Why Has Pakistan Targeted Informants Who Helped Track Bin Laden?

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Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, in an April 1998 file photo

In the days following the raid that discovered and killed Osama bin Laden, Pakistan's top spymaster recalled that he had long made his feelings plain to his American allies. Where the two countries' interests meet, Lieut. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha told a select group of journalists, there would be co-operation. But where the U.S.'s interests were deemed to be acting against Pakistan's own, it would be a very different matter. "We'll not help you," the head of Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) quoted himself as telling his American counterparts. "We'll resist you."

Now, Pasha seems to be making good on that promise. Stung by the embarrassment of bin Laden's discovery in a garrison town just two hours away from the Pakistani capital, and the humiliation of the U.S. carrying out a unilateral raid, the ISI has evidently gone after the Pakistanis who helped them pull it off. Five Pakistani informants, including an Army major, who furnished the CIA with crucial leads about bin Laden's compound have been taken into custody by the ISI, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. On Thursday, a senior Pakistani official told TIME that the only Pakistani remaining in custody is Major Amir Aziz, the Pakistan army medic whose house in Abbottabad was used to monitor Osama bin Laden's compound nearby. The rest of the suspected informants have been released.

The Pakistani military had initially denied that the major — reported to have tracked the license plates of cars visiting bin Laden's compound — had been taken into custody. But a Pakistan army officer said that some 30-to-40 civilians in total were being interrogated, some of whom were already released earlier in the week. The nameplate on the house in Abbottabad said that the property belonged to a Major Amir Aziz has been taken down.

The move against the informants appears to be an attempt to stand up to what the ISI sees as American unilateralism and, in particular, an unauthorized expansion of the CIA's footprint in Pakistan. The ISI, says a senior Pakistani official, is "trying to lay down the rule that the CIA does not operate independently in Pakistan." Beyond the humiliation of bin Laden being discovered a mere kilometer away from Pakistan's equivalent of West Point Academy, the Pakistani security establishment has been angered by widely-voiced but unproven suspicions of complicity. But what appears to have angered the powerful generals most is the lack of trust displayed by the unilateral raid — and the strategic vulnerability that it exposed.

At the time of the raid, senior Western diplomats in Islamabad predicted that the Pakistani security establishment would react in two ways. To efface the shame of the bin Laden raid, it would try and demonstrate its commitment to fighting al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants on its soil. Yet, aggrieved for the same reasons, the generals were seen just as likely to react aggressively in less helpful ways. The roundup of the informants and others suggests that more emphasis is being laid on being seen to stand up to the U.S.

Since the Raymond Davis affair, when a CIA contractor unknown to the ISI killed two Pakistani men in the city of Lahore in January, Pasha and his boss Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani have been keen to minimize the CIA and U.S. military's presence in Pakistan. Last week, they expelled a group of U.S. military trainers who had been invited to the country to help enhance the counterinsurgency capabilities of Pakistani troops fighting militants in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Pasha has long been angered by what he sees as an uncontrollably expanding and independent CIA footprint in Pakistan. At the same May briefing with journalists, the embattled spy chief complained indignantly that his spies were on the verge of being "outnumbered" by foreign agents. It's a scenario that spookily echoes the theme of David Ignatius' latest spy thriller, Bloodmoney. In the novel, the fictionalized ISI chief learns of a new capability being run by the CIA beyond his knowledge. "It was an insult," Ignatius writes. "The ISI chief had considered whether he should do something to hurt the Americans back."

Reality is now rivaling fiction as relations between the two spy agencies plunge to fresh depths. The informants' arrests came on the heels of the CIA's allegation that the ISI may have tipped-off militants based at bomb factories in Waziristan. As first reported on TIME.com, CIA chief Leon Panetta (and the likely successor to Defense Secretary Robert Gates) traveled to Pakistan last Friday to confront Pasha with satellite images showing the militants flee the two sites within 24 hours of the CIA passing on their location to the Pakistanis. When Pakistani troops later arrived at the facilities used for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices, the pro-Afghan Taliban militants were long gone. The Times reported that it was at the same meeting with Pasha that Panetta raised the arrests of the informants.

Such alleged failures at intelligence sharing and action against militants who attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan are what led President Barack Obama to clear the intensification of CIA operations in Pakistan. Shedding the reliance on the ISI, Obama charged the CIA to proceed independently. One manifestation of that change of policy was an intensification of drone strikes, which almost daily continue to target suspected militants in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. Despite the Pakistan Army and government's loud denunciations of the covert program, they have not tried to put a halt to them.

By striking a defiant nationalist pose, Pasha may be hoping to stanch the wave of pressure that has been piling on his institution, and his own position, over the past month. The ISI chief had offered to resign on three occasions. The Pakistani military as a whole has been made the focus of unprecedented criticism from civil society campaigners, journalists and opposition politicians. There is also tremendous pressure from below, with the military's lower ranks registering anger at the U.S. in the wake of the bin Laden raid.

And yet, for others, there was always an element of inevitability about the ISI's relations with the CIA. "They have been deteriorating for a long time," says retired Lieut. Gen. Asad Durrani, a former ISI chief. "With every such event, they take a nosedive. It's not surprising. We did not have the same objectives, and we didn't have the same strategies."