When Spies Don’t Play Well With Their Allies: CIA And The ISI

Source: nytimes.com


WASHINGTON — As they complete their training at “The Farm,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s base in the Virginia tidewater, young agency recruits are taught a lesson they are expected never to forget during assignments overseas: there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service.

Foreign spy services, even those of America’s closest allies, will try to manipulate you. So you had better learn how to manipulate them back.

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 Pakistan’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.’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.

But the relationship is complicated by a web of competing interests. First off, the top American goal in the region is to shore up Afghanistan’s government and security services to better fight the I.S.I.’s traditional proxies, the Taliban, there.

Inside Pakistan, America’s primary interest is to dismantle a Taliban and Qaeda safe haven in the mountainous tribal lands. Throughout the 1990s, Pakistan, and especially the I.S.I., used the Taliban and militants from those areas to exert power in Afghanistan and block India from gaining influence there. The I.S.I. has also supported other militant groups that launched operations against Indian troops in Kashmir, something that complicates Washington’s efforts to stabilize the region.

Of course, there are few examples in history of spy services really trusting one another. After all, people who earn their salaries by lying and assuming false identities probably don’t make the most reliable business partners. Moreover, spies know that the best way to steal secrets is to penetrate the ranks of another spy service.

But circumstances have for years forced successful, if ephemeral, partnerships among spies. The Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.’s predecessor, worked with the K.G.B.’s predecessors to hunt Nazis during World War II, even as the United States and the Soviet Union were quickly becoming adversaries.

These days, the relationship between Moscow and Washington is turning frosty again, over a number of issues. But, quietly, American and Russian spies continue to collaborate to combat drug trafficking and organized crime, and to secure nuclear arsenals.

The relationship between the C.I.A. and the I.S.I. was far less complicated when the United States and Pakistan were intently focused on one common goal: kicking the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. For years in the 1980s, the C.I.A. used the I.S.I. as the conduit to funnel arms and money to Afghan rebels fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

But even in those good old days, the two spy services were far from trusting of each other — in particular over Pakistan’s quest for nuclear weapons. In his book “Ghost Wars,” the journalist Steve Coll recounts how the I.S.I. chief in the early 1980s, Gen. Akhtar Abdur Rahman, banned all social contact between his I.S.I. officers and C.I.A. operatives in Pakistan. He was also convinced that the C.I.A. had set up an elaborate bugging network, so he had his officers speak in code on the telephone.

When the general and his aides were invited by the C.I.A. to visit agency training sites in the United States, the Pakistanis were forced to wear blindfolds on the flights into the facilities.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, C.I.A. officers have arrived in Islamabad knowing they will probably depend on the I.S.I. at least as much as they have depended on any liaison spy service in the past. Unlike spying in the capitals of Europe, where agency operatives can blend in to develop a network of informants, only a tiny fraction of C.I.A. officers can walk the streets of Peshawar unnoticed.

And an even smaller fraction could move freely through the tribal areas to scoop up useful information about militant networks there.

Even the powerful I.S.I., which is dominated by Punjabis, Pakistan’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 — and in some cases Pashtun militants — as key informants.

Given the natural disadvantages, C.I.A. officers try to get any edge they can through technology, the one advantage they have over the local spies.

For example, the Pakistani government has long restricted where the C.I.A. can fly Predator surveillance drones inside Pakistan, limiting flight paths to approved “boxes” on a grid map.

The C.I.A.’s answer to that restriction? It deliberately flies Predators beyond the approved areas, just to test Pakistani radars. According to one former agency officer, the Pakistanis usually notice.

As American and allied casualty rates in Afghanistan have grown in the last two years, the I.S.I. has become a subject of fierce debate within the C.I.A. Many in the spy agency — particularly those stationed in Afghanistan — accuse their agency colleagues at the Islamabad station of actually being too cozy with their I.S.I. counterparts.

There have been bitter fights between the C.I.A. station chiefs in Kabul and Islamabad, particularly about the significance of the militant threat in the tribal areas. At times, the view from Kabul has been not only that the I.S.I. is actively aiding the militants, but that C.I.A. officers in Pakistan refuse to confront the I.S.I. over the issue.

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.

After the withdrawal, the American tools to understand the complexity of relationships in Central and South Asia became rusty. The I.S.I. operates in a neighborhood of constantly shifting alliances, where double dealing is an accepted rule of the game, and the phenomenon is one that many in Washington still have problems accepting.

Until late last year, when he was elevated to the command of the entire army, the Pakistani spymaster who had been running the I.S.I. was Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. American officials describe this smart and urbane general as at once engaging and inscrutable, an avid golfer with occasionally odd affectations. During meetings, he will often spend several minutes carefully hand-rolling a cigarette. Then, after taking one puff, he stubs it out.

The grumbling at the C.I.A. about dealing with Pakistan’s I.S.I. comes with a certain grudging reverence for the spy service’s Machiavellian qualities. Some former spies even talk about the Pakistani agency with a mix of awe and professional jealousy.

One senior C.I.A. official, recently retired, said that of all the foreign spymasters the C.I.A. had dealt with, General Kayani was the most formidable and may have earned the most respect at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va. The soft-spoken general, he said, is a master manipulator.

“We admire those traits,” he said.