Rogue Pakistan spies aid Taliban in Afghanistan

Sunday





Bush warns of ‘serious action’ after evidence of agents masterminding deadly embassy bombing
Officers from Pakistan’s main intelligence agency have had links with the Taliban.

The United States has accused Pakistan’s main spy agency of deliberately undermining Nato efforts in Afghanistan by helping the Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants they are supposed to be fighting.

President George W Bush confronted Yusuf Raza Gillani, Pakistan’s prime minister, in Washington last week with evidence of involvement by the ISI, its military intelligence, in a deadly attack on the Afghan capital and warned of retaliation if it continues.

The move comes amid growing fears that Pakistan’s tribal areas are turning into a global launch pad for terrorists.

Gillani, on his first official US visit since being elected in February, was left in no doubt that the Bush administration had lost patience with the ISI’s alleged double game.

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Bush warned that if one more attack in Afghanistan or elsewhere were traced back to Pakistan, he would have to take “serious action”.

Gillani also met Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, who confronted him with a dossier on ISI support for the Taliban. The key evidence concerned last month’s bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, which killed 54 people, including the military attaché.

An intercepted telephone conversation apparently revealed that ISI agents masterminded the operation. The United States also claimed to have arrested an ISI officer inside Afghanistan.

Yesterday ministers said they had left Washington reeling from what they described as a “grilling” and shocked at “the trust deficit” between Pakistan and its most important backer.

“They were very hot on the ISI,” said a member of the Pakistan delegation. “Very hot. When we asked them for more information, Bush laughed and said, ‘When we share information with your guys, the bad guys always run away’.”

“The question is why it’s taken the Americans so long to see what the ISI is doing,” said Afra-siab Khattak, provincial president for the Awami National party which runs the government in the Frontier province bordering Afghanistan. “We’ve been telling them for years but they wouldn’t buy it.”

The American accusations were categorically denied by Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s de facto interior minister. “There is no involvement by the ISI of any form in Afghanistan,” he told The Sunday Times. “We requested evidence which has not yet been given.”

Malik admitted that in meetings in London, senior British government and intelligence officials had also told him they were convinced of ISI involvement in the embassy bombing.

It is the first time the White House has openly confronted Pakistan since just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York when General Pervez Musharraf’s regime was told to drop its support for the Taliban or be bombed back to the Stone Age.

Musharraf agreed and went on to change the director of the ISI and build a close relationship with Bush who described him as his “best friend”. But many middle-ranking officers continued to hold close links with militants built up over 20 years since the mujaheddin was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan.

There were persistent reports of Pakistani territory being used for terrorist training camps and recruitment. Foreign journalists were banned from Quetta “for our own security” – those of us who have ventured there to investigate have generally ended up arrested.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has repeatedly accused Pakistan of harbouring Taliban leaders, providing lists of addresses and at one time claiming that its leader, Mullah Omar, was living in a military cantonment.

For the West, confronting Islamabad is a risky strategy as Pakistan’s support is critical to the war on terrorism. Afghanistan is landlocked and much of the logistical support and food for the 53,000 Nato troops, including water for the British forces in Helmand, has to be shipped into Karachi and driven through Pakistan.

“It’s a calculated risk,” said a western diplomat in Islamabad, pointing out that Pakistan could not afford to do without US aid, which averages £1 billion a year. The military has also benefited: only last week four more F-16 fighter jets were handed over to the air force.

An open challenge to the ISI was welcomed by Nato troops operating in Afghanistan, particularly the American forces fighting in the east.

For years their commanders have expressed frustration at militants coming across the border to take pot shots at them, before moving back to the sanctuary of the triba areas. These areas are seen as the new battleground in the war on terror. Originally created by the British as a buffer between the Indian empire and Afghanistan, they stretch along Pakistan’s 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan.

As the poorest and most backward part of Pakistan with a literacy rate of just 3%, but fiercely martial, they are the breeding ground for militant groups. Political parties are not allowed. As militant groups have grown in influence, local people have nowhere else to turn.

Most of the attacks on US soldiers in eastern Afghanistan are ordered by Maulvi Jalalud-din Haqqani, who operates from Miramshah in North Waziristan, and whom the United States believes to have close ties with Al-Qaeda.

Neighbouring South Waziristan is dominated by Baitullah Mehsud, a former gym teacher, whose Pakistan Taliban is believed by the CIA to be responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, last December.

“The security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the entire region and maybe that of the whole world will be determined by developments in the tribal areas over the next few months,” said Khattak.

The United States has carried out a number of bombings and missile strikes inside the areas, although each time the key targets seem to have escaped. So concerned is the Bush administration that the ISI is tipping militants off that in January it sent two senior intelligence officials to Pakistan. Mike Mc-Connell, the director of national intelligence, and Hayden asked Musharraf to allow the CIA greater freedom to operate in the tribal areas.

Of particular US concern was the ISI’s alleged involvement with Haqqani, one of its former allies, and its links to Lashkar-i-Toiba, a Punjab-based militant group, which is thought to have been behind the attack on an American outpost in Kunar last month in which nine US soldiers were killed.

Many US intelligence officials have long suspected that ISI officers accept their money and then help their foes, but it has been difficult to find proof. In June the Afghan government publicly accused the ISI of being behind an assassination attempt on Karzai in April and threatened to send their own troops into the border. But they were unable to produce any concrete evidence.

“The Indian embassy bombing seems to have finally provided it. This is the smoking gun we’ve all been looking for,” a British official said last week.

On the eve of the Washington visit, the Pakistan government tried to tame the ISI by announcing that it would henceforth come under interior ministry control. It was forced to revoke the decision within three hours after angry phone calls from the army chief.

Malik, on behalf of the government, claimed the decision had been misinterpreted. “What we were trying to do was bring national security and the war on terror under the interior ministry but it was wrongly announced,” he said.

US officials say the number of attacks on their soldiers in Afghanistan have increased by 60% since the civilian government took power this year.

There is widespread disillusion with Gillani’s government after elections in the wake of Bhutto’s assassination brought her Pakistan People’s party (PPP) to power as head of a coalition government. Nearly six months on, Musharraf is still president.

In a reflection of who really calls the shots, while the government party was in Washington Lieutenant-General Martin Dempsey, acting commander of Centcom, the US military command, was in Islamabad handing over F-16 fighter planes and holding meetings with the top brass. A British officer who was present at the meeting said Pakistani generals had spoken of their frustration with the civilian government: “They said they were still waiting for a signal to act in the tribal areas. To be honest, none of us could think of a thing they had done in six months.”

The sensitivity of the intelligence issue became clear on Friday night when Sherry Rehman, the information minister, acknowledged to journalists that the ISI might still contain pro-Taliban operatives. “We need to identify these people and weed them out,” she said, only to change her statement later to maintain that the problems were in the past and there would be no purge.

For its part, Islamabad says America is interested only in countering attacks in Afghanistan and gives it no help to confront militants causing problems in its own territory nor vital equipment, such as drone spy planes.

Pakistan ministers were particularly incensed when the United States launched a missile strike inside one of the country’s tribal areas on Monday, while the government party was still en route to Washington. “It was the first thing I read on my BlackBerry when I got off the plane,” said a member of the delegation. “What a nice gift.”

Offer of Inquiry into Kabul attack

Pakistan yesterday offered to investigate the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, in which 54 people died and 140 were injured. It was the bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Nobody has claimed responsibility.

A suicide bomber drove a lorry laden with explosives into the embassy gate during the morning rush hour, wounding and killing many of those queuing for visas. The embassy is in the centre of Kabul.

The main target seemed to be a diplomatic convoy that had just entered the gate. Among those killed were two senior diplomats including the military attaché, Brigadier Ravi Mehta.
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