When dealing with undesirable behavior by foreign governments, the U.S. has increasingly employed narrowly targeted sanctions against individual officials of those governments, from human rights abusers in Syria to Russian leaders responsible for the annexation of Crimea.
But the same logic has yet to be applied to the ISI, Pakistan’s terrorist-sponsoring intelligence agency, which, compared to Russia and Syria, has posed a more direct threat to U.S. forces and civilians through the ISI’s sponsorship of terrorism against our troops in Afghanistan and through the safe haven it provided to Osama Bin Laden.
New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall revealed last week that, “Soon after the Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden’s house, a Pakistani official told me that the United States had direct evidence that the ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, knew of Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad,” and that the ISI ran a special desk to “handle” Bin Laden.
The Bin Laden revelation is only the tip of the iceberg. The Taliban itself was created by Pakistan, which allowed Al Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a base for hatching the 9/11 plot. The perpetrators of the 26/11 terrorist attacks against Mumbai that left over 160 dead were also “clients and creations of the ISI.”
In an intercepted conversation, former ISI chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani was heard describing Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the terrorist Haqqani network, as a “strategic asset.” That is the way that Pakistani intelligence has looked at jihadists for decades—that holy warriors provide strategic depth and variety to the conventional armed forces along Pakistan’s borders. They regard terrorism as a tool in a broader arsenal against Pakistan’s foes, making the country a state sponsor of terrorism in the truest sense of the phrase.
Designating a foreign spy service as a terrorist entity wouldn’t be such a major leap as it appears at first blush. Interrogators at Guantanamo Bay are already trained to treat detainees affiliated with ISI the same way they would treat detainees affiliated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The approach is partly due to evidence of ISI’s role in coordinating terrorist groups in operations targeting Afghanistan and India.
There is already some support for such sanctions. Bruce Riedel, former CIA official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, called for individual sanctions against ISI officials. New York writer Suketu Mehta said “America and other countries should declare Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, some of whose officials have a long history of backing terrorists attacking India, ‘a terrorist entity’.” The Afghan National Security Council also expressed strong support last year for designating the ISI as a terrorist organization (see here and here).
Are there arguments against levying sanctions against the ISI? Yes. Pakistan could retaliate by ceasing its assistance to us while our troops are still fighting in Afghanistan. But if it weren’t for Pakistan playing midwife to the Taliban, and the Taliban subsequently partnering with Al Qaeda, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 wouldn’t have happened in the first place. It makes little sense to mollycoddle the puppet master because we think it will help us attack the puppet.
Unfortunately, sanctions often don’t achieve the desired results. Foreign aid is fungible, and if the U.S. and U.K. continue bestowing lavish foreign aid upon Pakistan, the government there will simply be able to move money from development and education projects toward military and intelligence operations.
But to the extent that we use sanctions at all as an instrument of foreign policy, it should be done for the right reasons. Lately we use sanctions like a necktie that we wear to look fashionable, while absentmindedly dangling the tie over a paper shredder. Rather than a entangling ourselves in the regional or internal affairs of bad actors in places where we have few interests, sanctions should be used as a tool used to serve our own national security interests, and to contain those whose actions do us harm.