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Pakistan spy agency ISI in Pres Trump's cross hairs?

US frustration with the ISI was on full display during hearings on Capitol Hill last week, during which defence secretary James Mattis appeared to separate Pakistan’s civilian government from the spy agency.

world Updated: Oct 10, 2017 18:53 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
Inter-Services Intelligence,US-Pakistan relations,terrorism
Defence secretary James Mattis, who said during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill that the US is willing to try one more time to work with Pakistan on counter-terrorism issues.(AFP)

When defence secretary James Mattis told lawmakers at a hearing on Capitol Hill that the US is willing to work with Pakistan one more time, he was understood to be signalling the Pakistan Army, more specifically, its roguish spy wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

There is speculation among Pakistan watchers that the US will have “more ISI-related demands”.

“Ask to share evidence the ISI has on the Haqqani Network and the Taliban, their movements, their crossing points into Afghanistan, their sources of funding and weaponry and specific locations,” said an expert in touch with the White House on Pakistan-related issues, requesting not to be identified.

“Also some demands that might relate to communication with the Taliban because Pakistan has controlled communication with the Taliban for American negotiators, the ones who are taking about reconciliation (in Afghanistan),” the expert added.

US frustration with the ISI was on full display during back-to-back hearings on Capitol Hill last week, during which Mattis appeared to separate Pakistan’s civilian government, which he said wanted to crack down on terrorists, from the ISI, which did not and was “running its own foreign policy”, putting it firmly in the cross hairs.

Gen James Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had followed up with a searing assessment of his own: “It is clear to me that the ISI has connections with terrorist groups.”

Pakistan’s former envoy to the United States, Husain Haqqani, noted that nuanced distinction Mattis sought to make in his deposition. “Mattis’ Senate testimony suggests US now makes distinction b'ween #Pakistan (victim) & ISI (perpetrator) of terrorism. How will that work?” he tweeted but did not offer suggestions and declined to comment.

“But what is not clear at this time is if any of this will work this time when it hasn’t worked in the past,” said the expert.

“Just as Pakistan’s promises have lost credibility in Washington, America’s threats have less weight in Rawalpindi (the military headquarters and not Islamabad, the capital and seat of the civilian government) than before.

“Actions will probably speak louder than words,” the expert added.

Options could include sanctioning the ISI as an entity, on the lines of the Trump administration’s reported plans to designate the Revolutionary Guards of Iran. It had been considered a few times before, but never implemented.

There is a growing sense in Washington that when working with Pakistan on counter-terrorism, the focus must be on the military and the ISI, also called the “deep state”.

In a recent paper, Ashley Tellis, an Asia expert whom the Trump administration has been pursuing for a senior position in the state department, argued that in the context of India-Pakistan tensions, the US could, if it wanted to advance stability in South Asia, make a determined effort to compel the “deep state” in Rawalpindi to shed ties to jihadi terrorists.

US frustration with the ISI has been festering for long.

Admiral Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the joint chefs of staff, told lawmakers at a hearing in 2011, a few months after Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan, “The Haqqani Network for one acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s ISI agency. With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack as well as the assault on our embassy.”

First Published: Oct 10, 2017 18:51 IST