The Cable

Can the intel community defuse India-Pakistan tensions?

The CIA played a back-channel role in serving as an arbiter and vehicle for intelligence sharing in order to ease tensions between India and Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks, the Washington Post reports today. "In the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the CIA orchestrated back-channel intelligence exchanges between India and Pakistan, allowing the two former enemies to quietly share highly sensitive evidence while the Americans served as neutral arbiters, according to U.S. and foreign government sources familiar with the arrangement," the paper writes.

Former U.S. intelligence sources concerned about the potential for the situation to escalate had brought the channel to the attention of The Cable a few weeks ago. A few days before Christmas, they said, the United States sent then Director of National  Intelligence Michael McConnell and veteran CIA analyst Charlie Allen, who at the time was a top DHS intelligence official, to India. Allen and McConnell were there to talk about Mumbai. Both have since retired and could not be immediately reached.

Also on the trip to India, another U.S. government official said on condition of anonymity, was Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "It was a quick in and out trip," the US official said, of the previously undisclosed visit of the three intelligence officials to India. "They got in on a Sunday [Dec. 21], and were out on Tuesday morning," Dec. 23. McConnell had previously visited India last June, the official said.

But the former intelligence officers said the person the United States should be sending to defuse a potential India-Pakistani conflict is Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "The only guy in this administration they are likely to listen to is Gates," one former U.S. intelligence official said. "He's done this twice before." Gates, who was then deputy national security advisor for the first President Bush, was sent to "talk the Indians and Pakistanis out of war" in both 1988 and 1990, the former official, who had been among those involved in briefing Gates at the time, said.

The former official said the message Gates told India is, "If you go to war with Pakistan, you'll win. But your industrial infrastructure will be destroyed." And the message Gates told Pakistan is, "If you go to war with India, you'll lose. And at the end, you will not have a country."

"Bob Gates was the cool hand in keeping the Indians and the Pakistanis from going to war during Brass Tacks (Indian military exercise) in 1987," another former U.S. intelligence officer said, referring to when Gates was then serving as acting Director of Central Intelligence. "It was very tense."

"They are constantly shooting at one another along the line of control," the first former intelligence official said. "These little skirmishes risk getting out of hand. Both [India and Pakistan] feel they are great players at brinkmanship. But in fact they are terrible at it. They lose control very quickly. They don't know where their people are and what they are doing."

The former intelligence official strongly supported the regional approach to Afghanistan suggested by US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. "Afghanistan is a classic power vacuum," the former official said. "Neighbors see it as point of instability to guarantee their own stability or an opportunity to score points."

While the U.S. media has frequently reported on Pakistani ties to jihadi elements launching attacks in Afghanistan, it has less often mentioned that India supports insurgent forces attacking Pakistan, the former intelligence official said. "The Indians are up to their necks in supporting the Taliban against the Pakistani government in Afghanistan and Pakistan," the former intelligence official who served in both countries said. "The same anti-Pakistani forces in Afghanistan also shooting at American soldiers are getting support from India. India should close its diplomatic establishments in Afghanistan and get the Christ out of there."

"None of this is ever one-sided," he added. "That is why it was so devastating and we were so let down" when India got taken out of Holbrooke's official brief.

Holbrooke flew to India Sunday night after visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan. "Mr. Holbrooke ... said he was shocked by the problems he saw in the country [Pakistan], which he last visited a year ago," the New York Times reports. "He said he was especially concerned that the Swat Valley, a onetime ski resort about 100 miles from Islamabad, had been seized by Taliban guerrillas, who blow up schools, assassinate police officers and beat -- or behead -- those who do not adhere to their strict version of Islam." On Sunday, the paper also reports, the Taliban declared a 10 day cease-fire with Pakistani forces in Swat valley.

The Post report, sourced initially to unnamed Pakistani officials, could be interpreted as an effort by Pakistan to prevent Indian actions against the country that some U.S. military analysts predict are likely before Indian elections this spring.

"The Indians are almost certainly going to do something before [their] elections," said AEI military analyst Thomas Donnelly. "They will strike camps in Pakistan. They are really pissed about the incompetence of the response to the [Mumbai] attacks.  .... It doesn't look like the Pakistanis are willing to or even can do anything that will satisfy the Indians. I would really be surprised if something doesn't happen, unless that changes. They got an election coming up in March or April. It will be an interesting test for the United States."

A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it would have no comment on travel taken by the DNI.

UPDATE: A Washington South Asia expert, among others, wrote to dispute the allegation made by a former U.S. intelligence official cited in the piece that India is aiding the Taliban, although he said such support may be going to other anti-Pakistan insurgent groups.  "It doesn't square with my observations/sources, even though lots of Pakistanis will say it is true," one said. "The Indians have - by many accounts - had a longstanding connection with Baluch nationalists/separatists in Pakistan, but these are not Taliban and they aren't active in Afghanistan fighting against US/NATO forces. So yes, India gives Pakistan grief (as Pakistan has in India), but I've seen no evidence that it comes from Pakistani or Afghan Taliban.

"As for the consulates, that's a regular refrain from Pakistani government and military," the expert added, "but there's very little US evidence to support the claims of major Indian activity in these locations, which appear to be minor operations with rather few personnel." The former U.S. intelligence officer who made the allegation said that U.S. policymakers do not require the U.S. government to collect intelligence on the issue.

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