Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty Images
Islamabad's immediate pretext for the expulsions is an American contractor's shooting and killing of two Pakistanis on January 17, 2011. It's been reported in the press that the contractor had been working for the CIA. But other reasons cited in that country's press run the gamut, from anger over American "mercenaries" capriciously killing Pakistanis, to a suspicion that the CIA's real mission in to seize the country's nuclear weapons. And there's also been the old, lingering suspicion that the CIA somehow meddles in Pakistani politics.(See TIME's photos: "The Pakistan Floods — Six Months On.")
The only part of the above that's true is the shooting of the two Pakistanis — an unfortunate incident, which in normal times would have barely dented Pakistani-American relations. On top of it there are credible reports that the Pakistanis killed had been working for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI. Anyhow, the point is that Pakistan's army, which is behind the CIA expulsions, knows with absolute certainty that the CIA's sole mission in Pakistan is counter-terrorism — to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and the rest of al-Qaeda. If the CIA has stepped on Pakistani toes, it's been inadvertent.
The Pakistani army also ought to know that there's no way that the United States can put all of its eggs in the Pakistani basket. Pakistani intelligence has had no better luck finding bin Laden than the CIA, and if Pakistan won't or can't do it, the CIA has no choice but try on its own.(See pictures of Pakistan beneath the surface.)
The CIA's job is also to look for omens of change, especially the bad ones. When a Pakistani mob burned the American embassy in Islamabad November 20, 1979, while the Pakistani police and the army looked on, the CIA was seriously worried that Pakistan would go the way of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran — a regime enduringly hostile to the United States. After all, unlike the mob in Tehran that seized our embassy there, the one in Islamabad intended to kill our diplomats rather than take them hostage.
Following the latest expulsions, I'd say the CIA ought to be wondering whether it's old fears about Pakistan aren't coming closer to being realized. Remember, Pakistan receives more than $6 billion of American aid every year, and that's a lot for a poor country to put at risk by acting against its benefactor on the basis of popular suspicions that Pakistan's authorities know aren't true. Is the Pakistani army bowing to a popular rage not unlike the one that drove the mob that burned our embassy?
I'd even go farther and wonder if the expulsions are not of a piece with the "Arab spring," a general rebellion against the old order. For the last 60 years, the Pakistan army has kept that popular rage at bay, stepping in when it's threatened Pakistan's core national security interests. Breaking with the CIA at this time suggests that the old rules may no longer hold.
Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.