The Patience Runs Out

The United States has put up with Pakistan's insidious double game for a decade now. Not anymore.

Divorces don't happen overnight, but there's always that one moment, that one comment when -- perhaps only in retrospect -- you can see the split coming. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's recent trip to Afghanistan may have been unannounced, but he wasn't shy when it came to speaking about Pakistan. Panetta said quite openly that the United States is losing patience with Pakistan, especially when it comes to Islamabad's failure -- or unwillingness -- to act against the Haqqani Network, a Taliban- and al Qaeda-affiliated group known to target Americans in Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan.

The remarks came as a surprise, as their timing coincides with U.S. negotiations with Pakistan to re-open NATO routes, but what Panetta said is hardly new. In fact, as he sat in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last September, he listened to Adm. Mike Mullen convey a similar message when the outgoing Joint Chief of Staff chairmen let loose, calling the Haqqani Network a veritable arm of Pakistan's intelligence service. Congress, the State Department, and the White House have also become more publicly forthcoming on this issue in the past year. So, instead of being shocked at Panetta's words, we should be shocked by their consistency. For once, the United States is on message when it comes to our "friend" and "ally" in South Asia.

The consistency and timing of the U.S. message provides new insight into the direction of relations with Pakistan. The Obama administration usually uses the Haqqani card to pressure Islamabad to turn on its strategic ally when it is linked to attacks on U.S. interests. The last time the administration turned up the heat was after the brazen Sept. 13, 2011, attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Panetta's comments could be viewed as a response to the June 1 attack on the U.S.-run Camp Solerno that occurred in Khost, a known Haqqani Network stronghold. But the reason for the latest rise in rhetoric is likely exactly what Panetta says it is -- a loss of patience that signals the beginning of the end of a relationship with a country that has long underestimated levels of U.S. discontent with its behavior, despite its shrewd understanding of and ability to profit over its strategic value to the United States over the past 10 years.  

The NATO overland supply routes in Pakistan have been closed for more than six months now -- an unprecedented amount of time. Despite ongoing negotiations to re-open routes, Washington has clearly been doing its homework on the alternatives. Nearly 75 percent of all surface cargo arrives in Afghanistan through current Central Asia routes known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) -- up 35 percent from last year. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced early this month that he had reached agreements with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to allow the transit of troops and equipment both to and from Afghanistan. The expansion of routes with three separate nations does not happen overnight; it is the result of a deliberate effort of the Obama administration to become less dependent on Pakistan.

The generals in Islamabad -- who, for a decade now, have tried to play both sides -- should worry. Not only does Pakistan stand to lose revenue generated by the supply routes but it also faces international isolation. In the past, many of its questionable policies and relationships, most notably its nuclear proliferation activities and relations with the Taliban, have been overlooked because of its cooperation in the war on terror. A U.S.-Pakistan relationship in decline means this no longer holds. In addition to Pakistan's links to the Haqqani Network, other realities are now fair game for public criticism, such as the open residence of senior Taliban leadership and their families in Pakistan; the prevalence of Islamist thinking among the military; state support for anti-Indian terrorists and other militants; treatment of women and religious and ethnic minorities; and the frequency of journalist deaths and moderate politicians.  

But public criticism should be the least of Islamabad's worries. Moves are already afoot to isolate Pakistan. The draft National Defense Authorization Act 2013 proposes an earmark of $1.75 billion in Coalition Support Funds for Pakistan -- but only to be made available once NATO routes re-open. Congress recently introduced two bills on Shakil Afridi, the doctor imprisoned by Pakistan for assisting the CIA in the Osama bin Laden operation. One bill calls for Afridi to receive the Congressional Gold Medal while the other provides for his relief by deeming him a U.S. citizen. Congress also proposed to cut $33 million in aid -- $1 million for each year of the 33-year sentence Afridi received. Despite these antagonistic moves, the United States and Pakistan have not hit rock bottom yet. There is always the possibility of placing Pakistan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a return to sanctions -- or worse yet, unilateral U.S. ground operations similar to that of the bin Laden raid on Pakistan's territory against targets such as the Haqqani Network.

For the first time in a decade, the shifts in rhetoric indicate not just displeasure, but that the United States is actively looking to replace Pakistan. Panetta called for India to play a stronger role in supporting Afghan security forces during his June 6 trip there. The official response from Pakistan welcomed any effort to stabilize Afghanistan, but behind the scenes Panetta's comments will inevitably be viewed by Pakistan as a ploy to establish Indian hegemony in South Asia. India, for its part, is interested in assuming a greater economic role in Afghanistan, but the United States will likely find the official response from New Delhi just as muted and milquetoast as Islamabad's. India's growing domestic challenges, from corruption to the economy, will keep it busy until elections later this year. Furthermore, India would rather not surrender its ambitions for global leadership to antagonize a Pakistan that cannot see the Indian effort in Afghanistan as anything but a nefarious plot to encircle it.

Nonetheless, there is a new Great Game unfolding in South and Central Asia. There are more stakeholders, greater economic interests to be won, and new proxy relationships developing in the latest competition for resources and power. In 2010, the U.S. government announced that Afghanistan had nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits ranging from iron, copper, cobalt, gold, to lithium. These resources plus Afghanistan's access to Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East make it ideal for countries like China and India who are looking to fuel their economic growth. Washington will look to India and China to fill the economic void as the United States military drawdown also brings to close a 10-year war economy, while countries like Russia and Iran will strengthen ties with their traditional proxies, hoping to fill the vacuum as the United States departs. During his May visit to Afghanistan, President Obama discussed the importance of global consensus in South Asia's stability -- and noted in particular that Pakistan "can and should be an equal partner." The president reiterated the theme of international collaboration at the Chicago NATO summit later that month by seeking long-term commitments to Afghanistan's economic growth and development.

In this new context, Pakistan has a great deal to lose. Regardless of the costs endured by Pakistan in the war on terror, allegedly at the $70 billion mark, its government, economy, and elites have profited immensely from U.S. aid and political support since 2001. But if relations between Islamabad and Washington don't improve, Pakistan will find it difficult to compete in the new Great Game -- something the country cannot afford in light of its internal economic and development challenges. It may be time for both Pakistan and the United States to give up on each other and realize that their futures in the region, while overlapping, do not coincide in terms of interests.

Pakistan has recently participated in a number of regional initiatives to stabilize Afghanistan -- a participation that would be welcome, were it not for the worst possible reason of all: that it remains the center of gravity for global terrorism. Al Qaeda's second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan on June 6. Only one more significant figure remains: Ayman al-Zawahiri. Regardless of where things stand between the United States and Pakistan, the Obama administration's commitment to defeating al Qaeda in Pakistan will persist -- Panetta's comments confirm this.

Strangely, Pakistan may have done itself and the United States an unintentional favor by closing the NATO routes for so long. It may have triggered the beginning of the end for a relationship based on very little common ground, appreciation, or respect. Lest we forget, Pakistan closed the routes this time around because Washington failed to apologize for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border strike last November -- a confusing response for a country that obviously understands the value of a strategic apology, as evidenced by regular mea culpas for accidents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Islamabad needs to come clean too -- without Washington as its foul-weather ally, it will find little appetite among the international community for its outdated and destabilizing Afghanistan policy, which persists at the expense of regional and global security. Until now, we've all just put up with it because it's been taken as gospel that the United States needs Pakistan. That truism, at last, is no longer true.



Up Close and Angry

The CIA's Sabrina De Sousa dishes on the Bush administration officials who ordered the botched extraordinary rendition operation -- or kidnapping, if you're an Italian judge -- that made her a wanted woman.

For a woman who could be arrested for kidnapping if she steps outside the United States, Sabrina De Sousa looks and sounds like a pretty cool customer.

The former CIA agent sips a lavender lemonade at Eatonville, one of those trendy bistros along Washington, D.C.'s U Street corridor, and says with a slight smile, "Everybody wants me to be sad, but.…" She lets it trail off.

Instead, she's resigned. She reserves her anger for the senior figures in George W. Bush's administration who were responsible for her fate but have escaped accountability, much less punishment, for their roles in the botched caper that has ruined her life.

Her list starts with the then-director of the CIA, George Tenet, and his head of covert operations at the time, Stephen Kappes, and continues to the Rome station chief who quarterbacked the ill-advised plan, Jeffrey Castelli. All three are now retired.

"The people responsible are sitting on corporate boards and living comfortable lives, traveling," she says. De Sousa, meanwhile, will likely spend the rest of her life under virtual house arrest in her adopted country, risking capture if she leaves U.S. soil.

It has been seven years since De Sousa, listed as an American diplomat at the U.S. Consulate in Milan, was indicted in Italy, along with 22 other Americans, in connection with the disappearance of an Egyptian terrorist suspect, known as Abu Omar, from a Milan street in February 2003.

In 2009, she was found guilty in absentia for an act that U.S. authorities call "extraordinary rendition," but Italy calls a crime -- kidnapping. Along with secret CIA prisons and "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding, CIA officials insist such methods were necessary, and effective, in preventing another terrorist attack on the United States. After years of denying their existence, the CIA closed the so-called "black sites" and banned waterboarding.

De Sousa was first sentenced to five years in prison. An appeals court tacked on two more years, without explanation.

As De Sousa and the 22 others had no intention of returning to Italy to stand trial, much less go to prison, their sentence has been existential: None can travel outside the United States without fear of arrest on an Interpol warrant. For any former operative who joined the spy agency to see the world, such a fate might amount to a grating inconvenience. For De Sousa, a native of the erstwhile Portuguese enclave of Goa, India, the sentence has meant a cruel separation from her family, in particular her elderly mother, for whom travel to the United States is simply too taxing. "It's hard for her, and me," De Sousa says.

De Sousa's Italian counsel appealed her conviction on grounds that no evidence tied her directly to the plot, that she was in the Alps skiing when Abu Omar (real name: Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr) was snatched, and that the court's decision that stripped her of diplomatic immunity was improperly applied in her case.

A decision was expected Tuesday, June 12, but was delayed for a couple days. Regardless, it's highly unlikely Italy's Supreme Court will accept her arguments. A lower court has already rejected them.

"It's unlikely the Supreme Court will overturn the ruling issued by the Milan appeals court on 2010 related to the Abu Omar case," says Leo Sisti, a veteran investigative reporter for the weekly magazine l'Espresso, who has covered the case from the beginning.

"The Supreme Court could order a new trial," he says, "but only in theory. It happens, but only very rarely."

Three other defendants have fared better than De Sousa. Two years ago, an appeals court ordered a new trial for then-station chief Castelli and two others listed as diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, Ralph Russomando and Betnie Medero, on technical grounds.

Seventeen of the original defendants were given terms of seven years in jail. One, the CIA's base chief in Milan at the time, Robert Lady, was sentenced to nine years.

Sisti points out that the statute of limitations on the appeals and unlikely retrials will run out in February 2013, in eight months, making it "difficult" for judges to conclude the cases -- and therefore the courts and prosecutors are unlikely to proceed. There's just not enough time.

In 2009, De Sousa filed suit against the U.S. State and Justice departments to force them to invoke diplomatic immunity on her behalf, since she was listed as a Foreign Service officer at the U.S. Consulate in Milan. The government filed a motion to dismiss, which the court granted.

Later, after her initial guilty verdict, she added the CIA and three managers in the rendition as defendants "because of the public allegations, and one could say findings, by the Italian prosecutor that the CIA, and in part these three individuals, were responsible for the rendition/kidnapping," De Sousa's D.C. attorney, Mark Zaid, told Sisti by email last week. "Thus, it was at their hands that Sabrina suffered harm by being connected to them when, in fact, she had nothing to do with the rendition."

The case is ongoing, with the government denying all attempts by Zaid to get documents in the case declassified. Last year, the Justice Department even asserted that Zaid could not share classified information he has learned with the U.S. District Court judge presiding over the case. Judge Beryl A. Howell said the government's assertion left her "literally speechless," but directed Zaid to respond in writing to the government's objections.

"The government used the cloak-and-dagger shadow world of classification to shield itself from accountability and liability in how it abandoned one of its own," says Zaid. "To further ensure its misconduct was protected from disclosure, my security clearance was threatened. The government attorneys accused me of security violations and reported me to the respective security offices. The judge, however, applauded me for taking appropriate steps to protect national security."

De Sousa did eventually succeed in getting the State Department to provide her with legal counsel in Italy.

Meanwhile, she wonders why Abu Omar was "rendered" to an Egyptian prison for questioning in the first place. After his release, he told reporters he thought he recognized an American accent among the interrogators, whom he said beat him mercilessly. (He also displayed scars on his back.) He remains in Egypt; the CIA will not comment on any aspect of the case.

"There's one burning mystery left," De Sousa says. "What case did Castelli," the CIA's Rome station chief, "make to his bosses to render Abu Omar?" The Egyptian "was already under investigation by DIGOS," Italy's version of the FBI, she notes. "He was not a clear and present danger, or they would've picked him up."

Weeks after Abu Omar was bundled into a van by CIA agents on a Milan street in February 2003 and secretly flown out of Italy, Italian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of terrorism-related activity.

Indeed, the head of DIGOS's counterterrorism unit has privately complained that the CIA, working with members of Italy's SISMI, the erstwhile foreign counterintelligence service (a new service has superseded it), got in the way of his own investigation.

De Sousa also wonders "why did Egypt agree to take [Abu Omar]," since he was not wanted in Egypt? And why did the CIA turn him over for questioning to Egyptians who were notorious for torturing prisoners?

De Sousa and Zaid would have liked to have been able to compel U.S. officials to answer questions about their roles in the rendition.

"The case unfortunately did not progress past the initial legal stage," Zaid says of De Sousa's suit for diplomatic immunity. "The [U.S. District] court determined it did not have before it a claim that was viable under the law, and therefore we never possessed subpoena authority to pursue the substantive allegations."

De Sousa and Zaid, a veteran defender of CIA whistle-blowers, have tried to interest Congress in the case, in particular the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), with no success. De Sousa says that one SSCI staffer suggested she go back to India if she was unhappy. New Delhi and Rome signed an extradition agreement in 2003, in which Italy could petition an Indian court for De Sousa's remand.

Ironically, De Sousa, now a youthful 56, resigned "from the State Department" after 11 years of service -- she refuses to confirm she worked for the CIA -- because the department had forbade her to visit India during her legal travails. So she quit in order to be free to travel.

Except now she can't, since there's an Interpol warrant for her arrest.

The Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro, offered De Sousa one route to freedom, according to l'Espresso's Sisti: Confession. If De Sousa confessed, Sisti wrote, Spataro would ask the court to reduce De Sousa's sentence.

But De Sousa refused. "I'm not going to confess that I participated and planned the whole thing," she says. She insists she had no advance knowledge of -- much less involvement in planning -- the Abu Omar abduction. She was away in the Italian Alps skiing when it went down.

But even if she had wanted to confess, it's too late now anyway. The unofficial offer is off the table with the Supreme Court's decision.

The whole affair is ridiculous, De Sousa says with some heat as she sips what's left of her lemonade and watches the wait staff prepare for the dinner rush. During the Cold War, CIA and KGB agents under diplomatic cover were merely sent packing when they were caught spying. They were PNG'd -- declared persona non grata. Spies were rarely put on trial. Although some critics have accused Italy of being out to "get" the CIA, prosecutor Spataro insists he was merely following his duty to investigate evidence of crime when it is presented to him.

Spataro's cavernous office in Milan features several American works of art, including such iconic works as the 1964 Norman Rockwell print depicting a little black girl in a prim white dress being escorted to school by federal marshals in segregated New Orleans.

"You see," he said in heavily accented English to me when I visited on Thanksgiving Day 2007, "the faces here of the marshals, you cannot see them. It makes a point that justice has no face -- it does not depend on who is in charge or who is accused. The law is the law."

In any event, kidnapping is a far more serious activity than espionage, a crime that Italian courts have decided is not covered by diplomatic immunity. Now, De Sousa fears her case and the whole Abu Omar incident will fade into history.

"Nothing's going to change because no senior official has been indicted," she says. "If they had, people would take notice."

But even though she's a small fish, others like her in U.S. diplomatic outposts, she warns, could be ensnared in CIA or U.S. special operations plots. It's unlikely that highly secret al Qaeda renditions, which began in Bill Clinton's administration, will end, even if Barack Obama's administration seems to have opted for killing terrorist suspects with drones over capturing them.

"It's me today, you tomorrow," she advises other U.S. Embassy personnel. "You may never see your family again."

/AFP/Getty Images