- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Increasing U.S. pressure and two assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf have forced Pakistan to reform its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.

One of the terrorists killed in the Dec. 25 attempt on Gen. Musharraf had been released recently by U.S. troops in Afghanistan on the ISI’s recommendation. Diplomatic sources in Islamabad say U.S. officials, who had been urging Pakistan to reform the ISI, turned up the pressure after the failed attempt.

Under U.S. advice, the sources said, the Pakistani government decided not to allow officers to serve in the ISI for more than three years. This, it is hoped, will help reduce the influence of Muslim extremists within the agency and prevent ISI officials from developing links to the region’s political and religious groups, sources said.

Although senior Pakistani military officials privately acknowledge that they are implementing the new policy, they are not willing to say so publicly.

“This has always been the government’s policy, and ISI officers were transferred out of the agency soon after [completing] their three-year tenure,” said Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan Khan, the chief spokesman for the Pakistani military.

ISI officials come from different branches of the Pakistani military. In the past, officers could remain in the agency as long as the ISI chief allowed.

“Some of them stayed for 10 years or even more, developing ties to various violent groups. In the process, some of them got converted to the fundamentalist ideology,” says an Islamabad-based Western diplomat. “They are the ones who created the Taliban movement and were helping al Qaeda as well.”

Gen. Khan denied links between the Taliban and the ISI but acknowledged that Pakistan was one of three countries that recognized the Taliban regime. The regime fell when U.S. troops invaded Kabul in December 2001.

Although Gen. Musharraf severed Pakistan’s ties to the Taliban after the September 11 attacks, U.S. intelligence sources and news reports say some in the ISI continued to maintain links to remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda. This is one reason, critics say, that Pakistani agencies need to clean up.

“There’s a desperate need to reform and professionalize Pakistani intelligence agencies … taking away the enormous power of intimidation the agencies enjoy,” said Ahmad Rasheed, a Pakistani journalist and author.

Mr. Rasheed, who is in Washington for meetings with senior U.S. officials, said the ISI was a small intelligence agency until the early 1980s. It expanded when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

“The CIA helped convert ISI into the huge organization that it is now … with all the power it enjoys,” he said.

Mr. Rasheed said the ISI helped the Taliban and trained Muslim militants.

After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the United States quickly pulled out of South and Central Asia, allowing the ISI to expand its network with the help of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, Mr. Rasheed said.

Western intelligence analysts say that by the mid-1990s, the ISI was everywhere, dealing with Muslim militant groups in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and even China, Pakistan’s closest ally in the region.

When terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, Mahmud Ahmad, who was the ISI chief, had been visiting Washington. The Bush administration asked him to visit Afghanistan and persuade the Taliban to surrender al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Instead, Gen. Ahmad advised the Taliban not to turn over bin Laden. He argued that the Americans were only bluffing. Gen. Musharraf fired him and introduced changes intended to purge the ISI of his sympathizers.

Analysts are divided over the extent of the purge’s success.

“No efforts to purge religious elements from ISI and other branches of the Pakistani military will succeed,” said Gen. Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief. “Our soldiers are religious by nature, and they will remain so.”

Mr. Rasheed disagreed.

“There may be some religious sentiments on the lower level, but the ISI and other branches of the military are tightly controlled by the high command … and most of them want to maintain close relations with the United States,” he said.

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