Dr. Evil's Lair Found and the Failure of the US Press
The main business of the US press is to insult the intelligence of the American public, and to that end their professionalism drives them aspire and achieve ever greater success each year. Very few news events are completely episodic, especially when it comes to foreign policy and the actions of states. That’s why it is extremely disheartening to see the lack of coverage of the terribly interesting struggle within Pakistan over the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence military spook (read spy) agency. The organization is more commonly known as the ISI.
If you’ve never heard those three letters put together in the context of Pakistan or our efforts to reduce the threat of Islamic terrorism, you should have save for the failing of our press corps. The ISI is one of the most deadly organizations in the world with an intriguingly colorful past (read: http://www.skewz.com/link/link_details/complete-911-timeline-pakistan-and-the-isi-intelligence-agency). I recently did a podcast with Kevin Williamson of the National Review. He indicated that the ISI actually has done all the ruthless things that the developing world conspiracy theorists typically attribute to a much less competent CIA. Dr. Evil would be envious of the organization and capabilities of the ISI...especially in a developing country like Pakistan. The ISI, or at least elements of it, have been implicated in the the A.Q. Khan world nuclear know-how expo. In addition, the ISI was a long-standing supporter of the Taliban and is blamed today for providing support to the Taliban as it launches attacks on coalition forces in neighboring Afghanistan. Even more disturbing, the ISI has been implicated in the events leading up to 9/11 (see: http://www.skewz.com/link/link_details/crimes-of-the-state-updated-isi-and-the-wire-transfers-of-9-11) You can get a bit more sanitized history of the ISI at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inter-Services_Intelligence.
The ISI has fomented militant activity in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, and India. But the ISI’s ambitions are much more global. The ISI’s growing source of income in impoverished Pakistan has largely been the heroin trade that it was able to logistically participate in with the help of its Taliban allies. And, of course, another reliable chunk of funding comes from the US itself as part of our effort to help prop up Pakistan and obtain assistance for the war on terror. (http://www.skewz.com/link/link_details/a-cia-lesson-from-the-field-never-trust-another-spy-international-herald-tribune) With this reliable source of funding, the ISI acts as a shadow government in Pakistan which drives true strategic and tactical foreign policy decision making for the country. The ISI also deals in arms and nuclear technology as illustrated by the A.Q. Kan nuclear-scientist for hire scandal. Since the later 1970s, the ISI and the Pakistan military have becoming increasingly radicalized. This process accelerated in the 1980s under the Pakistani dictator General Zia who used Islam as a unifying force. The goal of producing an Islamic bomb and reducing American influence in the world is another key source of espirit de corps for the ISI. The ISI feels it brought one super power to its knees in Afghanistan (the USSR in the 1980s) and it can likely do it again.
So why is all this water under the bridge stuff important now? A few days ago, the newly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan Gilani attempted to move the ISI from military control to civilian control. Military control may not seem like such a bad thing for some spy agencies, but when your history of leadership looks like the Klingon Order of Succession from one military coup to another, it’s kind of important to try to watch those that might try to replace you some day with a pink slip usually delivered in some unsavory way (like a mid-flight mechanical failure of your ministerial jet which seems to be the historic method of choice followed by jailing then either hanging or if you are lucky extradition). The Prime Minister may also have been trying to appease the US during his trip to the United States this week. All that being said, the effort failed. Probably because those truly in charge, the ISI, simply scoffed at the misguided attempt to replace Pakistan’s true masters (see: http://www.skewz.com/link/link_details/doubts-pakistan-can-assert-control-over-spy-agency-special-coverage-reuters). As such, the civilian powers who just recently replaced long-standing military rule under General Musharraf are a weak bet for the United States. Not only do they barely control the outlying tribal reaches of their country, they barely control the true power base which is the military and spy agency. The latter has shown a propensity over decades to support terrorism and Islamic radicalism. If Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were the axis of evil, then Pakistan has always been its epicenter.
The United States is forced to work with the ISI because it’s the only way US spies can work within Pakistan to find members of Al Qaeda who also depend on the ISI. In that equation, the ISI can take money from the US, provide a few terrorists here and there, and further longer-term objectives by supporting the Taliban and Al Qaeda while denying such a strategy exists. Frankly it’s a situation that stinks for the United States because it only enriches an organization that is essentially on par with Al Qaeda as a national security threat. And despite the term Al Qaeda becoming a household phrase in the US, the letters ISI have not. A masterful spy agency indeed. A US press corp that does “journalism by press release,” is unlikely to expose these disturbing and more complex trends…and as such, the US polity will continue to make uninformed decisions and the choices between more resources in Iraq versus South Asia will continue be based on imperfect information.