Editorial: The CIA-ISI connection
A report in The Los Angeles Times says the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan since 9/11, accounting for as much as one-third of the latter’s annual budget. In addition, the ISI collected tens of millions of dollars through a classified CIA programme that pays for the capture or killing of wanted militants. This stream of payments is a clandestine counterpart to the rewards publicly offered by the US State Department.
These payments have triggered an intense debate within the US government because of long-standing suspicions that the ISI continues to help the Taliban who undermine US efforts in Afghanistan and provide sanctuary to al Qaeda in Pakistan. It seems the White House National Security Council goes through this debate every year. Despite deep misgivings about the ISI, the funding continues because the ISI’s assistance is considered crucial. The ISI informant networks in Pakistan’s tribal belt remain a primary source of intelligence. As a US intelligence official put it colourfully to the Times, “there was no other game in town”.
The covert payments programme was initially approved by former US President George Bush and continues under President Barack Obama. The CIA payments are a hidden stream in the much broader financial flow of some $ 15 billion over the last eight years in military and civilian aid to Pakistan. While controversy dogs the broader financial assistance because of concerns in the US Congress and Administration about where the money may have been spent, concerns that are reflected in the wording of the Kerry-Lugar bill for example, the covert CIA money has been more tightly monitored. While these covert payments have been used by the ISI for a variety of purposes, including the construction of the new ISI headquarters in Islamabad, US officials seem relaxed about where the money has gone
Despite being plagued by distrust (arguably on both sides), the covert funds have fuelled an espionage alliance that has to its credit damage inflicted on al Qaeda. CIA officials contrast the returns from their relatively small payments when compared with the enormous overt military and civilian aid to Pakistan as “a bargain”. Some 600-700 militants, mostly belonging to al Qaeda, were killed or captured and handed over to the US. Some, if not all those handed over ended up in the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison. While the CIA considers the cost-benefit of the covert funding programme positive in big savings for the American taxpayer, we are by now familiar with at least the payments-for-captured-militants deal, courtesy ex-President Pervez Musharraf’s book, In the Line of Fire. Knowledgeable US intelligence officials concede that Pakistan had made “decisive contributions to counter-terrorism” and made enormous sacrifices reflected in the fact that Pakistanis are dying almost every day in this life-and-death struggle for the soul of Pakistan. The mutual suspicions and distrust notwithstanding, the American intelligence community recognizes that although Pakistani and American interests do not always coincide, “things would be one hell of a lot worse if the government there (Pakistan) was hostile to us.” Perhaps the even more controversial assertion in the paper’s report says the CIA depends on Pakistan’s cooperation to carry out drone attacks that have killed dozens of suspected extremists in the border areas, but also caused collateral civilian casualties that have become an extremely emotive issue in Pakistan.
The report seems to have enough truth in it to make the entire edifice of the story credible. The ISI is routinely blamed for supporting the Taliban, even after 9/11, but things appear somewhat different now. The security agencies are under attack by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, a comparatively recently emerged group that takes its inspiration from the Afghan Taliban. However, while the latter have of late begun to distance themselves from the indiscriminate suicide and other bombings that are targeting ordinary citizens and the security agencies all over Pakistan, the ISI too has not escaped unscathed. The new conjuncture therefore suggests that at least as far as the Pakistani militants are concerned, the ISI is in the forefront of the struggle against terrorism.
Whether, for strategic reasons stretching back to the abandonment of Afghanistan in 1989 by the US and the West, the ISI nevertheless continues to support the Afghan Taliban remains a moot point.
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