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    South Asia
     Jul 29, 2008
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 Post.

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 [1] of South Waziristan and with Abdullah Mehsud [2]. 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 counter-intelligence issues.

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 one observer.

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 allegations.

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 Afghanistan.

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 Areas (FATA).

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 of Pakistan".

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 conventional forces.

"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.

1. Symbol of pro-Taliban resistance silenced Asia Times Online, March 15, 2005. 2. The legacy of Nek Mohammed Asia Times Online, July 20, 2004.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Additional reporting by Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service.)

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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