ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency is often portrayed as a rogue operator whose agents pursue their own agendas. In fact, the ISI, as it's known, is part of the Pakistani military, headed by a senior Army general and subject to the military chain of command.
"It's a very disciplined organization, but with a very large freedom of action. When they get a policy directive, they have certain room for maneuver, keeping the interests of the state in view," said Shujaat Ali Khan, a retired general who used to head the internal wing of the ISI, which has functions of the U.S. CIA, the FBI and other agencies.
Although it nominally reports to the prime minister, the ISI answers to the Army chief, said Khan. Pakistan's Army needs to serve the U.S. — which provides it with billions of dollars of military aid, not including covert assistance that goes directly to the ISI — but it has contradictory interests, too, and they include supporting the Taliban and other militant Islamic groups that are hostile to the U.S.
"The Pakistani Army is like a woman with multiple lovers, she has to satisfy them all," said Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of Military Inc. "While courting the Taliban, it sleeps with America."
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Pakistan's military leaders court the Taliban for practical, not ideological, reasons. In fact, the mostly secular officer corps has little use for the Taliban's puritanical brand of Islam.
Facing a hostile and huge India to its east, Pakistan doesn't want to see Afghanistan allied with India to its west, and many Pakistanis think the U.S.-backed regime of Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai tilts toward India.
"Nobody in Pakistan wants to see America win," said Hamid Gul, a retired general who's a former director-general of the ISI. "That would spell danger to Pakistan in the long run. They, America, want to make us subservient to India."
"The Karzai government is totally in the hands of India," said Khalid Khawaja, a former ISI officer who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s during the war against the Soviet invasion and once described Osama bin Laden as "a wonderful person." They want to break up Pakistan and seize our nuclear assets. Today, if NATO attacks Pakistan, the Taliban and al Qaida will be the front line of our defense."
Beyond the historic fears about India lie deep Pakistani suspicions about America. The fear, fueled by the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, is that once the U.S. pacifies Afghanistan, Pakistan would be next.
"Why are we always trying to allay U.S. fears?" said Shireen Mazari, a security analyst based in Islamabad. ". . . One of the biggest blunders of our elite is to see America as a friend and ally."
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.