The Headley Lessons

How is the CIA-ISI alliance not figured into the Indo-Pak peace process?

US, Afghan and Pakistani officers open the first of six joint military intelligence centers along the Afghan-Pakistan border in March 2008. EVAN VUCCI / AP PHOTO
01 August, 2010

SINCE JUNE 2010, three important events relating to the Indo-Pak peace process have occurred. In early June, India’s Solicitor General, Gopal Subramaniam and National Investigation Agency officials questioned David Headley in a Chicago jail. Headley, as revealed first by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in December 2009, admitted that he had prepared the groundwork for the 26 November 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 170 people. And in March 2010, the 50-year-old Headley appeared before a district judge in Chicago, in an orange prison jumpsuit and leg irons, accepting all prosecution charges.

The Headley case introduced a new narrative to terror stories on the subcontinent. Born in Washington, DC, Headley is a US citizen, and since 1998, has worked for the US government’s Drug Enforcement Administration. With his American name and Caucasian appearance, he made several trips to Pakistan, India and Europe with ease. At some point, however, he turned rogue and became an agent for Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and later his ISI handler recruited him for an assignment with Lashkar-e-Toiba, the radical Pakistan-based Islamist organisation. All these elements combine to read like the plot of a thriller. But the most important distinction was the main character’s connection to the US. Initially, the Americans were very protective of Headley. But after six months of effort and the involvement of President Barack Obama’s office, Indian officers finally got access. In mid-June, Solicitor General Subramaniam and team questioned Headley for a week, came back to India, and did not speak to the media.

The second event of significance in June was the visit to Pakistan by the Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, who is known for his hard stand on national security. He visited Islamabad after much pressure from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Thus, Chidambaram became the first Indian home minister to visit Pakistan in three decades and came back with assurances from his counterpart, Rehman Malik, that Pakistan would act on the new dossier he provided after Headley’s interrogation. The visit was praised as successful by New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington.

The third development in this direction was Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna’s Pakistan trip in mid-July. This round of talks was meant to further the developments made by Chidambaram and Malik, and “restore trust and confidence.”  But the day before Krishna arrived in Islamabad, Indian Home Secretary GK Pillai told The Indian Express—the first time an Indian official spoke out after the Headley interrogation—that the ISI executed the Mumbai attacks. This blew the calm of Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah  Mehmood Qureshi when he received Krishna. Qureshi said India was stubborn, among other things. The Indian press attacked Qureshi and the Pak press reciprocated for Krishna. Both parties departed with neither trust, nor confidence.

It looked as if things had come back to square one. Within hours, the Washington, DC-led damage control began. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton spoke to Qureshi and Krishna. And Islamabad and New Delhi declared the peace process was still alive.

But this US policy of letting both India and Pakistan resolve the mystery of the Mumbai attacks is both misleading and telling. The matter of regional security cannot be reduced to an Indo-Pak affair when the US has so much responsibility for making so many important decisions in Pakistan. With US presence increasing in the region, and the intelligence operations, military cooperation, funding and training that go along with it, the US has to bear some responsibility wherever official agencies of Pakistan, such as the ISI, are accused of a terrorist attack.

The second obvious reason to cite US involvement in the Mumbai attacks stems from the fact that David Headley is a homegrown terrorist, and The New York Times has reported that he’s worked for US agencies in Pakistan. (The FBI, however, has hidden this fact in Headley’s Criminal Information Report filed in a Chicago court, and some media reports have called it “careful suppression.”)

The third reason is legacy. To have any meaningful conversation on curbing ISI-supported Islamic groups, US involvement, for its history in promoting Islamist groups on the subcontinent in the first place, is integral. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and ISI, since the Cold War era, have been working in tandem in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The very men India accuses of terrorism on its soil, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba, and Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, are veterans of the CIA-backed Mujahideen effort in South Asia, says Jeremy R Hammond, editor of Foreign Policy Journal.

The earlier the US addresses its murky undertakings in the region with a sense of correction, the closer we can arrive at some meaningful peace talks on the subcontinent. Remembering the legacy of the CIA-ISI collaboration, I suddenly recall a most appropriate quote—it comes from US President Barack Obama’s estranged pastor Jeremiah Wright. When it was first publicised by ABC News in early 2008, it wasn’t received well in the US; even the liberal-democratic supporters of Obama weren’t comfortable with it. Politically assertive pastor Wright had once said, describing the 9/11 attack, that it was “America’s chickens coming home to roost.” He meant the US was falling victim to its own foul foreign policies of supporting hardline Israelis, Islamists, and South Africa’s apartheid. “The stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards,” Wright preached in 2001.

Last year marked several arrests of homegrowns like Headley in the US. Some of them may be innocent, some guilty. US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said: “We face real threats from homegrown terrorists.” It must be true about domestic threats, but what about the roles of these homegrowns in the attacks on civilian targets in Mumbai, Islamabad, and Kabul?

Then there are the estranged characters, like Dawood Ibrahim, who have played dubious roles in the past. Many hushed voices on the national security circuit tell the stories of this Mumbaikar, who once, along with his underworld conduct, worked for India’s Research and Analysis Wing, later for the CIA, and finally ended up in the ISI after the 1993 blasts in Mumbai that killed 250 people. Until recently, he worked as a businessman in Karachi, and now, Pakistan tells India, it doesn’t know where he is. Since 1993, India has tried to get Dawood back, but in vain. Former Editor of The Japan Times, Yoichi Shimatsu, said, “US diplomats could never allow Dawood’s return [to India]. He simply knows too much about America’s darker secrets in South Asia and the Gulf, disclosure of which could scuttle US-India relations.”

LK Advani, former Indian Deputy Prime Minister, describes what could be perceived as a lack of interest from the Americans to extradite Dawood Ibrahim. In his autobiography, My Country, My Life, Advani describes the issue being taken up with two former US Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Advani said Powell informed him that Pakistan would hand over Ibrahim only  “with some strings attached,” and that then President Pervez Musharraf would need more time before doing so. Nothing happened. “There was only fibbing and foot-dragging,” Advani wrote.  Ibrahim is still at large, and in the 2008 Forbes list of the World’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives, he ranks fourth, and in the 2009 Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful People, Ibrahim is at number 50, between John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the United States, and William Keller, the Executive Editor of The New York Times.

It’s not just about one Ibrahim or one Headley. It’s also about how an ill-conceived war in Afghanistan is taking the whole region’s security along with it, and the US administration is not showing any responsibility for the growing mess it is creating. The New York Times reported last year how US weapons, meant to fight the Taliban, are leaked and end up in the hands of Taliban groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US government was criticised last year by its Government Accountability Office, for failing to account for thousands of rifles issued to Afghan security forces. It said at least 87,000 weapons were lost, including grenade launchers and machine guns. Since 9/11, the US has estimated to have spent 230 billion dollars (11.5 trillion rupees) in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It would be naïve to think that a falsely conceived and executed war in the region will incur no collateral damage.

So in that sense, if the security crisis on the subcontinent is born of several fathers, how fruitful can it be if a few ministers from Islamabad and New Delhi sit and discuss the extradition of a few men, the arrest and trial of a few others, and the need for the ISI to stop working with extremist groups?

If India and Pakistan ever hope to have a clean slate from which to negotiate, there first needs to be a reckoning about the role of the United States. While Washington, DC is 6,500 nautical miles from the subcontinent, its actions here, both past and present, have clearly affected the relationship between India and Pakistan. American acknowledgement of this would make the talks a little more meaningful.