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Book Review: Hein G. Kiessling: ISI und R&AW – Die Geheimdienste Pakistans und Indiens

Kiessling, Hein G.: ISI und R&AW – Die Geheimdienste Pakistans und Indiens. Konkurrierende Atommächte, ihre Politik und der internationale Terrorismus. Verlag Dr. Köster, Berlin , 2011, 420 p., €29.80, ISBN 978-3-89574-770-0.

Two weeks ago, Hein Kiessling, a political scientist who has lived and worked for a German political foundation in Balochistan and Pakistan from 1989 till 2002, presented his most eagerly anticipated book to the public at an event organized by the Gesprächskreis Nachrichtendienste in Deutschland and the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

For the first time in the German-speaking world, Dr Kiessling is delivering a comprehensive and insightful history of the structure, organizational culture and geopolitical entanglements of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). It spans from the modest beginnings of both organizations (with the ISI having been established in 1948, and the RA&W in 1968) until today, while the postscript even briefly refers to the May 2nd killing of Osama bin Laden by US troops in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Arguing that there is “no ISI within the ISI”, the author implies that there must have been some Pakistani knowledge of ObL’s whereabouts and coordination with US authorities before the raid.

Touching a broad spectrum of issues, such as nuclear proliferation, the relations with and infiltration by other intelligence services (most notably ISI-CIA and, during the Cold War, R&AW-KGB), the lack of parliamentary oversight and accountability as well as the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Kiessling excels at presenting obsessive detail with profound analysis. Particularly, he manages to link the developments in intelligence up with the – for a Western reader oftentimes confusing – political seesaw of Pakistan and India, carving out the services’ role as both subordinate instruments and independent epicenters of actual power.

It is telling that Kiessling’s book can actually be read as two rather uneven and separate accounts, with Pakistan’s ISI occupying some 275 pages, whereas India’s R&AW is only filling 100 pages of the whole volume. This is, of course, not least due to the ISI de facto also operating as a domestic intelligence service as opposed to the R&AW. Clearly, the author draws heavily on his personal experience and extensive contacts in the region and, thus, is thoroughly meeting the current concerns voiced by politics, media and the public to shed light on namely the ISI’s dubious design and role. He also remarks that in 2007 and 2008, two major books on the R&AW have been published by high-profile experts (B. Raman and R.S.N. Singh) in India. On the other hand, the Pakistani Defence Journal and other kindred think tanks, he adds, have contributed their share to make the R&AW’s allegedly hostile influence public. At the same time, India is not tiring in its attempt to explain to the world the dodgy mindset of Pakistani intelligence which has directly or indirectly been blamed for almost every major threat to Indian national security over the last decades.

While it would have been helpful for the reader to find the rather thin bibliography annotated by the undoubtedly very well-informed author, taking explicitly into account the quite obviously problematic source material situation, other appendices seem to have been copied in English without even referring to sources (they’re probably partly taken from FAS) – and without further informational need – at all. Also, adding photographs of the author’s family to the attached collection of mostly ISI VIP snapshots is somewhat incomprehensible.

Yet apart from those minor flaws, Kiessling’s book is both – as the subtitle suggests – ambitious (its table of contents can be found here) and instructive, and it surely deserves becoming a must-read for anyone interested in both services’ history, structure, mission and involvement in the IND-PAK conflict for the time being. A slightly revised translation into English would therefore be highly desirable.

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