Pakistan feels the heat in Washington
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - The issue of rogue elements within Pakistan's Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI) was expected to top the agenda in the meeting between
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and US President George W Bush in
Washington on Monday.
But any hopes that Pakistan's political leadership will clip the wings of the
premier agency involved in regional counter-intelligence operations on three
fronts - Afghanistan, Iran and India - are bound to be dashed.
This is illustrated by the decision on Saturday by the newly elected government
in Islamabad to place the ISI and the Intelligence Bureau under the control of
the civilian Ministry of
Interior, removing them from under the umbrella of the military. But just 24
hours later, under intense pressure from military headquarters in Rawalpindi,
the government reversed the decision, saying it was a "misunderstanding".
Asif Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, the leading party in
the ruling coalition, had argued in favor of the transfer, saying it would mean
that countries would no longer be able to say that Pakistan's intelligence
agencies were beyond government control.
A senior strategic analyst associated with a Pakistani strategic think-tank
told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity that the security agencies
were concerned over the foreign links of some cabinet members, prominent among
them being Rahman Malik, the advisor to the Ministry of Interior.
In an article on Gilani's visit on Sunday, the Washington Post noted that the
US administration's patience with Pakistan's inability to end cross-border
infiltration into Afghanistan was running out. The newspaper said the premier
and his aides "should expect a testy reception on both ends of Pennsylvania
Avenue", meaning the White House and the US Congress. "I'm not sure they're
ready for what they're walking into," a senior administration official told the
A senior Pakistani security official told Asia Times Online, "Washington
appreciates that intelligence operations are not a clean business. Sometimes
there is a need to engage the miscreants and terrorists, and in the course
intelligence agencies do turn a blind eye to their activities and give them
rope, but ultimately they are taken to task.
"The same game happened with commander Nek Mohammad  of South Waziristan and
with Abdullah Mehsud . There was a time when the security agencies engaged
them, and of course they were active in that period, but then at a suitable
time they were eliminated. This is the standard modus operandi which all
professional intelligence services use," the security official said.
Pakistani security officials had said the decision on the ISI had aimed to
remove it from the "war on terror" business and empower another institution,
the Frontier Corps, with a new intelligence wing established to coordinate
directly with the American security apparatus.
Under a plan the US government has already devised, about 100 US officials
would train Frontier Corps officials and supervise their functions and the
corps intelligence in each corps headquarters would look after
Apart from intelligence matters, one of the purposes of trying to place the ISI
under the control of the Ministry of Interior was to get control of its massive
financial resources and covert business operations.
"The military would never tolerate any move which would compromise its position
on security issues, especially when the country faces threats from all over the
region. This episode started by the Pakistan People's Party government is the
beginning of a rift between the establishment and the government," commented
Welcome to Washington
When Gilani begins his first official visit to the United States at the White
House on Monday, the welcome is likely to be a little more heated than he might
wish, reports Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service.
Pakistan, which is beset by both a thriving Taliban insurgency and its worst
inflation in about 30 years, has become a serious source of frustration and
anxiety to top US policymakers who have become increasingly direct in blaming
Islamabad for the deteriorating situation in neighboring Afghanistan.
"No question ... that some extremists are coming out of parts of Pakistan into
Afghanistan," Gilani's White House host, Bush, told reporters this month after
Afghan President Hamid Karzai charged that Islamabad's intelligence agency was
aiding the insurgency.
"That's troubling to us, troubling to Afghanistan, and it should be troubling
to Pakistan," he noted, adding that Washington would investigate Karzai's
Top US military officials, including both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and the head of North Atlantic Treaty
Organization forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, have also publicly
expressed growing frustration with Pakistan. According to a London Times
report, Mullen reportedly warned privately during a visit to Islamabad this
month that Washington would take unilateral military action if Pakistan did not
move more aggressively to stanch the flow of fighters across the border into
Nor is it just the incumbent policymakers who are complaining. Both major
presidential candidates, Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Republican Senator
John McCain, have echoed Bush's complaints as concern about Afghanistan has
gained prominence in the election campaign.
In a major policy address on the eve of his current trip to Afghanistan and
other overseas destinations, Obama took an even more hawkish position than
those of both the administration and McCain, reiterating a controversial threat
he first made early this year that Washington would not "tolerate a terrorist
sanctuary" inside Pakistan.
"We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take
out high-level terrorist targets if we have them in our sights," he declared,
suggesting that such targets might include indigenous Pakistani Taliban
leaders, such as Baitullah Mehsud, as well as al-Qaeda chiefs who are believed
to be sheltered by their Taliban hosts in the Federally Administered Tribal
Such threats and complaints have put Gilani in an extremely difficult position.
His government, which was already weakened by the withdrawal of former premier
Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (N) from the ruling coalition two months
ago, now faces a growing economic crisis due to skyrocketing food and fuel
prices and shortages in water and electricity that have spurred protests and
even outbreaks of violence in some of Pakistan's biggest urban areas.
Despite a brief offensive late last month by the paramilitary Frontiers Corps
and police, the Pakistani Taliban forces appear to have tightened their siege
of Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). This growing
influence and control of the Pakistani Taliban and its allies both within FATA
and beyond has contributed to the sense in Washington that the new government
has no strategy for dealing with the insurgency.
"The Taliban is moving forward in a very calculated way," Pervez Hoodbhoy, a
prominent Pakistani commentator, told an audience at the Middle East Institute
in Washington this month.
He warned that the insurgency's ambitions to replace secular and tribal law
with sharia, or Islamic law, extended far beyond the Pashtun-dominated regions
of the country. Although much of Pakistan's "establishment is in denial", he
said the Taliban's latest moves should be seen as a "stepping stone to the rest
Even if his government were inclined to take on the Taliban, however, it is not
clear that Gilani could get the support or cooperation of the powerful
Pakistani military which, under General Ashfaz Kiani as with his predecessors,
has reportedly shown little interest in pursuing the kind of aggressive
counter-insurgency strategy that Washington believes is necessary.
US officials have grown increasingly disenchanted with Kiani, whose replacement
of President Pervez Musharraf last autumn had fueled hopes that he could
persuade the army that it faced a greater threat from the Taliban and its
al-Qaeda allies than from India.
But, to date, Kiani has followed in Musharraf's footsteps by quietly
negotiating ceasefires with the militants while building up the military's
"It has no intention of fighting a US proxy war in the tribal territories,"
according to retired Brigadier F B Ali. "It also knows that the US will
continue to pay it large subsidies to ensure the safeguarding of the US supply
lines to Afghanistan [and the country's nuclear weapons]."
Indeed, Washington's willingness to continue paying such subsidies was very
much in evidence last week when the New York Times reported that the Bush
administration wanted to use US$227 million of a $300 million military aid
package approved by Congress this year to help the Pakistani military buy
equipment, such as helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft, useful for
counter-insurgency, to upgrade some of its F-16 fighter jets instead.
While the State Department said the F-16s could be used to combat terrorism,
some analysts dismissed that notion, suggesting that, by approving such a
shift, Washington was effectively undermining its efforts to persuade the
military that counter-insurgency should be its top priority.
For his part, Gilani is expected to appeal for more economic assistance, which
his government has long argued is critical to defeating or containing the
insurgents in any event. Washington has provided some $10 billion in aid to
Pakistan since 2002, but almost all of it has been military assistance.
On the aid issue, he will receive a particularly a favorable reception from
Democrats, including Obama, who recently endorsed a pending proposal in
Congress to triple non-military aid for Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year, much
of it targeted at FATA. The administration has also conceded the case for more
assistance but has not yet made a specific proposal.
On the Taliban, Gilani will plead, above all, for patience and no doubt warn
against any unilateral military action by the US, for which there is a growing
clamor, particularly in the aftermath of the Taliban attack this month close to
the border in Afghanistan in which nine US soldiers were killed.