The nuclear shell game played by Pakistan is one more manifestation of the slow-burning war between the U.S. and Pakistan. The national-security interests of the two countries are often in almost perfect opposition, but neither Pakistan nor the U.S. has historically been able or willing to admit that they are locked in conflict, because they are also dependent on each other in crucial ways: the Pakistani military still relies on American funding and American-built weapons systems, and the Obama administration, in turn, believes Pakistani cooperation is crucial to the achievement of its main goal of defeating the “al-Qaeda core,” the organization now led by bin Laden’s former deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The U.S. also moves much of the matériel for its forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan, and must cross Pakistani airspace to fly from Arabian Sea–based aircraft carriers to Afghanistan. (In perhaps the most bizarre expression of this dysfunctional relationship, Osama bin Laden’s body was flown out of Pakistan by the American invasion force, which did not seek Pakistani permission and was prepared to take Pakistani anti-aircraft fire—but then, hours later, bin Laden’s body was flown back over Pakistan on a regularly routed American military flight between Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, in the Arabian Sea.)
Public pronouncements to the contrary, very few figures in the highest ranks of the American and Pakistani governments suffer from the illusion that their countries are anything but adversaries, whose national-security interests clash radically and, it seems, permanently. Pakistani leaders obsess about what they view as the existential threat posed by nuclear-armed India, a country that is now a strategic ally of the United States. Pakistani policy makers The Atlantic interviewed in Islamabad and Rawalpindi this summer uniformly believe that India is bent on drawing Afghanistan into an alliance against Pakistan. (Pervez Musharraf said the same thing during an interview in Washington.) Many of Pakistan’s leaders have long believed that the Taliban, and Taliban-like groups, are the most potent defenders of their interests in Afghanistan.
The level of animosity between Islamabad and Washington has spiked in the days since the raid on Abbottabad. Many Americans, in and out of official life, do not believe Pakistan’s government when it says that no high-ranking official knew of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad; Pakistanis, for their part, see the raid on bin Laden’s hideout—conducted without forewarning—as a gross insult. Since the raid, the ISI has waged a street-level campaign against the CIA, harassing its employees and denying visas to its officers.
While the hostility and distrust have increased of late, the relationship between the two countries has been shot through with rage, resentment, and pretense for years. The relationship has survived as long as it has only because both countries have chosen to pretend to believe the lies they tell each other.
Pakistan’s lies, in particular, have been abundant. The Pakistani government has willfully misled the U.S. for more than 20 years about its support for terrorist organizations, and it willfully misleads the American government when it asserts, against the evidence, that “rogue elements” within the ISI are responsible for the acts of terrorism against India and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Most American officials are at this late stage convinced that there are no “rogue elements” of any size or importance in the ISI; there are only the ISI and the ISI assets that the ISI (with increasing implausibility) denies having. (The ISI’s S Wing, the branch of the service that runs anti-India activities, among other things, is said to have a very potent “alumni association,” in the words of Stephen P. Cohen, a leading American scholar of Pakistan based at the Brookings Institution.) A particular challenge the ISI poses is that while it funds and protects various jihadist groups, these groups often pick their own targets and the timing of their attacks. The ISI has worked for years against American interests—not only against American interests in Afghanistan, but against the American interest in defeating particular jihadist networks, even while it was also working with the Americans against other jihadist organizations.
“The problem with Pakistan is that they still differentiate between ‘good’ terrorists and ‘bad’ terrorists,” Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, told The Atlantic in October.
The ISI provides the U.S. with targeting information about certain jihadists—but only about those jihadists perceived to threaten the Pakistani state, such as members of the so-called Pakistani Taliban (the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) and al-Qaeda. At one time, the ISI was on friendlier terms with al-Qaeda’s leaders. According to the report of the 9/11 Commission, the ISI reportedly played matchmaker in the 1990s by bringing together the Taliban and al-Qaeda, hoping to create an umbrella group that would train fighters for anti-India operations in the disputed territory of Kashmir. The 9/11 plot was developed at the training camps jointly maintained by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But when Pakistan, under General Musharraf, formally (though, as it turns out, less than completely) aligned itself with America after the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda turned against the Pakistani government. In an interview this past summer, Musharraf said the goal of Pakistan should be to “wean the Pashtuns”—the ethnic group that supplies the Taliban organizations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan with their leaders and foot soldiers—from radicalism, but Musharraf himself has condemned terrorism on the one hand while encouraging Kashmiri extremists on the other.
The leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba (the “Army of the Pure”), which has launched attacks against India, including the ferocious Mumbai attacks of November 2008, live openly in Pakistan—the organization maintains a 200-acre compound outside Lahore, and has offices in many major cities—and evidence gathered by the U.S. and India strongly suggests a direct ISI hand in the Mumbai attacks, among others. The would-be Times Square bomber, the Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, was trained in a militant camp in Pakistan’s tribal area. The past two U.S. National Intelligence Estimates on Pakistan—which represent the consensus views of America’s 16 spy agencies—concluded with a high degree of certainty that Pakistani support for jihadist groups has increased over the past several years.
The ISI also helps foment anti-Americanism inside Pakistan. American and Pakistani sources allege that the ISI pays journalists in the Pakistani press, most of which is moderately to virulently anti-American, to write articles hostile to the United States. An American visitor to Pakistan can easily see that a particular narrative has been embedded in the country’s collective psyche. This narrative holds that the U.S. favors India, punishes Pakistan unjustifiably, and periodically abandons Pakistan when American policy makers feel the country is not useful. “America is a disgrace because it turns on its friends when it has no use for them,” says General Aslam Beg, a retired chief of staff of the Pakistani army, in an efficient summation of the dominant Pakistani narrative. A Pew poll taken after the Abbottabad raid found that 69 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. as “more of an enemy”; only 6 percent see the U.S. as “more of a partner.”
Although the U.S. did turn away from the region after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, and put renewed pressure on Pakistan over its nuclear program, the story is more complicated than that. A Pakistan expert at Georgetown University, C. Christine Fair, argues that Pakistan should expect American support to flag, given its long history of using militants to advance its interests in India and Afghanistan. “Pakistanis need to be held accountable for their decisions, and Americans and Pakistanis alike need to stop indulging in revisionist history that supports the incessant narrative of Pakistani victimhood,” Fair says. For example, Pakistanis frequently note that the United States did not support Pakistan in its wars with India even though the two states were treaty partners. On this point, Fair says, “We cut off arms supplies in 1965 to Pakistan because it started the war with India by using regular military personnel disguised as mujahideen. Pakistan was a treaty partner with the U.S. at the time—but what treaty says an alliance member has to supply another when it undertakes an act of unprovoked aggression?” In 1971, Fair says, “the Pakistanis were angry at the U.S. again, for not bailing them out from another war they started against India.”
Pakistani leaders also tell untruths when they assert that their military and security organizations are immune to radical influence. The ISI senior official The Atlantic interviewed in Islamabad in July made such an assertion: “I have seen no significant radicalization of any of our men in uniform. This is simply a lie,” he said. But a body of evidence suggests otherwise. Sympathy for jihadist-oriented groups among at least some Pakistani military men has been acknowledged for years, even inside Pakistan; recently a brigadier, Ali Khan, was arrested for allegedly maintaining contact with a banned extremist organization. While we were reporting this story, militants invaded a major Pakistani naval base near Karachi, blowing up two P-3C Orion surveillance planes and killing at least 10 people on the base. Pakistani security forces required 15 hours to regain control of the base. Experts believe that nuclear-weapon components were stored nearby. In a series of interviews, several Pakistani officials told The Atlantic that investigators believe the militants had help inside the base. A retired Pakistani general with intelligence experience says, “Different aspects of the military and security services have different levels of sympathy for the extremists. The navy is high in sympathy.”
In May, Pakistani security forces rushed to defend a Karachi naval base under attack by militants. Nuclear components were believed to be housed nearby. (Mohammed/Polaris)
The American lies about this tormented relationship are of a different sort. The U.S. government has lied to itself, and to its citizens, about the nature and actions of successive Pakistani governments. Pakistani behavior over the past 20 years has rendered the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism effectively meaningless. The U.S. currently names four countries as state sponsors of terror: Sudan, Iran, Syria, and Cuba. American civilian and military officials have for years made the case, publicly and privately, that Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism—yet it has never been listed as such. In the last 12 months of the presidency of George H. W. Bush, for example, Secretary of State James Baker wrote a letter to the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, accusing Pakistan of supporting Muslim terrorists in Indian-administered Kashmir, as well as Sikh terrorists operating inside India. “We have information indicating that [the ISI] and others intend to continue to provide material support to groups that have engaged in terrorism,” the letter read. At this same time, a talking-points memo read to Pakistani leaders by Nicholas Platt, who was then the American ambassador to Pakistan, asserted, “Our information is certain.” The memo went on: “Please consider the serious consequences [to] our relationship if this support continues. If this situation persists, the Secretary of State may find himself required by law to place Pakistan on the state sponsors of terrorism list.”
The Baker threat caused a crisis inside the Pakistani government. In his book Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Husain Haqqani, the current Pakistani ambassador to Washington, writes that Javed Nasir, who was the ISI chief during this episode, told Prime Minister Sharif, “We have been covering our tracks so far and will cover them even better in the future.” The crisis was resolved, temporarily, when Nasir was removed as ISI chief the following year.
Similar crises have erupted with depressing frequency. In 1998, when the Clinton administration decided, in response to attacks by al-Qaeda on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, to launch submarine-based missiles at al-Qaeda camps in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the hope of killing bin Laden, it faced a quandary: the missiles would have to fly over either Iran or Pakistan. Iran was not an option; it would label such a missile launch an aggressive act, and perhaps respond accordingly. But the administration, according to General Hugh Shelton, who was then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not want to let Pakistan know in advance, for fear that the ISI would warn its allies in Afghanistan. A surprised Pakistan, however, might also misinterpret the missile launch as the beginning of an Indian attack. So Shelton dispatched his deputy to Islamabad to dine with the Pakistan army’s chief of staff on the night of the attack, to let him know, as the missiles were flying, that they were not launched from India. (Bin Laden was not at the al-Qaeda camp when the cruise missiles hit—but, tellingly, five ISI agents were. They were killed, as were a group of Kashmiri militants.)
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush gave Pakistan’s then-president, Musharraf, an option: join the war on terror, or become one of its targets. Musharraf chose the first option. Over the next several years, the ISI cooperated with the U.S. in an intermittently sincere way, but the relationship soon returned to its dysfunctional state.
According to a secret 2006 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, “Available evidence strongly suggests that [the ISI] maintains an active and ongoing relationship with certain elements of the Taliban.” A 2008 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the ISI was providing “intelligence and financial support to insurgent groups—especially the Jalaluddin Haqqani network out of Miram Shah, North Waziristan—to conduct attacks against Afghan government, [International Security Assistance Force], and Indian targets.” By late 2006, according to the intelligence historian Matthew Aid, who documents the dysfunctional relationship between the ISI and the CIA in his forthcoming book, Intel Wars, the U.S. had reliable intelligence indicating that Jalaluddin Haqqani and another pro-Taliban Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were being given financial assistance by the ISI (which of course receives substantial financial assistance from the United States).
During nearly every meeting over the years between Pakistani military and intelligence chiefs and their American counterparts, the Pakistanis were “read the riot act”—a phrase that recurs with striking frequency in descriptions of these meetings. Each time, the Pakistanis denied everything. In one meeting several years ago, American intelligence officials asked Pakistani leaders to shut down the so-called Quetta Shura, the ruling council of those Taliban members associated with the former Afghan leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. Quetta is the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, and the Quetta Shura, according to numerous accounts, had its headquarters not far from a Pakistani army division headquarters there. But General Kayani, who was then the head of the ISI, looked puzzled, and “acted like he’d never heard of the Quetta Shura,” according to a source who was briefed on the meeting.
In 2008 Mike McConnell, who was then President Bush’s director of national intelligence, confronted the ISI chief, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, with evidence that the ISI was tipping off jihadists so that they could escape in advance of American attacks against them. According to sources familiar with the conversation, McConnell accused Pakistan of not doing everything it could to rein in the Pakistani Taliban; he asserted that American intelligence had concluded that most Pakistani assets were still deployed against India. “How dare you tell me how our forces are deployed?,” Pasha said to McConnell. McConnell then provided Pasha with evidence to back up his assertion.
Meanwhile American generals, briefing Congress and officials of the Bush and Obama administrations, gave repeated assurances that they had developed the sort of personal relationships with Pakistani military leaders that would lead to a more productive alliance. Admiral Michael Mullen, who stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in late September, invested a great deal of time in his relationship with General Kayani. But eventually Mullen’s patience was exhausted; days before his retirement, Mullen finally broke with Kayani, publicly accusing the Pakistani army of supporting America’s enemies in Afghanistan. In his final appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on September 22, Mullen said that ISI-supported operatives of the Haqqani network had conducted a recent attack on the American Embassy in Kabul. “The Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” he said.
After Mullen’s explosive testimony, the Obama administration made only a desultory attempt to walk back his statement, and there are indications that the administration had already been recalibrating the way it deals with Pakistani dissembling. In April, General Pasha, the head of the ISI, visited Leon Panetta, who was then the director of the CIA, at the agency’s headquarters outside Washington. According to a source who was briefed on the meeting, Panetta upheld an American tradition: he “read Pasha the riot act.” The message conveyed by Panetta to Pasha and the ISI was: “If you don’t stop your relations with the Haqqani network in particular, but also other groups, the U.S. will be forced to rethink its entire relationship with the Pakistani military.”