Pakistan said to play both sides on terror war

Accusations from Mumbai to Kabul to London finger Pakistan's spy agency for backing terror and the Taliban.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Indian officials pointed a warning finger at Pakistan this weekend, saying that Pakistan's top intelligence agency masterminded and funded July's train bombings in Mumbai (Bombay).

The accusations continue the neighboring countries' decades-long pattern of blame and denial. This time, however, other nations are joining the chorus.

Last week, a think tank in Britain's Defence Ministry released an incendiary report saying that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency "has been supporting terrorism and extremism, whether in London ... or in Afghanistan or Iraq."

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On top of that, Afghan President Hamid Karzai spent most of the past week condemning Pakistan for ignoring and even abetting extremism, while frustrated American military officials decried Paki- stan's inability to clamp down on the Taliban in its border territories.

Pakistan's contradictions in the war on terror have long been obvious: It is both a crucial American ally and a primary training-ground for terrorists. But events in recent weeks suggest that, for the moment at least, pressure on Pakistan is increasing as the United States and Britain seek solutions to problems in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The [Pakistani] Army's dual role in combating terrorism and at the same time promoting the MNA [a coalition of Islamist parties], and so indirectly supporting the Taliban through the ISI, is coming under closer and closer international scrutiny," said the British Defence Academy report.

It added: "Indirectly Pakistan, through the ISI, has been supporting terrorism and extremism whether in London on 7/7 or in Afghanistan or Iraq."

ISI plans attacks too, says India

But India's claims of ISI involvement break new ground. Indian officials have long accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism in India in order to foment communal riots and destabilize the nation. The Mumbai (formerly Bombay) blasts on July 11, which killed 187 people, were no different, say Mumbai police.

Yet Mumbai Police Commissioner A.N. Roy went further when he announced the findings of his investigation Saturday. In the past, Pakistan was accused only of helping terrorists by allowing them to train in the country. In this case, Mr. Roy said the leading July 11 terrorists were Pakistanis, and that ISI plotted the attack before handing over the execution to the terrorist group Lashkar-i-Tayyaba.

So far, police authorities have presented little evidence to support these claims, though officials say they hope their findings are strong enough to win convictions within two years.

Pakistan has denounced the accusations. "The reported statement by [the] Mumbai Police Commissioner is irresponsible and [it is the] repetition of baseless allegations," reads an e-mail statement by Pakistan's Foreign Office.

Yet Pakistan has frequently found itself on the defensive in recent weeks. Pakistan's truce with militant tribes has led to a threefold rise in attacks across the border in Afghanistan, according to US military officials. And Afghan President Karzai's repeated complaints about Pakistan's unwillingness to rein in radicals forced last week's meeting in Washington, where President Bush sought to soothe tempers between America's divided allies Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Perhaps the most surprising criticism, however, has come from Britain. The report from the Defence Ministry think-tank was so inflammatory that Prime Minister Tony Blair had to personally reassure President Musharraf that the leaked document was merely the work of some government analysts, not government policy.

And in a London court just a few days earlier, an accused terrorist testified that he had attended a terrorist training camp in Pakistan run by the ISI. Thereafter, he refused to give any further testimony, saying ISI agents had threatened his family.

If true, "this is quite sensational, because it is the first official confirmation of the involvement in terrorism of the ISI, an agency of a country which Washington and London has regarded as an ally, and Washington gives $3 billion in aid to," says M.J. Gohel, a terrorism expert at the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London.

A history of suspicion surrounding ISI

The Mumbai police report only sharpens scrutiny of ISI, an organization with a well known history of incubating militant outfits. In a bid for greater influence in Afghan affairs, ISI is believed to have helped the Taliban during its rise a decade ago. Indeed, Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government. The ISI is also widely believed to have become involved with terrorist groups directed toward the conflict in Kashmir.

Islamabad claims it disbanded those groups after 9/11. But many analysts and critics suggest that some continue to operate under different names and fronts, often unofficially supported by factions of the intelligence community.

"Gradually after 9/11 there's been a restructuring of militant outfits," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst in Islamabad. "In the process, some have gone, some have been merged, some have been divided, but the phenomenon still remains."

She and others argue that ISI compartmentalizes its policy where it meets Pakistan's strategic goals – for example, by fighting international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda while at the same time unofficially supporting other elements of the militant community.

The dual policy exposes Pakistan's peculiar view of terrorism in the region, analysts say.

"People in Pakistan believe that the conflict in Kashmir is a freedom movement, and that those people should be able to fight," says Kamal Matinuddin, a retired general who is now a military analyst in Rawalpindi. "That is where the difference arises between the people of Pakistan and the rest of the world."

Musharraf's next move

Whether the recent criticism of ISI will force Musharraf to take some action is open to question. Bob Ayers of Chatham House, a London think-tank, doubts it will. Blaming "Pakistan is the flavor du jour," he says.

At least Musharraf is playing along with the West, he says. Mr. Ayers and other Western analysts fear that if the US pushes too hard, Musharraf could fall, and someone far more problematic could come to power. "This is just a cycle," says Ayers. "It deflects attention away from our lack of results in the war on terror."

It could have much greater consequences for the eggshell-strong peace process with India, though. Last month, the leaders of India and Pakistan took an unprecedented step – agreeing to share intelligence as part of joint antiterror efforts.

Saturday's announcement will present a new obstacle.

Some see it merely as a blip. "All that will happen is that talks will be delayed by 15 or 20 days," says Pakistani retired General Matinuddin.

But the prejudices among the intelligence agencies on either side of the border are deep, and they indicate how difficult a joint intelligence project could be.

Hamid Gul, a former ISI director dismisses the idea that ISI is a rogue agency working to terrorize India.

"Pervez Musharraf is in complete control of the ISI. To assume or insinuate that there is a cavity in the ISI that is pursuing its own agenda is utterly wrong," says Mr. Gul.

Instead, he suggests that India is blind to its own problems. The realities on the ground in India, including poverty and discrimination against Muslims, provide ample reason for disgruntled Indians to wage war against their own government, he says.

By contrast, a former senior Indian intelligence official says the ISI is just up to its old tricks. "Pakistan uses terrorism as a tactical move to achieve what its Army cannot on the war front and what its bureaucrats cannot on a negotiating table," says Ajit Doval, former chief of India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

India's foreign secretary said Sunday that he will share evidence from the Mumbai investigation with Pakistan. "This will be the test case of the [joint] mechanism," says Mr. Doval. "If they are sincere, they'll act on the evidence."

But he is skeptical. Echoing the sentiments of many Indians – and pointing to the level distrust to be overcome – he asks: "What is the point of sharing evidence with someone who is party to the crime?"

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