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A look at complex CIA-ISI ties

July 3, 2017

Former CIA contractor Raymond Davis' recently-released memoir, which narrates the story of his much-publicized Pakistan arrest and subsequent release in 2011, has created a political storm in the Islamic country.

Pakistan Raymond Allen Davis
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/H. Ahmed

Ex-CIA contractor Raymond Davis' recently-published book, "The Contractor: How I Landed in a Pakistani Prison and Ignited a Diplomatic Crisis," has caused an uproar in Pakistan and angered the country's security and intelligence officials.

Davis (main picture), who was arrested on the charges of murdering two Pakistani citizens during a shoot-out in the eastern city of Lahore, narrates the story of his detention and subsequent release from prison, alleging that Pakistan's then spy chief Shuja Pasha facilitated his acquittal from a court case.

Davis had spent seven weeks in a Pakistani jail and his case triggered a serious diplomatic crisis between Islamabad and Washington. Religious groups in Pakistan had demanded a death penalty for Davis and the public opinion back then was also in favor of a proper trial against the former CIA contractor.

But then all of a sudden Davis was freed under the Islamic law of qisas and diyat (blood money for the victims' families).

In his memoir, Davis claims that the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) orchestrated his exit.

"Several guards led me out of the courtroom through a back entrance. … One of the men opened the door, stepped out into a courtyard, and scanned the horizon … once he'd cleared the area, I was waved through door and directed to the SUV idling in the courtyard," Davis says.

"Pasha (then ISI chief) understood how important it was - for both sides - to get me out of Pakistan as soon as possible, but like his country's president and prime minister, he was happy to let me remain in jail until an acceptable solution to this increasingly vexing problem could be found," Davis continues.

Davis' book has created a political storm in the Islamic country, mainly because it "exposes" the role of the ISI in his release. Anti-American sentiment runs high in Pakistan, and many experts say the Pakistani army allows it for strategic reasons. But the accusations that the army itself allowed a CIA operative accused of murdering Pakistani citizens to leave the country have embarrassed the military. In the aftermath of Davis' release in 2011, pro-army political commentators were critical of former President Asif Ali Zardari and his government's alleged role in Davis' acquittal.

Ali K. Chishti, a Karachi-based security analyst, told DW that both politicians and intelligence agencies played a role in Davis' release and departure from Pakistan.

"Raymond Davis book has nothing new to offer than what we have always known. The affair was a 'stunt' gone wrong, which was eventually corrected by both sides. Both then President Zardari and former ISI head Pasha played a role in it as it was in the interest of both Islamabad and Washington to get Raymond out of Pakistan," Chishti said.

Read: What is Pakistan's militancy issue all about?

Pakistan inhaftierter US Diplomat Raymond Allen Davis
Religious groups in Pakistan had demanded a death penalty for DavisImage: AP

Anger in Pakistan

The Associated Press (AP) quoted an anonymous Pakistani intelligence official as acknowledging that the country's spy agency helped the CIA to remove Davis from Pakistan, but said that no such help would be given to the CIA in the future.

"(Davis') release was an arrangement between two states and not two individuals. It was based on goodwill between two agencies or two states and it helped the CIA get their man out through legal means, but in a confidential arrangement," said the official.

"If the objective was to turn Pakistani and (its spy agency's) favor into a vilification campaign, then Raymond Davis and his sponsors achieved it for a short period. But Pakistan and its intelligence agencies will not be obliged to repeat such favors in future," another intelligence official told AP.

Ups and downs in relations

Raymond Davis' saga throws into light the complex ties between the CIA and the ISI, their long history of collaboration and the ups and downs during the course of 70 years since Pakistan's independence from British rule in 1947.

The two agencies closely collaborated during the 1980s Afghan war, in which the mujahideen (Islamic warriors) were given support to fight against the Soviet occupation of the country. That is when the ties between CIA and ISI strengthened.

After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the two spy agencies continued to work together on security matters, but US interest in the region had already subsided. The September 11, 2001 attacks in the US and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime reinvigorated relations, but the dynamics of the CIA-ISI partnership were quite different this time around, as Pakistan's then military dictator Pervez Musharraf, despite agreeing to help Washington in Afghanistan, didn't wage an all-out war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The unilateral US raid in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May 2011 and the subsequent killing of the former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden brought the CIA-ISI ties on the brink of a collapse.

"Since the US-Pakistan relationship is driven by security relations, the security institutions dominate relations. This means that CIA-ISI relations tend to mirror the state of the relationship on the whole," Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

"In 2011-12, for example, the CIA-ISI relationship was in a bad state at a moment when US-Pakistan relations were in deep crisis," he added.

Kugelman says the CIA-ISI relations are not as robust as they were previously because the relationship on the whole has taken a plunge.

"All the crises of 2011-12 in the relationship were also crises for the intelligence agencies - not just Davis but also the bin Laden raid for example. All these crises from that time took a toll on the relationship between the spy agencies. As a result, relations today aren't what they used to be," he underlined.

As to whether the ISI's anger at Raymond Davis' memoir was aimed at pacifying the Pakistani people or a reflection of the agency's policy, Kugelman said it was "a bit of both."

"Certainly you score points in the court of public opinion when you cater to Pakistan's widespread anti-Americanism. At the same time, the ISI was genuinely furious with the CIA after the Davis affair, and many CIA personnel were effectively expelled from Pakistan. The CIA presence today hasn't come close to approaching its levels from before the Davis affair."

Read: The godfather of the Taliban: Hamid Gul and his legacy

Pakistan Ashfaq Parvez Kayani
Davis says former ISI chief Shuja Pasha (left) facilitated his releaseImage: dapd

Future of ties

Experts say that US-Pakistani relations are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. President Donald Trump's speech during his Saudi Arabia visit in May made it clear that he sees Pakistan more as a problem than a solution regarding US interests in South Asia. Not only Trump didn't mention Pakistan as a "frontline state" in the war against terror, he supported Pakistan's arch-rival India's narrative about Islamic terrorism in the region.

"The US doesn't need Pakistan's help in Afghanistan anymore. In the past, it needed us to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; later it wanted Islamabad to eliminate the extremist group. But Pakistan continued with its 'double game' (providing support to the Taliban while receiving US aid)," analyst Khalid Javed Jan told DW.

Amid the prevailing climate of mutual distrust as well as the dissonance in their strategic aims and imperatives, the future trajectory of the CIA-ISI partnership appears riddled with daunting challenges. 

"I doubt they'll be particularly warm, though I imagine they will remain civil. These are after all two intelligence agencies that have worked quite closely together over the years, so there's enough institutional goodwill to keep the two agencies talking to each other," said Kugelman.

"That said, policy shifts could bring major new tensions to relations. If the Trump administration expands its drone war into Baluchistan, an area where the ISI, so far as we know, has never granted the CIA the authority to strike, then there could be big problems for the relations between the two agencies."

Read: US says Salahuddin is a 'global terrorist' - will it impact Kashmir?

Osama bin Laden Zeitung Nachricht Zeitungsartikel
US raid on bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad damaged CIA-ISI relationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa