Features | Security | Central Asia

The CIA’s Pakistan Endgame

A mix of inter-agency bickering and complicated ties with Pakistani intelligence continue to hamper chances for a smooth exit from Afghanistan.

J. Berkshire Miller

In the autumn of 2009, US President Barack Obama rounded up his foreign policy team and cadre of political advisors to determine how to move forward in Afghanistan. After months of leaks, opinion pieces and TV spots that spurred a public turf war between the Pentagon and the National Security Council, the Obama administration finally agreed to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. All of the national security players reportedly agreed in principle to the plan, but anxiety arose over two looming uncertainties: the exit strategy and Pakistan.

The worst kept secret from Foggy Bottom to Miram Shah is that the CIA continues to conduct increasingly expansive covert operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Obama seems to favour the surgical strikes from the CIA’s Predator drones rather than a more visible US footprint such as special operations units, while CIA Director Leon Panetta has been even more enthusiastic about the effectiveness of the drone project, privately urging national security principals in the Obama administration to consider significantly increasing the frequency and scope of the programme.

But proponents of these asymmetric strikes still face a considerable hurdle in securing Islamabad’s acquiescence. Pakistan continues to lack the political capital to allow the CIA to act with impunity within its sovereign territory, with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari struggling to balance his desire to degrade Islamic militants within his country with the perceived need to hedge his bets over the future political landscape of neighbouring Afghanistan. The military establishment in Pakistan, meanwhile, still views its threat matrix through an India-centric lens—Pakistan genuinely believes, rightly or wrongly, that India continues to work aggressively against its strategic interests through bribery and espionage in Afghanistan.

Despite these reservations, US pressure on Pakistan to attack terrorist safe havens in FATA intensified after the failed Times Square bombing in May 2010, in which Pakistan-born Faisal Shahzad loaded an SUV full of explosives with the apparent intention to cause mayhem in New York City. Panetta travelled to Islamabad shortly after the botched attack to deliver a message to Zardari: if a terrorist attack like this is successful, the strategic partnership between the US and Pakistan is finished. In effect, Panetta was issuing an informal demarche to the Pakistani leadership to either conduct operations in FATA or be prepared for unilateral action by the United States.

Some backers of drone warfare in Pakistan argue that the CIA needs to have the ability to conduct operations outside of the narrowly defined ‘boxes’ that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has mapped out. Analysis by the New America Foundation, which has looked at the drone attacks since 2004, shows that most strikes have taken place in Northern Waziristan, an area that Washington has pleaded with Zardari to increase Pakistan’s military presence in. The ISI, however, refuses to budge on Quetta in Balochistan Province, which US intelligence analysts believe is the area that shelters Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and potentially senior al-Qaeda leaders.

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Despite the ISI’s insistence that the CIA refrain from drone attack in Quetta, leaders of the Quetta Shura—the leadership council for the Afghan Taliban—appear anxious and continue to shuttle around between Pakistani hubs such as Karachi and Lahore.

The Miram Shah Shura, meanwhile, continues to be one of the central targets in the CIA’s covert war in Pakistan. Led by Siraj Haqqani, the shura—also known as the Haqqani network—continues to serve as the Taliban’s arm in North Waziristan. The CIA’s relationship with the Haqqani clan dates back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the Haqqanis remain extremely powerful stakeholders in the futures of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The CIA’s ability to degrade the regional shuras in Pakistan is further complicated by its complex relationship with the ISI. The partnership between the two organizations reached its nadir in recent months with the arrest and detainment of CIA contractor Raymond Davis. The Davis case grabbed international headlines and prompted high-profile involvement from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Obama even scorned Pakistan’s decision to detain Davis, claiming he wanted his ‘diplomat’ returned.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the CIA is having a difficult time managing its relationship with the ISI—the organizations have regularly traded barbs and accusations over the past few years. The CIA has chastised the ISI for its continued practice of hedging—maintaining its strong influence with tribal militants and elements of the Afghan Taliban, while still attempting to appease the United States through its targeting and military interventions in FATA. The ISI, for its part, appears to be continuing with an unstated Pakistani policy of publicly condemning deaths caused by the CIA’s drone attacks, but privately accepting them as part of the grand bargain with Washington.     

But the CIA’s fractured intelligence relationship with Pakistan isn’t the only hurdle the CIA has to confront–it also faces challenges much closer to home. With both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the CIA has a sometimes acrimonious partnership with the Pentagon’s intelligence team, the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). The DIA is engineered to support the US military and its mission through providing intelligence on foreign military intentions, capabilities and threats. The CIA also collects intelligence on foreign countries, but has a more expansive role that includes a large clandestine service that conducts operations on a wide range of activities that aren’t limited to military intelligence.

The DIA and National Security Agency (NSA) are both funded by the Pentagon and continue to receive a considerably larger share of the AfPak war chest than the CIA, infuriating senior agency officials. Also widening the intelligence divide, Obama sacked former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair last May over botched intelligence efforts surrounding the Christmas Day bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Blair was a career military man who often sparred with Panetta and even described the CIA as ‘an animal that needed to be controlled.’ Blair’s dismissal was viewed by some in the Pentagon as the White House taking sides with the CIA.   

The mandates and turf wars between the DIA and CIA in the nebulous AfPak theatre continue to compound the already vexing problems associated with tracking militants across the porous border. While both agencies are stakeholders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, their analysts and operatives often cross wires on areas of responsibility, especially around the FATA border with Afghanistan. In December 2009, the CIA suffered its largest loss of the Afghan war when a Jordanian informant successfully infiltrated an agency base in Khost and detonated a belt full of explosives. Seven CIA officers were killed in the attack.

Aside from the tactical loss, this incident revealed a larger strategic weakness in the CIA’s efforts to effectively infiltrate and combat the Afghan insurgency. Khost’s proximity to the Pakistani border ensures that insurgents continue to cross between countries with impunity. Since the Khost attack, the CIA has focussed most of its efforts on attacking militants on the Pakistani side of the border, while the DIA is focussing heavily on supporting the troops in Afghanistan. This intelligence divide hinders the US effort to degrade the Taliban and related insurgency groups.

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Tactical Victories, Strategic Defeat

So what next? The Obama administration seems content to move its Pakistan strategy closer to the ‘counterterrorism plus’ approach advocated by Vice President Joe Biden for Afghanistan. This strategy advocates intense targeting of terrorists and militant groups in FATA through drone attacks and human intelligence operations. Yet despite operational and tactical gains from these strikes, the broader and more important strategic policy in Pakistan continues to be a failure. Panetta recognizes the divergence in tactical versus strategic victory and has warned the White House that the success associated with drone attacks in FATA can’t be confused with a more holistic policy coup.

The reality is that while covert operations in Pakistan produce tactical successes, the government in Islamabad continues to be destabilized by the negative blowback created by the CIA’s actions. Moreover, the agency has failed to convince the ISI and the military establishment in Pakistan that they face an existential threat from militant groups in FATA. The Pakistani government retains the belief that the real threat comes from the east–India–and not from militants along the Afghan border. In order to close this policy gap, the United States must continue aggressively pursuing peace negotiations between Islamabad and New Delhi. Decades of mistrust between the South Asian rivals won’t disappear, even with a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough on Kashmir, but it’s important to restore security guarantees at least to the pre-Mumbai stage.   

Crucially, though, the Obama administration needs to complement its intelligence operations with strong diplomacy. The Davis case complicated the State Department’s work in Pakistan, as the line between diplomat and spy was intentionally blurred. American diplomats in Pakistan now have to overcome local characterizations of them as apologists or, in some circles, covert thugs. Strong lines of communication with the Pakistani government are more important than ever if US policy is to have any chance of succeeding.

J. Berkshire Miller
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J. Berkshire Miller

J. Berkshire Miller is an international affairs professional with significant expertise on security, defense and intelligence issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

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