ISLAMABAD // In May 2002, a senior officer from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency called together two dozen commanders from Islamic militant organisations at an army base in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani part of the disputed Kashmir region.
The extremist outfits were fighting a "jihad" against India and had for years been funded and trained by the ISI. Pakistan was using them in a proxy war with its giant neighbour and archenemy. But Pakistan came under intense international pressure to rein in the militants after they had staged daring assaults deep within India. Major Gen Khalid Mahmood of the ISI told the guerrilla leaders at the 2002 meeting that it had to stop, that the tap was being turned off. The shocked militant leaders accused Islamabad of "betrayal".
Last week, the ISI's role in Afghanistan, the other theatre of Pakistan's proxy war with India, came under intense international scrutiny. In fact, the tension also overshadowed the summit of South Asian countries in Colombo on the weekend. "There is a cold war between India and Pakistan. They say hands off Kashmir, we say hands off Afghanistan," said Shujaat Ali Khan, a retired general who headed the internal wing of the ISI.
The ISI, Pakistan's largest and most powerful intelligence agency, is a branch of the army and its main aims are to "contain" India and to ensure that Afghanistan does not fall into the hands of a hostile power. In the 1990s, that standoff with India saw the ISI use extremist groups in Kashmir. The agency also backed the Taliban, who seized power in Afghanistan, on Pakistan's other flank, in the mid-1990s. Islamabad was supposed to have dropped its support for militants after September 11 and India's threat of war with Pakistan.
Only jihad is not something that can be turned on and off at will, as Pakistan discovered in 2002 when the Kashmiri jihadists turned their fire on their own country when the Indian outlet was cut off. By the end of that year, the guerrillas were being allowed to infiltrate India again, albeit on a smaller scale, to stop them from making trouble at home. Similarly, in Afghanistan, the ISI could not just let go of the Taliban. To the Pakistan military, the US-led war against the Taliban appeared to be working against Pakistan's strategic interests. The government of Hamid Karzai is viewed as dangerously close to India, creating a nightmare scenario for Pakistan's army - should the Taliban be defeated, Islamabad would be encircled by Indian interests. It is not a case of Pakistan's backing extremists for some religious purpose. This is a military doctrine, a secular ideology about national survival that requires Afghanistan be in "friendly" hands. And there is no civilian control over it.
Pakistan does not trust US intentions in Afghanistan. Given the apparent imperial designs of US intervention in Iraq, its presence in Afghanistan is viewed with great suspicion by Pakistan's military and also the country's policy establishment. "There is just enough Pakistan co-operation with the US to get away with it," said Ayesha Siddiqa, a defence analyst and author of Military Inc. "But the US agenda is not innocent either. They desire a larger role for themselves in the Muslim world."
Pakistan has played a major role in Washington's "war on terror". It has arrested 500 al Qa'eda and other extremists, including most of the high-value targets that have been captured, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks among them. Pakistan also provides vital logistical support for the United States and Nato forces in landlocked Afghanistan. And, it has tolerated US missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal territory, which runs along the Afghan border.
However, it is also playing on the other side. As well as providing some aid to the Taliban, Pakistan's biggest help to the insurgency has been to allow its tribal belt to be used as a place for guerrillas to take refuge, train and gather supplies. Leading Afghan Taliban commanders, including the notorious veteran Jalaluddin Haqqani, are said to be based in the tribal area. Washington believes Osama bin Laden is there as well.
The ISI became the benefactors of jihadists during the "mujahideen" days of the 1980s war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - that time with heavy CIA backing. But the agency was never able to wean itself away from them and their descendants. "The ISI is going to determine the destiny of Pakistan, perhaps in the near future," said Maloy Krishna Dhar, the former joint director of India's Intelligence Bureau. "During the Afghan jihad, so many things were created by Pakistan. Now these elements are out of control."
So Pakistan's military, working through the ISI, is playing an elaborate double game, a façade that the country's critics believe was exposed in the bombing of the Indian Embassy last month in Kabul. This time, US intelligence officials claimed, in anonymous briefings last week, to have firm evidence of ISI backing for the militants who carried out the attack. At the summit in Sri Lanka, Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, said Pakistan had agreed to hold an inquiry into the Kabul embassy bombing. But yesterday, Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, denied that any such investigation would take place. "The Indian statement is not only surprising but shocking, too," Mr Gilani told Sri Lanka's Sunday Leader.
Pakistan's civilians have only theoretical control over the ISI. Mr Gilani's recent order, which placed the ISI under the ambit of the interior ministry, had to be reversed after the army refused to accept it. He does not have the authority or the means to investigate the ISI. The agency has also played a major role in Pakistan's domestic politics, helping to bring down two governments in the 1990s that were run by Mr Gilani's Pakistan People's Party. There are real concerns in PPP circles that the ISI is plotting against them once more.
Mr Karzai followed the regional summit with a visit to India with talks scheduled for today in New Delhi with the Indian prime minster. At the top of the agenda will be security co-operation and concerns over Pakistan's role in Afghanistan. Watching Mr Karzai and Mr Manmohan Singh together will only confirm the worst fears of Pakistan's spymasters: that Afghanistan and India, with the help of the United States, are plotting to bring down Pakistan. The ISI will continue to do anything necessarily to safeguard Pakistan from this perceived terminal threat.