Although the United States faces a serious espionage threat from the Russian FSB agency and the Chinese spies of the MSS, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has proven itself to be the most challenging intelligence opponent since the end of the Cold War.
Ever since the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, relations between Washington and Islamabad have been at an impasse. Some months ago, retired Admiral Michael Mullen—former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—accused Pakistan's ISI of supporting anti-American terrorism. It has long been known within intelligence circles that Pakistan plays both sides of the fence — overtly "allied" with the U.S. while covertly allied with al-Qaeda. But Admiral Mullen's public testimony to Congress brought the issue out in the open in a way that ought to have influenced U.S. policy. Thus far, it has not.
Consider the recent past. Pakistan's ISI was likely behind the horrific Mumbai attacks of 2008, the apparent protection of Osama bin Laden, the arrest of CIA agent Raymond Davis, and the Haqqani network's attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The cell phones of the Haqqani insurgents were linked to the ISI. (It should be noted that an attack on an American embassy is officially an attack on sovereign American soil.)
Pakistan, of course, is an Islamic nuclear power—"too nuclear to fail," as Rep. Bachmann once phrased it. If the West pushes Islamabad too hard, the argument goes, its government could implode and be replaced by an even more radical, hostile regime. And yet the ISI's support for jihadist terrorism presents an untenable situation in South Asia.
The solution for South Asia might be the lost art of strategic counterintelligence. Intelligence services such as the CIA serve four basic functions: The first is the collection of intelligence. The second is analysis, or interpreting what has been collected. The third is covert action, or paramilitary operations. The fourth, which has been an overlooked tool in the national security repertoire for some time, is counterintelligence. While tactical counterintelligence can be defined as the use of defensive measures, such as protecting one's own secrets from foreign intelligence agencies, strategic counterintelligence is offensive in nature, requiring the infiltration—perhaps, on occasion, even the destruction—of foreign intelligence services. The United States has not employed such a strategy since the Soviet Union and the KGB. It might, however, be advisable to consider it again, this time for Pakistan's ISI.
The reason for such a strategy is that the jihadist threat will likely shift further east over time. Should the Iranian-Syrian axis fall, the global jihadist network will be left looking for state sponsors. The center of gravity in U.S. counterterrorism operations will then have to move from the Middle East to South Asia. But as the U.S. cannot sustain Osama bin Laden-style raids on a weekly basis, there is no operational way to undermine the terrorist groups of South Asia. The U.S. seems unable to reach the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) group, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other terrorist organizations located inside Pakistan.
The U.S. has, then, one remaining option: to view counterterrorism as a subset of counterintelligence. Whereas counterterrorism focuses on terrorist groups, counterintelligence focuses on the link between a particular state's intelligence service and terrorist groups. The means with which the U.S. could most efficiently undermine Pakistan's covert state sponsorship of terrorism would be counterintelligence.
At the center of the problem is Pakistan's ISI, which is made up of four "wings": The A Wing which directs analysis and is the "bureaucratic" department. The T Wing is the technical wing and provides assistance to the other wings. The C Wing is the counterintelligence wing. After 9/11, the CIA helped fund a sub-department within the C Wing specifically designed to go after al-Qaeda, and which is the only wing that interacts with the CIA. Then there is the S Wing which oversees external security and is responsible for state sponsorship of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other jihadist groups.
It is the S Wing that the United States should infiltrate with human agents.
This might seem like an implausible task given the numerous intelligence failures of the past few years. But those were mostly failures of collection and analysis. Further, Pakistan is not an overt enemy: Pakistan "triangulates": The U.S. and al-Qaeda can each claim that Pakistan is both a friend and a foe. While this presents a problem, it also means that the U.S. has some friends inside Pakistan. There might be one or two potential recruits, possibly even more, in any or all ISI departments. A sole spy could inflict incalculable damage on an intelligence agency, just as Robert Hanssen, the American who spied for Russia, did to the FBI.
It is not far-fetched to conclude that perhaps one-fifth of the ISI could be bought off. Imagine if 20% of the KGB could have been ""flipped," persuaded to change allegiance, by the CIA during the Cold War. Dulles and McCone would have given anything for such an opportunity.
The CIA could find a valuable source and "dangle" him or her: turn an agent into a double agent. This would further undermine the bad elements within the ISI. The Pakistanis would think an agent was working for them, when in reality this agent would be working for the CIA. If the CIA considered it too risky to train just a single high-value spy, then the U.S. could "throw out the shrimp net" and attempt to "flip" multiple Pakistani ISI officers—quantity over quality, or the "chaos" option. For a change, let the Pakistanis worry about who is who.
As the U.S. would begin to lessen its commitments in Afghanistan, it might help to bear in mind that the war in Afghanistan was always about -- Pakistan. The threats coming from South Asia—Pakistan's support for terrorism, Pakistan's nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation from Pakistan, nuclear war between India and Pakistan—are among the most pressing in the world; and Pakistan's ISI is involved in all of them.