According to widespread rumors in the United States, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence had a hand in the Dec. 30, 2009, attack in Khost, Afghanistan, which killed several CIA agents. While luck played a definite role in the attack, the skill in preparing the double agent who detonated the suicide bomb used in the attack has lead some to see a state role. Such a role is unlikely, however, as Pakistan has little to gain by enraging the United States. Even so, the rumors alone will harm U.S.-Pakistani relations, perhaps giving the Taliban some breathing room.
Speculation is rife in the United States about the possible role played by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, Pakistan's foreign intelligence service, in the Dec. 30, 2009, suicide attack on Forward Operating Base Chapman in eastern Afghanistan that killed multiple CIA agents. Much of this discussion traces back to a report citing unnamed U.S. and Afghan government sources as saying a chemical analysis of explosive residue suggesting the use of military-grade equipment points to ISI involvement in the incident. This is a faulty basis to establish an ISI link, as the Pakistani Taliban have used military-grade explosives in numerous attacks against the Pakistani security establishment since late 2006. Still, rumors alone of ISI involvement will suffice to harm U.S.-Pakistani relations, which will serve the jihadists' ends quite nicely. To a large extent, chance aided the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in carrying out the attack. Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi's arrival gave the group the opportunity to carry out an attack at a heavily fortified facility belonging to the world's most powerful intelligence organization. That said, the preparation of the double agent for the attack showed definite skill. While it has shown a great degree of skill in pulling off attacks against major army, intelligence and other security installations in Pakistan, the TTP previously has not been seen as being capable of handling a foreign double agent for a complex operation outside Pakistan. In this incident, the TTP managed to conceal al-Balawi's true activities while in Pakistan. Admittedly, keeping close track of al-Balawi in Pakistan would have been a challenge to the CIA due to the agency's fairly weak humint capabilities there, and because his jihadist hosts would have been extremely cautious about using communications devices that would show up on sigint monitoring. And while remaining below the radar while in jihadist country in the Pakistani northwest is one thing, circumventing all CIA countermeasures is quite another — and is something previously thought beyond the TTP's known capabilities. Such sophistication rises to the level of the skills held by a national-level intelligence organization with tremendous resources and experience at this kind of tradecraft. However, even this does not mean the ISI was involved in the attack. The ISI falls under the control of the Pakistani army and the government, and the Pakistani state has no interest in carrying out actions against the United States, as this could seriously threaten Pakistani national interests. Also, it is clear that the ISI is at war with the TTP. For its part, the main Pakistani Taliban rebel group has specifically declared war on the ISI, leveling three key ISI facilities in the last eight months. It is therefore most unlikely this could have been an officially sanctioned Pakistani operation. The possibility that jihadist sympathizers in the lower ranks of the Pakistani intelligence complex may have offered their services to the TTP cannot be ruled out, however. Given its history of dealing with Islamist nonstate proxies, the Pakistani intelligence apparatus is penetrated by the jihadists, which partially explains the ability of the TTP to mount a ferocious insurgency against the state. Even though there is no clear smoking gun pointing at the ISI, rumors of its involvement alone will harm the already-fragile U.S.-Pakistani relationship. Concerns similar to those in the aftermath of the November 2008 Mumbai attack — that the situation in Pakistan has reached a point where the state no longer has control over its own security apparatus and now represents an intolerable threat to U.S. national security — will emerge again. While the situation in Islamabad might not be dire, a U.S.-Pakistani and Indian-Pakistani breakdown is exactly what that the jihadists want so they can survive the U.S. and Pakistani offensives they currently face.