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U.S. Pressures Pakistan Over Militants In Tribal Regions

  • Ron Synovitz

Gilani (left) came under pressure in Washington

Gilani (left) came under pressure in Washington

Ties between the United States and Pakistan's new government appear to be strained by recent events along the Afghan-Pakistani border -- as well as allegations about violence in Afghanistan by militants based in Pakistan's tribal regions.

The Afghan government has maintained for years that Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) service created the Taliban as a tool of Islamabad's foreign policy.

Kabul also charges that Pakistani security forces have continued to support -- or at least turn a blind eye toward -- militants in the tribal regions, allowing them to cross freely from Pakistan into Afghanistan to carry out attacks.

A new report by "The New York Times" says the CIA recently confronted senior Pakistani officials in Islamabad with evidence showing that ISI agents have deepened their ties with militant groups responsible for violence in Afghanistan -- possibly including a suicide bombing earlier this month that killed more than 60 people outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

The report points to alleged links between the ISI and a militant network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani -- an extremist who is thought to maintain close ties with senior Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Still, "The New York Times" says it is unclear whether CIA officials have concluded that those closer ties with militant groups have been approved by the highest levels of Pakistan's spy and military services.

Under Government Control?

Some Pakistani officials have said in the past that there may be rogue elements within Islamabad's security apparatus that sympathize with the militants.

But Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, on a visit to Washington this week, told PBS television that he does not believe any allegation linking ISI agents with extremist fighters.

Gilani described the ISI as "a great institution." He said that it isn't "believable" that "some of them...are sympathetic to the militants.... We would not allow that because the ISI is directly working under the prime minister."

In fact, analysts question how much authority Gilani really has over the ISI. Earlier this week, Gilani's government attempted to shift control of the ISI to the Interior Ministry. But within hours of announcing that change, Gilani was confronted with protests from senior army officers. He quickly reversed the move.

Analysts describe the move as a "fiasco" and an embarrassment for Gilani. "The ISI, in a sense, is so powerful and has become so in the last 20 or 25 years that it is very difficult to rein it in and place it under civilian control outside of the military command-and-control system that it has," says Rahul Bedi, a correspondent for "Jane's Defense Weekly."

"The United States is very keen to contain the ISI and, in a sense, to exercise some form of greater cooperation so that the ISI does what the United States wants it to do -- which is basically to fight Al-Qaeda and related Taliban militants," Bedi adds. "But I don't think the United States has been very successful in either of those objectives."

Although the ISI technically falls under the supervision of Pakistan's government, its budget is controlled by the army. "The ISI was already supposedly reporting to the prime minister. But directorates are each handed out by a major general whose career path and salary and promotions are determined by the army chief of staff -- not by the prime minister," notes Barnett Rubin, an expert on the region and head of New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

"So it's not clear why they would even listen to the prime minister. But it was supposedly reporting to the prime minister's office -- not the army chief of staff. Now they have tried to move it to the Ministry of the Interior -- which is not a move from military to civilian [control] but from one civilian [entity] to another civilian entity. In neither case does it seem it would solve the problem that the ISI is budgeted through the military. And from a strictly organizational perspective, it makes no sense to put the ISI in the Interior Ministry since it has both domestic and international duties."

Cross-Border Strikes

Tensions between U.S. and Pakistani troops along the Afghan-Pakistani border also have been increasing in recent months amid reports that the Pentagon is becoming increasingly irritated and impatient about the ease with which Islamist militants have been able to cross into Afghanistan to attack Afghan and U.S. troops.

In one recent incident, a U.S. air strike targeted and killed 11 members of Pakistan's security forces on the border with Afghanistan. Facing criticism from Islamabad, the Pentagon released video footage showing the Pakistani troops attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan and then fleeing back into Pakistan.

On July 28, just hours before Gilani was to meet U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House, an apparent U.S. air strike targeted and purportedly killed a senior Al-Qaeda explosives and chemical weapons expert in his hideout near a mosque in the South Waziristan tribal region.

Gilani later complained that Pakistan did not approve of the attack and that any unilateral U.S. air strikes in the tribal agencies violate Pakistan's sovereignty.

"If there is credible or actionable information and you [the U.S. administration] give it to us, we will perform the duty ourselves," Gilani said. "And, in the future, there will be more cooperation on the intelligence side."

Indeed, U.S. military officials on the Afghan side of the border have told RFE/RL that they do not trust Pakistan's security services with information about pending U.S. military operations, saying the information sometimes appears to be passed on to militants.

The United States also has been frustrated by moves from Pakistan's government to reach peace deals with tribal leaders in Pakistan in exchange for promises that the tribal leaders will stop sheltering Al-Qaeda fighters and Taliban militants.

However, the latest reports from Pakistan suggest that the two-month-old accord may be collapsing amid fresh violence in the northwestern valley of Swat, where militants have resumed attacks on security officials.

Rubin says the growing threat of militancy in Pakistan itself -- including the tribal regions, parts of Baluchistan, and the Northwest Frontier Province -- confuses the entire situation for U.S. policymakers.

"There's a very, very high degree of concern in the U.S. government about both Afghanistan and about Pakistan itself. The problem is not primarily anymore that Pakistan is used as a staging ground for fighting in Afghanistan," Rubin says.

"There is an insurgency going on in Pakistan itself -- and not just in the tribal agencies. It is affecting most of the Northwest Frontier Province. It's very close to Islamabad. And in certain areas of northwestern Pakistan, there is no government presence to speak of. In that respect, it is becoming more like Afghanistan."

Stratfor, an online publisher of geopolitical intelligence and strategic forecasts, says that reforming the ISI is a precondition for Islamabad to solve its own jihadist problems and play its role as an ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

Stratfor concludes that imbalances between Pakistan's civilian and military leadership continue to favor the country's top generals. It says the weakness of the civilian administration, compared to Pakistan's military, underscores the difficulties Gilani will face if he continues trying to reform Pakistan's intelligence services.
RFE/RL Afghanistan Report


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