WASHINGTON // Pakistan's security agency yesterday denied it had played a role in unveiling the identity of the CIA's station chief in Islamabad, who was named in a lawsuit filed on Monday by family members of victims of US drone strikes in the country.
The intelligence officer was pulled back to the United States on Friday after receiving numerous death threats that US officials said would be careless to ignore. The recall comes at a sensitive time in US-Pakistan relations after a US intelligence assessment of the war in Afghanistan, leaked to the press last week, had concluded that success for Nato forces there hinged on better Pakistani cooperation.
US intelligence officials alleged on Friday in the US press that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) had had a hand in revealing the CIA operative's identity. Some suggested the revelation was in retaliation for a civil lawsuit filed in New York last month that implicates Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI director, in the 2008 Mumbai bombings.
An ISI officer told reporters in a background briefing in Islamabad yesterday that the accusation was baseless.
"We take very strong exception to this story that has come out, and we deny it," the official said according to the New York Times. "It is totally unsubstantiated, and it is likely to cause further rifts between the two organisations."
The ISI says the identity of the CIA officer had been known to a number of people, including local and foreign journalists. Karim Khan, a Pakistani journalist who filed the lawsuit in which the officer was named, said he had learnt his identity from two unnamed Pakistani journalists in Islamabad.
The row encapsulates the difficult relations between the US and Pakistan, severely strained since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan nine years ago. The US says its counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan has been hampered by the reluctance of Pakistan to seal its border with Afghanistan, leading to the creation of safe havens in north-west Pakistan for Afghan fighters.
US intelligence assessments have suggested that this has happened with the cooperation of elements in the ISI and has been exacerbated by the reluctance of Pakistan's army to redeploy from its eastern border in Kashmir - over which Pakistan is engaged in a territorial dispute with India - to the west of the country.
Pakistan did launch a major offensive in South Waziristan last year and has taken steps in other border areas. But North Waziristan, which the US says is crucial to the effort, has not yet been touched and Pakistan says it will undertake an offensive there only when it is ready, both politically and militarily.
The US has set a June 2011 deadline to start a phased withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan that is scheduled to end in 2014, a deadline that was reiterated in a major review of Afghanistan strategy that concluded on Thursday. Barack Obama, the US president, announced that the review had found that the plan was on track but that further progress was needed, not least in securing the border with Pakistan.
A separate US intelligence assessment, leaked to the press only days before Mr Obama presented the conclusion of the administration's own review, concluded, however, that US success in Afghanistan was very much in the balance and could not be assured without greater Pakistani effort.
Over the past 18 months, the US has, with the tacit approval of the Pakistani government, stepped up an unmanned aerial bombing campaign against targets in Pakistan in an effort to secure the porous border with Afghanistan. But such strikes have also resulted in civilian casualties and enflamed popular anti-US sentiment in Pakistan.
Mr Khan filed his lawsuit on Monday alleging that his son and his brother had been killed in one such strike in North Waziristan, an area the US says is a fulcrum for Taliban fighters from Afghanistan. Mr Khan said his family members were teachers, had nothing to do with the Afghan insurgency and said he had included the name of the CIA officer because he should be held accountable for their deaths.
"He should be arrested and executed in this country," Mr Khan said outside an Islamabad police station, according to local news reports.