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When CIA Met ISI

America stands at a Pakistani crossroads.

by
Elise Cooper

Bio

May 20, 2011 - 10:27 pm

There are those who wrongly argue that the CIA has been “duped” by the ISI, Pakistan’s spy agency. The relationship between the ISI and the CIA, since 9/11, has been as complex as it has been tenuous. The issues include Pakistan’s outing of the CIA station chief for a second time within the past six months. They may have known where bin Laden was hiding. They have supported the Haqqani network, a terrorist organization hiding out in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Just as in the Pakistani government, some in the ISI are friendly and supportive of the CIA. Some are rather antagonistic. Others are entirely opposed. Americans need to understand that the CIA needs to work with unreliable partners. The most radical elements of Pakistani society are becoming more and more dominant, and the ISI needs to take a tougher stand against them. Recognizing this, former CIA Director Michael Hayden has said that “the relationship between the CIA and ISI has been at the same time both challenging and necessary.”

Challenging? Pakistan has sided with some of America’s enemies. Lisa Curtis, an expert on Pakistan at the Heritage Foundation, agrees with Hayden, suggesting the ISI must demonstrate that “they want to end the ambiguity about their role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks or the harboring of bin Laden. The Pakistani leaders,” she says, “must take action to prove their counter-terrorism credentials.”

Necessary? Congressman Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called Pakistan the country that has helped the U.S. capture more al-Qaeda operatives than any other country.

And yet: the relationship appears to be going downhill very fast. A former CIA operative commented that “the relationship is not good right now. There are only a small number of people that we could work with on terrorism. The lack of cooperation is getting bigger. We never fully trust them because they operate according to their own perceived interests. However, we go into the relationship every day with our eyes wide open. Do I consider them a friend? No!” He pointed out that the Obama administration did not inform the ISI about the bin Laden operation because they would have compromised the mission. “I always say that if more than one person in the ISI knows about a secret, it probably is going to be leaked.”

So where do we go from here? Should Americans react by cutting off aid to Pakistan? Many feel that a public ultimatum will make the Pakistanis dig in their heels. Through diplomatic, military, and intelligence channels, America must underscore that there are consequences to Pakistan’s actions — while still keeping Islamabad on our side in the counter-terrorism fight. Former CIA station chief in Pakistan Robert Grenier sees the need to formulate a common plan in which “both sides” get “a hard dose of reality — particularly the Pakistanis.”

Curtis pointed out that withholding aid could be a double-edged sword. “We should not cut off the aid altogether,” she said, “but make it clear to the Pakistanis that we need some answers. Cutting aid comes at a price since they could cut off NATO supply lines into Afghanistan that run through Pakistani territory and kick U.S. intelligence officials out of the country. Moreover, having a relationship with Pakistan has allowed the U.S. to help ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stay out of terrorists’ hands.”
The Pakistanis did not help that relationship when, on Friday, May 6, the Pakistani media reported that another CIA station chief was outed. Although the wrong name was given, those interviewed deemed the move to have been carried out in embarrassed retaliation for the Osama bin Laden incident. After all, the Pakistanis were in the dark about  the operation. They didn’t know how the Seals went in without being detected. They were caught unawares by what Defense Secretary Gates referred to on 60 Minutes as “the perfect fusion of intelligence collection, intelligence analysis, and a military operation.”

A former senior intelligence official angrily noted that the leak was “petty and reckless on the ISI’s part. Someone very senior in the U.S. government needs to tell them to knock this crap off or they will get someone killed.” Lisa Curtis believes that because this “same tactic was used last December, it could be their way of saying we have our bargaining chips as well — we also have leverage.” Grenier believes that the outing is “a symptom of a much larger issue: their attitude toward other extremist groups, particularly those that are a direct threat to the U.S. It is centered,” he says, “on the divergence of policies,” since the Pakistanis want to hedge their bets when America pulls out of Afghanistan.

Given the Pakistanis’ attitude, the Obama administration needs to consider unilateral action like that taken to kill Osama bin Laden. According to the experts, Pakistan cannot be considered an ally any longer. Today, it is an ever less willing and less capable partner. Based on the circumstances, serious consideration must be given to more covert action, including the direct CIA interrogation of captured terrorists.

A former senior CIA official suggested that America has no choice and needs to work with the senior leadership of the ISI — in a continuance of the current love-hate relationship. He concluded that America has to be careful that the bad guys in the ISI do not become dominant. Yet, he said, “the Pakistanis must be reminded that it is in their best interest to keep Uncle Sam on their side.” Everyone feels that what is needed is to get the Pakistan-U.S. relationship off the front pages and back behind closed doors. Like it or not, it’s in America’s best interest to work with the ISI. Trusting them, unfortunately, is a separate issue.

The author is a freelance writer focusing on national security issues.
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