Pakistan, intelligence, and terrorism: Struggles facing one of America’s most necessary and controversial allies in the Middle East

By Christian M. Bills*
Guest contributor

Since their inception as an autonomous state, the United States has regarded Pakistan as a key nation for regional stability and projection of power. Throughout the Cold War, Pakistan was viewed as an important buffer state or launch point against the USSR and China should hostilities break out. Following the 9/11 attacks and the Global War on Terror (GWOT), its value as an ally has only grown. Yet as information surfaced showing that high value targets (HVT) (i.e. Osama Bin Laden) and terrorist organisations were utilising Pakistan as a safe haven. Additional findings suggested that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have long been active in meddling in terrorist affairs and even supporting terrorism and extremism. Though this has been denied, a “range of officials inside and outside Pakistan have stepped up suggestions of links between the ISI and terrorist groups in recent years” (Bajoria and Kaplan, 2011). As the conflict in the Middle East continues to push forward and with no end in sight for the GWOT, it seems that Pakistan will continue to be a keystone in limiting its impact abroad.

In 2019, the State Department (2019) released a statement condemning the actions within Pakistan. “Pakistan continued to serve as a safe haven for certain regionally focused terrorist groups.  It allowed groups targeting Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban and affiliated HQN, as well as groups targeting India, including LeT and its affiliated front organisations, and JeM, to operate from its territory…. Thus far, however, Islamabad has yet to take decisive actions against Indian- and Afghanistan-focused militants who would undermine their operational capability.” It should be noted, however, that the Pakistani government did play a role in the U.S. – Taliban peace talks in 2019. Regardless of this sign of good faith, the relationship between the two countries has grown increasingly cold, especially between the two intelligence communities (IC). Unlike other allies (i.e. the U. K., Israel, Germany, France, or South Korea) the US IC and ISI have a very fragile relationship, which has been severely strained in recent years. Serious impacts to this already frayed relationship came with Former US President Donald Trump, who accused Pakistan via Twitter of “Lies and deceit”. Since then, Washington announced it would halt all security assistance to Pakistan, and Pakistani politicians have been quick to express dismay – with the foreign minister saying that the two aren’t allies anymore, and the army chief saying he feels “betrayed”” (Khan, 2018). In the time since this IC clash, US law makers have tempered statements claiming the suspensions are temporary, and Pakistani officials have echoed similar remarks, as both sides move forward ever so cautiously transitioning from the America First position of Former President Trump to a more traditional position under the President Biden.

Looking forward, it is necessary to manage expectations between the two nations and how the diplomatic and IC objectives will be constructed over the next several years. It is unlikely to believe there will be a dramatic shift in Pakistani counter-terrorism operations. According to the CIA (2021), “Pakistan has been engaged in a decades-long armed conflict with militant groups that target government institutions and civilians, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant networks.” However, it is within reason to believe that intelligence sharing and cooperation between the US and Pakistan may improve during the Biden presidency. “Unlike Trump, Biden knows Pakistan. He travelled to the country several times as vice president. He was one of the principal architects, along with Senator John Kerry of the Kerry-Lugar Berman Act of 2009 that paved the way for the US providing annual civilian assistance of $1.5bn to Pakistan between 2010 and 2014. But perhaps more importantly, contrary to Trump’s unpredictable, unilateralist, personal and at times erratic approach to foreign affairs, Biden believes in dealing with other nations through institutions.….Biden will undoubtedly keep supporting India against China in the region, but unlike Trump, he is also expected to take steps to restore the US’s role as a strategic balancer between Islamabad and New Delhi” (Basit, 2020).  This is significant, as the impact of the US – India relations advance in the Biden presidency.  Key items to look for will be how willing the Pakistanis are to accept a diplomatic, military, and intelligence relationship with a country that supports India as strongly as the US does.

For the complicated relationship between the IC communities between the US and Pakistan, it is with low confidence that any grand leaps will be made. A more reasonable expectation would be that a gradual return to pre-Trump administration cooperation be implemented or the sanctioning of further counterinsurgency intelligence operations within the country. Regardless, much is left to be determined in reference to the IC relationship between the two nations. Both countries’ political and military administrations recognise the importance of their alliance and the severing of these ties would have long lasting impacts to the economic, domestic, and security structures.  Important indicators to look for regarding this can be determined by analysing the political moves of the Pakistan government. Should the country continue to accept aid and support from adversary nations such as Russia, China, or Iran, then it is within reason to believe the relationship is fraying even further. However, the thawing of tensions and the supposed continuance of security assistance and economic programs, as well as increased trade with the US, would indicate the strengthening on the alliance and increased cooperation for the IC.

*The contents of this article do not reflect the official views of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, the United States Air Force, or any other Federal military, political, or intelligence office.*

References

Bajoria, Jayshree and Eben (2011, May 4) The ISI and Terrorism: Behind the Accusations. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/isi-and-terrorism-behind-accusations

U.S. Department of State (2019) Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Pakistan. Department of State.https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/pakistan/

Khan, M Ilyas (2018, January 14) Why Pakistan won’t share intelligence with the US. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42664019

CIA.gov (2021, January 22) Pakistan. CIA World Fact Book. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/pakistan/#government

Basit, Abdul (2020, November 17) What will a Biden presidency mean for US-Pakistan relations?. Al-Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/11/17/what-will-the-biden-presidency-mean-for-us-pakistan-relations

*Christian is a guest contributor at Unfiltered Voices. He studied for his BA in Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia Pennsylvania (USA) and completed his Graduate degree in Intelligence and Global Security from Point Park University in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania (USA). He has published 4 other articles in various international scholarly journals on topics relating to the War on Drugs, Negative Peace in the War in Chechnya, US Strategic Relations with Pakistan, and Russian Troll Farms roll in the 2016 US Presidential Election

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