Pakistan Spy Agency at Heart of ‘Two-Tiered’ Policy on Taliban

A Pakistani paramilitary soldier
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier looks out from a vehicle patrolling on the streets of Quetta, Pakistan. Photographer: Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan’s military spy agency, at the center of secret U.S. documents leaked this week, is the main tool for what analysts say is a policy of covertly helping Taliban guerrillas fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate has given sanctuary, supplies and direction to the Taliban even as Pakistan’s government has pledged support for the U.S. war against them, say Pakistani and U.S. analysts and retired CIA officials. Documents among the 75,000 posted on the Wikileaks website this week show that U.S. troops for years also have reported a Pakistani dual approach to the war.

The leaked papers underscore Pakistan’s “two-tiered” policy of “overt opposition to the Taliban and covert support” for them, said George Friedman, chief executive of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., a risk advisory group based in Austin, Texas.

Pakistan’s army, which sets the country’s national security policy, does not believe the U.S. will remain in Afghanistan and so is choosing to keep good relations with the Taliban, according to Friedman and Ahmed Rashid, whose 2001 book, “Taliban,” detailed the ISI’s role in building the guerrilla movement. The Pakistanis see the Taliban as dominating the government after a U.S. withdrawal, they said.

The U.S. government is aware of Pakistan’s dual policy and has “settled for what support Pakistan could give” while regularly pushing it for tougher action against the guerrillas, Friedman wrote in an e-mailed essay.

Retired Personnel

Pakistan’s army always has denied a policy of backing the Taliban against the U.S. In 2006, then-military ruler Pervez Musharraf told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program that he had reports that retired ISI officers were helping the Taliban, although he denied that active-duty personnel were doing so.

Following the Soviet Army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and the end of U.S. financial aid for anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas and their Pakistani backers, the ISI supported the Taliban to build influence in Afghanistan. At the same time, the agency developed guerrilla groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, as proxies to wage attacks in Kashmir, where Pakistan for decades disputed India’s control.

The man leading Pakistan’s security policy, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, this month was appointed for a further three-year term as army chief. Kayani served as ISI chief during much of the period covered by the leaked documents.

After Osama bin Laden used Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as a base from which to plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. forced Pakistan’s army-led government to break its formal alliance with the Islamic militant movement and to cooperate with its replacement by U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai.

‘Systematic and Pervasive’

Still, by 2008 U.S. and NATO military officers in Afghanistan had gathered evidence of “a systematic and pervasive system of ISI collusion” with the Taliban, Rashid wrote in a 2008 book, “Descent Into Chaos.” The Central Intelligence Agency found that the ISI helped the guerrillas by leaking plans for U.S.-led operations against them, former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vince Cannistraro said in an interview at the time.

In July 2008, after India and others said the ISI backed a bomb attack on India’s embassy in Kabul, President George W. Bush confronted Pakistani leaders over “who controls ISI,” Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar said on GEO Television on July 30 of that year. Pakistan dismissed the spy agency’s director two months later.

Mumbai Attacks

India this month accused the ISI of running the November 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba attack that killed 166 people in Mumbai, citing Indian investigators’ interrogation of Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley, who pleaded guilty to plotting the attack in a U.S. federal court.

More than 180 of the documents leaked this week report allegations received by U.S. officers of ISI giving help to the Taliban, said the London-based Guardian. The newspaper, with the New York Times and the German magazine Der Spiegel, examined them over several weeks after receiving the papers from Wikileaks, a website founded by an Australian, Julian Assange.

Most of the reports in the documents cannot be independently confirmed, the three news organizations said.

The detailed mass of reports by U.S. officers, and the press coverage they are getting, may increase cynicism among Americans and Europeans about their alliance with Pakistan and “the winnability of the war,” Rashid said in a phone interview.

“It’s no secret the ISI pursues multiple, sometimes conflicting, interests, sometimes simultaneously,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “We’ve learned to work around it.”

While the revelations about Pakistani intelligence service and other details about the war effort weren’t new, the Taliban likely will be able to figure out from the reports how the U.S. got some of its information, said former CIA Director Michael Hayden, a principal at the Chertoff Group, a Washington-based security consultant.

“If I had gotten this kind of information on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, I would have called it invaluable,” he said in an interview.

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