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Wednesday, November 25

How the U.S. government built a perpetual-motion war machine in Afghanistan and sacrificed American values in the process

In July 2008 Mark Mazzetti, one of the great American journalists to report on U.S. defense issues in the post-9/11 era, wrote for The New York Times about the complexities that American intelligence professionals faced when dealing with Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence)agency.

The CIA in Pakistan has been myopic about how ISI objectives, which conflict with America's in key areas, have impacted the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. This led the CIA station chief in Afghanistan to accuse the CIA station chief in Islamabad of Going Native, touching off a virtual cold war between the CIA stations in both capital cities:
[...] As American and allied casualty rates in Afghanistan have grown in the last two years, [Pakistan's] 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.[...]
The question on which much turns, and which is outside the scope of Mark's report, is whether the ISI actually needed to do any "legwork" to capture KSM (and several other operatives the ISI turned over to the CIA) or whether it was even technically a "capture." Several pieces of the terrorism puzzle, including aspects of the plot to kidnap and murder Daniel Pearl, suggest that the ISI had no need to track down KSM because he was an 'asset,' one they decided was worth sacrificing to the Americans.

In any event the worth would be literal: the CIA paid the ISI $25 million for KSM; they paid the ISI $10 million for Abu Zubaydah, a top al Qaeda operative.

(For readers unfamiliar with that part of the world I'm not sure it conveys the full picture to explain that in 2001 the currency exchange rate was roughly 63 Pakistani rupees to 1 U.S. dollar and that today, even with the weak dollar, the rate is 84:1.)

In addition, the ISI raked in a fortune from a clandestine bounty fund the CIA set up for them, which Greg Miller reported on for The Los Angeles Times on November 15 of this year:
The CIA has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Pakistan's intelligence service since the Sept. 11 attacks, accounting for as much as one-third of the foreign spy agency's annual budget, current and former U.S. officials say.

The Inter-Services Intelligence agency also has collected tens of millions of dollars through a classified CIA program that pays for the capture or killing of wanted militants, a clandestine counterpart to the rewards publicly offered by the State Department, officials said.

The payments have triggered intense debate within the U.S. government, officials said, because of long-standing suspicions that the ISI continues to help Taliban extremists who undermine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and provide sanctuary to Al Qaeda members in Pakistan.

But U.S. officials have continued the funding because the ISI's assistance is considered crucial: Almost every major terrorist plot this decade has originated in Pakistan's tribal belt, where ISI informant networks are a primary source of intelligence.

The White House National Security Council has "this debate every year," said a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official involved in the discussions. Like others, the official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Despite deep misgivings about the ISI, the official said, "there was no other game in town."[...]
Why would the NSC and the CIA assume there was no other game? Mark Mazzetti's July 2008 report spells out the thinking, which has been voiced countless times by U.S. defense experts since 9/11:
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.
So the thinking was that because few American spies looked or sounded like the people they wanted to spy on, they needed to pay an agency with a history of double dealing with the USA to do their espionage for them; this on the reasoning that the agency's spies could pass for the natives. This, despite the fact that even the agency's spies have a hard time passing for natives in their own country's tribal regions! To return to Greg Miller's report:
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who served as ISI director before becoming army chief of staff, has told U.S. officials that dozens of ISI operatives have been killed in operations conducted at the behest of the United States.

A onetime aide to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described a pointed exchange in which Kayani said his spies were no safer than CIA agents when trying to infiltrate notoriously hostile Pashtun tribes.

"Madame Secretary, they call us all white men," Kayani said, according to the former aide.
Nonetheless the CIA clung to the idea that relying heavily on the ISI was in line with good espionage practice from America's World War Two-Cold War eras. Mark Mazzetti writes:
[C]ircumstances 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.
Yet the farther the United States government moved from the Western world during the post-WW2 era, the less their defense and diplomatic professionals saw the tripwires -- the unforeseen consequences of initiatives that seemed a good idea at the outset.

The Cold War era is littered with so many ill-conceived and counterproductive U.S. initiatives it's hard to pick out representative examples. Indeed, one way to describe U.S. efforts to be clever in regions they knew nothing about is to say they were a caricature of the Tourist from Hell.

The CIA's heavy reliance on the ISI to put al Qaeda out of business in South Asia suggests that my government didn't even squeeze bitter wisdom from mistakes during the Cold War. Or if the wisdom was there, it retired with the graying of the Cold War generation of spies, foreign service officers, and military commanders.

Taken together the reports by Greg Miller and Mark Mazzetti point up the tripwires in the clever idea of outsourcing al Qaeda-hunting to the ISI. A former CIA official who worked with the ISI told Miller, "They gave us 600 to 700 people captured or dead. Getting these guys off the street was a good thing, and it was a big savings to [U.S.] taxpayers."

Another CIA official who worked in Islamabad chipped in, "There were a lot of people I had never heard of, and they were good for $1 million or more" in payments from the CIA's slush fund.

But you can see the downside here: if you're blindly paying a spy agency that's desperate for huge amounts of cash to also play bounty hunter -- bring 'em in dead or alive -- then you have no way of knowing whether all the dead prizes were your enemy or the spy agency's.

So it's small wonder that as the ISI continued playing assassin for the USA in Pakistan you could trace a rising curve of violence against U.S. forces in Afghanistan emanating from Pakistan's tribes -- a curve that extended to the Pakistan side of the Durand Line.

As the violence from terrorism rose in Pakistan the country's security services cracked down harder, touching off a series of reprisals and counter-reprisals that spawned new terrorist factions -- all calling themselves "Taliban." There are now so many "Taliban" it's hard to keep them straight. As the Indian counterterrorism expert, B. Raman, explained:
[T]he Pakistani Pashtun Talibans are products of the commando raid into the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July 2007, in which a large number of Pashtun tribal children, many of them girls, were killed. It was after this that tribal sirdars [leaders], including Fazlullah, Baitullah and Hakeemullah, called for a jihad against the Pakistan army and the ISI in retaliation for the raid. While the TNSM has been in existence since the early 1990s, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was born after the Lal Masjid raid.[...]
That's not the half of it; the other half is that the tribal leaders extended their rage to the United States. As of Raman's writing (June 2009) they were continuing to launch attacks against the ISI and Pakistan military targets not only because of Lal Masjid but because they associated the Pak government's crackdowns with the government's alliance with the United States. Then the tribes' aim in life was split between revenge on the Pak military and killing as many Americans as they could in Afghanistan.

Another tripwire was summarized in Mark Mazaetti's 2008 report: "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."

The competition includes mounting evidence that the ISI was involved in the 11/26/08 massacre in Mumbai, India, considered by terrorism experts to be one of the worst terrorist attacks since 9/11:
The Mumbai attacks were hatched by the self-described "Army of the Pure," or Lashkar-e-Taiba, increasingly regarded as a jihadist threat similar to the Taliban.

For years, Lashkar-e-Taiba had acted as a proxy militia as Pakistani intelligence sought to carve out a buffer zone from disputed territories in Kashmir. The network has shown a recent inclination toward launching al-Qaeda-style attacks across India.
The competition includes evidence that the ISI was behind the suicide bombings outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

The competition includes fury on the part of Pakistan's government that Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. forces in Afghanistan are friendly with India's government.

So what the CIA in Pakistan has created by their close cooperation with the ISI, and which their bosses in Langley and Washington have blessed, is a kind of hybrid of a perpetual motion machine and a Rube Goldberg contraption.

The difference is that Goldberg's machines were deliberately engineered to do simple tasks in the most complicated fashion. But whether by accident or design it works out to the same difference: at the end of every complex set of transactions between the CIA and the ISI, yet more enemy combatants materialize, to be rounded up or dispatched, leading to yet more enemy combatants to attack ISAF troops and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, to be rounded up or dispatched, leading to -- well, last night CNN reported that "Taliban" now control 80 percent of Afghanistan, even though only 7 percent of Afghanis support the Taliban.

And it's this infernal process the CIA considers to be a big savings for U.S. taxpayers.

I should add that Greg Miller's report on the CIA's clandestine bounty program is not a 'scoop.' He mentioned that "former CIA Director George J. Tenet acknowledged the bounties in a little-noticed section in his 2007 memoir. "Little noticed" is an understatement. If you can recall that any U.S. media outlet mentioned the clandestine program prior to Miller's report, and the fact that the CIA was also paying for an assassination program over which they had no oversight, please tell me if you can recall the name of the newspaper, radio program, or TV show that rendered the public service.

For that matter, can you recall whether any mainstream news outlet picked up on Greg Miller's report? And yet it's not as if it's been buried under a basket. Robert Haddick, one of most influential voices on the 'milblog' portion of the blogosphere, mentioned the report on Small Wars Journal blog and in his November 20 column at Foreign Policy blog -- both widely read by defense and foreign policy wonks and news media researchers.

Why are so many unnamed officials now willing to talk with a reporter from The Los Angeles Times about the bounty program and the assassinations? According to Miller the reward payments have slowed as the number of suspected Al Qaeda operatives captured or killed by the ISI has declined. That, in addition to the fact it's getting progressively harder for Washington to maintain deniability about the Pakistan government's intimate connection with international terrorism and nuclear proliferation might have loosened tongues.

Yet I suppose it'll always be a matter of argument as to how much the short-sightedness of the CIA and the Bush and Obama administrations contributed to turning the 2001 U.S -U.K. victory over the Taliban into the mess in Afghanistan today. What is beyond argument is that the close association between the U.S. government and Pakistan's meant that Washington turned a studiously blind eye to a society that is inimical to American values, and the U.S. news media followed suit. So I think it's past time more Americans understood just what their tax dollars have been supporting in Pakistan. That will be the subject of my next post.

For more on the Pakistan-U.S. relationship during the Afghanistan War see November 21 Pundita post, Why General Stanley McChrystal is going straight to hell.
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