Covert adversaries to covert allies?

Praveen Swami

Most intelligence experts are sceptical of the prospect of India-Pakistan intelligence cooperation.

Last week, Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani agreed that India and Pakistan “will share real-time credible and actionable information on any future terrorist threats”.

Inside the intelligence communities of both India and Pakistan, the impact of the text has been seismic. Adversaries for decades, India and Pakistan have committed themselves to exchanging intelligence secrets.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the language of the Singh-Gilani Joint Statement suggests, is now bound to providing information on the activities of jihadist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In turn, India’s covert services can seek ISI help to act on leads they have gathered.

Does the Joint Statement, then, mark a new dawn in the India-Pakistan intelligence relationship? Most experts are sceptical.

Ever since the November, 2008, Mumbai attacks, the United States of America has been pushing for intelligence engagement between the adversaries. In May, the Wall Street Journal claimed that the Central Intelligence Agency had “arranged for Pakistan and India to share information on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group widely blamed for last November’s terrorist attack on Mumbai, as well as on Taliban commanders who are leading the insurgency against Pakistan’s government”.

But Indian intelligence officials say little useful information has in fact been passed on. Infiltration has taken place across the Line of Control; training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir are yet to be shut down; and Pakistan has refused to arrest key jihadist leaders like Maulana Masood Azhar and Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. For the most part, both Indian and Western analysts concur that Pakistan has shown little sign of severing its support to anti-India jihadists.

“The problem,” says the former RAW chief, Vikram Sood, “is that each time you pass on information, the adversary can assess just how you got it. Each disclosure thus makes it possible for the adversary to plug weaknesses in their systems. If you share information with a hostile state, it is likely the next time around you will be unable to garner any information at all.”

Experts also point to verifiability issues in intelligence cooperation. “How,” asks one senior official in the Union Home Ministry, “do you establish that the ISI knew something it chose not to pass on?”

Bitter experience

Past efforts to build an India-Pakistan intelligence relationship have floundered on the rocks of bitter experience.

Soon after the 2006 serial bombing attacks on Mumbai’s suburban train system — which claimed more lives than last year’s carnage in the city — Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf promised to crack down on anti-India terrorist groups. Based in part on assurances from the United States of America, Prime Minister Singh agreed to an intelligence dialogue with Pakistan.

During the first two meetings of the Joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism, India’s requests for action against terror suspects yielded no meaningful response. “Leave Kashmir,” Pakistani diplomat Tariq Haider is reported to have told his Indian interlocutors at their first meeting, “and the problem of terrorism will disappear.”

The last meeting of the JATM took place in Islamabad on June 24, 2008. Indian diplomat Vivek Katju and his Pakistani counterpart Masood Khalid, an official statement recorded, “shared fresh information on terrorist incidents [and] agreed to continue to work to identify counter-terrorism measures, assist in investigations through exchange of specific information and for preventing violence and terrorist acts.”

Days later, terrorists bombed India’s mission in Kabul. Credible information emerged, through the CIA, that elements in Pakistan’s ISI had been in touch with the suicide-bomber who carried out the attack. Prime Minister Gilani promised a full investigation into the allegations during a meeting with Prime Minister Singh in Colombo, but no action was taken. Even to its most energetic defenders in India’s policy establishment, it was clear the JATM was a dead-end.

Last year’s attacks in Mumbai cast further doubt on Pakistan’s promises to crack down on terrorist groups.

On September 18, the CIA delivered the first of two warnings of an impending Lashkar attack on Mumbai. Couched in general terms, it was delivered to India through the Research and Analysis Wing. In response to an Indian request, the CIA delivered further details on September 24, warning expressly that the Lashkar was planning to hit multiple targets including the Taj Mahal Hotel. India’s own intelligence services also warned that an attack was imminent.

Pakistan’s own intelligence services, though, passed on nothing. Either the ISI was not watching the Lashkar or did not stop the operation, undermining Islamabad’s past promises to end anti-India terrorism.

Building confidence

India-Pakistan intelligence cooperation will rest on whether action against such groups is forthcoming. The investigation into the February, 2007, firebombing of the Samjhauta Express — an attack carried out on Indian soil, but targeting Pakistani nationals — could prove a test case.

Indian investigators initially believed the attack had been carried out by the Lashkar. However, the investigations led nowhere. Last year, though, based on information from informants, the Maharashtra Police and the Madhya Pradesh Police turned their attention to Hindutva terrorist groups.

Pakistan latched onto this development with glee. On July 11, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik reiterated the allegation, demanding to know “why India is not giving us information on Samjhauta Express attack”.

Earlier this month, though, the United States Department of the Treasury announced sanctions against Arif Qasmani, a key Lashkar-e-Taiba financial organiser who is alleged to have acted as the organisation’s liaison with Al-Qaeda.

Qasmani, the U.S. Treasury said, facilitated multiple attacks, “including the July 2006 train bombing in Mumbai, India, and the February 2007 Samjota [Samjhauta] Express bombing in Panipat”. The Treasury added that Qasmani utilised “money that he received from Dawood Ibrahim, an Indian crime figure and terrorist supporter, to facilitate the July 2006 train bombing in Mumbai, India”.

Pakistan, however, has neither acted against Qasmani or other figures indicted by the U.S. nor provided information to India on their role in the Samjhauta attack.

Unhappy track record

India and Pakistan have a long history of attempting intelligence cooperation — but it has seen little success.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Pakistan’s President General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq ordered secret meetings between their spymasters in an effort to defuse the tensions caused by Pakistani support for Khalistan terrorists.

The former RAW chief, A.K. Verma, and the former Inter-Services Intelligence head, General Hamid Gul, then held two rounds of discussion.

The secret talks were brokered by Jordanian royal Talal bin-Hassan, whose wife, Princess Sarvath el-Hassan, is of Indian origin. Princess el-Hassan’s father, the eminent Bhopal-born diplomat Mohammad Ikramullah, was a senior Indian Civil Service officer who served on Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Partition Committee and later became Pakistan’s first Foreign Secretary. Her mother, Kolkata-born Begum Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, was a well-known novelist.

Pakistan handed over four Indian troops who had defected there after Operation Bluestar, but no further progress was made towards ending ISI support for Khalistan terror groups.

Efforts were made again in 1990-1991, during the term of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to resume the covert intelligence dialogue. Amidst escalating tensions in Jammu and Kashmir, then-ISI chief Lieutenant-General Asad Durrani and his RAW counterpart G.S. Bajpai met in Singapore for a third round of India-Pakistan secret dialogue.

This time, there were no results at all. “It was,” former Research and Analysis Wing officer B. Raman has recorded, “a dialogue of the deaf.”

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