OPINION | Understanding Taliban and ISI Ties: A Network Approach
IndraStra Open Journal Systems
IndraStra Global

OPINION | Understanding Taliban and ISI Ties: A Network Approach

By Shaul M. Gabbay
Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, USA

OPINION | Understanding Taliban and ISI Ties: A Network Approach

Image Attribute: Pakistan Flag / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Understanding the relationship between the ISI and the Taliban requires a deeper sociological perspective; particularly in showing how such supposedly diametrically opposed actors actually demonstrate a symbiotic relationship. In order to conceptualize this paradox, it is necessary to look from the ground up, rather than the top- down, as many in the field have attempted to do.

To begin, Pakistan finds its roots in tribal society. In this society there are two key aspects that take primacy above all else: religion and family. Both are products of socialization, meaning that from birth, an individual is given the tools to develop individual and collective identities. This includes teachings from parents, educators, and from religious leaders as well. Additionally, individuals are heavily influenced by their surroundings and culture. It is here that we begin to see how society, on a macro level, operates, and how we are able to enforce our understandings of right and wrong, just and unjust. From an early age, we are taught to develop networks. Indeed, the core family is a network in and of itself, where individuals (fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers) learn their roles within the network. The network extends, of course to other close relatives, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. These can be referred to as natural networks, as they are “built in” to an individual’s life upon birth.

As we grow and interact with society, we begin to enhance our natural networks with the in the inclusion of friends, fellow students, fellow members of our religious congregation, and so forth. It is then that informal networks, not unlike natural networks are developed. As argued in the author’s previously published paper, “Engineering Social Capital in the Middle East: Rebuilding Trust” [1] , trust is essential to building these networks, which eventually translates into accumulating social capital. The author argued that the existence of trust allows for the buildup of productive ties, while the absence of trust significantly diminishes the possibility of cooperation. Once trust is established—through systematic cooperation and the building of meaningful ties, organizations on a broader scale can begin to solidify.

Based on the solidification of trust, informal networks and organizations are established and become fluid. In his analytically sound piece, “The Utility of Informal Networks to Policy-Makers”, Alexander Evans points to the nature of informal networks, and how they lead to trust building and lead into the establishment of cohesive social organizations [2] . He argues that it is impossible to understand how governments and societies operate without first grasping the nature of informal networks. Evans writes:

Informal networks, and unofficial ways of doing things, are all around us. Culture, as much as rules, shape organizations and the incentives that apply to people within them… Informal networks and cultures guide the way in which organizations function; in particular how information is transmitted within them. Power, prestige, influence and trust are all strongly influenced by the nature of organizational culture; social norms are powerful, and although not unchanging, can provide significant insights into where power is located and how decisions are reached. Informal networks take many forms, but often draw on ties of kinship, friendship, or social obligation [2] .

Turning our attention to the specific case of Pakistan, Evans points to sifarish (meaning “recommendation”). In Pakistan, sifarish is a system akin to nepotism, where individuals holding positions in high places (including in government and business) are “obligated”, due to their informal networks, to offer open positions first to members of their kinship group and loyal friends. Sifarish is also tied to biraderi. Meaning brotherhood, biraderi provides the basis for the larger kin group in Pakistani society. In essence, all men that can trace their ancestry to one common male ancestor are known to belong to the same biraderi. Biraderi is essentially a combination of natural networks (associated with birth) and informal networks, grounded in an expansion of natural networks. Biraderi, given its ties to ancestry, is not beholden to internationally recognized borders. For example, a Pakistani individual living in the United States will always be tied to his/her biraderi and others within it, no matter where they reside.

Taking sifarish and biraderi into consideration, we can begin to understand the paradoxical relationship between the ISI and groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The issue really becomes a question of loyalty. We remember that individuals within Pakistani society are loyal first to their religion (Islam) and their kinship group. Government and public society are secondary, and loyalties to such organizations are still conditioned by trust and how an individual can benefit from each of the competing organizations. In his analysis of tribal groups in Pakistan entitled “Honor the Baloch, Buy the Pushtun”, Paul Titus examines the quasi-state of the tribal regions and how the government has to take into consideration the power of networks in dealing with them. Titus argues, “People approach new situations with the cultural categories and institutions with which they are familiar and with which they have had success in the past. Thus features of social life that gave rise to particular generalizations about Pushtun and Balaoch in the colonial era persist today” [3] .

In brief, Titus argues that cultural, historical, and even individual ties are important to understanding how groups cooperate or come into conflict. Individuals naturally gravitate to what is comfortable with him or her, and groups that support their worldviews. Therefore, we often times see that for some, the Pakistani government offers the best possibility to enhance security as well as individual and collective goals. At the same time however, groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda present a front that is attractive in terms of local stability and groups that are in line with religious needs. These needs are not lost on the Pakistani government and the ISI. As members of the community themselves, they realize the importance of informal and formal networks, which is why they have historically attempted to co-opt both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in order to put forth a united front, as well as to preserve power. This was the case during the Zuia ul-Haq regime, as well as the Musharraf regime.

Both governments, as well as the current government could not overlook the public sympathy for organizations such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, particularly when these groups were more in line with their needs, and provided benefits to their own networks that the government simply could not supply. In his piece entitled, “Passive Supporters of Terrorism”, Daniel Byman discusses the general respect Pakistanis had for Osama bin Laden. Byman argues:

Bin Laden and his followers enjoyed genuine popular support in Pakistan. Many poorer Pakistanis saw him as a modern-day Robin Hood, a man who combined both faith and action. Many middle- and upper-class Pakistanis also support al-Qaeda, seeing it as one of the few Muslim movements that successfully stands up to the United States. Reflecting this popularity, pilgrims visit the sites where al-Qaeda members died, and those who cooperate with the Pakistani government against the organization are often ostracized [4] .

Byman’s account concerning bin Laden and the support he received in greater Pakistani society should not be minimized. From a sociological perspective, it helps us to constantly remember that every individual is beholden to various, often seemingly conflicting networks, ranging from familial, to political, to spiritual. Based on these networks, individuals must choose where to place their loyalties. In the case of bin Laden, many Pakistanis sought him out (and his mission) as a way to fulfill multiple needs that were not necessarily conflicting with their spiritual convictions and political ideologies. All the while, they were also able to uphold their honor in terms of societal respect, as the “Bin Laden movement” and the ideology it promoted spanned across multiple networks. On the other hand, we had individuals within government that outwardly opposed bin Laden and his actions. As Byman notes, these individuals made the difficult choice of standing against bin Laden, while justifying their decision in the face of becoming outcasts from their greater communities.

Publication Details:

Social Networking
Vol.03 No.05(2014), Article ID:51104,9 pages
Networks, Social Capital, and Social Liability: The Case of Pakistani ISI, the Taliban and the War against Terrorism

Shaul M. Gabbay
Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, Denver, CO, USA
Copyright © 2014 by author and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).


[1] Gabbay, S.M. and Leenders, R.T. (2001) Social Capital of Organizations. JAI, Amsterdam.

[2] Evans , A. (2010) Terrorism, Security, and the Power of Informal Networks. Edward Elgar Publishing, Northhampton, 13-14.

[3] Titus , P. (1998) Honor the Baloch, Buy the Pushtun: Stereotypes, Social Organization and History in Western Pakistan. Modern Asian Studies, 32, 657-687.http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X98003023

[4] Byman, D. (2005) Passive Sponsors of Terrorism. Survival, 47, 117-144.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00396330500433399