Militants Escape Control of Pakistan, Officials Say
By Carlotta Gall and David Rohde
The New York Times
Tuesday 15 January 2008
Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistan's premier military intelligence agency has lost control of some of the networks of Pakistani militants it has nurtured since the 1980s, and is now suffering the violent blowback of that policy, two former senior intelligence officials and other officials close to the agency say.
As the military has moved against them, the militants have turned on their former handlers, the officials said. Joining with other extremist groups, they have battled Pakistani security forces and helped militants carry out a record number of suicide attacks last year, including some aimed directly at army and intelligence units as well as prominent political figures, possibly even Benazir Bhutto.
The growing strength of the militants, many of whom now express support for Al Qaeda's global jihad, presents a grave threat to Pakistan's security, as well as NATO efforts to push back the Taliban in Afghanistan. American officials have begun to weigh more robust covert operations to go after Al Qaeda in the lawless border areas because they are so concerned that the Pakistani government is unable to do so.
The unusual disclosures regarding Pakistan's leading military intelligence agency - Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI - emerged in interviews last month with former senior officials who have knowledge of the inner workings of the ISI. The disclosures confirm some of the worst fears, and suspicions, of American and Western military officials and diplomats.
The interviews, a rare glimpse inside a notoriously secretive and opaque agency, offered a string of other troubling insights likely to refocus attention on the ISI's role as Pakistan moves toward elections on Feb. 18 and a battle for control of the government looms:
One former senior Pakistani intelligence official, as well as other people close to the agency, acknowledged that the ISI led the effort to manipulate Pakistan's last national election in 2002, and offered to drop corruption cases against candidates who would back President Pervez Musharraf.
A person close to the ISI said Mr. Musharraf had now ordered the agency to ensure that the coming elections were free and fair, and denied that the agency was working to rig the vote. But the acknowledgment of past rigging is certain to fuel opposition fears of new meddling.
The two former high-ranking intelligence officials acknowledged that after Sept. 11, 2001, when President Musharraf publicly allied Pakistan with the Bush administration, the ISI could not rein in the militants it had nurtured for decades as a proxy force to exert pressure on India and Afghanistan. After the agency unleashed hard-line Islamist beliefs, the officials said, it struggled to stop the ideology from spreading.
Another former senior intelligence official said dozens of ISI officers who trained militants had come to sympathize with their cause and had had to be expelled from the agency. He said three purges had taken place since the late 1980s and included the removal of three ISI directors suspected of being sympathetic to the militants.
None of the former intelligence officials who spoke to The New York Times agreed to be identified when talking about the ISI, an agency that has gained a fearsome reputation for interfering in almost every aspect of Pakistani life. But two former American intelligence officials agreed with much of what they said about the agency's relationship with the militants.
So did other sources close to the ISI, who admitted that the agency had supported militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir, although they said they had been ordered to do so by political leaders.
The former intelligence officials appeared to feel freer to speak as Mr. Musharraf's eight years of military rule weakened, and as a power struggle for control over the government looms between Mr. Musharraf and opposition political parties.
The officials were interviewed before the assassination of Ms. Bhutto, the opposition leader, on Dec. 27. Since then, the government has said that Pakistani militants linked to Al Qaeda are the foremost suspects in her killing. Her supporters have accused the government of a hidden hand in the attack.
While the author of Ms. Bhutto's death remains a mystery, the interviews with the former intelligence officials made clear that the agency remained unable to control the militants it had fostered.
The threat from the militants, the former intelligence officials warned, is one that Pakistan is unable to contain. "We could not control them," said one former senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We indoctrinated them and told them, 'You will go to heaven.' You cannot turn it around so suddenly."
After 9/11, the Bush administration pressed Mr. Musharraf to choose a side in fighting Islamist extremism and to abandon Pakistan's longtime support for the Taliban and other Islamist militants.
In the 1990s, the ISI supported the militants as a proxy force to contest Indian-controlled Kashmir, the border territory that India and Pakistan both claim, and to gain a controlling influence in neighboring Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the United States supported militants, too, funneling billions of dollars to Islamic fighters battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan through the ISI, vastly increasing the agency's size and power.
Publicly, Mr. Musharraf agreed to reverse course in 2001, and he has received $10 billion in aid for Pakistan since then in return. In an interview in November, he vehemently defended the conduct of the ISI, an agency that, according to American officials, was under his firm control for the last eight years while he served as both president and army chief.
Mr. Musharraf dismissed criticism of the ISI's relationship with the militants. He cited the deaths of 1,000 Pakistani soldiers and police officers in battles with the militants in recent years - as well as several assassination attempts against himself - as proof of the seriousness of Pakistan's counterterrorism effort.
"It is quite illogical if you think those people who have suffered 1,000 people dead, and I who have been attacked thrice or four or five times, that I would be supportive towards Taliban, towards Al Qaeda," Mr. Musharraf said. "These are ridiculous things that discourages and demoralizes."
But some former American intelligence officials have argued that Mr. Musharraf and the ISI never fully jettisoned their militant protégés, and instead carried on a "double-game." They say Mr. Musharraf cooperated with American intelligence agencies to track down foreign Qaeda members while holding Taliban commanders and Kashmiri militants in reserve.
In order to undercut major opposition parties, he wooed religious conservatives, according to analysts. And instead of carrying out a crackdown, Mr. Musharraf took half-measures.
"I think he would make a decision when a situation arises," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani military analyst, referring to militants openly confronting the government. "But before that he would not alienate any side."
There is little dispute that Pakistan's crackdown on the militants has been at best uneven, but key sources interviewed by The Times disagreed on why.
Most Western officials in Pakistan say they believe, as Pakistani officials, including President Musharraf, insist, that the agency is well disciplined, like the army, and is in no sense a rogue or out-of-control organization acting contrary to the policies of the leadership.
A senior Western military official in Pakistan said that if the ISI was covertly aiding the Taliban, the decision would come from the top of the government, not the agency. "That's not an ISI decision," the official said. "That's a government-of-Pakistan decision."
But former Pakistani intelligence officials insisted that Mr. Musharraf had ordered a crackdown on all militants. It was never fully carried out, however, because of opposition within his government and within ISI, they said.
One former senior intelligence official said that some officials in the government and the ISI thought the militants should be held in reserve, as insurance against the day when American and NATO forces abandoned the region and Pakistan might again need them as a lever against India.
"We had a school of thought that favored retention of this capability," the former senior intelligence official said.
Some senior ministers and officials in Mr. Musharraf's government sympathized with the militants and protected them, former intelligence officials said. Still others advised a go-slow approach, fearing a backlash against the government from the militants.
When arrests were ordered, the police refused to carry them out in some cases until they received written orders, believing the militants were still protected by the ISI, as they had been for years.
Inside the ISI, there was division as well. One part of the ISI hunted down militants, the officials said, while another continued to work with them. The result was confusion.
In interviews in 2002, Kashmiri militants in Pakistan said they had been told by the government to maintain a low profile and wait. But as Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas intensified, along with airstrikes by C.I.A.-operated drones, militant groups there issued highly charged and sometimes exaggerated accounts of women and children being killed.
The first suicide bombing attack on a military target outside the tribal areas came days after an airstrike on a madrasa in the tribal area of Bajaur in October 2006 killed scores of people.
Another turning point came last July when Pakistani forces stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where militants had armed themselves in a compound less than a mile from ISI headquarters and demanded the imposition of Islamic law. Government officials said that more than 100 people died. The militants have insisted that thousands did.
Several weeks later, militants carried out the first direct attacks on ISI employees. Suicide bombers twice attacked buses ferrying agency employees, killing 18 on Sept. 4 and 15 more on Nov. 24. According to Pakistani analysts, the attacks signaled that enraged militants had turned on their longtime patrons.
One militant leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, typifies how extremists once trained by the ISI have broken free of the agency's control, turned against the government and joined with other militants to create powerful new networks.
In 2000, Mr. Azhar received support from the ISI when he founded Jaish-e-Muhammad, or Army of Muhammad, a Pakistani militant group fighting Indian forces in Kashmir, according to Robert Grenier, who served as the Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Islamabad from 1999 to 2002. The ISI intermittently provided training and operational coordination to such groups, he said, but struggled to fully control them.
Mr. Musharraf banned Jaish-e-Muhammad and detained Mr. Azhar after militants carried out an attack on the Indian Parliament building in December 2001. Indian officials accused Jaish-e-Muhammad and another Pakistani militant group of masterminding the attack. After India massed hundreds of thousands of troops on Pakistan's border, Mr. Musharraf vowed in a nationally televised speech that January to crack down on all militants in Pakistan.
"We will take strict action against any Pakistani who is involved in terrorism inside the country or abroad," he said. Two weeks later, a British-born member of Mr. Azhar's group, Ahmed Omar Sheikh, kidnapped Daniel Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was beheaded by his captors. Mr. Sheikh surrendered to the ISI, the agency that had supported Jaish-e-Muhammad, and was sentenced to death for the kidnapping.
After Mr. Pearl's killing, Pakistani officials arrested more than 2,000 people in a crackdown. But within a year, Mr. Azhar and most of the 2,000 militants who had been arrested were freed. "I never believed that government ties with these groups was being irrevocably cut," said Mr. Grenier, now a managing director at Kroll, a risk consulting firm.
At the same time, Pakistan seemingly went "through the motions" when it came to hunting Taliban leaders who fled into Pakistan after the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan, he said.
Encouraged by the United States, the Pakistanis focused their resources on arresting senior Qaeda members, he said, which they successfully did from 2002 to 2005. Since then, arrests have slowed as Al Qaeda and other militant groups have become more entrenched in the tribal areas.
Asked in 2006 why the Pakistani government did not move against the leading Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his son Sirajuddin, who are based in the tribal areas and have long had links with Al Qaeda, one senior ISI official said it was because Pakistan needed to retain some assets of its own.
That policy haunts Mr. Musharraf and the United States, according to American and Pakistani analysts. Today Pakistan's tribal areas are host to a lethal stew of foreign Qaeda members, Uzbek militants, Taliban, ISI-trained Pakistani extremists, disgruntled tribesmen and new recruits.
The groups carried out a record number of suicide bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan last year and have been tied to three major terrorist plots in Britain and Germany since 2005.
Mr. Azhar, who once served his ISI mentors in Kashmir, is thought to be hiding in the tribal area of Bajaur, or nearby Dir, and fighting Pakistani security forces, according to one former intelligence official. Militants who took part in the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad in July were closely affiliated with Mr. Azhar's group. This fall, his group fielded fighters in the Swat Valley, the famous tourist spot, where the militants presented a challenge of new proportions to the government, seizing several districts and mounting battles against Pakistani forces that left scores dead.
One militant from a banned sectarian group who joined Mr. Azhar's group, Qari Zafar, now trains insurgents in South Waziristan on how to rig roadside bombs and vests for suicide bombings, according to the former intelligence official.
Cooperation against the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan has improved since 2006, and three senior Taliban figures have been caught, according to Western officials and sources close to the ISI. Yet doubts remain about the Pakistani government's intentions.
Senior provincial ISI officials continue to meet with high-level members of the Taliban in the border provinces, according to one Western diplomat. "It is not illogical to surmise that cooperation is on the agenda, and not just debriefing," the diplomat said.
"There are groups they know they have lost control of," the Western diplomat added. But the government moved only against those groups that have attacked the Pakistani state, the diplomat said, adding, "It seems very difficult for them to write them off."
The Agency Now
Western officials say that before Mr. Musharraf resigned as army chief in December, he appointed a loyalist to run the ISI and appears determined to retain power over the agency even as a civilian president.
"For as long as he can, Musharraf will keep trying to control these organizations," a Western diplomat said. "I don't think we should expect this man to become an elder statesman as we know it."
That puts Mr. Musharraf's successor as army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who headed the ISI from 2004 to 2007, in a potentially pivotal position. General Kayani, a pro-American moderate, is loyal to Mr. Musharraf to a point, according to retired officers. But he will abandon him if he thinks Mr. Musharraf's actions are significantly undermining the standing of the Pakistani army.
Mr. Musharraf will maintain control over the agency as long as his interests coincide with General Kayani's, they said, while the new civilian prime minister who emerges from February's elections is likely to have far less authority over the agency. Opposition political parties already accuse the agency of meddling in next month's election. The Western diplomat called the ISI "the army's dirty bag of tricks."
Since Ms. Bhutto's assassination, members of her party have accused government officials, including former ISI agents, of having a hidden hand in the attack or of knowing about a plot and failing to inform Ms. Bhutto.
American experts played down the chances of a government conspiracy against Ms. Bhutto. They also said it was unlikely that low-level or retired officers working alone or with militants carried out the attack.
But nearly half of Pakistanis said in a recent poll that they suspected that government agencies or pro-government politicians had assassinated Ms. Bhutto. Such suspicion stems from decades of interference in elections and politics by the ISI, according to analysts, as well as a high level of domestic surveillance, intimidation and threats to journalists, academics and human rights activists, which former intelligence officials also acknowledged.
Pakistani and American experts say that distrust speaks to the urgent need to reform a hugely powerful intelligence agency that Pakistan's military rulers have used for decades to suppress political opponents, manipulate elections and support militant groups.
"Pakistan would certainly be better off if the ISI were never used for domestic political purposes," said Mr. Grenier, the former C.I.A. Islamabad station chief. "That goes without saying."
Pakistani analysts and Western diplomats argue that the country will remain unstable as long as the ISI remains so powerful and so unaccountable. The ISI has grown more powerful in each period of military rule, they said.
Civilian leaders, including Mrs. Bhutto, could not resist using it to secure their political aims, but neither could they control it. And the army continues to rely on the ISI for its own foreign policy aims, particularly battling India in Kashmir and seeking influence in Afghanistan.
"The question is, how do you change that?" asked one Western diplomat. "Their tentacles are everywhere."