The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence directorate (ISI) have had an up-and-down relationship over the years.
Current ties between the two countries' spy agencies, however, seem to have hit a particularly rough patch. There are bitter disputes over the ISI's alleged support for Islamist militant groups, and the CIA's operations in Pakistan against some of those same groups.
Spying is a competitive business. Analysts say that in the case of the relationship between Pakistan’s and America’s top spy agencies, though, rivalry has become increasingly tinged with rancor.
For many months, U.S. officials have been frustrated over Pakistan’s seemingly relaxed attitude toward rooting out militant groups that use safe havens in Pakistan border areas to plot and launch attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In private, they have accused the ISI, or some elements of it, of backing the militants. Pakistan repeatedly has denied the charge.
The quarrels were never made public, until now. In a recent visit to Pakistan, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen made the most direct public charge to date, accusing the ISI of backing the Afghan Taliban - specifically, an Islamist militant group known as the Haqqani network.
"The Haqqani network very specifically facilitates and supports the Taliban who move into Afghanistan and are killing Americans," said Mullen. "And I cannot accept that. And I will do everything I possibly can to prevent that, specifically. The ISI has a long standing relationship with the Haqqani network. That doesn't mean everybody in the ISI, but it's there."
In a previously secret document revealed by the anti-secrecy websiteWikiLeaks, U.S. military officials at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility for suspected terrorists, listed the ISI as a "terrorist support entity."
Owen Sirrs, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who is writing a book about the ISI, labels CIA-ISI relations as "really rocky at the moment." He said U.S. officials believe they can no longer avoid the issue and that they feel they need to increase the pressure on Pakistan with public statements.
"You can tell by the various statements by U.S. officials over the past couple of years, both under the [George W.] Bush administration and the Obama administration, that everybody was treating this as sort of the 800-pound gorilla [i.e., a major problem] that everyone wants to ignore," said Sirrs. "But it’s there. Everybody wanted to sweep this thing under the rug. Now I sense that since the Pakistanis have basically brought all this [quarrel] out into the open with that publication in The New York Times newspaper, The Associated Press release, now we’re basically saying, 'The gloves are off.'"
According to Sirrs, the controversy over the ISI has even strained the CIA internally.
"The other thing that I’ve sensed is that there is a rift between the CIA station in Kabul and the CIA station in Islamabad precisely over how to handle ISI," said Sirrs. "The Islamabad station would prefer to finesse the problems with ISI, whereas Kabul is saying, ‘Hey look, these guys are backing the Haqqani network; the Haqqani network is one of our worst adversaries in Afghanistan. They’ve got to do something about it.’ But I get the sense the CIA is still trying to finesse the relationship."
Ties were further strained in January when Pakistani officials arrested Raymond Davis, a CIA security contractor, after he shot and killed two men he said were trying to rob him. Pakistani and U.S. sources say the two men were actually ISI officers shadowing Davis. He was held for 47 days and was released after the victims’ families were paid compensation.
Pakistan has demanded a curtailing of CIA and U.S. Special Forces operatives in Pakistan, and an end to the missile strikes by unmanned aircraft inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. U.S. officials have never publicly acknowledged the use of drone strikes inside Pakistan, but privately they have confirmed their existence to various news outlets.
The ISI was one of the driving forces behind the original Taliban that took over Afghanistan in 1996. Pakistan saw the Taliban as a means of keeping its influence in Afghanistan and keeping India’s out.
At a recent forum, Georgetown University's Christine Fair, who specializes in Pakistani and Afghan issues, said Pakistan fears there is a new generation of Taliban that it cannot control. As she put it, these new Taliban, allied with al-Qaida, hate the ISI almost as much as they hate the United States.
"They have a different relationship with the ISI than the al-Qaida commanders of 10 years ago," said Fair. "They see Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan as being manipulative, serving Pakistan’s interests, but not those of Afghans. And so the Pakistanis themselves are trying to figure out, 'how do we regain the momentum?' No, 'how do we regain the control over this organization that has really evolved over the last 10 years?' It’s not the same organization that it was 10 years ago."
Sirrs agreed, saying the ISI is getting tough with stubborn Taliban commanders. "They’re really concerned that they’re going to lose control of this organization called the Taliban, and that there, in fact, is a generation of Taliban leaders who want to be more independent of ISI. And ISI’s response is either to arrest them, or I’ve heard allegations that they send out hit teams - or at least sponsor the killings - of certain troublesome Taliban commanders that they would rather do without."
On April 11, ISI chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha met at CIA headquarters with CIA Director Leon Panetta and Mullen. A CIA spokesman later said the relationship between the two agencies remained on "solid footing."
A story subsequently appeared in The New York Times newspaper quoting unnamed U.S. and Pakistani officials as saying that Pakistan demanded a curtailing of CIA and Special Forces operatives in Pakistan and an end to the strikes by drone aircraft inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. Soon afterward, two suspected CIA drones struck targets inside the tribal areas. According to Pakistan, the drone attacks have continued since then.