Spook Week

11 October 2011


It’s been a busy week for the spooks! Indeed, so many spooks have been putting in a public appearance that one might suppose Hallowe’en had arrived early this year.

Not long ago in Dancing with Spooks I commented on the dialectic of public and private diplomacy, and wrote that, “Public diplomacy often serves its most crucial function when it contradicts private diplomacy.” This observation could well be reformulated as a principle, to the effect that if one message is being broadcast by way of public diplomacy, then it is more likely than not that the opposite message is being transmitted by private diplomacy.

At the moment, the headlines are all about the arrest of two Iranian men in the US whom US officials claim were involved in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US Adel al-Jubeir. According to US Attorney General Eric Holder, the alleged conspiracy was “conceived, sponsored and directed from Iran.”

While it is entirely possible that there is a tenuous thread of truth in these claims — it is being said that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was involved in the planning, and it is possible that rogue extremist elements within the IRGC did have a plot afoot; note that UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s office cited “elements of the Iranian regime” but left it at that — it is unlikely in the extreme that any such plan was conceived and directed at the highest levels of Iranian state power.

Why? Assume the plot was successful, and that two Iranian Americans (one held passports from both countries) with easily traceable ties to Iran, murdered the Saudi ambassador to the US on the US soil. It would be difficult to overestimate the catastrophic fallout from such an event. It would be considered, in the eyes of most, to be a provocation that demanded a robust US response. Moreover, it would demand a robust response from both the US and Saudi Arabia. This would be a legitimate pretext to take military action against Iran of the sort that could not be taken unilaterally without grave international consequences.

Such a scenario would be a nightmare for Ahmadi-Nejad, and one must assume that such actions would be undertaken by elements within Iran that wanted to deal a critical blow to the current Iranian regime, rather than by Ahmadi-Nejad’s supporters, who have everything to lose and nothing to gain by a provocation of this magnitude.

The extremely public way in which the US administration is handling the public diplomacy of the alleged plot reveals how much hay can be made from a failed plot of this nature. Had the plot been successful, it might have been a game-changer for the Arabian Peninsula and its relations with the US. It is to be expected, then, that such an enterprise would be “conceived, sponsored and directed” by those who would want to change the game in the Arabian Peninsula, and those who would want to see robust US-Saudi retaliation against Iran.

Somewhat less public, but equally obvious, was an op-ed piece in the Financial Times, It is time to take on Pakistan’s radical jihadist spies by Mansoor Ijaz, an ethnic Pakistani with long standing ties to the US defense establishment.

Interestingly, Mansoor Ijaz gives some of the backstory of Admiral Mike Mullen’s very public diplomacy that I mentioned in a note added to Dancing with Spooks, which suggests that Admiral Mullen’s public diplomacy was preceded by private diplomacy aimed at the military leadership of Pakistan, warning them away from unseating President Zardari in response to the national humiliation of the UBL kill or capture commado raid.

While Mansoor Ijaz’s piece in the FT is interesting, and fills in some blanks, most of it reads like the script to a B grade spy flick. Here’s a typical sample:

“ISI embodies the scourge of radicalism that has become a cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy. The time has come for America to take the lead in shutting down the political and financial support that sustains an organ of the Pakistani state that undermines global antiterrorism efforts at every turn. Measures such as stopping aid to Pakistan, as a bill now moving through Congress aims to do, are not the solution. More precise policies are needed to remove the cancer that ISI and its rogue wings have become on the Pakistani state.”

Well, yes. We certainly would all like to shut down organs of radical militancy that pose a clear and present danger to global civil society. Yes, but how? Not the bill moving through Congress. What then? More precise policies. What policies exactly, then? Here we get no help. I wouldn’t argue against “more precise policies” any more than I would argue against shutting down organs of radical militancy. Very few westerners would argue against these obvious measures. But it gives us nothing to go on, because it gives us no specific measures that might be undertaking.

Mansoor Ijaz also mentions a shadowy division within Pakistan’s ISI, “S-Wing,” which is reportedly tasked with liaising with the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network — in other words, everybody’s list of militant heavies with their faces on dart boards. Ijaz actually writes, “S-Wing must be stopped.” I half expected to read, “S-Wing delenda est.” In any case, there is an interesting article on the ISI’s S-Wing on the Threat Matrix blog, which quotes an article from the Times of India — not the most objective source when it comes to analysis of Pakistan — in the attempt to give a little background to S-Wing so it didn’t look too much the part of the counter-terrorist’s deus ex machina.

Since Mansoor Ijaz’s FT piece contains no concrete proposals to tame the ISI or shut down its now-or-soon-to-be-notorious S-Wing (and I might point out that I did offer concrete proposals in Colombia, Algeria, Peru, Pakistan), it’s only purpose can be rhetorical: to introduce S-Wing to the news-reading public, to emphasize the weakness of Pakistan’s civilian government (no news there), to drive home the message of alleged Pakistani involvement in militant jihadism, and to ridicule Pakistan’s pursuit of strategic depth through involvement in Afghanistan.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Ijaz, but the way in which he has publicized his views leaves many more questions than answers. As I noted above, he offers no steps, methods, policies, or proposals to ameliorate the situation in Pakistan. How is this helpful? Inquiring minds want to know.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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