21 April 2016
Pakistan’s Own Goals
Security and intelligence in Karachi and Islamabad.
by Neil Tidmarsh
This week, the judge in a terrorism trial in Karachi called upon an explosives expert from the police to explain a technical detail to the court. Officer Abid Ali enthusiastically obliged, even bringing a hand-grenade with him as a visual aid. Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm, Officer Ali somehow managed to pull the pin out of the grenade during his explanation. The grenade exploded in his hand.
Presumably his fingers just slipped. Or perhaps he thought the grenade had been defused (as indeed it should have been – but of course he should have checked first). Either way, it triggered a major terrorist alarm. Police and soldiers surrounded the courthouse and sealed off the area. A city-wide security alert ensued. Amazingly, Officer Ali survived, and was rushed to hospital with two other policemen and a court clerk who were also injured.
An unfortunate accident; but also a powerful metaphor for the tendency of Pakistan’s security forces to find their actions blowing up in their faces.
We all know that the world of spies and secret agents, of international espionage and secret intelligence services is a murky one of bluff, double-bluff, wheels-within-wheels, deception and subterfuge. Motives and intentions are deliberately hidden behind impenetrable clouds of disguise and duplicity. This is especially true of Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Service Intelligence, the country’s powerful spy agency). Nevertheless, it is hard to see how some of its traditional policies and actions can avoid rebounding to the detriment of the security of Pakistan as a whole.
Allegedly, Pakistan’s security forces have traditionally used militant groups to gain ascendancy over its neighbours and rivals such as Afghanistan and India. David Cameron himself has accused official elements in Pakistan of “exporting terror” and of “looking both ways” in the fight against terrorism. A report by the London School of Economics in 2010 claimed that Inter-Service Intelligence has close links to the Taliban, alleging that ISI provided funding, training and refuge for the Taliban in Afghanistan (“The Sun in the Sky: the relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents” Matt Waldman 2010). Similar accusations have been made about ISI and al-Qaeda; in 2011, a report by the Jamestown Foundation concluded that ISI had provided refuge and protection for Bin Laden, hiding him in Abbottabad; and Stratfor emails revealed by WikiLeaks supported such claims. India has accused ISI of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, where at least 164 people were killed by at least 10 heavily-armed members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based Islamic militant group.
The question here isn’t about the ethics of such policies; it’s about the practical wisdom of them. The point is that such birds inevitably come home to roost. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are themselves currently the biggest threat to Pakistan’s security. The insurgency of militant groups such as these in north-western Pakistan has become a fully-blown war. Terrorist atrocities within Pakistan are becoming more common and severe. In 2014, the Taliban attacked an army school in Peshawar and murdered more than 140 schoolchildren and teachers. Last month, on Easter Sunday, more than 70 people (many of them children) were killed and hundreds injured by a Taliban bomb detonated near a children’s playground in a park in Lahore. It’s all very well to squint through the smokescreens and bluff/double-bluff of the intelligence world and say “you have to have contact with bad guys to get intelligence on bad guys” (to quote General David Petraeus) but if such contacts don’t deliver the goods – and they clearly didn’t in the case of these two atrocities – they are inexcusable.
Pakistan’s most valuable ally in its fight against these threats to its security is the USA. The Pakistani government receives billions of dollars in US military aid in the fight against terrorism. But even here, the actions and policies of Pakistan’s secret service appear to produce own goals – counter-productive and self-defeating – determined as they seem to be to alienate, antagonise and even target this powerful ally. One example is the protection of Osama bin Laden. Another emerged this week with the publication of certain newly declassified diplomatic cables.
In 2009, the Haqqani Network – a militant Islamist tribal group based in Pakistan with links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban – carried out a suicide attack on Camp Chapman, a CIA base in southern Afghanistan. A double-agent from Pakistan whom the CIA thought was about to spill the beans to them about al-Qaeda was in fact a Haqqani suicide bomber. Seven CIA agents, a Jordanian intelligence officer and an Afghan security officer were killed with the bomber. The camp’s security chief, an Afghan who brought the bomber from the Pakistan/Afghan border and took him through a number of security checkpoints to the heart of the base, was allegedly in the Haqqani’s pocket to the tune of $100,000.
The National Security Archive, a non-government institute in Washington, has used a Freedom of Information request to obtain material which claims that ISI funded the Haqqani Network to carry out the attack. The material, published this week, consists of US intelligence cables detailing meetings between ISI and the Haqqani Network. One of the cables alleges that the network was “provided with $200,000 to enable the attack on Chapman”.
This intelligence is qualified as “not conclusive or finally evaluated”, but if it is true then surely it will not be without dire consequences to the Pakistan/US alliance, proving ISI’s alleged involvement here to be an own goal – counter-productive and self-defeating.
One last question – what happened to Camp Chapman’s Afghan security chief? Did he enjoy that $100,000? No. He was blown up in the suicide attack as well. The Haqqani Network allegedly pocketed that cash. Hoist with his own petard, indeed. Another metaphor for the whole business, if you like.