In the softening light of another afternoon, nearly two years later, the façade of the Inter-Services Intelligence headquarters looked almost welcoming. It was an anonymous gray stucco building in the Aabpara neighborhood of the capital, set back from the Kashmir Highway. The only distinctive feature was a ribbon of black stone that wrapped around the front, making it look as tidy as a gift box. Although the building was unmarked, the ISI’s presence in the neighborhood was hardly a secret. Pakistanis in other branches of the military referred to its operatives as “the boys from Aabpara,” as if they were a neighborhood gang to whom special respect must be paid. Ordinary Pakistanis made it a rule not to speak about the ISI at all.
Inside this house of secrets, facing onto an enclosed garden, was the office of the director general, who in recent years had been a soft-spoken man named Mohammed Malik. On his shoulders, he wore the crossed swords-and-crescent insignia of a lieutenant general. His authority didn’t come from his rank in the army, but from his control of information. It was almost always the case that General Malik knew more than the people around him, but he made it a rule never to flaunt what he knew, or to disclose how he had obtained it. That would be insecure and, worse, impolite.
General Malik was not an imposing man, at least in the way of a military officer. He was trim, with a neat mustache, and he was careful about what he ate and drank, almost to the point of fastidiousness. He had soft hands, and a reticent manner. It was easy to forget that he was in fact a professional liar, who told the entire truth only to his commander, the chief of army staff.
On this particular spring afternoon, General Malik had a concern that he wasn’t sure how to address. The brigadier who represented his service in Karachi had called to alert him to a potential problem. Now, there were large and small problems in Pakistan, but the very biggest ones were often connected to the words “United States of America.” For it was said, not without reason, that Pakistan’s life was bounded by the three A’s—Allah, Army and America. And in the brigadier’s news from Karachi, all three were tied up in one.
It was part of General Malik’s aura among his colleagues at General Headquarters in Rawalpindi that he knew how to handle the Americans. This was based partly on the fact that he had spent a year at the Army War College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. And if you knew Kansas, people said, well, then, you knew the real America. Malik had actually disliked Kansas, and the only part of America that he had truly loved was the Rockies, where the thin air and the steep peaks reminded him of his ancestral home in the mountains of Kashmir. But he knew how to sham, in the way that is an art form for the people of South Asia, and so he had pretended for years to have a special fondness for Americans from the heartland.
In that spirit of sincere and also false bonhomie, the director general placed a call to Homer Barkin, the chief of the CIA station at the ever-expanding American Embassy in Islamabad. Their regular liaison meeting was scheduled for later in the week, but General Malik asked if his American partner might stop by that afternoon, perhaps right away, if it was convenient. He didn’t explain why, for he had found that it is always a good rule to say less than you mean, particularly when you are dealing with Americans, who do the opposite.
“My friend Homer,” said General Malik in greeting the chief of
station when he arrived in Aabpara forty-five minutes later. He usually addressed him that way, and the American responded by calling him “my friend Mohammed,” or sometimes, when he wanted something, just “my friend Mo.” General Malik found that especially grating, but he never said anything. He clasped his visitor’s hand in the firm way that Americans liked.
Barkin did not look well. His face was doughy, and he looked bulky in his suit jacket, like a sausage ready to burst its casing. General Malik knew why: Homer Barkin had been drinking, and the reason was that he had legal problems back home. He was one of the many CIA officers who had been caught in the boomerang effect of the “war on terror.” It was said that he had “crossed the line” in a previous job by being overzealous in targeting the enemy.
Looking at Homer Barkin, his eyes dark from the sleeplessness of depression, his collar button straining against the flesh of his neck, it seemed unlikely that he had ever been capable of zealotry in any form. But this was the “after” picture; he would not have been made station chief in Islamabad if there had not been a “before.”
“My dear friend Homer,” the Pakistani continued, “I hope you will not mind me saying so, but you are looking a little tired. You must be working too hard.”
“You don’t know the half of it, believe me,” said the CIA officer.
“No, indeed, I do not. Or even the quarter of it. And I am sorry for it, whatever it may be. But I hope that you will take care of yourself in these treacherous times. You are a guest in our house. You are precious to us.”
“Appreciate it.” Barkin’s eyes were flat and his demeanor was impassive. He was not a man who was easily flattered or cajoled. “What’s up, General?”
“Let me put it to you, sir: We have had many successes together in recent years, have we not? You could almost say that we are partners. Am I right? And so we like to think that there is a bit of trust between us, even though we are a poor and weak country compared to the United States. We have our pride, you see.”
“I never forget that, Mohammed, not for one day.”
“Well, then, I have a question for you. Normally, I would not trouble you in the late afternoon with such a detail, but this one is rather important. I hope you will forgive the imposition, and apologize to Mrs. Barkin for delaying your return home this evening.”
“Mrs. Barkin lives in Washington, General. I don’t know if I can give you an answer, but I won’t tell you a lie.”
General Malik smiled. Americans did not like lying to others. It made them uncomfortable. Their specialty was lying to themselves.
“Well, now, sir. Here it is: Are you running operations in Pakistan outside of your normal organization? Forgive me for being so blunt, but that is what I must ask.”
Barkin cocked his head, as if he had ear trouble and wanted to make sure he’d heard it right. He might be old, but he wasn’t stupid.
“Sorry, I didn’t quite hear that, General. What do you mean?”
The Pakistani sat back in his chair. He put his hands together and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he spoke again, louder this time.
“Let me state the question as clearly as I can, sir: Is the United States sending intelligence officers into Pakistan outside the normal CIA cover channels? Is your agency doing it? Or is some other agency doing it? That is what I want to know: Are you running a new game against us? You see, we think that we know you well, but we hear rumblings of something that we do not know. And let us be honest: No ones likes to be surprised.”
Barkin’s mouth puckered as if he had just eaten something bad.
“@!$%#, Mohammed. You know I can’t answer a question like that. I mean, hell, we run all sorts of operations, declared and undeclared, just like you do. We have agency employees at the embassy who conduct liaison with your service, and you know their names. But if I told you that we had no other presence in Pakistan, and no nonofficial officers, you know I’d be lying. But that’s business, right? We don’t look up your skirt, and we don’t expect you to start looking up ours.”
The American gave him a wink, as if they were two old poker players who knew the casino rules. But the Pakistani was not in a mood for professional courtesy.
“I am talking about something different, Homer. I know all about your NOCs. I could name a dozen for you. I know all about your ‘forward-deployed military assets.’ Perhaps I even know the names of your contractors, including the ones who work for other agencies, which you, my dear friend, are not supposed to know about. But this is different.”
“Hey, Mohammed, I’m just a farm boy from Pennsylvania. I’m not getting it. You better tell me what you mean, straight up.”
The Pakistani general sighed. He did not like to be so direct. It was awkward. But he had no choice.
“We have picked up signs of a new capability, Homer, with new missions. I cannot be more specific. But we see something coming toward us that we do not like. And I want you to know that. For, you know, we must protect ourselves.”
Barkin shook his head again. He moistened his lips, as if to prepare the way for what he was about to say.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. We don’t have any new capabilities. Not that I know about. Hell, we can’t even manage the old ones we’ve got. You’re barking up the wrong tree here, pal.”
“I could call Cyril Hoffman at Headquarters and complain that you are an obstructionist and should come home. He would not be amused.”
“Call whoever you like, Mohammed. I am telling you the truth.”
General Malik studied his visitor, trying to decide whether he was believable. A ruined man is harder to read than a fresh, eager one. His lies could be tucked into the bags under his eyes, or hidden in the folds of flesh below his chin. It was hard to know, but if the general had been forced to make a wager, he would have bet that the American was telling the truth. Whatever was going on, he probably didn’t know about it.
The Pakistani changed the subject. The ISI had gathered new evidence of Indian funding for the nationalist movement in Baluchistan. This was a most serious matter. General Malik would be sending a report, for transmittal to Langley. And he was very sorry, the new American requests for visas could not be approved at present. The two men talked for thirty minutes about such details, never returning to the subject that had vexed General Malik.
When the meeting was done, Homer Barkin shook the ISI chief’s hand, not quite so heartily as before, and lumbered away. He was at the door when the general put his hand on the station chief’s shoulder. Malik spoke quietly in parting, without his usual bob and weave.
“Be careful, my friend,” said the Pakistani. “If you stick your fingers in new places, they may get cut off.”
“Too late for that, Mohammed,” said Barkin. “Whatever this is about, it’s already done and gone. And it’s not going to be my problem, anyway. It belongs to you, and somebody back home I don’t even know.”
The general had a walled garden next to his office, with a few square feet of well-tended grass, as green as a cricket pitch, and an honor guard of rosebushes that were soft pastels in the last light of the afternoon. When General Malik had a puzzle to solve, he liked to sit here alone, in a wooden Adirondack chair that he had bought years ago in the United States.
Malik entered his garden now, and installed himself in what he liked to call his thinking chair. He lit up a cigarette, one of the few indulgences he permitted himself. A steward emerged, clad in white gloves and military livery, and asked if he wanted anything to eat or drink, but the general shooed him away.
What were the Americans doing? It was hardly the first time General Malik had asked himself that question over the years, and there were other puzzles marked usa that he was trying to work out. But this time it had a special edge: The Americans were changing the rules of the game. They must think they were being clever in Washington, but they were walking into terrain where nobody could help them—not the general, not his agents, not their clandestine contacts. The Americans would blame Pakistan for their troubles, and in particular the general’s own service, but they were the mischief-makers. They would get caught, and it would be their fault.
The general had a rule in life: Do not interrupt someone when he is making a mistake. Let others make their moves first, so that you can react and turn them to advantage. The general had his contacts; he would watch and wait. To say that the Pakistani was playing a double game did not do him justice; his strategy was far more complicated