How much strong really is Pakistani ISI?

Rajesh Bhushan

There is lots of talks centering Pakistani shadowy ISI, showing it one of the top-most and mightiest spy agencies in the world. It is also rumored about ISI giving hundreds and millions of dollars to various pro-Pakistan political parties as well spending large amount of money in buying key policymakers in the West. Some of the stories centering ISI’s operatives may have even superseded James Bond 007 movies. To understand the exact strength and capacities of ISI, we need to go through some of the facts, revealed by security analysts as well as security agencies in the world.

Until 2018, Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) had around 6,000 people, which includes its handlers, agents and sources. According to German scholar Hein Kiessling, who represented the Hanns-Seidel-Foundation (Munich) in Pakistan from 1989 to 2002 said, “The (real) ISI budget is top secret, only a few people know the figure,” he says. “In fact officially the ISI budget today is between $300 and 400 million.”

According to Kiessling, the personnel strength of ISI is also considered as top secret.

“During Zia-ul Haq’s tenure it was estimated to be 20,000 men. In the 1990s and in the new millennium there were drastic reductions in personnel.

“Therefore, it is now assumed that ISI’s base strength is approximately 4,000. Higher estimates often encountered in literature and the press are grossly exaggerated.”

Hein Kiessling said, changes in personnel policies came out in 2009 under the command of Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

“Today with the exception of six-seven two-star generals, the military personnel in ISI come from the Intelligence Corps of the army —a move that serves towards the professionalism of the service.

“A military-ISI staff member starts his career as a cadet in combat arms, not in the medical or engineering services.

“After completing basic training comes an intelligence exam. The successful candidate goes on to become an officer in the Intelligence Corps, where he goes through additional courses,” Kiessling said.

About five percent of the ISI personnel are formerly from the military on a contract basis. Approximately 45 percent are from the military.

Today, ISI has 50 percent of civilian staff members, who need to have “political knowledge (current affairs), English and analytical skills”.

He said, “Today the ISI is one of the most active and best intelligence services in Asia.

“It is controlled and efficiently run — there is no ISI within the ISI. Although officially the Internal Cell was declared closed, it still exists.

“The ISI is the eyes and ears of the military. The military forces see themselves as guardians of Pakistan’s survival. Therefore, it is very unlikely that the Internal Cell was closed.”

He said that ISI has intensified involvement in “Azad Kashmir” (Pakistan-administered Kashmir) since 2017.

“The local jihad structures were upgraded again by bringing back experienced jihadist from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Other reports speak of ISI activities in the enlisting of new young fighters.”

He adds that psychological pressure was being exerted on former fighters to reactivate them in Jammu and Kashmir, where a Pakistan-backed separatist campaign has cost thousands of lives since 1989.

Hein Kiessling said that Indian underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, “currently living under ISI protection in Karachi”, continues “to be a useful tool for the ISI”.

Dawood, who, according to Hein Kiessling still dominates the “underground world of Mumbai and Dubai”, is wanted in India for the March 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai. Dawood’s hands behind trafficking in drugs as well as arms are continuing under direct shelter and protection of the Pakstani spy agency.

It may be mentioned here that Pakistani ISI actually became financially strong during the Afghan war against Soviet Union as during that time, it was receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the US and Saudi Arabia. Pakistani military establishment were supplying used weapons such as 3 not 3 riffles to Taliban mujahidin be deceiving the US and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, ISI had significantly expanded its activities in South Asia during that period.

According to security sources, since the early days of Taliban-Soviet war, ISI was secretly transferring 10-15 percent of the fund it was receiving from the US and Saudi Arabia (for paying the mujahedin) towards various business establishments. These businesses include restaurants, bar, pub, night club, massage parlor, private brothel, industrial enterprises, shares in financial institutions, stock market investment, shipping company, broadcast company, newspapers, tobacco company, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, edible oil, automobile industry etc. Over 70 percent of the annual income generated from these business establishments of ISI directly goes into its budget, while most of these establishments also help ISI in connecting with targeted people as well as recruitment of agents and sources. ISI run business establishments are wide spread, from the US to Thailand – from Philippines to the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, China, Vietnam, Mexico, Italy, Greece, Spain, Cuba, South Africa and also India.

Since 2016, ISI has become very active in South Asia and in some cases are in advantageous position in comparing to its arch-rival, Indian security agency RAW. This has been possible mainly because of financial liberty ISI enjoys due to its own profit-generating projects.

Rejecting ISI’s superiority, a security analyst in India said, RAW is much stronger than ISI because of the following reasons:

(1) RAW has a budget much higher than that of ISI, which is a key factor,

(2) RAW has 15 satellites in orbit for effective surveillance, telephonic interception etc. ISI has zero. By the time they even come close to sending satellites as many as India has sent, we’ll probably have made manned spaceflight a routine. Or space stations on the Moon and perhaps Mars,

(3) CIA documents are declassified periodically. This doesn’t apply to RAW. Which means it’s super-secretive. People don’t even know where RAW’s headquarters are. It is just a hunch that it is somewhere in New Delhi, the capital of India. It is well hidden somewhere in India’s heartland,

(4) RAW has a significant global presence. It is indeed capable of multiple global missions, both alone and in cooperation with intelligence agencies of other countries. But people will never know since it never comes out in news. RAW receives zero media coverage. ISI is not capable of global missions. You need efficient technology (like use of space) effective secrecy and most importantly, you should have a clean image of yourself. India has a far better image than Pakistan, so no country is hesitant to cooperate with India. While Pakistan is known as a safe haven for terrorists throughout the world,

(5) People say that ISI’s power in Pakistan is more than RAW’s power in India. That is because RAW is strictly for external intelligence. For our internal intelligence, we have an equally powerful agency called Intelligence Bureau (IB). It acts as our powerful counter-intelligence. It keeps internal security under constant surveillance. Pakistan has IB, too, but it had virtually no say in its own country since ISI dominates everything. Your system is meaningless if you don’t have a strong counter-intelligence,

ISI had only one global level mission that was of significance: to play a role in the collapse of Soviet Union. That wasn’t led by Pakistan anyway. It just had a small role.

No one knew that RAW was cooperating with CIA for gaining information about Osama bin Laden post 9/11. It was only when CIA acknowledged RAW’s contribution (with a few other agencies, too), that this information came out.

RAW also had information about 26/11 around two to six months before they occurred. It knew that hotels in Mumbai were to be targets. Failure to stop it was only due to failure in coordination with other agencies, and the office of the National Security Advisor dismissed RAW’s fears. It was not its own failure. It did its task of obtaining information.

On countless times RAW has discovered the connections of ISI with terror outfits.

Another security analyst, describing RAW said:

Clearly the question is naive and poster has derived his knowledge from movies only. Here are some facts.

(1)RAW is headed by a civilian bureaucrat of secretary level whereas ISI is led by army person of Lt Gen level,

(2) RAW reports to PM (political/civil authority) whereas ISI is a faction of Pakistani Military. The correct analogy would be Indian MI (Military Intelligence),

(3) No one knows the full actions and extent of their work due to its classified nature so most of the “knowledge” is at best a guess,

(4) The working style of both agencies are seemingly different. ISI takes a more aggressive stance whereas RAW works in long term planning. Hence you may see ISI assistance in armed actions whereas RAW works on subtle ways such as propaganda warfare,

(5) RAW only oversees foreign intelligence where as internal part is taken care by Indian IB. Only in few exception cases RAW was given responsibility of a domestic issue. Pakistan too has IB for internal operations but it is very weak as opposite to Indian IB. Also ISI meddles in internal affairs of Pakistan as well,

(6) ISI mostly relies on Human Intelligence (HUMINT) whereas RAW in addition to humans also has capabilities in Technical Intelligence (TECHINT),

Everyone in Pakistan and elsewhere knows and talks about ISI. However very less people even in India have heard of RAW,

(7) RAW is sort of underrated. It is one of the most feared secret organizations. It’s just that it usually not involved in military type of action,

Though no one can comment on the capabilities of these agencies RAW has more resources on its disposal (money, technology, foreign support etc.) and is quite successful,

(8) Except Indira Gandhi period RAW is highly apolitical and never involved in internal affairs. ISI on the other hand has always been active in Pakistan’s domestic affairs.

But, former chief of RAW, A S Dulat said, Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), is the most powerful in the world.

While addressing a session at the Times Lit Fest in New Delhi in November 2015, Mr. A S Dulat said, “The most powerful intelligence agency is either KGB which no more exists or ISI, because they are very anonymous”.

Earlier in July 2015, in another startling revelation, Dulat admitted Indian intelligence agencies have over the years paid militants and separatists, along with mainstream politicians and political parties in Indian Kashmir to compete with Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI.

“So what’s wrong? What is there to be so shocked or scandalized by. It’s done the world over,” Dulat had said, while speaking to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt.

It should be mentioned here that, Indian spy agency RAW had for decades funded and patronized armed separatist movements within Chittagong Hill Tract districts in Bangladesh. Members of this separatist group named Shanti Bahini were also given training by India. By funding, giving training and supplying arms and ammunitions to Shanti Bahini India has stabbed Bangladesh at the back. Although Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been doing everything in uprooting existence of the India’s northeast-based separatist group’s activities inside Bangladesh, RAW has not stopped supporting Shanti Bahini.

And the most shocking information that a number of security analysts and sources have confirmed is – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is an agent of Pakistani ISI. According to them, Modi, (with the help of Rashtriya Swam Sevak Sangh – RSS) by shifting a secularist India into a radical Hindu nation is paving the way for the collapse of this huge country and embrace the fate of former Soviet Union.

Rajesh Bhushan is a security analyst

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