Barring the CIA and MOSSAD, no national intelligence organisation garners more headlines than the Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) of the Pakistan Army.
Every time a new Director-General (DG) takes over, it inevitably garners the attention of global media and international pundits. In 2012, Lt-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha became the first intelligence chief to be featured on the Forbes power list; he was also featured in the top 100 power list in Time Magazine in 2011. So it is no surprise that the appointment of Lt-General Faiz Hameed as Pakistan’s top spy has drawn the attention of international publications at a time when the Pakistan Army is not only seen as winning its war on terror but has also made senior American officials who were previously sceptical of Pakistani efforts – such as Senator Lindsey Graham and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad -publicly acknowledge and laud Pakistan’s contributions of blood and critical intelligence. These contributions have been instrumental towards bringing the war in Afghanistan within reach of an acceptable and realistic conclusion – namely, a sit-down with the Taliban, which the ISI has always advised is the only way out of the Afghan quagmire.
The ISI are no angels – no intelligence agency is – but the fact that Pakistan rode two horses in Afghanistan can be met with a degree of sympathy when considering its position between whatever that country may become and what a bellicose India already is. As the aforementioned US officials have attested, Western powers may now be more inclined to show such sympathy in the same way that Pakistan ‘forgives’ the West for leaving behind that untended, western-generated cancer in their tribal regions post the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan – a cancer that has blighted the country since and has cost some 55,000 Pakistani lives.
Where the ISI’s less salubrious contacts tend to be vaguely competent ones, however, the West has displayed an opposite inclination towards throwing military and political support, for the sake of ‘stability’, behind mere villains who in the final reckoning are consistently shown to hold no leverage. One cannot forget the track record of Western intelligence operatives backing the worst thugs in Libya, Syria and Egypt – only to later show regret and back strongmen in the mould of Khalifa Haftar and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
It is evident that Pakistan and states in the Middle East share a studied understanding of their mutual security requirements that can more frequently elude the West in its own ‘War on Terror’. Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head of the General Intelligence Directorate, Saudi Arabia’s main intelligence agency, once described the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as ‘probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty’. Prince Turki himself was at the helm of Saudi decision-making for over three decades and oversaw the close cooperation between the two countries during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the first Gulf War, the Afghanistan campaign, and in post-9/11 defence diplomacy. It was this three-way relationship between the Saudis, Americans and Pakistan’s ISI that led to the fall of the Soviet Union after a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, two decades ago, Pakistan’s army played a leading role in mediating an end to the Iraq-Iran war, something the late Iranian president Rafsanjani specifically appreciated.
In Pakistan today lies the example of a well-trained Army and intelligence service that is now the largest trainer of Arab armies in the Middle East, with a big role in training soldiers in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Qatar – helping to fight terrorism with its Arab allies while also trying to maintain a delicate balance with Turkey and Iran. As the capability of regional and indigenous forces grows and tensions spike in the Gulf and the Levant, Pakistan and its ISI could be poised to play a significant role.
Under the current Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa and its DG-ISI Lt-General Faiz Hameed – who at the time was head of the internal security wing – the Pakistanis have taken steps to deepen their strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia and also the UAE, the region’s new little Sparta with an emergent military culture. In 2017, former Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif was appointed to head the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terror Coalition.
But the relationship has not been without its hiccups: in 2015, cracks emerged when some Saudi officials said that Pakistan failed to provide an adequate rationale for its decision to adopt a neutral stance as Gulf troops faced up against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen. Bajwa subsequently embarked on a frantic diplomacy mission, explaining to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that Pakistan stood ready to help, but had strategic constraints. He said that while Pakistan would aid the two Gulf countries in defence, it would not take sides in the proxy war with Iran or the Qatar blockade.
The Pakistan Army and its ISI also play a crucial role in training soldiers in Iraq; Pakistan was also the only country that Iraq publicly thanked after the liberation of Mosul from the yoke of Islamic State jihadists. Iraq has also purchased aircraft from Pakistan and the Iraqis see Pakistan as a key component to their military training.
The security ties between states are not merely limited to an exchange of technology and information, however, but are in fact foundational. ISI head Faiz Hameed, for example, is a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) in London, renowned as a prestige finishing school for the world’s best officers before they go on to become three and four stars around the globe. General Faiz, who was the top Brigadier of the Pakistan Army when he attended in 2015, inevitably formed close relationships with a number of top Arab officers from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
This is a part of what informs the trilateral Pakistani, British and Middle East security and intelligence partnership that stops dozens of attacks every year. General Jonathan Shaw, who commanded multinational forces in Iraq and was head of the UK Special Forces, says these links are “very close”.
“The deep rooted relationship is key to the cooperative management of our joint security challenges – an inevitable consequence of our shared history, populations and current challenges.” says Shaw. The general is a man who can summarise an intelligence issue pithily: as a young staff officer, I once briefed him on my Brigade’s surveillance assets for a tour of Iraq, to which he responded by acknowledging the ability to observe but also our own lack of ability to comprehend what we saw. He wryly commented, “like Mrs Shaw at the Test Match: sees everything, understands nothing!”
That is Pakistan’s most critical asset to the Western countries whose foreign policy remains bogged down in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – to help us understand and not just see. After all, it was Winston Churchill way back during the Suez crisis in 1956 who first suggested using the Pakistanis to stabilise the Middle East. The new ISI chief General Faiz is stepping in at a sensitive and crucial time as both Pakistan and the West grapple with their security relations in an increasingly complex region.
Robert Gallimore is an Oxford & LSE educated former British Army officer who served 17 years in the Welsh Guards with four tours of Afghanistan.
He is currently finishing his book on the Pakistan Army to be published next year.