Pakistan: Wild-Card Spies

Are the ISI's ties to the Taliban a help or hindrance?

If the U.S. needs one thing from Pakistan in its war on terrorism, it's decent intelligence. No nation is better acquainted with the Taliban regime that rules Afghanistan and shelters Osama bin Laden. After all, Pakistan helped create and sustain the Taliban to ensure that Afghanistan would be a friendly and stable neighbor. Now, of course, Pakistan has switched sides and joined the U.S.-led campaign. President Pervez Musharraf, seizing a chance to renew relations with its old ally--and stick a thumb in the eye of archrival India--has agreed to lend a hand in the effort to bring bin Laden to heel.

Much, however, depends on the cooperation of a secretive organization so powerful that it has been called Pakistan's "invisible government." The Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, ISI, is essentially Pakistan's Central Intelligence Agency. But its brief is far broader. The 15,000-strong ISI is said to formulate foreign policy, stifle opposition, and engage in drug trafficking from time to time. And while the CIA has sworn off "dirty tricks"--assassinations, fomenting rebellion, and other strong-arm tactics--the ISI is accused of doing little else.

Of course, most such allegations of skulduggery emanate from India, hardly an impartial observer. And the ISI declines to comment on its activities, and did not respond to requests for interviews. However, it is widely accepted that the ISI backs militant groups fighting to wrest Kashmir from Indian control. For years, India has urged the U.S. to put Pakistan on a list of nations that support terror--to no avail. On Oct. 1, a group called Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for a bomb blast in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar that killed at least 38 people. "All such groups have been promoted, sustained, and continue to be supported by Pakistan, especially by the ISI," says a senior Indian official.

To be sure, the militants could have been operating on their own, but the attack's timing raises an intriguing question: Is Musharraf in control of the ISI? In 1998, India accused him of supporting an incursion of militants into India-controlled Kashmir that led to the worst flareup between the nuclear-armed rivals in recent memory. But would Musharraf--eager to stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S.--risk inflaming tensions in Kashmir at a time like this? Consider that just hours before the bombs began to fall on Afghanistan, he sacked the ISI's chief, Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmad, an old pal, and replaced him with Ehans Ul-haq, widely regarded in Pakistan as a professional soldier who obeys orders. Musharraf "needed to make sure everyone is on the same wavelength," says Retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood.

While Washington quietly applauded the reshuffle--former CIA chief James Woolsey Jr. calls it a "positive" signal--former Pakistani intelligence agents aren't so sure the ISI will cooperate with the U.S. To be sure, Pakistani and U.S. intelligence worked hand-in-hand during the 1980s campaign to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Together, the ISI and the CIA funneled arms and money to the mujahideen rebels battling the Russians.

TALL ORDER. However, getting the ISI on America's side in the anti-Taliban fight may not be so easy. "It's like asking a sculptor to break what he has created," says Hameed Gul, former ISI chief and an avowed Taliban supporter. "It's extremely difficult to reverse roles." Already, there are signs of resistance among ISI rank and file. A few days before the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, renegade ISI operatives visited Kabul, say Pakistan intelligence sources, to help the Taliban prepare its defenses. Moreover, the ISI became increasingly Islamicized in the early 1990s. Javed Nasir, chief of the agency from 1990-93, recruited from Pakistan's religious schools, or madrassah, where hatred of India and the U.S. is part of the curriculum.

Even if the U.S. manages to get the ISI to cooperate, American policymakers risk offending India. While Washington is asking Pakistan intelligence to turn on the Taliban for harboring terrorists, little is being said about its support for the militants in Kashmir. The apparent double standard has infuriated India, which just last year was basking in the warm glow of a landmark visit from President Bill Clinton. On Oct. 15, Indian troops shelled Pakistan positions in Kashmir, the first such action since an informal cease-fire went into effect in May 2000. U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, on a visit to both nations, urged the nuclear-armed rivals to restrain themselves. As even-handed as that sounds, it isn't seen that way in India, in part because Powell proposed U.S. military cooperation with Pakistan.

While Musharraf won't give an inch on Kashmir, he is unlikely to look for a war with India now. He needs to stabilize Pakistan's economy, and the best way to do that is to stand with the U.S., which is dangling billions in aid. The question is whether Musharraf's new ISI chief can make the more-zealous operatives in his mystery-shrouded intelligence agency toe the line as well.

By Frederik Balfour in Islamabad and Manjeet Kripalani in New Delhi, with Stan Crock in Washington

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