How an accused secret agent has tied up India-Pakistan-US relations

NEW DELHI, India — The story is straight out of a Hollywood thriller.

An American with a Pakistani father serves as an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency. He is covertly trained by the Pakistani army, and is also an operative of the Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba. He has a Moroccan wife and many stiletto-heeled girlfriends from Bollywood. After his arrest by U.S. authorities, Indian officials discover that he was given a long-term business visa for India. After his capture in early October, his papers mysteriously go missing from the Indian consulate in Chicago.

The tale of the alleged double agent David Coleman Headley, also known as Daood Sayed Gilani, is now in the middle of a very real investigation by the FBI and at the center of a diplomatic maelstrom that is blowing from Washington to New Delhi.

He is charged with six counts of criminal conspiracy in a case filed in federal court in Chicago. The case names him as a key architect of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Indian authorities also say Headley traveled seamlessly between borders, investigating further sites to attack.

The official investigation and daily exposes appearing in the Indian media have aided in further destabilizing relations between India and Pakistan. But the FBI’s handling of the Headley case, and reports that it has attempted to keep Headley away from Indian investigators, have also fueled suspicion toward the United States, seen here for decades as a Pakistan ally.

The Headley case is set against a backdrop of mistrust and suspicion between India and Pakistan. 

“The perception of Pakistan was always negative,” said Bahukutumbi Raman, former head of the counterterrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing, or RAW, India’s premier intelligence agency. Raman said the Headley case has only confirmed what the Indian authorities have been saying about entrenched terror networks in Pakistan.

But since Headley was taken for questioning by the FBI, Indian investigating authorities have feared they will never be able to interrogate him.

“[Indians] are shocked that Headley came back to India after [Nov. 26, 2008]. FBI knew about it and did not relate this information to us,” said Raman. “India’s perception always was that the U.S. is not cooperating with India. The U.S. was always cooperating with Pakistan, protecting Pakistan. That feeling, that situation had diluted recently but now suspicion has grown again.”

Relations between India and the U.S. have been steadily improving in recent years, for example when the two countries signed a nuclear energy agreement last year. But Indian authorities don’t expect the FBI, whose officials arrested Headley Oct. 3, to hand him over for questioning.

Media reports here state that Headley was a double agent, possibly working for the DEA and the FBI.

Whatever the truth, the India-Pakistan peace process has stalled again.

In the Times of India, the world’s largest English language daily by circulation, a retired army officer advised his government to “Call Pakistan’s Bluff.”

“The initial response to Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks could be air power and naval power or special forces centric,” wrote G.D. Bakhsi, a retired Indian army major general. “These should be just, focused, precise and proportionate responses that serve as warning shots and place the onus of further escalation squarely on Pakistan.”

Some voices, however, call for strategic regional change.

“With terrorist incidents tearing Pakistan apart city by city, India needs to realize that the continuing suspension of bilateral engagement is not making itself or the region any safer,” opined the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan in his paper, The Hindu.

Will there be reconciliation between India and Pakistan in 2010? Unlikely, say most analysts, but a few optimists are holding out some hope.

“I don’t think the peace process is in tatters,” said Sanjaya Baru, the former media adviser to the prime minsiter, Manmohan Singh, who is now the editor of the business publication, Business Standard. “We initiated a peace process within a month of [the 1999 Kargil conflict in Kashmir] and that was a war where hundreds of soldiers died on both sides.”