The Clash of Organizations: From the CIA to the Taleban


The organization structure of an intelligence agency is perhaps one of the most interesting structures that come to mind when studying organizational theory. My curiosity, and the plentiful room for speculation that is available when trying to study the workings of an intelligence agency make this subject as interesting as it is. To demonstrate the diversity that exists in organization structures across the board, I have selected three different organizations that were arguably created to serve a variation of the same set of goals for the region of interest (and operation).

To get us started, I will present a brief introduction of all three organizations.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA):

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government. It is the successor to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) formed during World War II to coordinate espionage activities between the branches of the US military services. (Source: Wikipedia)

Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI):

The Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (also Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI) is the largest intelligence service in Pakistan. It is one of the three main branches of Pakistan’sintelligence agencies. (Source: Wikipedia)


The Taleban is a Sunni militant movement that goeverned a majority of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The movement has its roots within the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen.

The Links:

While the CIA and the ISI were born around the same time (1947) they did not cross paths (in any known arena) until the 1980s. When the Soviets laid their eyes on Afghanistan, CIA responded through the ISI. A special Afghan Section was also created within the ISI with the help of the CIA, many of ISIs officers received training in the US and helped coordinate the war in Afghanistan by providing crucial support to the Afghan Mujahedeen.

Once the Soviets had been uprooted from Afghanistan, much of the funding and support that the ISI received was curtailed. The Mujahedeen too were forgotten for the most part – but both organizations (ISI/Taleban) remained on friendly terms until the attacks of September 11.

Degrees of Formalization:

The CIA can be seen as the most rationalized and formalized of the three organizations followed by the ISI and the Taleban, respectively. The CIA functions within well-defined rules, regulations, and laws and is answerable to consistently well-defined entities. While it may be argues that the internal workings of the CIA are not known to many within the organization, those in its high command are elected or nominated officials, answerable in the end to the President of the United States.

Things are not so clear when it comes to the ISI. While the ISI is part of the military structure, its command is ill-defines and its power subject to few checks and balances. In addition there is the external factor of cooperation with powerful governments like that of the US. Since much of the operations carried out by the ISI are carried out within the South Asian realm, the organizations lower ranks operate in a much more ‘traditional’ manner. This is exactly what makes the ISI a good choice for interfacing with groups like the Taleban which exhibit the least amount of rationalization and formalization.

The Taleban are composed of many sects, tribes, and operate under several different war lords who have very complex allegiances to various groups. This makes for a very challenging task when it comes to running a nation using such a diverse organization.


When it comes to properties that all organizations strive for, one is reliability. The ability to perform the same thing in the same manner over and over again. All of the organizations above have demonstrated their ability to accomplish this. Hence, they all have achieved a major goal within their environments. The CIA continues to provide crucial intelligence to the US Government/Military and has repeatedly conducted succesful coups and lef proxy wars across the globe. The ISI has overthrown several elected governments in Pakistan (most of which are widely believed to have been overthrown to meet US expectations) and continues to support militant groups inside and outside Pakistan in ways that baffle even the Pakistan establishment. And the Taleban have spread their area of inluence deep into Pakistan, and continue to control several areas in Afghanistan even after almost eight years of fighting the far superior military machinery of the coalition forces.


Another quality of organizations that ensures that they will continue to function as desired to meet their goals and expectations is the presence of accountability features. While some may believe that the Taleban and ISI are not necessarily accountable to anyone, it only takes a few horrendous news stories to change that thought. In the recent past many fighters have been publicly executed by the Taleban on charges of spying for eithee the Pakistani or the US Governments – there is a system of accountability. The task at hand must be completed. Attempting to present this introduction to these three organizations, especially the Taleban, I am forced to think more and more of the quote from Moby Dick.

“All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.” – With considerable room for controversy, argument and all the ingredients for some very interesting conversations, I would like to conclude this introduction here. Perhaps I will return at a later point to shed some more light on these organizations.

I will leave you with something to think about: In the past eight or nine years, how many different Muslim-sounding or Arab-sounding names have you come across in the US media which have all been defined as the Taleban # 2 or Taleban # 3? I can think of a few, and I have never seen the same one repeated enough that it would stick in my mind. How would you feel if such ambiguity surrounded the CIA’s organization chart?

4 Responses

  1. It’s hard to say which organization is better, specially when at least one organization deliberately kills people, the others amy just do that but we will never truly know. On a funny note, Japanese names often very similar and I think every foreigner would think names from another country to be/sound that way…is Johnson a first name or last? How about Smith?

  2. Hey very interesting piece Nadir. I thought you may enjoy this book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.

    It discusses many of the relationships you talked about between the CIA, ISI, and the Taliban. I have a copy if you would like to borrow it.

  3. You might also enjoy this one Ghost Wars

    Also, it would be fascinating to revisit this topic from the view of open systems. Which organization have a better fit to their environment? How have their environments changed?

  4. Thanks for the comments guys.

    Anna: All the organizations have their dirty business, sometimes the dirtiest business is dished out to proxy organizations like the ISI and the Taleban because the CIA does not want direct involvement. CIA has in the past admitted to many coup and/or assasination attempts. President Chavez is high on their list nowadays it seems.

    Evan: I would love to read that book! I read Charlie Wilson’s War which was a good book, but would like to learn more about these organizations. If I could borrow ir before Spring Break that would be great 🙂

    Jordi: I looked at the book, it seems interesting. I know we are going to study terrorist organizations as example of network organizations, so we will discuss this more then. Here’s an interesting news story from last week: Exposed: Secret CIA Base in Pakistan

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