The Double Mirror

How Pakistan's intelligence service plays both sides

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Illustration by Hellovon

Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency since 2008

In the days after the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad — when the whole world was wondering whether the Pakistanis had known all along that he was there — I found myself reviewing my correspondence with officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. That's just one of the unlikely facts about Pakistan's fearsome intelligence service: its top operatives answer their e-mail.

The notes brought back to me the strange duality of the ISI, which I encountered in my first meetings in Pakistan with its senior leaders in 2009. They proved to be passionate correspondents. With their public face, they wanted to be understood — liked, even. But their private face was coldly ruthless, to the point of silently condoning attacks on U.S. soldiers by their allies.

I found that I couldn't capture ISI's nuances in newspaper columns. So my eighth novel, Bloodmoney, is set largely in Pakistan; it centers on a fictional ISI and a CIA whose operations inside Pakistan have spun out of control. I describe the director general of my imaginary ISI this way: "To say that the Pakistani was playing a double game did not do him justice; his strategy was far more complicated than that."

This Janus-like quality is true of all intelligence services, I suppose, but I have never seen an organization quite like the ISI. It is at once very secretive and very open, yet ISI officials get especially peeved at the charge of duplicity: "I cannot go on defending myself forever, even when I am not doing what I am blamed for," wrote one of my ISI contacts, after I had written a column noting the organization's "double game" with the U.S. "I shall do what I think is good for PAKISTAN, my country. I am sure you will do the same for US."

What this official wanted me to understand was that Pakistan was suffering under its own onslaught of terrorism. An ISI briefer almost shouted at me in 2010: "Mr. David Ignatius! Look at the casualties we have suffered fighting terrorism!" We're in alongside the U.S., ISI officials insist. Yet they are caught in the backwash of an anti-American rhetoric they help create. The ISI's press cell feeds Pakistani newspapers constantly; presumably, it thinks its U.S.-bashing leaks will hide the reality of the ISI's cooperation. But the puppeteer has gotten caught in the strings. Anti-Americanism has taken a virulent form that threatens the ISI too.

In late 2009, after an especially gruesome Taliban bombing that killed some of his colleagues, one of my ISI pen pals wrote: "WE MUST WIN, if we want our children to be living a life of THEIR CHOICE AND BELIEF and NOT OF THESE BEASTS. We want to get our beautiful and peaceful Country back from their vicious clutches. We can not allow them to destroy our future. They can kill me but NEVER my spirit, NEVER my free soul!!!" Who could dislike a man with such passionate punctuation? And yet back in the U.S., when I asked top CIA and military officers what the intelligence showed about the ISI's activities, they would become visibly angry. If you could just read the intercepts, they would say ... if you could see the double-dealing — how they take U.S. intelligence, for example, and pass it along to U.S. enemies in the Haqqani network.

And now, the very worst: we learn that bin Laden had been living for at least six years in Abbottabad, a city that is virtually a military cantonment. It seems implausible that the ISI wouldn't have known, but CIA officials say there's no evidence yet of direct Pakistani-government knowledge. The ISI's core problem is that it created paramilitary forces it can't control. In the ISI's case, the problem is the forward-deployed assets of the S (for strategic) wing, which were sent out to the tribal areas and Afghanistan to form what became the various Taliban factions and to Kashmir to create covert weapons against India. The S wing and its partner the R wing (which manages operations) are the tail that wags the ISI dog. The current ISI leadership has tried to bring them under control, but only halfheartedly.

This is the two-way mirror that shattered on May 1. And it has been a duplicitous game on both sides, it must be said. The U.S. has demanded the ISI's cooperation in fighting al-Qaeda but refused to disclose the scope of its operations. Our drones have operated from a Pakistani air base, for example, but we provide only "concurrent" notification of the targets — meaning after the Hellfire missiles have been fired. Like the Pakistanis, we want it both ways: operate as allies when it suits our purpose; operate unilaterally when it doesn't. The Pakistanis, for their part, fight the Taliban and other killers when it suits them, but they maintain a network of secret contacts with these same groups. They sup with the devil, claiming they're debriefing him.

In my novel, the CIA and ISI come to a deal in the end. Their war is resolved through the ancient tribal code that demands a balance of mutual respect, symbolized by a payment of blood money. I suspect something similar will happen eventually in real life. Even after all the recent recriminations, we will keep working with the ISI. And we will eventually negotiate with the Taliban.

What could make things with Pakistan worse — much worse, in fact? Confirmation of U.S. suspicions that the ISI knew where bin Laden was and sheltered him. President Obama says bin Laden had "some sort of support mechanism" in Pakistan. The cache of other material taken from bin Laden's compound will surely reveal the nature of that support network.

You have to hope the suspicion of ISI complicity isn't true. If it turns out they were hiding him, we won't have a double game anymore but a single one — an unambiguous and deeply dangerous confrontation.

Ignatius, a novelist, is a foreign-affairs columnist at the Washington Post.