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Spy wars at heart of worsening US-Pakistan ties

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, August 05, 2011

In the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, the American CIA expanded its tentacles across Pakistan, spinning a multilayered spider web to incapacitate its prey. Although most ISI officials were ostensibly aware and wary of CIA's network its private contractors, it was Raymond Davis, the former Blackwater security contractor, who became the unintentional whistle-blower. He killed his chasers on January 27 and had to sit in the lock-up until his release on the night of March 16. The proverbial midnight deal came about after consensus among all those who matter - from the Presidential Palace on the hilltop to Aabpara to the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, that Davis deserved no diplomatic immunity. And that his fate was decided in accordance with the Islamic laws.

More than anything else, this incident rubbed salt on the bruised ego of the United States. The CIA had President Barack Obama go public to declare Davis a diplomat and yet could not get him without a deal. As the two sides were busy handling the fall-out of that incident, the May 2 raid on Osama bin Laden's shelter in Abbottabad complicated things further. The acrimony flowing from this act resulted in the return of 125 American and 18 British military trainers, suspension of $800 million "military assistance" to Pakistan, and fresh restrictions on the movement of US diplomats within Pakistan, particularly the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. Several meetings between the former CIA chief Leon Panetta and ISI Director General Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha since early May also remained inconclusive, resulting in the quiet departure of the CIA station chief Mark Carlton from Islamabad in the last couple of weeks.

Carlton was the second CIA station manager in Pakistan to have left the country in mysterious circumstances, according to ABC News, which quoted US officials as saying that he was the man who headed the CIA team that traced Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad.

ABC News quoted at least three US officials as saying that that the departing chief of station had an "extremely tense" relationship with his ISI counterparts, including Director Gen Pasha. Officials in Washington told the media that the departure of two station chiefs in less than a year threatened to upset a vital intelligence office.

Pakistan has meanwhile agreed in principle to issue visas to 87 CIA officials, and the talks to mend the fractured relationship are also on. The August 1 visit of the director of the US National Intelligence James R Clapper to Islamabad was also part of the latest efforts from both sides to put the troubled ties back on track.

The tripartite meeting in Islamabad on August 2 was probably another step away from the recriminations of recent weeks. But these are optics of the relationship rather than the semantics. The semantics are essentially determined by mutual trust, which at the moment is missing. None of the sides trusts the other, and thus the bumpy ride. This in fact constitutes the fundamentals of this uneasy and uneven relationship; a superpower treating a smaller state like a "client state" with its military, financial and intelligence awe.

The "client state" on the hand is driven by its own paranoia, rooted in long-standing concerns and suspicions on its eastern and western borders. The superpower - through private security and development contractors - has precipitated these concerns, resulting in moves that the other side views as defiance.

In this context, the US insistence on the return to Pakistan of CIA officials and of the military instructors arouses unusual suspicions and stands out as a case of high-handedness.

It is a unique situation wherein Washington has tied $300 million to the return of its military instructors. Why this insistence on CIA and military trainers? Are they all involved in intelligence-gathering and socio-political profiling of the entire society? The Pakistani security apparatus led by the ISI thinks so, and is therefore reluctant in providing a free hand to CIA deployments inside the country under the cover of USAID-related projects.

The US media also admits that the current tension seems to stem from the ISI's belief the CIA is still running a clandestine network of American and Pakistani intelligence agents without sharing enough information about their identities or their assignments with the ISI.

The CIA, officials say, has pledged to provide that information, but Pakistani intelligence officials don't seem to believe their assurances. One case in point is Dr Shakeel Afridi, who carried out a vaccination campaign to get access to the bin Laden family.

Security officials in Islamabad say the CIA remains upset with Dr Afridi's continued detention, and have discretely asked for his release. How would the CIA treat an American citizen found helping the ISI on the American soil?

Espionage, in short, remains at the heart of this relationship. The CIA has set up a massive network of Pakistani and US informers inside Pakistan which is unnerving the local security establishment. The onus for alleviating these concerns rests more on the US establishment than on Pakistan, which is already locked in many wars across the country. The turmoil all over has not only physically stretched it from the north to the southwest, but also leaves it with little space to think the way the US would want it to.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk