Another Challenge to U.S.-Pakistan Ties

The FBI’s arrest of Ghulam Nabi Fai on charges of acting as a Pakistani agent to lobby U.S. policymakers on Kashmir may worsen the countries’ already troubled relationship, says CFR’s Daniel Markey.

July 21, 2011

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

This week the FBI indicted two U.S. citizens of Pakistani origin (NYT) for failing to register as Pakistani agents as required by law. One of them, Ghulam Nabi Fai, the longtime director of Washington-based Kashmiri American Council (KAC), was arrested for lobbying U.S. lawmakers and funneling campaign donations to congressional members using funds provided by the Pakistani military and its powerful military spy agency, the ISI, to tilt U.S. policy toward self-determination of Indian-administered Kashmir. The timing of the arrest, says CFR’s Pakistan expert Daniel Markey, is significant. Earlier this month, the ISI arrested a Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi (Guardian) for cooperating with the CIA on the operation that led to the raid and killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. "The Pakistanis will see it as a message, and their perception will link these events quite clearly," says Markey.  The arrest also comes at a particularly sensitive time in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Markey warns: "The relationship is on thin ice, and this event will make the ice thinner."

What is the significance of Ghulam Nabi Fai’s arrest?

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What’s significant about it most is the timing. This comes on the heels of the arrest of the Pakistani doctor who assisted the U.S. operation in Abbottabad [targeting Osama bin Laden] and worked directly with the CIA in a variety of ways. So what you have inside of Pakistan is the arrest of a Pakistani national for assisting U.S. efforts. And now here in Washington, you have the arrest of an American citizen of Pakistani origin for his assistance [on] Pakistani efforts.

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The similarities here are striking, and the fact that it comes in the midst of a crisis in the broader U.S.-Pakistan relationship will undoubtedly lead to questions in Pakistan as to whether this arrest and this case are being brought intentionally at this time to send a message to Islamabad.

How does the arrest affect broader ties and military-to-military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries?

The effect of the arrest is more likely to be incremental than it is to be significant, or a tipping point in the relationship. This is an individual who had some influence here in Washington, but by most accounts was not a significant threat. He was not a spy in the strict sense of the word--he was attempting to peddle influence, and it’s not even clear how influential he ultimately was. Without downplaying the significance of his actions, or suggesting that they might not have been illegal--it simply doesn’t rise to the sort of thing that would tip the scales one way or another in terms of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. That said, the relationship is on thin ice, and this event will make the ice thinner.

What message is Washington trying to send to Islamabad with this arrest?

Let’s be clear: I’m not sure that Washington is attempting to send a message. But the Pakistanis will see it as a message, and their perception will link these events quite clearly. That may or may not have been the U.S. government’s intention; it’s not always the case that the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and the White House coordinate in seamless ways to produce these outcomes.

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"The [U.S.-Pakistan] relationship is on thin ice, and [the arrest of Ghulam Nabi Fai] will make the ice thinner."

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Politics and Government

It is almost equally likely that this case, which has been marching along for years now, came now for reasons that have very little to do with that overall circumstance. But it will be interpreted that way in Pakistan. They have a tendency to connect those sorts of dots, and it’s already happening.


I don’t think it will do anything in the broader sense in Pakistan to shift its strategy or its policies, but in the narrowest possible way, it could be useful--if only because the United States continues to try to gain the release of the Pakistani doctor who helped with the Osama bin Laden mission. This demonstrates relatively publicly that it may be true that the Pakistanis worked with the United States in that instance; it’s also true that some Americans have worked with the Pakistanis over a period of decades. So both sides are at it, and neither side is innocent--and that should be recognized, and perhaps that will help the case for the release of that doctor in Pakistan.

More broadly speaking, how much have the recent events, in particular the U.S. suspension of $800 million in military aid to Pakistan, affected the relationship?

It’s more incremental than some news sources, some analysts, are making it out to be. The original intention by the U.S. government had been to respond to the Pakistani move to kick U.S. officials [out of Pakistan following the U.S. Special Forces raid on bin Laden] and that had been telegraphed to the Pakistani side already. The line had been, "Look, if you remove our officials, a certain amount of assistance is going to be removed along with them." And the Pakistanis had gone ahead with it anyway.

So that was the original intention, but it has expanded beyond that because it became public. It has become more of a diplomatic spat. It’s played into Pakistani public opinion, [and] it’s been portrayed as the beginning of the end of the relationship. [But] it is more of a reflection of the overall downturn in the relationship than intention of that suspended assistance.

How successful was the KAC in influencing lawmakers in how they think about Kashmir?


"The Obama administration moved fairly quickly away from the notion that solving Kashmir could solve Pakistan, which could solve Afghanistan."

I saw relatively limited influence. I would characterize the Kashmir American Council as one of a variety of groups that are clearly engaged in an effort to inform and influence policymakers, lawmakers, and other influential opinion-makers around town. They had a regular e-mail chain; they had a variety of conferences and events that they sponsored. But their motivations were very plain. It wasn’t clear that they were being funded by the ISI, but it was clear that they had a particular bias and point of view, and anyone working on these organizations would see that as relatively transparent.


I see them as one voice in a crowded debate and would filter it accordingly. They may have been influential in raising issues, but they certainly weren’t successful in shifting U.S. policy. They may have been able to raise some manner of public awareness of Kashmir, but even that was relatively limited if you take it outside of the relatively small group of U.S. officials who even focus on Kashmir in the first place.

Since the U.S. war in Afghanistan, policymakers and analysts in Washington have argued periodically that Kashmir needs to be solved for a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict. Some have even suggested that India should make concessions on Kashmir for regional stability. Is this arrest going to bring greater scrutiny to the soundness of the logic behind such policy recommendations?

It could. There was already a fair amount of scrutiny about the soundness of those policy recommendations. The Obama administration early on came in arguing not exactly that, but something similar--that the India-Pakistan conflict was motivating a lot of the violence inside of Afghanistan and a lot of the behavior of the Pakistani government, and in order to resolve the India-Pakistan dispute, Kashmir should be on the table.

But then that line of reasoning ran into the practical and diplomatic buzz saw of the Indian government and the recognition on the part of the Obama administration that pressuring the Indians on Kashmir or on their relationship with Pakistan was likely to be counterproductive. And in [Indian] Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the United States actually had a very strong partner, who for his own reasons and for reasons of national security and state strategy was inclined to engage with the Pakistani government on his own terms and to seek progress in that relationship. So the Obama administration moved fairly quickly away from the notion that solving Kashmir could solve Pakistan, which could solve Afghanistan.


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