The fate of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and of stability in this neighboring country may depend to a great extent on efforts to reform Pakistan’s controversial spy agency, known in the past for “hunting with the hounds and running with the hares.”
US officials have long criticized Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for a dual policy of cracking down on Islamist militancy while supporting militant groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir and allowing al Qaeda and the Taliban to maintain sanctuaries in tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Some US intelligence officials have charged that the ISI was behind the July bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which killed 58 people and wounded 141. A failed attempt by Pakistan’s new civilian government to bring the agency under the authority of the Interior Ministry later that month is cited as another sign of the agency’s intransigence.
However, some analysts say the ISI’s reputation as a rogue operation has been exaggerated. They also point to a recent shakeup of the military command aimed at bringing greater central control and transparency to institutions pivotal to the stability of Pakistan and its neighbors.
“The military leadership has come to realize that it needs to revive its public image, which has been severely damaged by its hand in politics and policies in the tribal areas,” said Khalid Rahman, director general of the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad. “They are looking to the government for guidance.”
The new head of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, replaces Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, a close ally of Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, and a man whom U.S. officials claim was “double-dealing” with Taliban militants.
According to analyst and retired Gen. Mahmood Shah, of 21 generals in the military command, 14 have been denied promotion or “superseded.” Most were Musharraf appointees. The seven who were promoted are “known for their professional capabilities, not any political alignment,” Gen. Shah said. Ironically, the shift was in a sense initiated by Mr. Musharraf, who last fall appointed Gen. Ashfaq Kayani chief of army staff, long considered the most powerful office in the nuclear-armed country.
Gen. Kayani, who headed the ISI from 2004 until 2007, is the first ISI director to assume the top military post. Gen. Kayani has pledged to stay out of politics and is seen as cool, diligent and decisive. In December 2001, when Pakistan and India were poised for conflict, he kept a standoff from erupting into full-scale war. His choice to head up the ISI is also well-regarded. “Both men are very professional, experienced and thoughtful, with a good worldview,” said Shuja Nawaz, a leading analyst on Pakistani military affairs and author of the book “Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within.”
The fundamental challenge that faces the Pakistani military today is to evolve from conventional warfare to a counterinsurgency approach that puts “brain ahead of brawn,” Mr Nawaz said. In a private meeting earlier this year, Gen. Kayani told Mr. Nawaz of the need for a “three-pronged strategy” combining military action, political incentives and economic development to tame areas beyond the state’s writ.
This made Gen. Pasha, a seasoned infantry commander who previously oversaw ground operations in the tribal areas, a logical choice to head the ISI. From 2001 to 2002, he took part in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, giving him post-conflict experience working with international partners that analysts say will prove useful in his new job.
Gen. Pasha must report regularly to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, to whom he affirmed his loyalty this week. Gen. Pasha will also deal directly with U.S. intelligence to curb cross-border militant attacks into Afghanistan and destroy safe havens on the Pakistani side, hostile terrain he knows well.
In many meetings with American officials, including six with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, the two top Pakistani generals reportedly have expressed a commitment to reform the military’s counterinsurgency strategy with help from elected leaders.
However, doubts persist among U.S. analysts over whether the ISI has actually kicked its habit of working at odds with the government to maintain assets within militant groups that have served Pakistan’s interests against India. “ISI continues, notwithstanding the efforts of many within the ISI to do the right thing,” to pose challenges, said a U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work. “Those challenges include associations between the ISI and bad actors in the region,” including the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, the official said.
Daniel Markey, a regional analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department official, said the ISI must be seen as a vast bureaucracy in which there may be a “disconnect between what Gen. Kayani says and what people beneath him want.”
Bruce Riedel, a veteran South Asia analyst for the CIA and author of a new book, “The Search for al Qaeda,” says Pakistan “is the country most crucial to al Qaeda´s success” but has been “both a patron and victim of terrorism.” The ISI’s role is particularly troublesome, he says, noting that more al Qaeda terrorists have been killed or captured in Pakistan, which suggests that the ISI is playing a double game regarding Islamic militancy.
Mr. Riedel paraphrased Lawrence Wright, author of “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” as saying that “the ISI is in the business of hunting al Qaeda – a business that it never wants to come to an end.”
The agency first gained prominence for channeling CIA arms and funds to Islamic mujahedeen fighting to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s. It later supported the Taliban’s rise to power, and many insist it has continued to back the Taliban as a proxy against Indian interests in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir.
Prying the ISI from such links will require a broader regional approach, argue Barnett R. Rubin of New York University and Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. They recommend forming a contact group, authorized by the U.N. Security Council, to resolve disputes over Kashmir and over the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the U.S. has made serious mistakes in Pakistan’s tribal areas because of a “lack of good intelligence and too few operatives in the region.”
The official stated that rival tribal groups feed false information to U.S. forces, who then bomb innocent people instead of militants.
A U.S. defense official said that many times, sharing information with Pakistani intelligence can lead to information leaks within the tribal areas, “protecting the extremists and giving them time to escape any U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.” Mr. Nawaz argued that the ISI’s reputation as a state within the state is wrong.
Unlike the days of the anti-Soviet jihad, when the ISI operated “outside the orbit of the professional army” thanks to its income from the United States and Saudi Arabia, the agency has become totally dependent on the army for its budget, Mr. Nawaz said, meaning “there is nothing the ISI does that the government doesn’t want it to do.”
He conceded, however, that “weak spots” may remain in the form of ISI contractors and field operatives who over the years have dealt with Afghan Taliban without the agency monitoring their activities closely enough. These relationships will not be overturned overnight, he said while stressing the distinction between the Afghan Taliban – which to date has not been viewed here as a domestic threat – and the Pakistan-based Tehrik-e-Taliban, which has sown violence across the country.
Mr. Markey agreed that “clearing out the insides” of the ISI is bound to take time, even assuming the new leadership has the best intentions. “It’s more like turning a battleship around than turning a dime,” he said.
• Sara A. Carter contributed to this report from Washington