Pakistan's spy chief: U.S. continually lets us down

McClatchy NewspapersMay 13, 2011 

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's spy chief lashed out at the United States on Friday as letting his country down "at every difficult moment in our history" and offered to resign, in the latest fallout from the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha's offer — made in a closed-door session of parliament and relayed to McClatchy by a lawmaker — appeared to be an effort by Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency to absorb the strong criticism it's received from opposition lawmakers over its reported failure to detect bin Laden's presence in a garrison town 35 miles from Islamabad, the capital.

The criticism of Pasha and his Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate has been highly unusual in a country where the military is dominant and feared by politicians. Parliament wasn't expected to accept Pasha's resignation, however.

Hours earlier, in a brutal reminder that Pakistan remains at war with al Qaida's local affiliates despite bin Laden's death, a suicide bombing in the country's northwest killed at least 80 people at a training academy for paramilitary cadets. The Pakistani Taliban declared that the attack — the first by militants since bin Laden's death May 2 — was revenge for the al Qaida leader's killing, though many experts doubted that claim.

Relations between Islamabad and Washington have sunk to the lowest point in decades, with Pakistan accusing the U.S. of illegally invading its airspace to carry out the bin Laden raid. The tensions have called into question the future of some $2 billion in U.S. assistance to Pakistan's military and another $1.5 billion pledged for civilian projects.

At home, the Pakistani military and the ISI in particular have faced unprecedented criticism from the news media and some opposition politicians, although the government has resolutely backed the military.

To answer its critics, the military briefed parliamentarians Friday. Lawmakers from the biggest opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, reportedly banged their desks and shouted, “Shame, shame,” during Pasha’s address.

Pasha, who's worked closely with U.S. officials, tried to deflect the criticism by suggesting that “we must put our shoulders together to bring a new policy on the U.S.," according to a lawmaker who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the session was intended to be closed to the news media.

Pasha said he was willing to resign if parliament wanted him to, the lawmaker said. But the offer seemed to be more rhetorical than genuine; Pasha reportedly offered his resignation to the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, shortly after the bin Laden operation.

“At every difficult moment in our history, the U.S. has let us down,” Pasha said Friday. “This fear that we can’t live without the U.S. is wrong.”

Pasha told lawmakers that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had claimed repeatedly that Pakistan was shielding bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, but “whenever we asked for intelligence sharing and information so Pakistan could cooperate, it was never given."

According to Firdous Awan, the information minister, Pasha said he was "ready to face the consequences" if the ISI were found guilty of negligence, but the spy chief added that civilian institutions, including the provincial government and police, should share blame.

Friday's bombing illustrated the violent backlash that Pakistan now faces from al Qaida’s local affiliates, especially the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan group, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

Around 6 a.m. local time, twin suicide attackers riding motorcycles struck the Frontier Constabulary training academy in Shabqadar, a town on the edge of the tribal area, said Akram Hoti, the head of the constabulary. The first attacker detonated his explosives at the gate of the academy, and the second blast struck a few minutes later, after people came to the aid of those hit by the first explosion.

Of the dead, 65 were recruits. Some 120 people were wounded. Body parts and pieces of uniforms, along with shredded vehicles, littered the area.

Witnesses said the road wasn't closed off while the cadets were leaving the academy to board 12 minibuses to return to their hometowns, seemingly typical of the sloppy security that characterizes Pakistani police and paramilitary installations.

“You give them (cadets) security when they are inside, not on the road when they are going home,” Hoti said in defense of his position.

The constabulary is a special force that guards the edge of Pakistan's militant-infested tribal areas. It's distinct from the Frontier Corps, which operates in the tribal areas.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, who are closely allied to al Qaida, called reporters to say that the bombing was the “first revenge for the martyrdom” of bin Laden.

However, many experts think that the link to bin Laden's death was opportunistic and the bombing probably was planned long before that, motivated instead by the ongoing Pakistani military operation against Taliban militants in the Mohmand part of the tribal area. Shabqadar sits just on the edge of that area.

“I don’t give the bin Laden justification much credence. This was retaliation for military operations in Mohmand,” said Rustam Shah, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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