The CIA-ISI axis: India should have no illusions of US support By C. Uday Bhaskar

The CIA-ISI axis: India should have no illusions of US support

By C. Uday Bhaskar: India is maintaining politico-diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to comply with its international obligations apropos the Mumbai terror attack of Nov 26. Home Minister P. Chidambaram would visit the US in the course of this week with a detailed dossier that would include “irrefutable evidence” about the involvement of Pakistan-based terrorists in the Mumbai attacks.

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee added that India would share the evidence with other nations and exhort them to prevail upon Islamabad to comply. It is understood that the evidence to be so shared includes records of logbook recovered from the vessel in which the 10 terrorists came from Karachi ; records of the satellite phone used by the attackers ; and intercepted transcripts of the conversations between the attackers and their handlers in Pakistan. The dossier, it is reported, also includes the corroborative evidence tracking the journey of the attackers from Karachi to Mumbai, as also evidence to show that the terrorists, who struck at the Taj Hotel, Trident-Oberoi Hotel and Nariman House, were in touch with their handlers in Karachi even during their three-day engagement with Indian security forces. Significantly, apart from Pakistan, the US and the UK, this evidence will also be shared with China which has considerable influence on the Pakistani military leadership.

The moot question is whether Islamabad, which has been consistently denying any linkage with the terrorists - and rejected the evidence produced by India till now - will change its stance. The answer to this will depend on the kind of pressure that Washington is prepared to apply on Islamabad at this point in time. The temporal dimension is critical, for Washington DC is preparing to install a new president, Barack Obama, in the White House on Jan 20 and the transition period is not conducive for any major or radical change in existing American policies. More so when they affect Pakistan, with which the White House and US intelligence agencies have had a complex, contradictory and opaque relationship which dates back to the Eisenhower years of the late 1950's.

The US and Pakistan have a long history of engaging in covert operations together - and this goes back to the use of Pakistani territory and assets during the early phase of the Cold War. During that period, the US co-opted Pakistan in its security initiatives against the former USSR and China. Subsequently during the latter phase of the Cold war, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan - Pakistan under General Zia ul Haq became a frontline state for the US and the Pak military as represented by the ISI became the conduit for nurturing the mujahedin in Afghanistan.

This period from 1980 till the final Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was one of intense intelligence co-operation between the CIA and the ISI. The latter created various militant groups fired by distorted Islamic religious extremism which were the forerunners of the Lashkar e Taiba (LeT).

In that decade, between the CIA and the ISI, vast amounts of drug money was laundered through banks of convenience and gradually the Southern Asian internal security fabric was irreparably eroded. A distortion of the tenets of the Quran and the lethality of the Kalashnikov became a deadly cocktail and very soon the median of militancy, with a specific political objective, transmuted into ruthless terrorism that was motivated by a supra-national theological objective.

The LeT is a product of this covert Pakistan-US support structure and consequently the linkages between the intelligence agencies is deep and abiding. Given the turbulence that engulfed Afghanistan soon after the Soviet withdrawal and the end of the Cold War, it was evident that many of the earlier covert linkages that had official state sanction became non-state operations with tacit state support.

It was this pattern that was exploited by the Pakistan military against India, when terrorism became the preferred Rawalpindi stratagem and the early 1990's were a period when India was successfully “bled by a thousand cuts”. The instructive part is that the US and its intelligence services were more than aware of the proxy war unleashed against India - but chose to turn a blind eye. Terrorism was not a US security concern - for Sep 11, 2001 was still a decade away. Indian intelligence was often frustrated and blunted by their US counterparts empathy with the ISI and this was part of the “estrangement” between India and the US.

This US ambivalence persists and it is my contention that the reason why General Pervez Musharraf could get away with his running-with-the-hare-hunting-with-the-hound policy was due to this systemic trait within the US establishment. It is instructive that a very insightful article in the forthright US web publication - Foreign Policy Journal - titled: 'Role of Alleged CIA Asset in Mumbai Attacks Being Downplayed', authored by the editor Jeremy Hammond, draws attention to Dawood Ibrahim and the D-Company in relation to the Mumbai terror outrage. Hammond adds: "Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times, wrote last month after the Mumbai attacks that Ibrahim had worked with the US to help finance the mujahideen during the 1980s and that because he knows too much about the US' 'darker secrets' in the region, he could never be allowed to be turned over to India."

Intelligence operations and covert support to terrorism is the seamy side of state policy and South Asia is particularly blighted. While India seeks to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage to book, there should be no illusions about the degree to which other nations will whole-heartedly support the Indian expectation from Islamabad. The US dependence on the Pakistani military goes well beyond the presence of its troops in Afghanistan and the proposed 'surge' strategy in the Obama watch. The CIA-ISI linkages are embedded in a murky past and Indian expectations from the US will have to be tempered accordingly.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at

--- IANS