On the News Tab, KXB linked to an article in the New York Times regarding the relationship between the C.I.A. and Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the I.S.I. Most recently, the I.S.I. is thought by some to have been behind the dastardly terrorist attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month (see this story), though I don’t there is any conclusive evidence of that. Some in India have also blamed the I.S.I. for any number of terrorist attacks over the past six years, sometimes merely on suspicion.
But what is less talked about is the fact that American intelligence operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan have for years been deeply dependent on the I.S.I., even as Americans have known about the I.S.I.’s links to terrorists.
Given that history, it’s no surprise that the C.I.A. and the I.S.I. don’t trust each other at all:
But most C.I.A. veterans agree that no relationship between the spy agency and a foreign intelligence service is quite as byzantine, or as maddening, as that between the C.I.A. and Pakistanâ€™s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or I.S.I.
It is like 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.
Without the I.S.I.â€™s help, American spies in Pakistan would be incapable of carrying out their primary mission in the country: hunting Islamic militants, including top members of Al Qaeda. Without the millions of covert American dollars sent annually to Pakistan, the I.S.I. would have trouble competing with the spy service of its archrival, India. (link)
The article does offer one interesting explanation as to why the ISI might have, to begin with, cultivated ties with questionable individuals in the NWFP — ethnicity and language:
Even the powerful I.S.I., which is dominated by Punjabis, Pakistanâ€™s largest ethnic group, has difficulties collecting information in the tribal lands, the home of fiercely independent Pashtun tribes. For this reason, the I.S.I. has long been forced to rely on Pashtun tribal leaders â€” and in some cases Pashtun militants â€” as key informants.
Also, sometimes the I.S.I. has been incredibly helpful to American interests:
Veterans of the C.I.A. station in Islamabad point to the capture of a number of senior Qaeda leaders in Pakistan in recent years as proof that the Pakistani intelligence service has often shown a serious commitment to roll up terror networks. It was the I.S.I., they say, that did much of the legwork leading to the capture of operatives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh.
And, they point out, the I.S.I. has just as much reason to distrust the Americans as the C.I.A. has to distrust the I.S.I. The C.I.A. largely pulled up stakes in the region after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, rather than staying to resist the chaos and bloody civil war that led ultimately to the Taliban ascendance in the 1990s. (link)
As an illustration of how powerful the I.S.I. is inside Pakistan, the current commander of the Army, General Ashfaq Kayani, used to be the head of the I.S.I.
In addition to supporting terrorists even as it hunts them, the I.S.I. is sometimes accused of holding hundreds of prisoners indefinitely. This issue of “disappearances” came up a few months ago, in a story about Aleem Nasir, a German of Pakistani origin, who was suspected (with good reason!) of an Al-Qaeda connection. He was detained by the I.S.I. before being released by the Pakistani Supreme Court:
Mr. Nasir said he was being questioned one moment, and the next he was being whisked to the Supreme Court, where the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, ordered him freed.
The Bush administration has pressed General Musharraf to do more in pursuing people suspected of being militants in the tribal areas. But General Musharraf is now facing critics who say the ISI has rounded up innocent people along with legitimate suspects and subverted the countryâ€™s judicial system.
Human rights advocates say that they have identified as many as 250 people they say are being held by the ISI as terrorism suspects, and that they will fight for their release. (link)
What one takes away from all this is, well, complete confusion. (For an in-depth look at the bizarre, and often shockingly inept, history of American intelligence involvement in this part of the word since the 1970s, see Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. I don’t know of any comparable book that gets inside the I.S.I. in the same way…)