor, Owen L. Sirrs shed light on the organization that supposedly runs this country. While both books aim at explaining the history and working of the organization, the latter does it in a more detailed, coherent way than the former. Dr. Kiessling’s book focusses more on the post-1979 evolution of the agency and people who headed it. ‘Faith, Unity, Discipline’ is a good resource on the history of civil-military relations in this country with the ‘agency’ lurking in the background.

Like most institutions in our country, the Inter-services Intelligence Directorate was established by an Australian-born British officer, Major General Walter J. Cawthorn—veteran of the two world wars—in 1948. He served as the head of Middle East Intelligence Centre during WWII and later as Director of Intelligence, Indian Command. The need for a counterintelligence outfit arose due to lack of intelligence reporting during the first Kashmir War of 1948. Gen. Cawthorn was aided in his mission by Lt. Colonel Shahid Hamid, former Personal Secretary to Field Marshal Auchinleck. There was also help from the civilian Intelligence Bureau (IB), specifically from its first director, Ghulam Ahmad. At the time of partition, Pakistan inherited the School of Military Intelligence based in Karachi. Among intelligence personnel, Pakistan inherited a grand total of 10 officers, 27 JCOs, and 102 NCOs. The onus of counterintelligence initially fell upon military intelligence, which was made a directorate in its own right but it gradually ceded space to the newly formed agency. The new agency was housed in a nondescript one-storey building in Karachi and consisted to two bureaus: the Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) and the Joint Counter Intelligence Bureau (JCIB).

Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, known for his latter-day career as a diplomat, served as the Director of JIB. Major Zahiruddin, Commandant of the School of Military Intelligence in Karachi was also inducted in the agency. In autumn of 1949, Shahid Hamid spent three weeks in the UK, studying its intelligence structure and security procedures. UK Intelligence and security agencies provided technical aid and advice to Inter-services Intelligence Directorate till the late 1950s (for example, Pakistan sought MI5 advice on how to monitor and restrict activities of the Soviet Embassy). In 1948, a Close Quarter Battle School was formed in Quetta by British Special Forces Officer, Colonel Hector Grant-Taylor. In the 1950s, a training center was developed in Cherat (near Peshawar) to train elite Special Services Group (SSG) with help from United States government and intelligence agencies.

During the first two decades of Pakistan’s existence, there were multiple pivotal moments where Inter-services Intelligence was caught napping. The first major ‘conspiracy’ against a sitting government was hatched by members of the army, namely ‘Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case’ and it was discovered by agents of Special Branches of NWFP and Punjab. After the conspiracy was uncovered, General Ayub Khan admonished and demoted the head of Military Intelligence. During the infamous ‘Operation Gibraltar’ (July, August 1965) it was Military Intelligence (MI) that took the lead, an effort that failed spectacularly. Midway through the botched operation, Inter-services Intelligence discovered that its contacts on the other side of the border had gone underground, nullifying any advantage in terms of Intelligence gathering. When Ayub Khan summoned the director of the agency to explain this failing, he replied: “All these years, we were not doing our real work of counter-intelligence, because we were too busy chasing your domestic political opponents’. In May 1967, an Islamist conspiracy to overthrow Ayub Khan was uncovered by Karachi Police, leading him to write in his diary: “DIG Tareen and his associates have done an excellent job whilst the Naval Intelligence and Inter-services Intelligence were nearly asleep”.

It was in the early 1950s that Pakistan’s civilian IB generated anti-Indian propaganda and supplied arms to Kashmiri groups that infiltrated the ceasefire line to conduct sabotage missions. In 1956, a leader of Nagas (from India’s North East) reached East Pakistan and was welcomed with enthusiasm. Two years later, a Naga commander arrived with a band of warriors for training. The SSG provided them training in insurgency tactics, communications, and medical support while Intelligence agencies taught them operational planning. In 1963, members of Mizo National Army (from Mizoram in India’s North East) arrived in East Pakistan to seek similar assistance. Starting in February 1966, they captured eleven villages in the Mizo Hills, attacking Indian border posts and eventually abducting Indian civil servants.

Soon after Partition, United States eyed Pakistan as a favorable location to eavesdrop on its communist foes: China and Russia. The northern part of Pakistan was well-situated for technical intelligence collection on Soviet Nuclear site at Semipalatinsk as well as the Tyuratam ballistic missile testing ground. Furthermore, China’s Lop Nor Nuclear Weapons site could also be kept an eye on. In October 1978, the CIA moved its ‘Near and Middle East’ operational control center from Iran to Pakistan. The Intelligence cooperation reached its Zenith during the Afghan war against Russian forces (1979-88). The task of training Afghan resistance groups had started in 1973 with creating of a ‘Special Operations Bureau’. It later morphed into the infamous ‘Afghanistan Bureau’ which had 60 officers dedicated to training the ‘Mujahideen’. The first planned ‘operation’ was in Panjshir valley during 1975. The Bureau was based in Ojhri Camp, located on the northern outskirts of Rawalpindi. Ojhri Camp was used as a depot for rockets, bombs, anti-tank missiles and Stinger rockets. In April 1988, Ojhri Camp went up in flames, killing about 100 people and injuring close to a thousand. Conspiracies abound about the ‘real cause’ behind the Ojhri disaster, however, it was used as a pretext by General Zia to sack the civilian Prime Minister at the time.

Dr. Kiessling’s book provides details of important events during the post-Zia era of democracy (1988-99) including the botched Jalalabad operation (resulting in upwards of 3000 casualties on the Mujahideen side), the ‘Midnight Jackal’ affair (when the IB outsmarted Intelligence-directorate officers), Mehran Bank Scandal (in which 140 Million Rupees were distributed among politicians), General Javed Nasir’s global Islamist agenda (resulting in Pakistan’s covert involvement in conflicts in far-off areas like the Balkans and Caucasus), General Aslam Beg’s leadership of the army (he was known as ‘General Glasnost’ and was probably the first army chief whose telephone was tapped by his own people), Operation Khilafat (an Islamist conspiracy to overthrow the second Benazir government, uncovered not by the agencies but by chance discovery of weapons in a car) and much more. The book relies on mostly published sources and interviews conducted by the author. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Pakistan and the role played by our armed forces in it.