The reported arrest of five men by Pakistan for collaborating with the CIA in its mission to track down Osama bin Laden, appears to have further shaken the deeply fraught relationship between the two countries' intelligence agencies, according to some experts here.
The reported detention of CIA informants comes at a time when Pakistan's intelligence agencies are facing unprecedented criticism following the events of May 2011 beginning with bin Laden being found in a cantonment area, the siege of naval airbase PNS Mehran and the killing of journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad.
With numerous intelligence specialists in Washington asking why Pakistan was focusing on alleged CIA informants instead of targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, concerns have also been expressed regarding the risks the growing chasm poses for continued drone strikes.
Even as these concerns mounted in Washington, Pakistan on Wednesday “strongly refuted” the report claiming that an Army Major was among the five Pakistani informants detained for spying on bin Laden in Abbottabad. “There is no army officer detained and the story is false and totally baseless,” said the Inter Services Public Relations in a statement.
Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, described U.S.-Pakistan relations as being “in a steep nose dive with the intelligence relationship leading the way.” Speaking to The Hindu he said that within the army there was a sense of deep humiliation owing to the U.S. strike against bin Laden, and “the officer corps is questioning its top leaders' competence and they face unprecedented public criticism”.
Mr. Riedel also alluded to heightened anti-Americanism in Pakistan, arguing that the Pakistani army shared “the anger and resentment the average Pakistani feels toward America, a sentiment stoked by every drone strike.”
Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, a former CIA officer like Mr. Riedel, said while “Pakistan's arrest of the CIA informants may add to ISI-CIA tensions, would not push the intelligence relationship to the breaking point.” In particular, Ms. Curtis told The Hindu the U.S. would be willing to accept “a high degree of tension in the relationship,” as it needed to track additional terrorists.
Ms. Curtis also raised the question of where the arrests of the informants would lead, saying, “If Pakistani authorities move to prosecute the individuals for espionage, this would put Pakistan in an awkward position of punishing individuals who helped track the world's most wanted terrorist.” A better course of action may be to quietly release the individuals and avoid further questions about loyalties, she added.
The drone programme in particular was said to have been at risk for several months, and continuing tensions might necessitate a shift in the location from which they were launched, from Pakistan to Afghanistan.