The ISI: America’s favourite scapegoat

The ISI: America’s favourite scapegoat

First, a freelance reporter brings down America’s top general in Afghanistan with a damning article in the iconic pop-culture Rolling Stone magazine. Now, thousands of classified military documents are published on to the Internet through a website called WikiLeaks allegedly through a US soldier who had a change in conscience.

Both stories have the makings of a future Hollywood film. But most importantly, both stories reveal an Afghan War that is going very wrong. Sadly, coverage in the US, of arguably the two biggest scoops of the year, can only be described as constrained. Most media moguls chose to shy away from the real story.

Michael Hastings article, “the Runaway General” did not turn in to a larger discussion of a failing war like he intended, but became a mission to prove no general is above the civilian leadership in the US.

And now in the WikiLeaks story, instead of focusing on the many war crimes, cover-ups and evidence of an occupation mentality in Afghanistan, most American news networks and publications have seized the opportunity to either berate WikiLeaks for divulging secret information or to point fingers at Pakistan by pulling headlines like, “Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan,” and editorials like “Pakistan’s double game.”

And those were just the christening headings given by the New York Times, one of the three news organizations and the only US publication that was given a two-week jump-start to analyse the 92,000 leaked US intelligence reports from the war in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009.

The Guardian, one of the two European papers that was also given early access to the classified documents decided to headline, “Massive leak of secret files exposes truth of occupation“.

In a press conference in London, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks said,  “I am often asked this question: what is the most single damning revelation, what is the thing that is easily capturable, the single event, the single personality, the single mass killing? But that is not the real story of this material, the real story of the material is that it is war. It is one damn thing, after the other.”

The WikiLeaks founder himself focused on the number of civilian casualties cited in the documents and said there is evidence of “war crimes” throughout the reports.

Click for an excerpt of the press conference.

Much in line with Assange’s tragic narrative, the leaked documents depict a disturbing fudging of facts and unreported killing of hundreds of civilians. Two incidents in particular have been highlighted by the Guardian.

One involves a group of US marines, who went on a shooting rampage after coming under attack near Jalalabad in 2007. They recorded false information about the incident, in which they actually killed 19 unarmed civilians and wounded another 50.

In another case the same year, documents detail how US special forces dropped six 2,000lb bombs on a compound where they believed a “high-value individual” was hiding, after “ensuring there were no innocent Afghans in the surrounding area”. A senior US commander reported that 150 Taliban had been killed. Locals, however, reported that up to 300 civilians had died.

But the NYT chose not to run with these stories as their lead, instead they pulled out the ISI card, in their Editorial “Pakistan’s Double Game”.

“…the most alarming of the reports were the ones that described the cynical collusion between Pakistan’s military intelligence service and the Taliban. Despite the billions of dollars the United States has sent in aid to Pakistan since Sept. 11, they offer powerful new evidence that crucial elements of Islamabad’s power structure have been actively helping to direct and support the forces attacking the American-led military coalition…..Americans are increasingly weary of this costly war. If Mr. Obama cannot persuade Islamabad to cut its ties to, and then aggressively fight, the extremists in Pakistan, there is no hope of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Here’s a bit of the Guardian coverage that takes some of the weight off the ISI:

“At least 180 files contain allegations of dirty tricks by the powerful agency with accounts of undercover agents training suicide bombers, bundles of money slipping across the border and covert support for a range of sensational plots including the assassination of President Hamid Karzai, attacks on Nato warplanes and even poisoning western troops’ beer supply. But for all their eye-popping details, the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity. Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated. The same characters – famous Taliban commanders, well-known ISI officials – and scenarios repeatedly pop up. And few of the events predicted in the reports subsequently occurred. A retired senior American officer said ground-level reports were considered to be a mixture of “rumours, bullshit and second-hand information” and were weeded out as they passed up the chain of command.”

I can understand why the US is trying to deflect off the greater tragedy that the leaked reports reveal – a failing war that has had its fair share of civilian causalities – especially at a time when the American public is increasingly growing wary of the distant war as they tighten their belts in a weak jobless economy. But I wish they chose a scapegoat other than the Pakistani ISI.

The truth is the ISI is doing what spy agencies do. Their actions are no different from the CIA. The only difference is that the ISI acts in what it perceives to be Pakistan’s interest, while the CIA acts in what it perceives to be America’s interest.

Now what is American interest? Wiping out the Taliban.

What is Pakistan’s interest? Surviving.

Here’s the bitter impending truth that Pakistan and the ISI have to deal with. When the US and Nato forces eventually leave Afghanistan, it will not be because all of the Taliban have been wiped out. It will simply be because they just aren’t worth the fight anymore. Most analysts agree that the Taliban are much stronger than they were in 2001. Fighting the allied forces the last nine years has left the tribal warriors better equipped, trained, united and organised. If anything, before bidding farewell to Afghanistan, the US will have captured some big guns among the ranks. The Taliban and their many foot soldiers and commanders will still be around. Karzai’s government, his bureaucracy, police force and Afghan army are not ready (and from the looks of it will never be ready) to deal with the Taliban. The ISI fears the dust from departing US boots would have barely settled before Afghanistan is back in Taliban hands.

And Pakistan will be left with yet another hostile neighbor. So is it really in Pakistan’s interest to alienate and declare an all-out war with the Taliban? By keeping its ties with the saner elements of the Taliban, the ISI is simply trying to prevent a painful déjà vu from the ’80s coupled with the possibility of very bitter enemy, on its western border.

The sad thing is the US understands these realities; in fact many elements within the US establishment are for talks with the “good” Taliban. And that is a course the Obama administration has been toying with since it put its new Afghan policy into motion in 2009. The leaked documents only cover incidents up until January 2009, which is before the new Obama policy was put in place. In fact, in an interview with ABC news last year, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State emphasized the need to sort out the real enemy. She said,”not every Taliban is Al Qaeda.”

So why put pressure on ISI, when they might just be doing what the US wants them to do in the first place–divide and conquer the Taliban?

Because when push comes to shove, and things start looking bleak in Afghanistan, especially to the American public, the US immediately points its finger at its “ostensible” ally.

Pakistan has become America’s favorite scapegoat.

Sahar Habib Ghazi blogs at and has been selected as a 2010-2011 Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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49 Responses to “The ISI: America’s favourite scapegoat”

  1. Qasim says:

    Nice article.

  2. Zainab Ali says:

    Pakistan and US spy agencies are working in close collaboration and perhaps that’s the reason why they have not regarded these reports as important.

  3. hero says:

    If the current state of Pakistan is the result of ISI acting in the nation’s interest over the past decades, as the author believes, then that ‘national interest’ needs to be carefully reviewed. To the author: please learn from past mistakes – what did the people of Pakistan get after it supported Taliban government in Afghanistan the last time. Like Pakistan, Iran also shares border with Afghanistan. Going by your reasoning and the fact that Iran officially opposes the US, it should be even a bigger supporter of Taliban in its ‘national interest’ than Pakistan. But I guess the Iranians know better.

  4. Iftikhar Husain says:

    The friendship with USA and Pakistan has been long very complicated because Pakistan has been used by USA for different ways and times. Whether it was spy plane or the finishing of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan through the funds from Arab countries and the USA. These allegation against Pakistan are not new but with all the sacrifice the army of Pakistan is doing it is not fair to blame only Pakistan the blame has to go to all western countries including USA for the mess they have all created. Pakistan needs a stable government and visionary leader to rebuild its pride and integrity.

    • manulegend says:

      Dreams my friend. No government in the world is stable. No person is flawless. Only decisions and policies matter.

      The reason USA can use Pakistan is because of the compromising position it is in. Some people of Pakistan has put the country in this position where it cannot think anything other than defence. How much time of the Government is spent on the living in threat?

      All you need is unanimous decisions in Parliament and Ordinances to carry out the decisions. Once you have a visionary leader, they either get killed or they are dragged out out power by Commandos.

  5. Omer Farooq says:

    Nice article, we are allied of the west and paying the highest price in the war on terror and in return what we get allegations one after another.

    • M. Asghar says:

      You might be allied with the West, but the West is not and will not be your ally, because it is roaming around you and using you for its interests as I tried to spell out before in my comment in this forum. For goodness, wake up and get out of this “Lotus eaters’naiveness”.

  6. iShairan says:

    Very nicely done.

  7. Nero says:

    Very well written! But there are a few fundamental gaps in the arguments, may be not deliberate. Spy agencies do “what they do” and they have the their “national interest” in mind. But in the case of most spy agencies “national interest” is broadly defined by the national government, and not the agencies themselves. In the case of ISI most people suspect (and with good reasons) that they/army defines “national interest” themselves, leaving a grey area muddled with their own interests. Second, most agencies run “defensive” operations (as the agenda is defined by governments). But in the case of ISI (and it’s mentor CIA) “offensive” operations dominate.

    • Usman says:

      That’s way off the mark. CIA is no ‘mentor’ of the ISI. A highly professional organisation like the ISI does not need any western ‘mentors’. You will find there are more true patriots among the ISI than any other branch of the government or military. So don’t disgrace this great organisation with you mis-judgment. Try losing you ‘Gora’ complex first.

    • manulegend says:

      Excellent point. Civilian Government decides what is National interest. Agencies shouldnt go rogue and then put the government in compromising position.

  8. sadik says:

    good job Sahar!

  9. Arshad Kazmi Los Angeles says:

    “First, a freelance reporter brings down America’s top general in Afghanistan with a damning article in the iconic pop-culture Rolling Stone magazine”.

    Is it sarcasm or a compliment ?? .

    I believe only in USA “Phool ki patti se kut sakta hay heeray ka jigar”

  10. SG says:

    I agree with the author’s point that USA, being pushed to the wall, has played the blame game. However, ISI’s support of the Taliban has been an open secret. And claiming that ISI is aiding the “good” Taliban is utterly laughable. Pakistan has learnt several lessons over the past few years – and the most crucial one is that the Taliban is against humanity and civilisation – it has nothing to do with Islam. And the Taliban will eventually destroy Pakistan. Pakistan should wake up before it is too late.

  11. blueMountain says:

    Great article… I was always dumbfounded with one aspect of the relationship. If we talk with the Taliban, we are playing a double game. If the US does it, not all Taliban are bad (suddenly).

    This lost war, a beleaguered effort at “Empire building” seems to be going the same way as, and doing the same thing to the Americans, as the Soviet enterprise in Afghanistan did to them.

    • hero says:

      I’m not sure what do you mean by ‘we’. Anyway, ISI is not accused of ‘talking’ with Taliban; its accused of helping Taliban against the Afghan Administration in Afghanistan. No problem with talks. If ‘you’ can talk with Taliban and bring about a peaceful resolution to this mess that is acceptable to all, I’ll nominate you for the Nobel Peace prize.

  12. A.Narasingarao says:

    Good defence of Pakistan by the author,but the perceptions are more important than facts.Intelligence agencies playing mischief is not a strange phenomenon.

  13. verming says:

    “Pakistan has become America’s favorite scapegoat”
    Truth is that Pakistan rarley sees fault within and is always looking for scapegoats.You should make use of organs such as eyes,ears and above all something called brains

  14. Logix79 says:

    Does it really look like ISI is working towards best interest of Pakistan? Doubtful for sure!!!

  15. Hamid says:

    Now world can see the true face of ISI.

  16. Ahmed Hassan says:

    Well written. Unless the ISAF and the United States do not commit fully to the Afghan cause, i.e. long term military and economic commitment, Pakistan can not alienate itself from the Taliban. Because from the looks of it, they will be back in Kabul by 2018.

  17. nouman says:


  18. Sudhakar says:

    The problem with ISI is that Pakistan government has no control over ISI.

  19. Usman says:

    Good work!!

  20. Eeman says:

    The ISI: [New York Time's] favourite scapegoat would have been better title.

  21. Mehmood says:

    Good Article.
    Couldn’t agree more with the author.

  22. Tufail says:

    Bravo sister Bravo… very well said.

  23. khan from Jeddah says:

    Agree with the writer. The ISI must do whatever is in the best interest of Pakistan. Period.

    • Sameer says:

      but that is not the case…is it?

      • Imran says:

        Well fortunately it is the case. They are doing their best to protect country’s interest. Everyone knows this truth in Pakistan

    • Osmond says:

      In all past incidents Wherever the ISI have interfered with matters civil, they have made a mess of it. The strategic depth policy of the ISI has brought Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USA, India, South Asia and the world to this sorry state.

  24. kak1978 says:

    The Pakistani people deserve better. They need to know the truth. ISI is playing a dangerous game. If ISI is protecting Pakistans interest, then what are GOP and Army doing? working against Pakistan’s interests? By denying these leaks Pakistan is shooting its own foot.

    • Imran says:


      As Sahar said, ISI is simply protecting Pakistan’s interest as it should do. It is just like as RAW or CIA protect their country’s interests. And then spy world is a dangerous world anyways. And let me clear one fact, every Pakistani knows the truth about ISI. People knows they are doing their job as they should which is: to prorect the interests of the country.
      But I wonder when RAW or CIA or MI5 do things they say they are protecting their country and when the same job is been done by ISI they say its dangerous game. Don’t you think so its double standards?

  25. Rajivan Menon says:

    Also, is anyone considering the fact that, this maybe a deliberate leak from someone inside the US army (top guy) and not the fall guy just to put more pressure on Pakistan and possibly turn the course of war?

    If an ordinary guy like me is not surprised by a single revelation (so called) and everything is on expected lines, I don’t think anyone in the governments of the rest of the world were blinded about these facts.

    • Sameer says:

      I am of the same opinion..may be USA does not want to tell this directly to Pakistan because they are fighting along with them and also seeks ISI cooperation at some levels so they just might have fabricated the leak…

  26. R.Kannan says:

    Good article. It is valid that ISI does what is in Pakistan’s interests. However, the leaks have shown that the Taliban have been strengthened by them.

  27. Kaami says:

    History repeats itself. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union the Americans left away and the Taliban took over Afghanistan. What happened then and is still happening now – suicide bombings, murder of minorities, rise in religious fundamentalism etc. Now the US is going leave Afghanistan again. What is going to happen now? To me it seems like history is going to repeat itself.

  28. Danny says:

    Brilliant piece – Excellent! Thank you for this, we need more sanity like this in the news media.

  29. underwhelming, blame game. the usual.

  30. Ganges100 says:

    One more Pakistan’s denial.

    Ok, Guardian did not focus much on ISI part, it does not mean it denied that.

    • Ahmed says:

      Basically writer is 100% correct – US and Nato are losing in Afghanistan and they need an escape goat. What better escape goat than ISI. ISI cannot even control what happening inside Pakistan let alone outside Pakistan. So pro India and anti Pakistan elements in US media selectively take up ISI related portions of the leak. And mind you none of the leaks are verfied.

  31. Salman says:

    Well said. I believe wars in today’s world are half-won by how you portray them to the world and thus shape global opinion in your favour. The “media war” is the real war nowadays. We always see Pakistan shown in a negative light. We all know its not all bad in Pakistan, but this is what we are made to believe. This is just another example of how the West is using its media muscle to make Pakistan the scapegoat. While we all talk about cleaning up the mess in our country (honestly, which country does not have a mess of some sort), we also need to reach out to the world and present our point of view. And this article is a good step towards this goal.

    • Samyak Gowda says:

      you’re completely right.

      But looking at all the leakages and the so called perceived truth about ISI being known everywhere in the world, either Pakistan is doing a bad job of shaping the public opinion or ISI is doing a terrible job.

      • Mirror says:

        Very true!
        Good media image is necessary.
        Pakistanis outside of Pakistan specially in the western countries are looked upon with great suspicion.

        Long Live ISI

  32. Kashi says:

    Very True. Kudos to the writer. a fair assessment of ISI’s role

  33. Hassan says:

    In full agreement with the author…..

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