Pakistani spies long linked to militants

Agency gave backing to Taliban, Kashmir fighters, mujahedeen

War On Terrorism

November 25, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Last winter, members of a militant Islamic group known as Jaish-e-Mohammed, or "Mohammed's Army," hijacked a bus in the Pakistani city of Bahawalpur after the driver refused their demand that he turn off all music in the bus.

Local police arrested some members of the group and seized a cache of guns, grenades and other weapons. According to a defense analyst who interviewed the police, the weapons carried permits issued by Inter-Services Intelligence, known as ISI, Pakistan's shadowy spy agency.

The connection between ISI and the group, which is fighting Indian rule in the disputed region of Kashmir, is no surprise. The United States may now consider Pakistan a front-line ally in the war against terrorism, but the ISI has been arming Muslim militants for years.

During the 1980s, the ISI worked with the CIA to funnel weapons to the Afghan mujahedeen, or "soldiers of god," in the war against the Soviet Union. Until the attacks of Sept. 11, the ISI had served as the benefactor of the Taliban, providing intelligence, strategic support and access to arms.

Since its founding in 1948, the ISI has grown into a giant intelligence and covert operations network with an estimated 10,000 employees - an "invisible government," some say - that wields considerable influence over Pakistani foreign policy and sometimes meddles in domestic politics.

The agency counts among its major successes the theft of overseas technology critical to Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons. It also stands accused of spending tens of millions of dollars to rig the country's 1990 elections.

Capable operation

Detractors blame the ISI for political instability in Afghanistan and Kashmir, over which Pakistan and India have fought two wars. Other observers say the agency's reach and exploits are exaggerated. Even critics, though, regard the ISI as one of the more capable operations of its kind in Asia.

"ISI is quite an effective intelligence agency," said B. Raman, who served from 1968 to 1994 as an analyst with the Research and Analysis Wing, India's equivalent of the CIA. "I always found they are good in the collection of intelligence and procurement of technology."

But, he added, "they invariably go wrong in assessment and judgment."

Maj. Gen. Sir Walter Caw- thorne, a British officer who served as Pakistan's deputy chief of army, established the ISI to gather foreign intelligence after major mistakes during the first Indo-Pakistani war, in 1947-1948.

Over the years, the ISI's portfolio expanded to include domestic spying and support for militants in India and Afghanistan. As early as the 1950s, the agency began aiding insurgents in northeast India, according to Raman. When a nationalist revolt occurred in Pakistan's southern province of Baluchistan in the early 1970s, the ISI spied on local police suspected of disloyalty.

Along the way, the agency committed some blunders. During Pakistan's 1965 war with India, the ISI misread local support and launched an ill-fated operation that called for thousands of forces in civilian clothes to infiltrate Indian-controlled Kashmir and foment an uprising. During the war, the ISI also lost track of an Indian armored division headed toward Lahore.

Training for mujahedeen

The spy agency came into its own in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The ISI trained tens of thousands of mujahedeen and distributed hundreds of thousands of tons of arms and ammunition provided by the CIA.

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the ISI took advantage of existing training camps and encouraged Islamic militants to join an uprising against Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir, analysts say. Since then, more than 30,000 people have been killed or maimed or have disappeared in the struggle.

When the United States considered naming Pakistan a terrorist state in the early 1990s, training camps were moved to Afghanistan and old Cold War ties between Washington and Islamabad prevailed.

"The United States should have put Pakistan on the list of state sponsors of terrorists 10 years ago, and we are now living to rue that day," said Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA official who served in the U.S. State Department's office of counter-terrorism from 1989 to 1993.

Although the ISI is technically answerable to Pakistan's prime minister, the army runs the agency. In the case of Afghan policy, the ISI bypassed Pakistan's Foreign Office and embraced the Taliban when they emerged in 1994 during the Afghan civil war.

Two years later, the Taliban took Kabul, and Pakistan finally appeared to have a friendly, secure regime on its western border. Good relations with the Taliban, and by extension, Osama bin Laden, provided access to camps for training fighters destined for Kashmir. Though controversial, the ISI's pro-Taliban policy was widely considered to be a success.

Cost of aid to militants

Pakistanis, though, paid a heavy price.

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