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Comparing Pakistan’s ISI and India’s R&AW

The rival nations’ respective intelligence agencies operate in significantly different ways

by Khaled Ahmed

India and Pakistan both conducted nuclear tests in 1998, bringing South Asia to international notice as the rest of the world realized its non-proliferation policy had failed and they would have to reckon with the new nuclear realities. This was followed in short order by terror attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 and the events of 9/11, making clear that South Asia had also become the hub of global terrorism. When the U.S. decided to retaliate against 9/11 by invading Afghanistan, then-president Pervez Musharraf was told he was either with the U.S. or against it; he chose the latter, bringing even greater attention to Pakistan.

Writing in Faith, Unity, Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan, author Hein G. Kiessling recalls that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, with the International Security Assistance Force joining in from December 2001. These forces brought with them a surge of international media to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hotels in Islamabad, Peshawar and Kabul rapidly filled up, with the few available accommodations commanding exorbitant prices. Even as this invasion of reporters and politicians subsequently, Afghanistan and Pakistan remained a special focus of the global press.

In Pakistan, writes Kiessling, the country’s premier intelligence agency—the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—was particularly affected by this attention. Its involvement in Kashmir and Afghanistan from the 1980s-onward came under greater scrutiny and it was soon portrayed in journalistic shorthand as a state within a state—an intelligence agency that was influencing and controlling Pakistan’s domestic and international politics. Reports of the ISI kidnapping and liquidating individuals it deemed “undesirable” became commonplace in the foreign press.

According to Kiessling, such assessments of the ISI might have been true in some cases, but were also often circulated by politicians and journalists in Pakistan without any substantial proof and subsequently adopted unchecked and republished by their international colleagues. Another frequent claim was that the ISI had “factions” that pursued their own political agendas. Media reports described these groups as “out of control,” beyond the reach of even the agency’s own leadership, and as such undermining official policy, harming the government’s reputation and hindering Pakistan’s democratic development. The years of such media attention, writes Kiessling, has left a permanent impression among politicians, journalists and analysts in Pakistan—and elsewhere—that the ISI is to blame whenever there is a kidnapping, a killing or a major terror attack in the region. These suspicions persist even if there is no proof or connection of the ISI’s involvement.

The ISI’s role in Pakistan also attracted the international spotlight over the country’s entry into the war on terror and the return of the Afghan Taliban in 2004, as well as revelations of the transfer of nuclear technology to Pakistan by Dr. A. Q. Khan. Terror assaults such as the attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2007 and 2008 and the 2008 Mumbai attacks only added to the international interest. The climax was the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces at a house in Abbottabad in May 2011. The ISI thus continues to be a subject of frenzied and often ill-informed discussion, providing sufficient material for speculation, accusations and conspiracy theories of all kinds.

By contrast, India’s equivalent to Pakistan’s ISI, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), acts as Delhi’s foreign intelligence service and didn’t attract much international attention prior to last year’s allegations from the U.S. and Canada over its involvement in attacks on Sikh separatist leaders. R&AW is hardly less active than the ISI, but its structure, objectives and operations have remained out of the public eye because of its consistent isolation from the press. Kiesseling credits this to R&AW deriving inspiration from the KGB thanks to the long friendship between New Delhi and Moscow. In structure, R&AW is more similar to Soviet-era KGB than Western intelligence services, with Indian journalists and authors pointing to the emphasis on secrecy dominating the country’s national security circles.

In early 2007, the monthly magazine FORCE was accused of compromising national security by publishing a photograph of the then Indian Army chief. Indian authorities claimed that as the magazine was available to the public, the enemy could “learn” what the Indian Army chief looked like. FORCE then published the following cautionary statement: “Anyone can be arrested under the pretext of national security without charge and thrown into prison. There is no information on what is seen as a threat to national security, the whole concept is subjective and depends on the sentencing of the men in uniform.”

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