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This article was first published 7 years ago  » News » Inside the ISI

Inside the ISI

By Kanika Datta
February 16, 2017 10:30 IST
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Hein Kiessling has the kind of access in Pakistan that journalists (and spies) would die for, says Kanika Datta.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Hein Kiessling

If you didn't know Hein Kiessling had written a book about Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, you would have mistaken him for a benevolent university professor of, perhaps, classical languages.

He says, however, that he has no head for foreign languages.

He learnt a little Bahasa, he offers, having done his PhD thesis on the Indonesian freedom fighters after World War II, but was not really au fait with Urdu, even though he has spent 13 years in Pakistan and clearly has deep contacts within that country's powerful military-intelligence complex.

Our mid-morning tea meeting at a sunny table at the Hyatt Regency's Sidewalk cafe has been preceded by some mild excitement. For me, that is.

A scheduled meal had to be cancelled because Kiessling, in India for his book launch, had been invited by the Pakistan high commissioner for lunch and 'some other meetings.'

A solid diet of spy novels convinced me that this retiring, mild-mannered author of a fascinating history of the shadowy and sinister institution that underpins the jihadi enterprise in Asia is some sort of George Smiley clone in German counter-intelligence.

After we order a pot of breakfast tea and a croissant, he laughs at my half-excited query. "I often get asked that question but, in fact, it is no mystery."

All the same, Kiessling, 80, has the kind of access journalists (and spies) would die for.

Had he included the confidential list of people he had met to write Faith, Unity, Discipline, the appendix would have expanded by 20 pages, he tells me.

He worked for a German government-funded development agency, the Hanns Seidel Foundation, starting in Balochistan, where he set up a technology training centre, and later in Islamabad and Karachi.

Mirza Aslam Beg

IMAGE: Former Pakistan military chief General Mirza Aslam Beg. Photograph: Zahid Hussein/Reuters

The foundation's work overlapped with Pakistan's political institutions -- the national assembly, senate and such think-tanks as the Institute of Strategic Studies, set up by his "good friend" Mirza Aslam Beg, former chief of army staff.

The photographs in the book are testimony to what we hacks call 'high-level contacts' -- the bulk of them feature snapshots of him with various ISI directors-general and defence chiefs.

Photos like these, and those with other senior military and politicians, certainly afforded him unprecedented mobility.

"You have to know the rules," he says.

Such insider knowledge made it possible, for instance, to cross the border at Wagah to visit the Golden Temple and stay overnight without a problem.

His friendship with Beg enabled him to accompany the former general on official trips to China and Central Asia, providing invaluable insights into a relationship that is about to become even more critical for South Asia.

As a precaution he always kept two passports, which he describes as "a restricted privilege allowed to some people in Germany".

He adds that he assumes that someone from the Indian Intelligence Bureau must be trailing him during this trip, though all this information is delivered so matter-of-factly as to rob it of all sensationalism.

Protesters rally in favour of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence in Islamabad

IMAGE: Protesters rally in favour of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence in Islamabad. Photograph: Mian Kursheed/Reuters

The Indian public became familiar with the ISI from the nineties, the popular notion being that it was a product of Pakistan's proxy Cold War role as the Central Intelligence Agency's lynchpin in Afghanistan.

Kiessling's book reminds us that the ISI's successful management of the myriad anti-Soviet jihadi groups that emerged in the eighties actually marked its resurgence after the moral crisis it faced with the loss of East Pakistan in 1971.

As an organisation, it predates India's Research and Analysis Wing by more than two decades, having been set up under British aegis -- the founding father was an Australian-born general.

The details of the ISI's evolution into a unique institution with its omnibus functions in intelligence, counter-intelligence and covert participation in the domestic political process as a 'watchdog' for the military are all related in dispassionate but engrossing detail.

As the tea, a disappointingly ordinary blend, and a bolster-sized croissant are served, we're talking about the ISI's continuing role in support of the Taliban.

He points out that the ISI is wrongly accused of having a hand in the birth of the Taliban.

It was Benazir Bhutto, in her second term, who fostered the outfit, principally as a by-product of a business decision by her husband Asif Zardari, who wanted to import cotton from Turkmenistan overland via Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

Kiessling's book offers the details.

Her interior minister, Naseerullah Khan Babar, was responsible for the safety of the route, but was unable to negotiate successfully with the many dominant warlords along it.

In his search for new allies, Babar came upon Mullah Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed commander.

Armed by the Pakistan army -- the director general, military operations at the time was one Pervez Musharraf -- the Taliban defeated many of the warlords and established itself in Kandahar.

The ISI till then had been supporting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, warlord and former Afghan prime minister, but changed tack after Kandahar's conquest.

'They saw the Taliban as a new way of turning around their fortunes, which had been at a dead-end since 1989,' Kiessling writes.

Faith, Unity, Discipline confirms many truths about Pakistan's ISI-military existential paradigm as implacably India-focused.

Like most, he sees no solution to the problem without either side blinking.

I was struck by the fact that his suggested solution for the Kashmir problem was met with studied non-reaction within the establishment.

At least once, he says, it provoked hostility -- and that was over breakfast with Beg during a trip to Ashgabat. Only Beg, two trusted lieutenants and he were present.

"I suggested getting rid of the Kashmir issue and focusing on the development of Pakistan by basically going with the status quo."

Beg's reaction was incendiary. "He told me, 'You have ruined my breakfast', and stormed off."

The first edition of the book appeared in 2011 in German, and this revised and translated edition was updated to cover events till 2015. But work on it started in 2004, two years after Kiessling had retired.

Hamid Karzai

IMAGE: Then Afghan president Hamid Karzai at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony, May 26, 2014. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Encouraged by an Order of Merit from the German government for his work in Pakistan (a similar request by his friend Agha Shahi to the Pakistani foreign office was turned down), he approached the foreign office for a six month contract as political advisor in Kabul to the embassy or to President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai was very corrupt, was he not, I interrupt.

"Oh yes," he says cheerfully. "He was a good friend, but do you know he was trying to form a monarchy -- he even started dressing like an Afghan king."

Anyway, the FO proposal did not work out, a fact he attributes to his age and lack of a "network" in Germany.

He had, after all, spent 18 years outside the country -- five of them in Fiji where he met his wife, Irene Kiessling-Wong, who was his office chief in Pakistan and his research assistant for the book.

The idea for a book, which took five years to write, took shape as he read the increasing verbiage on Af-Pak and the campaigns of the US-led international forces.

He was struck by the guesswork that went into assessments of the ISI. "Some of them were outright stupid, but they were repeated not just by the international press but also by politicians. For example, estimates of the size of the ISI ranged from 20,000 to 50,000. One German paper even put it at 120,000! When the BND (the Germany intelligence agency) has only 6,500, how can the ISI have even 10,000?"

His research put the number at 3,500, about half the size of R&AW.

Thereafter, he travelled twice a year to Pakistan and India -- at his own cost -- to meet his "friends" and research the book. He seems to be gratified and slightly bemused by the reception it has received.

An hour-and-a-half seems too little a time for the many insider stories he has to tell. Now, he says he is enjoying retired life, but you wonder.

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Kanika Datta
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