Pakistan to 'weed out' Taliban sympathisers

Pakistan has promised to “weed out” elements sympathetic to the Taliban in one of its intelligence agencies, after a United States claim of collusion that includes the agency’s involvement in the bomb attack on India’s embassy in Kabul last month, which left 58 dead.

Pakistani officials deny publicly such a link to the suicide bombing, but privately confirm that they too think elements within the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were involved.

After seven years of praising Pakistan as one of its closest allies, the Bush administration is putting the squeeze on its government to confront the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces based on its border more aggressively, or to allow US forces to cross the border from Afghanistan to do it.

Sherry Rehman, a Pakistan government spokesperson, said there is no proof of ISI involvement. But she said “individuals” in the ISI are “probably acting on their own and going against official policy”, adding that the authorities “need to identify these people and weed them out”.

The CIA’s assessment was passed to the Pakistani government last month.
It accused elements within the ISI of giving logistical support to the insurgents blamed for the embassy bombing and who are believed to be led by Maulavi Jalauddin Haqqani, a pro-Taliban commander.

The assessment is based partly on alleged communications intercepted between the ISI and those believed responsible for the bombing. The CIA declined to comment on Friday, but an official from another US department confirmed there is “evidence” of collusion.

The embassy attack and the claim of ISI involvement, which India has also made, strained relations between Islamabad and Delhi and threatens to undermine a four-year-old peace initiative between the two countries. The suicide bombing came against a background of concern in Pakistan that India is trying to build up its presence in Afghanistan, which Islamabad regards as its area of influence.

The CIA’s director of clandestine operations, Stephen Kappes, visited Pakistan last month to put before the government what he claimed was evidence of links between the ISI, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. His trip followed one in January by other senior CIA staff demanding that Pakistan do more to clamp down on the Taliban and al-Qaeda and to help track down Osama bin Laden.

US President George Bush raised the issue at the White House earlier this week when he met the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani. The Bush administration would like to see Bin Laden captured before the president leaves office in January, and is using a mix of incentives (last month it agreed to give Pakistan millions in aid to renovate fighter aircraft) and pressure.

Alleged ISI involvement in the Kabul attack threatens to dominate a regional summit in Sri Lanka on Sunday in which India and Pakistan are scheduled to participate. Tension between the two led this week to gun battles between their armed forces at the de facto border in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Shiv Shankar Menon, India’s Foreign Secretary, told reporters in Sri Lanka on Friday that the embassy attack, as well as bombings of Indian cities, had adversely affected the peace initiative.

An attempt by Gilani to bring the ISI under civilian control, apparently in response to US pressure, backfired when it refused last week to accept the reform. The order was reversed within hours.

Analysts say that Pakistan is torn over Afghanistan, viewing the government of Hamid Karzai as hostile and too close to India. “If your perception, as the Pakistan army, is that RAW [the Indian intelligence agency] and the CIA are acting in unison, then you try to protect yourself,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc. “You do not give them [the Taliban] sufficient room to completely take over Afghanistan, but you do enough to stop growing Indian influence.”

Seth Jones, an analyst at Rand Corporation, said the evidence of Pakistani aid to insurgents in Afghanistan is mostly “non-lethal assistance”. He added: “The biggest issue is not what Pakistan is doing in Afghanistan; it is its unwillingness to target any militant organisation on Pakistani soil.”

US, British and other forces in Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan government, have repeatedly said that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters find sanctuary on the Pakistani side of the border, in its tribal areas. Without cutting off such refuge, supplies and training in the Pakistani territory, victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan is near impossible, it is argued.—

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