How the first Kabul embassy attack clinched US distrust of Pakistan
While the degree of Pakistani military complicity in the latest suicide bomb attack on the Indian embassy remains uncertain, Rawalpindi should learn lessons from the consequences of its first attack – where its guilt is not in doubt.
One thing the Pakistani government and the Taliban agree on is that the United States should stop its airborne drone attacks in the tribal areas. A crucial reason Washington has so far ignored such complaints is the complicity of the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Taliban in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July last year.
The sheer amount of US intelligence showing that Jalaluddin Haqqani’s Taliban network and the ISI had combined to carry out the attack, say sources, ended all debate in Washington as to the extent of ISI complicity with the Taliban.
“The Indian embassy bombing, and the fact the US went public about Pakistani involvement, was a watershed that still informs attitudes,” says Daniel Markey, South Asia expert at the Council for Foreign Relations. David Sanger’s new book on George W Bush’s foreign policy, The Inheritance, quotes a State Department official saying the bombing “confirmed” some “widely held suspicions.” The official, who worked on Afghanistan, said, “It was sort of this ‘aha’ moment. There was sense that there was finally direct proof.”
The Kabul attack clinched the case being made by many in the CIA and the Pentagon during the Bush administration that Pakistani support for the war on terror was shot through with duplicity. “A number of issues came together to wake up the Bushies. The Kabul attack was critical because of the evidence of ISI involvement was very detailed and specific. But there was also mounting frustration about the Quetta shura and aid to the Taliban,” says Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute and head of Barack Obama’s Afghan policy review.
The “Quetta shura” is a known ring of Taliban leaders who function openly in Balochistan.
The US National Security Agency had by late June collected message intercepts indicating the ISI was helping the Taliban to carry out a large bomb attack against an unknown target. An official who saw the intelligence told Sanger, “It read like they were giving them weapons and the support.” Washington seems to have decided to send CIA deputy director Stephen Kappes to take the evidence to Islamabad and demand they cut ties to the Taliban. Five days before he reached Pakistan, a suicide car bomber attacked the embassy, killing 54 people including the Indian defence attaché.
The blast silenced even the staunchest supporters of Pakistan in the US bureaucracy. Says a former State Department official who worked on South Asia at the time: “The information about Pakistani involvement in the Kabul bombing surprised US government folks who had not shared the cynicism of some of us about the ISI’s games.”
Even before Kappes read the riot act to Islamabad, George W. Bush authorised a new, tougher policy against Pakistan. Islamabad would no longer be consulted in advance about drone attacks – it would receive a few seconds’ warning. US special forces were authorized to carry out attacks across the border of what was nominally a US ally. And the US hit list was expanded to include not only Al Qaeda leaders, but militants close to Rawalpindi.
The blast “impacted on official thinking in a meaningful way,” says the former State Department official, as even Pakistan skeptics were surprised at the attack’s boldness. Bush was probably not among them. When Bush had been briefed earlier that the US was certain of an ISI-Taliban nexus, an official who was present told Sanger “It wasn’t news to him.”