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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
CIA and ISI: Programmed to deceive
The inability for the CIA and Pakistan's ISI to trust one another is leading to increasing tensions in the region.
Last Modified: 21 Apr 2011 10:59
The fatal shooting of two Pakistanis by CIA contractor Raymond Davis has caused a rift between America's CIA and Pakistan's ISI [EPA]

The hype preceding this past week's meeting in Langley between General Ahmed Shuja Pasha of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and Leon Panetta of the CIA gave it all the drama of a Western shoot-out. Indeed, the tension leading up to this supposed mano-a-mano confrontation had been building for many weeks – at least since the 27 January detention of CIA contractor Raymond Davis for shooting two Pakistanis during an attempted traffic robbery in Lahore.

Davis' extended incarceration and the legal proceedings against him – pursued, according to the Americans, in violation of his diplomatic immunity – threatened to bring about a serious rupture in Pakistani-American relations. The circumstances of the shootings aside, the Pakistanis objected strenuously to what they regarded as Davis' uncoordinated activities in Lahore, alleged to be aimed at the ISI-linked extremist group Lashkar-e Taiba, and to the CIA's larger habit of taking unilateral action against militants in the tribal areas. Having wilfully refused to preempt a crisis over Davis, the Pakistanis instead let nature take its course, quickly making themselves hostage to a full-blown domestic political firestorm, as the CIA contractor became the focus of a paroxysm of popular anti-Americanism. 

Faced with the ultimate necessity of finding some solution to the politically-charged impasse before permanent damage was done, the CIA and ISI finally managed to do so, arranging for Davis' release on 16 March in return for a blood-money payment to the families of those killed. The speculation at the time was that this was but the visible part of the agreement, and that the ISI was demanding greater insight into, and a greater measure of control over, CIA activities in Pakistan.

If any such demand were made, the response came the following day, when a reported salvo of missiles killed 32 in North Waziristan, including some 13 alleged Taliban fighters. In response, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff himself, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, issued an unusually strong condemnation of the attack, stating "It is highly regrettable that a jirga of peaceful citizens, including elders of the area, was carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life."

General Kayani may have been genuinely outraged by the collateral casualties associated with this strike, but his pique was no doubt all the greater given that the targeted militants were adherents of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a local North Waziristan militant chieftain with whom the Pakistani government has long cultivated relations to incentivises good behaviour on their side of the Durand Line, at the cost, it would appear, of turning a blind eye to Hafiz Gul's record of militancy across the border in Afghanistan.

Such further evidence that the US and Pakistan are working increasingly at cross-purposes gave added credence to news stories accompanying Gen. Pasha's arrival in the US, which alleged a Pakistani demand for the removal of hundreds of CIA personnel and US Special-Forces trainers from Pakistan, as well as a decrease in the rate of missile strikes and advance coordination of those which continue. While these stories and the numbers associated with them appear to be greatly exaggerated, they do reflect an alarming degree of apparent animosity between intelligence services in whose cooperation their respective countries retain a compelling interest. Indeed, the newfound truculence in Pakistan's tone toward the Americans was perhaps best summed up by an anonymous Pakistani official: "We're telling the Americans: 'You have to trust the ISI or you don't. There is nothing in between.'"

In the event, the Pasha-Panetta meeting appears from the press descriptions to have been anti-climactic; and just two days later, the process repeated itself: A pair of missiles allegedly struck militants associated with Maulvi Nazir, a South Waziristan militia leader of the Ahmedzai Wazirs, whose neutrality in its internecine warfare with the neighbouring Mehsuds the Pakistanis have gone to considerable lengths to maintain – to the consternation of the Americans and the Afghans reportedly menaced by him.

It is not surprising that the CIA and ISI should be at loggerheads. Each is a principal instrument of its respective government in dealing with the very broad phenomenon of religiously-inspired militancy in the region. But in many respects, the focus on relations between these two services is misplaced, for the fundamental differences between the US and Pakistan are issues of policy, not of practise. Where militancy is concerned, US and Pakistani interests may overlap, but they are far from being identical. That is the heart of the matter.

The ambivalence shown by Pakistan toward so-called Kashmiri groups such as Lashkar-e Taiba is a product both of continuing tensions over Kashmir and of domestic threat – that is, a combination of a lack of willingness and of a lack of ability. But so long as the LET poses an extra-regional terrorist threat, the US is not about to acquiesce meekly in Pakistan's political equivocation. Similarly, given its complicated national-security calculus in Afghanistan and the even greater complications associated with its divide-and-rule tactics in the tribal territories, Pakistan's forgiving policy toward militants such as the Haqqanis, Hafiz Gul, Maulvi Nazir and others is unlikely to change, as is the US tactic of striking them whenever possible.

With all due respect for the nameless Pakistani bureaucrat quoted above, his statement reflects a truth which he himself does not intend. Can the CIA and ISI trust one another? Of course they can: They can fully trust one another to carry forward the policies of the masters whom they serve. This means that they can be trusted to cooperate when it suits them, and to continue to mislead one another shamelessly when it does not. Such, inevitably, is the nature of relations between intelligence services. All the insistent political demands and all the bureaucratic confrontations in the world are not about to change this immutable fact. The solution to the war of the spies lies not with the spies themselves, but with those who make the policies they defend.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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