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Pakistan’s ISI: No "Smoking Gun"?
Posted by Newshoggers.com on July 26th, 2010

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Steve Hynd

One of the main stories out of the Wikileaks War Logs is the apparent complicity of Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency in funding, supplying and directing extremist groups fighting US and Coalition troops in Afghanistan. Leslie Gelb of CFR writes:

To put the issue somewhat melodramatically: The United States is giving “moderate” Pakistanis and the Pakistani military billions of dollars yearly in military and economic aid, which allows  Pakistani military intelligence to “secretly” help the Taliban kill Americans in Afghanistan, which will drive America out of Afghanistan and undermine U.S. help for Pakistan.

And, faced with such a stark conclusion, the White House has been forced to respond.

The Obama administration, which gives $1bn a year in military aid to Pakistan, did not challenge the veracity of the files, but said that while Islamabad was making progress against extremism, "the status quo is not acceptable".

"The safe havens for violent extremist groups within Pakistan continue to pose an intolerable threat to the United States, to Afghanistan, and to the Pakistani people," a spokesman said in response to questions about the ISI files.

He urged Pakistan's military and intelligence services to "continue their strategic shift against violent extremists groups within their borders, and stay on the offensive against them".

But as that response shows, the official line in the West is that there has never been a "smoking gun" pointing to deliberate, high-level direction of the ISI's actions in Afghanistan. Over the years, those actions have usually been described as "alleged" and ascribed to "rogue elements" or to "ex-ISI" officers. That's certainly the U.S. official line and has been since Bush invaded Afghanistan, but as one retired US officer told The Guardian, "People wouldn't be making up these stories if there wasn't something to it. There's always a nugget of truth to every conspiracy theory."

Although Pakistan's involvement in the early establishment and build-up to power of the Taliban and other extreists has been well documented, 9/11 and Richard Armstrong's threat to Musharraf that the US would "bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age" if it didn't play ball were meant to have been a game changer. But if there's never been a smoking gun that the U.S. would accept as one, there's certainly been enough smoke over the years since to indicate an entire forest fire. Just a brief look through Newshoggers' Pakistan archives produces the following:

In 2002, the leader of the Balawaristan National Front in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir alleged that the ISI was using Kashmir criminal syndicates to smuggle drugs to America and Europe as well as working closely with the Jamaat-e-Islami to recruit youths for training at terrorist training camps in Gilgit-Baltistan region and Mansehra district.

During congressional testimony in 2003, Wendy Chamberlin – then Assistant Administrator at the Bureau for Asia and the Near East, USAID and previously Ambassador to Pakistan - admitted that the ISI's involvement in the opium business on the Afghan-Pakistan border was "substantial". But she had to be asked five times before making that admission.

The BBC reported in 2006 that Afghanistan had arrested Sayed Akbar, a Pakistani national, who had confessed to being the ISI's contact with Al Qaeda. "Some evidence and documents have been seized with him proving his destructive activities in Afghanistan," an Afghan spokeman told the press.

– In October 2006, the founder of two terror groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, was freed from house arrest by Pakistani authorities.

– At one point in 2006, Western intelligence had narrowed down Taliban leader Mullah Omar's whereabouts to one section of the Pakistani city of Quetta but Pakistan refused to go look. As far as anyone is aware, he's still there.

–In 2006, the Daily Telegraph reported that "Nato's report on Operation Medusa, an intense battle that lasted from September 4-17 in the Panjwai district, demonstrates the extent of the Taliban's military capability and states clearly that Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence (ISI) is involved in supplying it…Nato captured 160 Taliban, many of them Pakistanis who described in detail the ISI's support to the Taliban."

–At the same time, Jane's Intelligence Digest had this to say:

Shifting its policy of half-heartedly cracking down on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, implemented in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, Islamabad appears to have made a sombre decision to create the necessary conditions for regaining its strategic depth in Afghanistan by resuming its political and military support for the Taliban.

Ever since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001, Afghan officials and coalition commanders have criticised Islamabad for not doing enough to crack down on the Taliban operating from Pakistani territory and have often accused the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for actively supporting them.

The evidence from NATO's two-week long Operation Medusa in Kandahar province in mid-September, in which hundreds of Taliban were killed, further confirm Pakistan's involvement in the Taliban resurgence. Several independent intelligence estimates from the region also indicate that in recent months the ISI-sponsored training camps and jihadist madrassahs have swelled along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

– Also in 2006, the UK's Independent reported that "Nato forces are following up reports that the Taliban had received vital component parts for shoulder-fired Stinger missiles from Pakistani officials… new battery packs allegedly provided by the Pakistani intelligence service." This report may have new significance now that the Wikileaks dump has revealed that there were at least 10 missile attacks on Coalition aircraft and that the US covered up at least one missile strike on a helicopter in 2007 which killed seven.

– And finally in 2006, bomb attacks in Mumbai were laid at the doors of two extremist groups which India said had clear ties to the ISI. In the U.S., lawmakers and policymakers turned the other way. The ISI would later be accused of complicity in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai too. Importantly for talk of "rogue elements", the current chief of the Pakistani Army, General Kayani, was ISI head at the time of the 2006 attack and his hand-picked choice General Pasha was ISI chief by the time of the 2008 one.

– A 2007 paper by the Carnegie Endowment's Frederic Grare says baldly that "Pakistan’s military is complicit in the worsening security situation in Afghanistan—including the resurgence of the Taliban, terrorism in Kashmir, and the growth of jihadi extremism and capabilities."

– A report in 2007 by Swiss weekly SonntagsBlick said that Taliban defense minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund was freed by his Pakistani captors two days afterwards. SonntagsBlick wrote. "The world press reported: top-Taliban imprisoned. At the same time he was sitting with a SonntagsBlick reporter having coffee."

– In 2007, the journalist who first uncovered the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network said that the network was still operating, that Pakistan's government was actively protecting Khan himself from scrutiny and that the Pakistani government was making active use of Khan's network.

2007. Rick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that Pakistan had spent billions of US aid dollars, supposed to help defray the costs of Pakistan's war on terror, on buying equipment for a future confrontation with India. That hasn't changed a bit since.

A leaked 2008 Spanish intelligence report said that the ISI helped the Taliban procure IED roadside bombs – the major killer of Coalition forces and Afghan civilians – "and may even have provided training and intelligence to the Taliban in camps set up on Pakistani soil." The report also said that the ISI planned to have the Taliban use the explosives "to assassinate high-ranking officials" in Afghanistan.

– In 2009, the New York Times reported: "The Taliban’s widening campaign in southern Afghanistan is made possible in part by direct support from operatives in Pakistan’s military intelligence agency…The support consists of money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders."

– And just this April, the Washington Post reported on yet more catch-and-release of Taliban bigwigs:

U.S. officials now believe that even as Pakistan's security forces worked with their American counterparts to detain Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other insurgents, the country's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, quietly freed at least two senior Afghan Taliban figures it had captured on its own.

U.S. military and intelligence officials said the releases, detected by American spy agencies but not publicly disclosed, are evidence that parts of Pakistan's security establishment continue to support the Afghan Taliban.

I could go on and on with other examples, but this post is getting long enough already. That's an awful amount of smoke.

"So?" I'm sure Pakistan wonks will say. "We all knew all that already". But if so, then as Michael Cohen points out today the Obama administration has consistently followed the Bush administration in being coy (at the very least) about it.

Hmm, for something that everyone seemed to know was true, it's funny how President Obama didn't seem fit to mention it in his public remarks explaining why he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. And I'm genuinely curious if any of the various supporters of escalation felt urged to mention at the time that the American people were receiving a rather incomplete picture of the war their country was fighting in Afghanistan – and the role of Pakistan in prosecuting that conflict. 

Just as President Obama inaccurately conflated the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban in his West Point speech (the former is a target of the Pakistani military; the latter is protected by it), the White House continues to confuse this point, “The Pakistani government — and Pakistan’s military and intelligence services — must continue their strategic shift against violent extremist groups within their borders,” noted White House spokesman Ben Rhodes.

Which violent extremist group? Praising the Taliban for going after enemies of the Pakistani state doesn't really deal with the larger issue of Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban, not to mention the continued protection of top al Qaeda leaders. This is not a semantic point; it speaks to the very duplicity practiced daily by the Pakistani government and its military.

Pakistan is not now and never will be a natural ally of the United States. It is already a satellite state of China's, with deep economic and military ties that bind it to its larger neighbour as well as a mutual enemy in India. Pakistan has clearly stated that it wishes "strategic depth" in Afghanistan – which translated means a place to retreat to if a conflict with India starts. An American military presence in Afghanistan would hardly allow that so whatever they say publicly the Pakistani military do not want a long-term American military presence across their Western border. These simple truths means that anything Pakistan may offer the U.S. will be short-lived and probably more about style than substance.

India sees Pakistan as China's close military ally (the two share a lot of stuff, including naval basing rights, exercises, R&D) and China is the big kid on the block – big enough for even the US to be wary of. India sees China as the main long-term threat nowadays but sees Pakistan as an adjunct to that threat and a shorter-term lesser threat in its own right. As long as that is true, India really is the biggest military threat to Pakistan because India believes it needs to be.

The various extremist groups are potential allies and proxies against that threat, especially in Afghanistan. Karzai and other US-picked Afghan leaders were educated or lived in India, every province has an Indian consulate, rumors of the Indian R.A.W. intelligence agency funding the anti-Pakistan government Taliban are just as rife as those of the ISI funding anti-Indian groups and Pakistani generals see ever closer co-operation between the U.S. and India both in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Fears of being strategically encircled by India are seemingly justified. In a very real geopolitical way, the Pakistani generals are right.

Expecting Pakistan to do anything more than play a double game, as it has done since the Bush administration threatened to "bomb it back to the stone age" if it didn't co-operate over basing and supply lines, is expecting too much. It'd be nice if the mainstream of national security journalism hadn't carried quite so much stenographic water for the Pentagon and White House in claiming the opposite over the past near decade.

Josh Mull has the right idea.

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to “Pakistan’s ISI: No "Smoking Gun"?”

  1. Welt says:

    “As long as that is true, India really is the biggest military threat to Pakistan because India believes it needs to be.”
    Is that really so? If India had paid Pakistan in kind for its criminal acts over the decades, there would have been no Pakistan. And if Pakistan had bombed American cities with the help of the ISI, as it has done in India, killing thousands of people and the forces, over decades, this writer would not have made such a statement. The fact is the US, and under their direction the west, continues to ignore Pakistan's dupilcity, as long as Americans and Europeans do not get killed. And to add to our misery in India, the US continues to pressurise the Indian government to smoke the pipe of peace.

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