Why Pakistan is unlikely to crack down on Islamic militants, despite U.S. pressure

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 1, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration and its allies are pressing Pakistan to end its support for Afghan insurgents linked to al Qaida, but Pakistani generals are unlikely to be swayed because they increasingly see their interests diverging from those of the United States, U.S. and foreign experts said.

The administration sought to ratchet up the pressure last month by sending top U.S. military and intelligence officials to Pakistan to confront officials there with intelligence linking Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence to the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups.

When that failed to produce the desired response, U.S. officials told news organizations about the visit, and then revealed that the intelligence included an intercepted communication between ISI officers and a pro-Taliban network that carried out a July 7 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The United States and Britain privately have demanded that Pakistan move against the Taliban's top leadership, which they contend is based near Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan Province, said a State Department official and a senior NATO defense official, who both requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

Pakistan has been given "a pretty unequivocal message" to end ISI support for the militants and shake up the top ranks of the intelligence agency, the senior NATO defense official said.

On Friday, however, Pakistan vehemently rejected the allegations of ISI involvement in the Indian Embassy blast, which killed 41 and injured 141.

U.S. officials and experts said there's little chance that Pakistan will take any of the actions it's been asked to take.

"There is a limit to what we can do in Pakistan," said the State Department official.

"The fact that we're reduced to trying to send messages to the Pakistanis by putting stories in (newspapers) tells you we don't have any good options," said a former senior intelligence official knowledgeable about South Asia. "It also suggests that the high-level, face-to-face contacts haven't worked so far. The trouble is, these kinds of public threats are likely to backfire."

For one thing, the Taliban and other groups allied with al Qaida could respond to any Pakistani crackdown by stepping up attacks inside Pakistan, which is battling Islamic extremist violence, U.S. officials and experts said.

Furthermore, they said, Pakistan's nearly dysfunctional, feud-riddled civilian government has little power over the Army and the ISI. The latest evidence was a botched attempt under U.S. pressure to put the agency under the Interior Ministry before Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani's three-day visit to Washington this week.

Pakistani generals and other leaders are also infuriated by President Bush's pursuit of a strategic relationship with India, their foe in three wars, as embodied by a U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation pact that won United Nations approval Friday, the U.S. officials and experts said.

"One thing we never understood is that India has always been the major threat for Pakistan," said former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain, now the president of the Middle East Institute.

Pakistan is alarmed by India's close ties to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and its growing influence in Afghanistan, where a $750 million Indian aid program includes the construction of a strategic highway that will open the landlocked country to Indian goods shipped through ports in Iran.

Pakistan, which refuses to allow Indian products through its port of Karachi, has long coveted Afghanistan as a market, a trade route to central Asia and a rear area for its army in any new conflict with India.

"Pakistan over the last several years has increasingly come to believe that it is being encircled by India and a U.S.-India-Afghan axis," said Seth Jones, an expert with the RAND Corp., a policy institute.

For these reasons, Pakistan's military leaders may have decided to scale back their cooperation with the Bush administration's war against terrorism and boost support for the Taliban and other militant groups.

"We have created a set of perverse incentives for the Pakistanis to continue their support for the Taliban," said a U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. "Pakistan does not view the United States as a long-term player in the region and certainly doesn't view Pakistan's strategic interests as congruent with ours, and that divergence is getting larger, not smaller."

Without a strategy to allay Pakistan's fears, U.S. officials and experts warned, there's little point in sending more U.S. and NATO troops to Afghanistan as Bush, Democratic candidate Barak Obama and his GOP rival, John McCain, all advocate.

Pakistan vehemently denies backing the Taliban and other insurgents, pointing out that it's lost hundreds of troops in U.S.-funded counter-insurgency offensives.

But many Afghan and U.S. officials scoff at Pakistan's denials, charging that the Taliban leadership operates undisturbed in Quetta and nearby tribal areas with ISI support, guidance, money and weapons.

Bush, anxious to maintain Pakistani support in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other al Qaida leaders, apparently believed that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, the former Army chief, would rein in the ISI.

But that hope has proved to be misplaced. Truces forged by the ISI and the Pakistani army freed Taliban and other fighters to fight in Afghanistan, where the worst violence since the 2001 U.S. intervention is claiming higher U.S. casualties than in Iraq for the first time.

On Friday, five more NATO troops were reported killed in eastern Afghanistan, a sector where U.S. troops are stationed.

Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CIA Deputy Director Stephen R. Kappes went to Pakistan to confront Prime Minister Gilani, Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani and ISI Director Lt. Gen. Naveed Taj with the intelligence linking ISI officers to the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan.

The Americans also documented other support that ISI officers have been giving the Taliban and other militant groups, including advance warnings of U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal region, said the State Department official and senior NATO defense official.

"There is good evidence that elements of the ISI have re-engaged with the Taliban," said the senior NATO defense official.

Gilani and his delegation heard similar complaints in Washington, according to American and Pakistani officials. Pakistan Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told a television interviewer that Bush asked during a White House meeting, "Who is in control of ISI?"

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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