An embrace without trust

For decades, US geopolitical interests in southern Asia have centred on controlling the Indian Ocean, with its lucrative energy transport routes to and from Japan and China. The events of 9/11, however, in association with nuclear weapons proliferation and the rise of al-Qaeda, have immensely complicated US regional goals in recent years. This new-found complexity has created severe tensions between Washington and Islamabad, which are most notable in their rapidly deteriorating intelligence relations.

It is true that there is no such thing as friendly relations between intelligence agencies belonging to different countries: there are only degrees of coexistence stemming from shared strategic goals. Consequently, US-Pakistani intelligence relations have never been amicable, but have been mired by mutual antagonism and suspicion. Even in the 1980s, when both nations actively co-operated with anti-Soviet Afghan forces and with each other, their respective intelligence agencies kept their distance from, and eyes on, each other.

In the 1990s, after the hasty pullout of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) grabbed the opportunity to further-cultivate its relations with the Afghan Taliban, which Islamabad used as a barrier against Indian influence in the region. The US was broadly tolerant of Pakistan’s strategy, just as it had been tolerant of Islamabad’s nuclear program, which began in the early 1970s with Chinese and later US, support.

But 9/11 changed all that. Shortly after the attacks, the US-backed government of General Pervez Musharraf was told by then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to choose between joining Washington’s “global war on terrorism” and being “bomb[ed] back to the stone age.” “Joining” the war, had essentially a two-fold meaning: first, Pakistan was being ordered to sever its relations with the Taliban and other Afghan-, Indian- and Pakistan-based militant groups. Second, it was told to effectively place its nuclear arsenal under Washington’s control. In return, the Bush administration offered to finance a radical reorganisation of the Pakistani security establishment, along US directives.

By November of 2008 –the time of the Mumbai attacks– the US had provided Pakistan with nearly $15 billion in security-related aid (excluding unknown amounts in covert assistance). The CIA was directly bankrolling as much as a third of the ISI’s annual budget, in full knowledge that large portions of these funds were being secretly channelled to support Pakistan’s strategic rivalry with India, including financing Pakistan-aligned militant groups in Afghanistan. Yet, in the eyes of both the Bush and the Obama Administrations, the US could not afford to sever its security ties with Pakistan any more than Pakistani agencies could afford to cut their financial contacts with Washington. One former senior US intelligence official told The New York Times that the US National Security Council voices “deep misgivings about the ISI […] every year, but ultimately decides that there [i]s no other game in town”.

The primary reason why “there is no other game in town” lies with the chronic deficiency in the CIA’s human intelligence (HUMINT, actual spies on the ground) capabilities. The agency’s Dari- and Pashto-speaking agents, known as ‘the Cadre’ during the Afghan-Soviet war, have become a rarity in recent years, and the homogeneous racial makeup of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service force leaves very few agents who can appear in Pakistani cities like Peshawar or Quetta in daytime –without turning heads. The HUMINT capabilities of the Punjabi-dominated ISI are not great either, when it comes to Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Pashtun Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs) along the Afghan border. But they are far better than the CIA’s, and force the latter to rely heavily on Pakistani agents on the ground.

The Pakistanis, however, do not trust the CIA any more than in the days of the Afghan-Soviet war. Consequently, they use the HUMINT limitations of the Americans to control their movements inside Pakistan, to the extent that CIA agents are “rarely allowed to leave [US] safe houses [or] compound[s] by the Pakistanis”, according to one former CIA agent with several years of experience in the region.

To compensate for its HUMINT deficit, the CIA has resorted to air strikes by unmanned Predator drones. This program, which began in 2004 and was intensified after 2008, is carried out with the discreet consent of the Pakistani government. It aims to use the CIA’s limited intelligence collection to locate and assassinate senior al-Qaeda and Taliban officials, who are now mostly inside Pakistan. But the program has had limited success, having killed hundreds of civilians according to independent estimates. Its extra-judicial nature has prompted a severe backlash in Pakistan, with over 90 percent of the population disapproving it as “counterproductive” in terms of “winning the hearts and minds of people” in the tribal areas and beyond.

These critical shortcomings have compelled the CIA to try to break free from the ISI’s HUMINT domination, by trying to develop its own networks of informants inside FATA, sometimes in association with Arab intelligence agencies. But the suicide attack on December 30th, 2009, suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman, which virtually annihilated the CIA presence in the Afghan region of Khost, points to the severe risks involved in that effort.

The Pakistanis, too, have several complaints against the CIA. They accuse it of using Predator drones to secretly test the capabilities of Pakistani radar detection systems. It is also common knowledge that the presence of US stealth surveillance aircraft in Afghanistan is not aimed for use against the Taliban, who have no radar detection systems, but primarily against Iran and Pakistan. Moreover, Islamabad charges Washington with responsibility over the resurgence of the Afghan heroin trade, which has risen exponentially since 2001 and threatens to further destabilise the economy of the region. Fundamentally, the Pakistanis cannot understand why it should be their intelligence agencies, out of all the intelligence agencies currently operating in Afghanistan, that should desist from developing strategic ties with local warlords.

The unresolved strategic differences between Washington and Islamabad, coupled with their mutual tactical dependency on the ground, are leading the downward spiral in intelligence relations between the CIA and the ISI. One commentator recently described it as “a bad marriage in which both spouses have long stopped trusting each other, but would never think of breaking up because they have become so mutually dependent”.

Instead of breaking up, therefore, the two agencies have opted for co-operating as little as practically possible, and even subverting each other in an underground low-intensity conflict. Relations between them were described as “good” between 2001 and 2003, even to the point that some CIA officials appear to have been prepared to overlook the ISI’s ongoing links with militant Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba. But by 2007, the declining strength of the US-backed military government of General Musharraf widened the gap of mistrust between the two agencies, and by 2008 they were no longer sharing any actionable intelligence, not even on Predator drone strikes. In recent months, the inter-agency conflict has intensified to a stage of open war, with Pakistani counter-intelligence teams openly keeping tabs on US diplomats, refusing to renew diplomatic visas, and even coming close to expelling the US Deputy Ambassador to Islamabad, Gerald Feierstein, after he said publicly that senior Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders were operating in Quetta.

Because of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict in Afghanistan and western Pakistan, the CIA and the ISI often determine the broad character of complex strategic alliances in the region, which tend to change rapidly and with little advance notice. Recent events from the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands show that the CIA and the ISI are increasingly finding themselves on opposite sides of the fence in an escalating conflict with no apparent end in sight. As the relations between them deteriorate, so does the fragile strategic alliance between the US and Pakistan.

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