The romance that wasn't

04 May 2011


US Army Military Police escort a detainee to his cell during in-processing to the temporary detention facility at Camp X-Ray in Naval Base Guantanamo Bay in this file photograph taken January 11, 2002 and released January 18, 2002. – Reuters

What do the Guantanamo Bay files tell us that we didn't know already? Not much it seems at first glance besides two things: first, that in the aftermath of 9/11 Washington decided to hold prisoners (legally known as “enemy combatants”) at Guantanamo Bay and second that these prisoners were of different nationalities.

The files shed no light on other key issues – such as the torture inflicted on these detainees or the legality of their detentions – which had made the detention centre so controversial. And whatever specific details that the files offer on each prisoner would largely interest academics, rights activists and perhaps the detainees' relatives – certainly not the general public.

But facts and figures are not the sole offerings of the 69 files, it also verifies the "known unknown" of the dicey US-Pakistani relationship – that the American's mistrust of the Pakistani spy agency the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) was there and has only grown. The files are a veritable insight into the fascinating yet difficult relationship between the two countries.

As has already been reported by Western papers that leaked the Gitmo files story, interrogators were told to regard detainees' links to 36 organisations, including the ISI, as an indication of terrorist or insurgent activity. Hardly a surprise for many — but the revelation in black and white has such a damning impact that rumours and reports attributed to unnamed Washington officials cannot parallel.

And there are many such tid-bits within the files that reflect the distrust and suspicion with which the spy agency and its networking are viewed. Take, for instance, a 2008 file on al-Qaeda detainee Abdul Rabbani Abu Rehman. Having access to the top echelon of al-Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers, he is accused of arranging safe-houses through which passed the 9/11 boys, Osama Bin Laden's son Saeed bin Laden, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and many other 'stars' in the al-Qaeda galaxy. Most importantly, the safe-houses that Rehman arranged and logistics he provided were dated to even before 9/11.

Now add to this the bland fact, listed under reasons for transfer to GTMO: "Connections with low to mid-level officials that helped detainee rent safe houses." Unsurprisingly, the files provide no details on who these officials were and when they helped Rehman acquire the houses — before or after 9/11.

But this was in 2008 by which time Washington's romance with the ISI had already started on a rocky patch — or so we are led to believe.

Here one would do well to remember that there is a narrative of the US foreign policy – though not the actual truth – the two sides did adhere to officially for years. According to this version of the events, Washington bought General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s promise in 2001 that the Pakistan army and the ISI would turn their back on the militants and jihad. And the United States believed him and doled out all the goodies that it did to the Pakistan army and the country as it set out on its war against terror.

Years, it is said, passed before the good people in Washington began to realise that there was something fishy in the state of Pakistan and that Musharraf had pulled a fast one on them.

Just take the account provided by David Sanger in his book, "The Inheritance". According to this investigative journalist, by the time US officials realised this and were able to convince George W Bush that his buddy in Pakistan was not always blunt and truthful, it was already the last year of the Texan president.

But the Gitmo files buy into no such tales. Documents dated 2008 or 2003, they all make it clear that for the Americans, the ISI hobnobbed with the bad guys in the past, present and future.

Hence, a file dated 2003 on detainee Mohammad Anwar says that a prior assessment by an army official had ended up recommending that he be released. However, new information in this document alleged that Anwar was recruited by Lashkar-e-Taiba and that he had been "identified as a Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence Directorate agent". No wonder Anwar was then kept on at American expense at Gitmo.

Similarly a 2005 document on a Zia Shah also states in a rather matter-of-fact manner that he was detained at Gitmo as he possessed "institutional knowledge" of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba as well as extensive knowledge of the "Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence Directorate". Shah was assessed to pose a medium risk to the US, its interest and its allies.

Fortunately, there were no details on which allies the document of the Department of Defence was referring to. It was also assessed that he was of medium intelligence value as among other issues, he may provide "further information on Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence Directorate connections to the Taliban and Pakistani Islamic extremist groups."

Such assessments paint a picture of an alliance in which neither side was really on the side of the other whole heartedly. If one of the partners was not a modern western state, perhaps Byzantine could have been used to describe this alliance.

Yet this is not an alliance that makes no sense. It does — in realpolitik. Pakistan needs the US for aid and weapons and more money. The Americans need Pakistan to gain leverage in Afghanistan; without Pakistan pretending to be on Washington's side, the Americans could have an even tougher time.

And in this sense, it is similar to the Pakistan army's relationship with the militant groups. The former does not really trust or control the latter yet it cannot break off all ties with the boys wielding the AK-47s. Without the militant groups, Islamabad's ability to leverage in Afghanistan and in turn in world politics would be far less limited.

Rocky relationships they all are — born out of necessity and maintained through treachery. From Washington to Islamabad to Waziristan, it's only the partners that vary not the essence of the relationships.

This column was first published on on May 4, 2011.