x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Pakistani army chiefs meet after US claims ISI backs Haqqani militamts

After Admiral Mike Mullen told the US Senate that the Haqqani militant network is a ¿veritable arm¿ of the ISI, Pakistan says it maintained contacts with the Haqqani but that did not mean it supported it.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's powerful army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, met his top commanders yesterday in a special meeting to discuss the security situation, the military said, as the war of words with the United States escalated.

The extraordinary meeting of the corps commanders came against the backdrop of sharp US allegations that Pakistan army's powerful spy agency supported the Haqqani militant group, which Washington blames for the recent attack on its embassy and other targets in Kabul.

"The prevailing security situation was discussed," the military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said without giving details.

While Mr Abbas acknowledged that the army's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) maintained contacts with the Haqqani network, he said that did not mean it supported it.

"No intelligence agency can afford to shut the last door of contact," he said in an interview. "Maintaining contact doesn't mean that you are endorsing or supporting that terrorist organisation."

General Kayani, who was departing for London late yesterday to address the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Royal College of Defence Studies, chaired the meeting.

Separately, the head of the US Central Command, General James Mattis, met the chairman of Pakistan's joint chiefs of staff committee, Khalid Shameem Wyne, who expressed concern over the "negative statements emanating from [the] US".

The Pakistani military said in a statement that Mr Wyne "stressed upon addressing the irritants in relationship which are a result of an extremely complex situation,"

"He reiterated that Pakistan armed forces are committed to achieving enduring peace in the region which will only be possible through mutual trust and cooperation."

Last Thursday, in the most blunt remarks by a US official since Pakistan joined the US-led war on militancy in 2001, the outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, testified before the US Senate that the Haqqani militant network is a "veritable arm" of the ISI.

He also for the first time held Islamabad responsible for the Kabul attack, saying Pakistan provided support for that assault.

The Pakistani government as well as the army rejected the allegations and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani spoke to political leaders by telephone yesterday and decided to call a meeting of to discuss the issue of tensions with the United States.

"We strongly reject assertions of complicity with the Haqqanis or of proxy war," Mr Gilani said in a written statement on Saturday night. "The allegations betray a confusion and policy disarray within the US establishment on the way forward in Afghanistan."

Mr Gilani's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, told Washington on Friday that it risked losing an ally if it kept accusing Islamabad of playing a double game in the war against militancy and escalating a crisis in ties triggered by US forces' killing of the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in an unannounced raid in May.

Yesterday she warned the United States against sending its troops into Pakistan. "It opens all kinds of doors and all kinds of options," she told Pakistan's private Aaj News TV from New York in response to a question about the possibility of US troops coming to Pakistan.

The Haqqani network is the most violent and effective faction among Taliban militants in Afghanistan.

Although Pakistan officially abandoned support for the Taliban after the September attacks on the United States in 2001 and allied itself with Washington's "war on terror", analysts say elements of the ISI refused to make the doctrinal shift.

Around half of US war supplies to Afghanistan are trucked over Pakistani soil, and even as it accuses Islamabad of complicity with insurgents, Washington knows that it will likely need Islamabad's cooperation in bringing them to the negotiating table.

* Reuters, with additional reporting by Associated Press