Over a year ago, a prominent Indian newspaper predicted that the U.S. would have little choice but to issue a formal designation against the ISI as a terrorist entity. The Times of India, perhaps the most widely read English-language newspaper in the world, believed that the Obama administration had “little wiggle room” in its decision due to testimony given during the David Headley trial about the role the ISI played in the 26/11 terror attacks against Mumbai:
Chicago case puts US support to Pakistan on trial
Chidanand Rajghatta, May 24, 2011
WASHINGTON: Far away from the courtroom drama in Chicago, in rarefied policy making circles in Washington DC, the Obama administration is also on trial for continued support to Pakistan despite copious information spilling out on the witness stand about the country’s sponsorship of terrorism and the role of its spy agency ISI in the Mumbai attack.
What puts the US administration in a fix — and spotlight — is that the information is coming from the government’s own witness. Testimony by the Department of Justice’s star prosecution witness David Headley in the trial of his friend Tawahhur Hussain Rana has left no doubt about the complicity of Pakistani intelligence agency ISI in overseeing the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 which killed 170 people, including six Americans.
Headley, who plea bargained with the government to escape death penalty, says he reported to a serving ISI officer named Major Iqbal among others ahead of the Mumbai attack, and a Pakistani Navy frogman helped land terrorists for the attack. He is also providing elaborate details about the ISI’s nexus with Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist entities which are formally designated as such by the State Department.
That leaves the Obama administration little wiggle room in avoiding formally designating ISI as a terrorist entity, although informally Washington already considers it a “terrorist support entity,” as disclosed in secret cables.
The State Department has been circumspect in addressing information emerging from the Chicago trial, even though it is a DoJ witness who is implicating ISI, and by inference, the Pakistani government (since Islamabad insists that the spy agency is compliant with government directives).
“Those are allegations, and we’ve asked the Pakistani Government to address those allegations in the past,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Monday, adding he didn’t want to “get in beyond that” since the trial was ongoing.
But there is growing unease in policy circles about how long Washington can continue to shield Pakistan citing its critical importance in the war on terror, especially in a case where Americans were also killed.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution, who has written extensively on Pakistan’s ties to terrorism, says the Obama administration simply can’t make the call. “I think it remains unlikely Department of State (DoS) will put ISI on the terrorist list. They are just too important,” he told ToI.
The Chicago proceedings also animated a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday, with at least two Senators wanting Pakistan to be called to account for its sponsorship of terrorism.
“I don’t know how we can just ignore that. The United States should confront Pakistan’s support to terrorists,” said Senator Ben Cardin, referring to the testimony from Headley implicating ISI, which one witness, CIA analyst Paul Pillar said could not be differentiated from the Pakistan military. “That is an issue that will come to consideration of US Congress,” Cardin warned.
But three witnesses who testified at the hearing all seemed to agree that Washington could not call Pakistan to heel despite its sponsorship of terrorism because of larger political and geo-strategic compulsions.
The news media have never had much of a record for predictions, and this case was no exception. The Headley story never received as much coverage as it should have by the American press, and the Obama administration and the Clinton State Department never came under public pressure to designate the ISI. Moreover, Washington D.C. has normally preferred to cooperate with Pakistan and give it foreign aid rather than expose the truth about its spy agency.
But it’s not too late. Given the details we’ve learned over the past year about Pakistan’s role in hiding Osama bin Laden, the State Department should revisit the issue and designate the ISI now.