Reader’s Guide: Pakistan’s Terror Ties and the
Shifting Relations Between Pakistan and the U.S.
by Braden Goyette
Since 9/11, the United States has touted Pakistan as a “key ally” in the fight against terrorism, even though we’ve long suspected that some elements of the Pakistani government are working with the terrorist groups they claim to be fighting. The relationship became even more strained after the United States discovered that Osama bin Laden was hiding in a town populated by Pakistan’s military elite, not far from the nation’s top military academy.
Where do we stand with Pakistan right now?
The location of bin Laden’s hideout has raised questions about whether the government knew of his whereabouts, though officials have denied for years that bin Laden was in Pakistan. (For more on this, see our bin Laden reading guide.) Still, the United States has been trying to smooth out things with Pakistan since the raid.
Pakistani officials have criticized the raid as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, and the military said it would rethink cooperating with the United States if there are any more unilateral attacks. The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it is complying with Pakistani officials’ request to scale back the U.S. military presence there.
In return, the United States is calling on Pakistan to step up its game in fighting terrorism. According to CNN, the State Department’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan met with civilian and military leaders last week to demand more concrete action:
“Specifically, the United States is looking for Pakistan to demonstrate a willingness to go after senior al Qaeda targets, take action against factories producing improvised explosive devices for use against U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and support Taliban reconciliation,” CNN reported.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a surprise visit to Islamabad Friday morning to work out the details of the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan after bin Laden’s death. She said that the United States is expecting Pakistan to take “decisive steps” in its fight against terrorism over the coming days.
Her visit comes after Pakistan agreed to let the CIA send a forensics team to examine the bin Laden compound more closely.
What’s the situation with U.S. aid to Pakistan today?
The United States has provided $20.7 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2002, $14.2 billion of which has gone to Pakistan’s intelligence service for its fight against terrorism. Military experts say Pakistan is vital because most supplies to U.S. forces in Afghanistan mustpass through Pakistan by truck.
There’s a long history of U.S. aid money being used against U.S. interests in Pakistan. Leaked diplomatic cables suggest that the United States has been worried about misuse of aid money for some time. Lawrence Wright has a great piece in The New Yorker describing the U.S.’s changing motivations for supporting Pakistan and how aid money has been poured disproportionately into the military, or diverted toward arming Pakistan against India, including in the development of nuclear weapons. Wright suggests the misguided allocation of aid money may have empowered the military to associate with terrorist groups:
“The [Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)] became so glutted with power and money that it formed a ‘state within a state,’ in the words of Benazir Bhutto, who became Pakistan’s Prime Minister in 1988. She eventually fired Gul ( Hamid Gul, a former ISI director), fearing that he was engineering a coup.”
According to Wright, a major concern about cutting aid to Pakistan is that Pakistan may respond by barring U.S. drones from its airspace. Though civilian and military leadership have publicly condemned drone strikes, Pakistan’s English-language paper Dawn learned through WikiLeaks last week that Pakistan’s military has been requesting U.S. drone backup for its counterterrorism operations for years.
Unanswered questions about Pakistan’s current terror ties
Pakistan’s military has a history of working with terror groups to advance its own agenda. Lashkar-i-Taiba, the militant group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was formed in the late 1980s “and used by Pakistan as a proxy army in the fight against India for the Kashmir region.” The United States has also accused Hamid Gul, the former ISI director, of aiding the Taliban and al-Qaida. An unnamed Pakistani official close to Gul told theWashington Post that “Gul is widely viewed as the “godfather” of a Pakistani policy that used guerrilla groups such as Lashkar as proxies in the conflict with India over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir.”
While Pakistani security forces have long been suspected of working with terrorists groups like Lashkar-i-Taiba even after they were banned in 2001, specifics about the extent of the government’s present involvement haven’t been nailed down.
In many cases, it’s unclear whether isolated officers of the ISI are working with terrorists, or whether the support is more widespread in the security forces. The fact that U.S. officials lumped the ISI together with terror groups in the leaked Guantanamo files suggests the United States believes it’s the latter.
In The New Yorker, Wright describes an organizational structure that allows the military to deal surreptitiously with terrorists:
“Within the I.S.I., there is a secret organization known as the S Wing, which is largely composed of supposedly retired military and I.S.I. officers. ‘It doesn’t exist on paper,’ a source close to the I.S.I. told me. The S Wing handles relations with radical elements. ‘If something happens, then they have deniability,’ the source explained.”
One of the big unanswered questions is the extent of the ISI’s involvement in the plot behind the Mumbai terror attacks. Some answers may emerge in the following weeks as Tahawwur Rana, one of the alleged plotters in the Mumbai attacks, stands trial in Chicago.
The Rana trial: why it matters, and what we’ve learned so far
The U.S. Justice Department has accused five men of helping to plan the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, which killed 166 people. Among the dead were six Americans, including a Brooklyn rabbi and his pregnant wife. Tahawwur Rana is being tried in federal court in Chicago for helping David Coleman Headley, who has confessed to scouting locations for the attacks. The United States has also indicted an alleged ISI officer in the case. That officer, known as Major Iqbal, is among the suspects who are still at large.
The star witness in Rana’s trial is Headley, who has confessed not only to working for the terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba but also for the ISI. So far, Headley claims that ISI officers recruited him as an intelligence operative for the Mumbai attacks and that Major Iqbal funded and directed his reconnaissance and played a key role in the plot.