Pakistan dropping elite intelligence units

Groups had long stoked radical Islamic passions

March 07, 2002|By BOSTON GLOBE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan's powerful military intelligence service is phasing out two elite units that for decades have stoked radical Islamic passions in South Asia, according to government sources and independent analysts.

The shakeup - one of the most significant moves to date in President Pervez Musharraf's crackdown on militant elements - has not been acknowledged publicly. But officials say the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) is disbanding its Kashmir and Afghanistan units, sending the more than 3,000 intelligence officers in them back to infantry and other mainstream military branches.

"It's a sea change in Pakistan's policy in the region," said Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the department of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

"For years, we've been playing with fire, encouraging radical Muslims" in Afghanistan and Kashmir, he said. "The massive reorganization that appears under way at ISI is a healthy sign that Musharraf truly intends to shape Pakistan into a modern, progressive Muslim state. It signals that Pakistan is no longer interested in using [its] territory to launch `jihads' next door."

The ISI's Afghan unit played a major role in helping the Taliban movement shoot its way to power in Afghanistan in 1996 and, until the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the U.S., was the fundamentalist Islamic regime's closest ally in the outside world.

By some accounts, operatives for the Pakistani spy agency fought beside the Taliban while American-supported Northern Alliance rebels - who now govern in Kabul - closed on the capital in November.

Also, to the fury of neighboring India, the Kashmir unit of the ISI has armed, trained and provided sanctuary to Muslim insurgents in Kashmir, during a guerrilla conflict that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians in the past decade.

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