x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US urges Pakistan to overhaul spy operations

Government official calls for improvement of intelligence agency after reports suggest it may be supporting Taliban activity.

Islamabad // Pakistan's military intelligence agency has not been reformed despite Pakistani claims to the contrary, according to a senior US diplomat. Washington is increasingly frustrated over reports that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate is backing Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, said that Pakistan must reform the agency.

"It has to be done," he said in an interview with a news agency. He also said there had been no indication that Pakistan had made any progress in purging the ISI of pro-Taliban elements. "No, I don't have anything in particular I would point to right now," he said. Maj Gen Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, denied any double-dealing. "The major chunk of the ISI's officership is from the army. It would not make sense to have one battalion fighting against militants if the ISI is supporting them," he said.

He said the previous army chief, Pervez Musharraf, had undertaken reform of the ISI. As general, Mr Musharraf had removed the ISI's commanding officer and a tranche of its top command. He was angered by a suggestion made by a British analysis outfit that is reported to have links to British intelligence that the ISI should be dismantled in its entirety. Pakistan has a second military intelligence agency and several civilian counterparts.

Until recently, US suspicion of ISI involvement with the Taliban had been offset by Pakistan's capture and rendition of several terrorists, including the reputed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. A senior western diplomat said last year the army chief, who was then head of the ISI, Gen Ashfaq Kiyani, had briefed ambassadors in Islamabad on how he was attempting to clamp down on rogue agents within his organisation.

Retired senior ISI officers claim the agency has lost control of the jihadis it created. On Sept 8, US drone aircraft fired missiles at a seminary and compound in the village of Dande Darba Khel in North Waziristan belonging to Jalaluddin Haqqani, a veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin, who are alleged to have close connections to al Qa'eda, were linked to an attempt to kill Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, this year.

The New York Times reported that the CIA had given Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, evidence of ISI involvement with Haqqani, along with evidence of ISI involvement in a suicide bombing at the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed nearly 60 people on July 7. The Pakistani military is suspicious of US tolerance of India's growing influence in Afghanistan, accusing the old foe of using its consulates there to supply arms and train Pakistani Taliban and separatists fighting in Baluchistan. Pakistani officials claimed their security forces had raided the Haqqani compound on three occasions. But this was not the case.

US action inside Pakistan against Taliban commanders with links to the ISI has brought it into direct confrontation with its ally's strategic interests in Afghanistan. Mr Gilani announced on the eve of a trip to Washington last month that the ISI had been brought under the control of the interior minister. He retracted the statement at 3am the next morning. The spy agency is also suspected of having a hand in helping destabilise past civilian governments in Pakistan. It is a matter of court record that the ISI chief paid money to political opponents of Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated former prime minister, during elections in the 1990s.

The ISI has an "internal" wing that deals in what one officer described as "political management". The ISI's role is complex. It has backed tribal militias to take on foreign militants in the tribal areas; and at other times it appears to be fighting an internal war as several deadly attacks by Islamic militants with links to the agency have been launched against ISI officers. Mr Musharraf acknowledged that some retired Pakistani intelligence officials may still be involved in supporting the Taliban.

"The whole Pakistani state apparatus, the politicians, the security, economic development folks, is it properly lined up towards a single goal, and that's beating the terrorists and stabilising Pakistan?" Mr Boucher said. "As long as you have organisations, or pieces of organisations, that work in different directions, then it's harder for the government to accomplish that goal," he said. US impatience has peaked just as Gen Kayani has engaged his troops in a convincing fight against militants in the Bajaur tribal area, a supposed sanctuary of Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qa'eda's No 2.

Pakistan's military claims it has killed more than 700 militants in the past month. The operation started after 1,500 militants besieged a key paramilitary post, Loi Sam, for three days. The small number of reported army casualties may reflect the relative openness of the landscape, which has allowed for heavy use of F-16 aircraft, artillery and Cobra helicopters. However, locals said the army has killed dozens of civilians and greatly exaggerated the number of militant casualties.

The fighting has forced 300,000 people to flee to camps outside the tribal areas. iwilkinson@thenational.ae