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ANALYSIS: Pakistani Intelligence Links to Islamic Extremists Run Deep

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Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen (far left) talks in August 2008 with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, center, and then-Director General, Military Operations, Major Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha. Pasha now heads the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency.

 AP/Navy

The U.S. decision to hush any advance knowledge to Pakistan about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was no surprise to those who know the torturous history of Pakistan’s intelligence services.

A powerful segment of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus is made up of anti-U.S., anti-India conservative Islamic officers. In the past, they have recruited teenagers as fighters from extremist religious schools to fight in Afghanistan. And they have cut deals with “good Taliban,” to the fury of Americans.

For Islamabad, these Islamic alliances are strategic assets to keep at bay Indian influence over Kabul. And it is against a backdrop during which Pakistan and India have fought three wars since 1947.

The killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden last week in the vicinity of the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) has triggered new debate about the war against terrorism. An episode that has unduly embarrassed Pakistan has also put into question any future cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a relationship already marked by profound and mutual distrust.

U.S. officials, and even some Pakistani experts, believe that it’s virtually impossible that bin Laden could have lived for at least five years in Pakistan without constant covert backing of the intelligence apparatus. The ISI has a troubled history of complicity with various Islamist radical movements in Pakistan, including Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In this context it is not surprising that although the United States and Pakistan have worked collectively as coalition partners in the war against terror for at least a decade, both administrations have reacted in radically different ways to bin Laden’s killing inside a fortified compound in Abbottabad, a lush town close to the nuclear-armed nation’s capital. While ecstatic U.S. officials and civilians celebrated what many considered the biggest news since 9/11, the feeling among Pakistani citizens and officials was of betrayal and frustration.

Some sections of the Pakistani media reported that the U.S. had acted based on ISI intelligence shared with the CIA. Subsequent details revealed that Washington kept the Pakistani authorities in total oblivion, fearing leaks that could’ve endangered the operation. Even if the Pakistani authorities had participated in the operation, said seasoned Pakistani security expert and writer Mustafa Qadari, they would never admit it, fearing a public backlash in Pakistan.

In Islamabad, disillusioned top military commanders reacted angrily toward what Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir described as a breach of Pakistan’s “sovereignty” by U.S. special forces. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who formerly headed the ISI, warned the U.S. of “dire consequences” if more unilateral actions were carried out.

In the wake of bin Laden’s death, hundreds of his supporters marched in Pakistani provinces, burned U.S. flags and demanded the government discontinue its cooperation with the U.S. in the war on terror. Washington views Pakistan as a key ally in combating Islamic extremism — which has now become a greater problem inside Pakistan than in neighboring Afghanistan — and over the last decade has poured approximately $18 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan.

Pakistani officials say that since 9/11 more than 30,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in various terrorist activities orchestrated by Islamic terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistani government, however, is seen as not having done enough to crush militant groups. At the same time, in Balochistan, the country’s largest province by area, paramilitary forces have used resources provided by the U.S. government to fight terrorism instead to battle the secular Baloch nationalists.

Quetta, Balochistan’s capital, has been singled out on more than one occasion by the U.S. government as a hideout of the Quetta Shura, a cabinet of senior Taliban leaders headed by their spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Local residents and news reports claim that the Quetta Shura is hiding in the city bordering Afghanistan with the assistance of intelligence agents.

“Injured Taliban commanders come to Quetta for medical treatment,” confirmed one doctor at Quetta’s Sheik Zayed Hospital. “There are instances when the intelligence agents paid for the Taliban commanders’ hospital bill.”

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik attributes bin Laden’s presence inside his country to an “intelligence failure” but also complains about the international community’s lack of appreciation for Pakistan’s role in fighting terrorism. Even still, Pakistani authorities deny prior knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts.

“No Pakistani intelligence agency has provided shelter to Osama [bin Laden],” said Malik. “Intelligence failures happen everywhere in the world, as was seen during the 9/11 attacks.”

Since 2001, joint CIA-ISI operations have resulted in major arrests of top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 2001 World Trade Center attack; Omar Saeed Sheikh, who kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl; and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a top Taliban leader who was captured in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. According to a senior Pakistani security analyst, out of three top Pakistani intelligence agencies, American officials consider the civilian Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) more trustworthy than the ISI and the Military Intelligence (M.I.), since the latter two are wings of the Pakistani army considered to have a soft corner for Islamic militants.

Diplomatic cables recently released by Wikileaks show American concerns over the ISI’s alleged links with terrorists. In one instance, U.S. investigators in Guantanamo described the agency as a terrorist organization, alongside groups like Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbullah and Iranian intelligence.

A powerful segment of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus is made up of of anti-U.S., anti-India conservative Islamic officers. Many of the current ISI officers joined the secret service during Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s tenure as president in the 1980s, when Pakistan, including its military, underwent Islamic radicalization.

Over the years, the ISI has maintained deep links with extremist Islamic groups such as the Taliban and anti-India terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which allegedly masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Jaish-e-Mohammed, a group responsible for infiltrating into the Indian-administered Kashmir.

Since the 1980s, the secret service has recruited teenage Islamic fighters from thousands of religious schools in Pakistan and financed and trained them to go to Afghanistan and Kashmir for what they billed a “holy war.” The ISI also has provided shelter to fighters from Afghanistan and Kashmir. Furthermore, it deliberately overlooked the presence of terrorists from the Arab world, perhaps including bin Laden, inside Pakistan.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the ISI played an instrumental role in creating and bringing into power the orthodox Taliban regime of Afghanistan. Some inside the ISI were dismayed by Islamabad’s support of the U.S. in the ongoing war on terrorism.

During the last decade, the ISI, which many experts say runs a parallel organization within the Pakistani armed forces, facilitated several deals between the army and the Pakistani Taliban by calling the militants “good Taliban.” For instance, in April 2004, the army brokered a deal with a tribal militant leader, Naik Mohammad, which granted him amnesty and the right to possess weapons. Soon after, the militants resumed the attacks against the military. In 2005, another agreement with leading Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud led to the reported offer of $20 million to the fighter as a gesture of reconciliation, but the deal didn’t end the conflict with Mehsud’s militia. In September 2006 the army signed yet another deal with the militants called the Waziristan Agreement.

These agreements emboldened the Pakistani Taliban and remarkably annoyed U.S. authorities, who then intensified drone attacks against Islamic militants inside Pakistani territory.

For Islamabad, these Islamic groups serve as “strategic assets” to keep at bay any Indian influence over Kabul.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since their independence in 1947.

Pakistan’s right-wing Urdu media largely see bin Laden’s killing as a “drama” plotted by the CIA to malign the Islamic republic. According to a report published in Jang, the most widely circulated Urdu newspaper, the operation against bin Laden was staged to compel current ISI Director General Shuja Pasha to resign so that a pro-American chief replaces him.

A takeaway, perhaps, for Pakistan is that the Abbottabad raid serves as a warning to the ISI that it cannot protect terrorists hiding inside Pakistan.

“The CIA should learn that it is suicidal to solely and blindly trust the ISI,” said a professor at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University who requested anonymity for safety reasons, “America should look for alternative, moderate, liberal partners in Pakistan’s politics to isolate fanatics in the security and political set-up. “He added: “Pakistan’s complicity in providing sanctuary to the world’s most dreaded terrorist will now lead to exerting more pressure on Islamabad to hunt down Taliban leader Mullah Omar and [to] provide a convincing explanation about the safety of its nukes in the midst of ISI’s secret contacts with the Islamic militants.”

Any attempts to restore its credibility as a state committed to fighting terrorism will depend on Pakistan’s yet-to-come official probe into bin Laden’s presence for five years in a military town. Meanwhile, an unabated CIA-ISI tussle provides Al Qaeda an opportunity to carry out a fresh terrorist attack to avenge the killing of its founder, a promise the terror group has already made.

Pakistani journalist Malik Siraj Akbar is a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Communications. He is a visiting journalist with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.