The section of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate that is responsible for domestic spying on Pakistani politicians has been quietly shut down.
Sources in Pakistan suggest the implications are entirely domestic and will have little bearing on Pakistan's foreign policy or the ISI's role in the counterterrorism effort, but Western experts note that the change comes as Washington has been privately urging Pakistan's new government to rein in elements of the ISI that allegedly have links with Islamic militancy.
Critics maintain that Pakistan's military leaders most often used the ISI's political wing against the civilian leadership of political parties. Indeed, within Pakistan, the implications of the move are seen as being almost entirely domestic.
"This country has been under military rule quite a lot," says Nassim Zehra, a prominent Pakistani journalist and security analyst who also serves as a research fellow for Harvard University's Asia Center. "When it has been under military rule, one section of the ISI has been used by the military rulers to engineer the political situation in the country. And for that, it has earned a very bad reputation."
But Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's civilian government claims that taking the military spy agency out of domestic politics will also allow it to focus more on counterterrorism operations.
'Up In The Air'
"At the moment, it is really difficult to tell whether this latest move is directly linked to the fight against militancy or if it is something more related to the desire to get ISI out of domestic politics so that the domestic politicians [in Pakistan] can actually have more latitude and feel like they are under less pressure," says Daniel Markey, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington who served on the U.S. State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 2003 to 2007.
But like many Western experts, he notes that Washington has been pressuring Islamabad to act since Zardari came to power in April. Markey says that closing the ISI's political section "will give a greater opening to the Zardari government that is working, so far, reasonably well with the U.S. government. So either way, the United States has an interest in getting the ISI out of domestic politics."
He adds that other changes that have been made to the ISI in recent months appear to reflect U.S. pressure for reforms. "Other moves of late -- the replacement of the ISI chief and the second tier of leadership within the ISI -- do appear to be more directly related to a desire to root out sympathizers for the Taliban and other extremists that have long been a part of the ISI," Markey says. "There is obviously some very significant changes being made within the ISI. Whether they are going to achieve the desired goal, and how quickly -- I'd say that is still up in the air."
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of the book "Taliban," has maintained for years that the ISI has played a double game with Washington and the Taliban. Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in its fight against terrorism. But at the same time, the ISI allegedly has covertly supported cross-border militant attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, India, and the Indian-administered parts of Kashmir in order to advance Islamabad's foreign-policy goals in the region.
In his latest book, "Descent Into Chaos," Rashid argues that the ISI has set up a series of private organizations in order to put more distance into the relationship between its military leadership and extremist fighters. He says the private organizations are staffed by retired ISI officers and funded through the budget of Pakistan's Frontier Corps.
Alleged ISI Complicity
Indeed, NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. General David McKiernan, said in August that he was certain that there was "a level of ISI complicity" in the militant areas of Pakistan and within organizations like the Taliban. But McKiernan said he was not able to speak about the level of leadership within the ISI that is involved with the Taliban and other militants.
Pakistan has consistently denied that the ISI supports cross-border insurgent attacks into Afghanistan.
But Zardari's government has acknowledged publicly that elements within the ISI are sympathetic to Islamists in Pakistan and the insurgency in Afghanistan. Those agents have been portrayed by Islamabad as "rogue" operators pursuing their own private agendas.
General Hameed Gul, who was the director-general of the ISI in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is among the retired ISI officials who remain influential in Pakistan and openly sympathize with Taliban fighters. He once worked with the United States to funnel weapons and aid to mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan who were battling Soviet forces.
But Gul has said he felt betrayed by the United States for "countless broken promises" after Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. He says he has become increasingly sympathetic to Islamic extremists since then -- even serving as a political adviser to religious extremists in Pakistan.
Shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Gul famously gave an interview to United Press International in which he charged that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "inside jobs" carried out by renegade elements within the U.S. Air Force and agents from Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad.
'The Right Thing'
Speaking to RFE/RL this week, Gul said shutting down ISI's political wing was a positive development because it would improve the agency's image within Pakistan and boost its credibility among politicians in Islamabad.
"Now if they have ended this [ISI's political wing], they have done the right thing," Gul said. "When I was the director-general of the ISI in [late Prime Minister] Benzair Bhutto's first government [in the late 1980s], I worked on intelligence reforms and I recommended to the government that they should take this task away from us --because it was giving us a bad name and we were being maligned."
Gul said the government in Islamabad also needed to shut down the political wing of the Intelligence Bureau -- a separate civilian intelligence agency that operates under the auspices of the Interior Ministry.
Still, Gul dismissed critics who described the ISI as a "state within a state," saying it was a highly disciplined organization that followed the policies of the civilian government.
"It definitely follows the government's directions and there is no question of it working on its own," Gul said. "The ISI's entire manpower is made up of serving military personnel and they cannot violate any order. It is a highly disciplined organization."
But Markey says Gul's remarks about the relationship between the ISI and Islamic militancy should be viewed cautiously. He describes Gul as "very much a part of the problem."
"He has been very clear about his political leanings -- [Gul] is very clearly aligned with Islamist parties," Markey says. "What has been interesting is that people like him -- other ISI generals -- have essentially been able to have a kind of a side policy -- or just on the margins of the official ISI -- for years now. [That] has allowed them a great deal of flexibility and freedom to continue to do things that, from a U.S. perspective, are deeply counterproductive -- with a kind of either passive, and in some cases it looks, active collaboration of their former colleagues [in the ISI]."
Ultimately, Markey says, the United States should continue to monitor the relationship between former ISI officers and Islamic militants in Pakistan to ensure that Islamabad's civilian government really is removing Taliban sympathizers from the military intelligence or organizations linked to the ISI.
"To the extent that they are actually being cleaned up, they say they are," Markey says, "but in an enormous, secretive organization, you can always create new cells to serve similar purposes under different names -- and so that is what, obviously, we would have to be watching out for as we move ahead."