Stop Thinking Monolithically

by Joshua Foust on 5/27/2009 · 4 comments

The most common complaint in the U.S. about Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is “the ISI did it.” This is certainly true for a big stretch of the 1990s, when supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and supporting other militant Islamist groups focused on Kashmir (of which the Taliban were a small part) made strategic sense. But after 2001 or so, that relationship became significantly more complicated, first by Pervez Musharraf caving to mis-placed American pressure to “do something,” then by his own government’s unwillingness to turn its back on its clients.

The challenges in discussing the ISI’s relationship to the Taliban is that the ISI is not a single, monolithic organization. There are permanent agents who may or may not loyalty issues, but also big chunks of its officers are seconded from the Pakistani Army—who again, may or may not have loyalty issues. It has multiple divisions with different foci, including one developed solely to research and analysis (much like India’s external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing). Within those divisions, there can sometimes be tremendous leeway for operations officers to behave semi-autonomously—much like in the CIA in the U.S.

Anyway, while the structure of the ISI is very interesting, it is important to keep in mind when we hear news like the bombing of the ISI building in Lahore (pics here). Does this mean the Taliban are unhappy with the ISI? Perhaps—it would be foolhardy to extrapolate much from this single instance, but it does help to highlight that, just as the U.S. government is not one single monolithic entity behaving with a singular purpose and methodology, neither is the government of Pakistan—and especially not its intelligence service. So there is probably a much deeper issue at play here, including strategic considerations on the part of the militants, and whether the ISI really does have its act together.

And let’s not forget Afghanistan: if Syed Saleem Shahzad is to be believed (and he really is), then al Qaeda has nixed plans to further destabilize Pakistan through targeted assassinations in its efforts to remain focused on Afghanistan—which could mean that all this talk of interconnectedness (i.e. “the insurgent syndicate“) is a whole lot of bunk. But again: extrapolating from single instances is a dangerous game. Keep your mind open about what’s happening, and let’s try to avoid narrow, stererotype-laden thinking in the pundit class. Alright?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Canute May 27, 2009 at 7:13 pm

It is also useful to remember that the Taliban are not monolithic either. There have been pro and anti Al Qaeda factions. Who knows how many internal divisions there are, and on what lines? The situation is too complicated and opaque to chase down all the leads, and probably not all that profitable in the end. By the time you could figure out the org chart it would have changed.

It points towards the advisability of a disciplined, structural, long-term strategy, rather than reacting to the latest dramatic act or tactical alliance. As you wrote, there is pressure to “do something.” The Pakistani government could accomplish more by being different. Much of the Taliban’s initial support in Afghanistan came from its lack of corruption and its imposition of security. Less kleptocracy and more social services would root out the Taliban more effectively than air strikes. If the devil is in the details, then perhaps we should ignore them?

Mohan May 28, 2009 at 8:39 am

The article says the ISI isn’t monolithic. Alright, one can buy that. No human grouping of more than, say, 150 people can be monolithic (150 is the point at which clans/tribes tend to split into subclans btw). So, the ISI is full of humans.

But, in the main, this article misses the point. The core reason the ISI is so dangerous is because the official state in Pakistan does not control it. It is in essence “a state within a state.” It is the learning of over two millennia that anytime you do this, the multiple “states” eventually end in conflict. When the ISI helps the Taliban, they sometimes do so without assent of the civil administration in Pakistan. The ISI can (and probably does) commit Pakistan to courses of action that the official state might disagree with. That’s the whole idea of being a failed state. You cease to have a singular organization that fits the classical Weberian definition of a state – “the entity that has a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence in a given territory.” Pakistan has multiple such entities.

There is no way that they will not come into conflict. If each state-aspirant can marshal resources to hold its own in even subregions of Pakistan, no matter how indirectly they do it and no matter how proper they seem to be on the surface, the result is an inexorable move towards some form of civil war. As in any human system, once a group acquires critical mass and entrenched interests, even its leaders/creators cannot stop it. The civil administration tried to move the ISI to be under civil jurisdiction and the ISI successfully thwarted it. It is not accountable to the President of Pakistan. It is uncertain if even military people (e.g. Kiyani) can bring it under control. It could probably destroy Kiyani if it wanted to.

David M May 28, 2009 at 9:01 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/28/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

T. Greer May 28, 2009 at 1:16 pm


Very interesting post. From the viewpoint of NATO, would it be wise to push Pakistan towards consolidating the ISI? One hears a lot about pushing Pakistan to reform this way or that way- perhaps this is where reform might be the most useful to Counterinsurgents in Afghanistan?

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