Why choose now to complain about Pakistan’s ISI?

August 1, 2008

Partial solar eclipse in Karachi/Athar HussainWhy now? Until this week, the ISI was an acronym for Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, that was little known outside of South Asia. Now it’s all over the American media as the organisation accused of secretly helping Islamist militants in  Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the country it works for is a crucial ally in the U.S. battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The New York Times led the charge by reporting that the CIA had confronted Pakistan over what it called deepening ties between members of the ISI and militant groups responsible for a surge in violence in Afghanistan. It followed it up with a story  quoting U.S. government officials blaming the ISI for an attack last month on the Indian embassy in Kabul. The Washington Post and TIME, amongst others, ran similar stories.

File photo of Indian parliamentWhenever you see a deluge of stories in the media quoting government or intelligence officials, it’s always worth asking why those unnamed officials have chosen this particular moment to speak out. The accusations against the ISI — denied by Pakistan — are not new.  

India has complained for years about the role of the ISI in supporting the insurgency in Kashmir. It threatened to go to war in 2001/2002 over a December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament that it blamed on militants backed by the ISI,  a charge denied by Pakistan. The debate within India at the time was very similar to the one you can find today in the U.S. media — how much do the ruling authorities in Pakistan control the ISI, and to what extent is it a monolithic disciplined organisation, and to what extent does it have renegade members who might follow their own agenda?

More importantly, perhaps, in the current context, is how the Americans viewed the ISI.  The U.S. diplomats I knew in India had no illusions about the ISI, although publicly they refused to take sides as they tried – successfully as it turned out — to persuade Islamabad and Delhi to stand down from a conflict that threatened to undermine America’s post 9/11 efforts to tame Afghanistan.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, the CIA worked closely with the ISI to arm, train and fund the mujahideen. Between them they drove the Russians out of Afghanistan and helped bring down the Soviet Union. There can be no closer relationship between two countries’ spy agencies than that.  The CIA knows, and has long known, the ISI — perhaps better than any other country’s intelligence services.

So I come back to my original question. Why turn on them now?

There are, of course, obvious answers. Pakistan’s new government, elected in February, just made a botched attempt to bring the ISI under civilian control.  Its subsequent retraction served only to highlight the power of the ISI.  The Americans and their allies are suffering heavy losses in Afghanistan, while going into a presidential election where the war in Iraq, and the U.S. failure to hunt down al Qaeda and the Taliban, have become a major issue.

But I can’t help but wonder whether those unnamed officials now so keen to talk to the media are spinning a line.  There have long been arguments within the CIA about how to handle the ISI, with agents based in Kabul generally arguing in favour of confrontation and those in Islamabad backing cooperation.

So is what we are seeing in the U.S. media a reflection of a battle within the CIA over rival views on how to handle Pakistan and the ISI? Maybe.

Or is it a reflection of actual events, including the increase in violence in Afghanistan, the renewed focus on Iraq/al Qaeda created by the U.S. presidential election, the speculation about whether the United States will send its troops into Pakistan to hunt down leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan over the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul? Maybe.

I am not asking these questions in the kind of rhetorical way that suggests that I already know the answer. I’m asking because I don’t know.

April photo of a support holding a poster of Saddam Hussain/Saba al BazeeBut I am just a little bit suspicious when I see the media all heading in the same direction. It feels uncannily similar to the way the media quoted unnamed officials about WMD to justify the invasion of Iraq. Many countries had been suspicious of Saddam Hussein since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But having ignored that for years,  there was suddenly a groundswell of opinion to remove him. Are we now seeing a similar groundswell against Pakistan?

Once again, I don’t know the answer, but suggest only that there is a need to ask why people have chosen this moment to talk.  Otherwise we prove the old cliche true, that “we learn from history that we don’t learn from history.”

(A word on comments. I write this blog because I want to hear what people have to say. Many people have posted excellent comments that have moved the debate forward. But please don’t swear and don’t abuse others. And stick to the subject. We’re in the 21st century here so let’s not go back to 1947.)

  

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