Last week, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar took over as head of Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In an email interview, Frederic Grare, senior associate and director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia program, discussed the evolution of ISI.

WPR: How have ISI’s strategic priorities changed over the past decade as a result of the changing security and political realities in Afghanistan and India?

Frederic Grare
Frédéric Grare is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on Indo-Pacific dynamics, the search for a security architecture, and South Asia Security issues.
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Frederic Grare: This kind of question is difficult to answer for two reasons: The internal functions of intelligence systems around the world are opaque by necessity, and the ISI is no exception; and even though it enjoys a degree of autonomy, the ISI does not promote a policy of its own. As its name (Inter-Service Intelligence) suggests, it is the intelligence body of the three arms of the military, and as such reflects the broader military view. Even though it might also display its own “corporate” thinking, the ISI is only one voice within the security establishment—even if it is a powerful one.

With regard to India and Afghanistan, there are few reasons to believe that the strategic priorities have changed. On India, this reflects both continuity in the strategic objectives and a tactical adjustment to current circumstances. With the Pakistani army fighting the Pakistani Taliban along the Afghan border, the ISI seeks to avoid any provocation that may lead to a military escalation on the line of control or the international border while also keeping the main issues, such as Kashmir, unresolved. On Afghanistan, the priorities remain unchanged. The overarching objective is still to promote a relatively friendly government in Kabul while limiting Indian influence as much as possible. 

The means, however, have changed. The ISI is no longer limiting itself to the Pashtun areas, and has reached out to its former enemies of the Northern Alliance. The ISI is also trying to promote a reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but on its own terms and under its control.

WPR: How has its role in Pakistan evolved in that time, with regard to both the broader military and the civilian political leadership?

Grare: The domestic role of the ISI has certainly evolved over the past two decades and seems to have increased in importance. In 2007, Pervez Kayani became the first director general (DG) of the agency to become chief of army staff, a promotion that would have been previously unthinkable and signals the growing importance of the ISI in military circles. The relationship between the ISI and the civilian political leadership has not changed. The DG of the ISI is officially nominated by the prime minister, but remains de facto accountable to the chief of army staff.

WPR: Are there any conclusions to be drawn from the selection of the new head of the ISI, in terms of future strategic positioning and factional or generational power shifts?

Grare: We should not read too much into the nomination of the new ISI head, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar. His regional priorities will continue to be set by the military. As for his relations with the civilian leadership, his nomination has been followed by a political crisis in which, according to representatives of all political parties in Pakistan, the leader of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Imran Khan, and the cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri were only the public faces. Interestingly, one of the benefits the military got from the crisis was the reassertion of their control over foreign policy.

This interview was originally published in World Politics Review.