After senior Taliban arrest, an official reflects on expanding Pakistan-CIA ties

After the most senior Taliban commander to be arrested since 2001 was apprehended in a joint CIA and Pakistan government operation, a recently retired Pakistan intelligence official reflects on expanding intelligence cooperation with the US.

A recently retired senior Pakistani intelligence official told the Monitor that joint operations between the CIA and Pakistani intelligence officials like the one that arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar are common now.

The US intelligence relationship with Pakistan has been a tangled one for decades. During the Soviet war with Afghanistan, CIA operatives worked with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to funnel money and weapons to the mujahideen fighting the Soviets -- as well as a group of Arabs fighting in the cause that later became Al Qaeda.

When the Soviets lost that war and departed, Pakistan maintained its intelligence and financial ties to many of the former anti-Soviet fighters, and developed a relationship with the newly emerged Taliban as US attention turned elsewhere. After the 9/11 attacks, there was a fair deal of suspicion between US and Pakistani intelligence officers, with the US disturbed by Pakistan's close ties to the Taliban.

Nevertheless, the ranks of CIA agents in Pakistan swelled quickly after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the former Pakistani intelligence agent says his country has developed a strong working relationship with the CIA in the years since.

Though Pakistan has worked closely with the US in dealing with Al Qaeda -- arresting alleged 9/11 planner and murderer of US journalist Daniel Pearl Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 -- US officials say Pakistan had been reluctant to target the Afghanistan Taliban too directly, since the group has been seen as important in Pakistani military and intelligence circles to securing Pakistan's influence in its neighbor.

But that is changing, and the emerging relationship is built on reciprocity. After the US killed Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud last August as a favor to the Pakistan government, analysts predicted that Pakistan would do more scratching of America's back in turn.

The biggest payoff so far was the arrest of Mr. Baradar near the port city of Karachi about 10 days ago, which was announced late Monday. Baradar is the most senior Afghan Taliban official arrested since the war began and a man the US has been hunting for years.

"The numbers are always fluctuating. Some work in other US agencies like USAID, others operate exclusively for the CIA," says the retired intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They obviously work closely and it is not one way -- it is mutual. Sometimes they need our support, sometimes we need the support they give us. Sometimes they do things not known to us.” Often the CIA will pay local operatives handsomely to carry out their work, he says.

The CIA brings a distinct technological advantage to joint operations but relies on their local counterparts to carry out interrogations, says the retired official.

Pakistani agents are now reportedly handling the interrogation of Mullah Baradar.

Western backlash?

The retired official predicts the capture of Mullah Baradar will make Pakistan more dangerous for Westerners because of public anger over a perceived loss of sovereignty to the US. "Obviously the [opposition] politicians will pick up this point for government bashing and say the government has sold the country out," he said.

To be sure, the public response to the growing US presence in Pakistan has been muted so far, surprising some analysts.

The presence of large numbers of CIA agents in Pakistan traces back to 1979, the year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution took place.

Regarding the fact that Mullah Baradar was apparently captured in the port-city of Karachi, Pakistan's financial hub which is situated hundreds of miles away from the Afghan border, the retired official says that it is likely to re-ignite claims by the Karachi city government that their city is becoming 'Talibanized' owing to the large ethnic Pashtun population.

This may be overblown, he says. "I personally feel the best hiding place are the big cities. The bigger the city the more the anonymity. It's always better to stay in a place where no one knows who lives next door."

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