Restoring the ISI’s tarnished reputation

Published: July 25, 2011

Ghulam Nabi Fai, 62, a US citizen detained on Tuesday, is suspected of links to ISI PHOTO: ONLINE

An intelligence agency is at the frontlines of every war, especially against terrorism. Terror and terror networks can only be contained, dismantled or destroyed with effective intelligence gathering. But if the reputation of the intelligence agency is tarnished and its every action is questioned, no war can be effectively won and no strategy can be properly executed.

It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) is caught up with—and in some cases, rightly accused—for many domestic and international incidents involving terrorism and other transnational crimes. At the same time, it has also become a scapegoat for those who have been unsuccessful in their international objectives. Hence, to restore its respect as one of the top intelligence agencies in the world, the ISI needs to democratise its inner workings and become a transparent organisation.

By transparency, I don’t mean it should disclose its operational techniques and tradecraft skills. Absolutely not. Such practices should be guarded with utmost secrecy. However, the ISI should become more transparent in terms of its departments, defining its role and duties as mandated by the government, and using its own media branch to launch a successful public relations campaign.

While carrying out its activities, the ISI should consult legal counsels to ensure it doesn’t violate Pakistani laws. But the laws of other countries don’t require the same consideration—for instance, in the recent arrest of Ghulam Nabi Fai in Virginia, who, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and news sources, is an ISI agent trying to shift US policy towards Kashmir. If this news is accurate, Fai could be charged with treason under US law, because he is a US citizen collaborating with a foreign intelligence service. Likewise, Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA in the Bin Laden raid, could also be charged with treason under local laws.

People, in and out of Pakistan, do not know much about the ISI other than mere speculation and educated guesses about what the organisation does and who sets the agenda. Is there a consumer-producer relationship between the agency and policymakers, or is it just an extension of the army?

It also seems the ISI is not accessible to those who are not in the armed forces or who don’t have connections with the military. To bridge this gap, the ISI needs to break away from the Public Service Commission for civilian inductees and create its own human resource department for direct hiring. It should develop a presence on college campuses across the country to attract educated youth through job fairs to intellectualize its manpower. A highly sophisticated selection process should be used to screen potential employees. Public outreach is the need of the hour.

The ISI should also create a center for the study of intelligence, a center similar to that in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where every aspect of intelligence is studied and researched, thus producing  a very useful intelligence literature. This helps improve intelligence analysis and collection by making the process more efficient. In addition, the ISI should also create a history department where academics and historians record the agency’s history in real time to create a strong and legitimate legacy, and not one based on half-truth, speculation and guesses.

The managers at every level in the ISI should ensure that information, official and liaison conversations, and reports are well documented and timely released through an archives department. The declassification of such documents would be an essential part of the transparency campaign, and would open up the ISI to public knowledge and discussion.

Lastly, the ISI should initiate a scholarship program for retiring officers to teach for a few years at a public or private university, bringing practical experience to the classroom. This would diversify and enrich the academia and attract students to serve their country. Defense and intelligence studies are disciplines which are not valued in Pakistan. There are only a few universities, apart from War Colleges, that attempt to teach these subjects. Pakistan is in need of such disciplines if it wants to break away from the traditional national security processes.

If Pakistan wants to beat back terrorism and stabilise the security situation, the ISI must become an agency for the people. The ISI must foster democratic, transparent, and intellectual growth within its walls. These suggestions would allow Pakistan to bridge the gap between its citizens and the state institutions meant to protect their interests. When the people are prioritised, we can expect more cooperation from them, and a more honourable face for the ISI.

The ISI should be a symbol of pride and not an institution which is despised.

Shahzeb Shaikha

Shahzeb Shaikha

A staffer at The Express Tribune who is a graduate in the field of Security Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He tweets @shahzebshaikha (

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