Monday, October 12, 2009

Despite growing success targeting militants in Pakistan’s northwest, the U.S. is refusing to share intelligence with Pakistan about al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders thought to be hiding in the southwest province of Baluchistan, three senior Pakistani officials say.

The officials, two of whom spoke to The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive topic, suggested that some of the blame for the long failure to capture Osama bin Laden, former Afghan leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and other members of what is known as the Quetta shura or council lies with the United States.

The “CIA has not shared any actionable intelligence with the Pakistan government on al Qaeda [in Baluchistan] since 2006 and 2007,” a Pakistani defense official said.

The Pakistanis are pushing for more intelligence sharing after a string of terrorist attacks including a weekend strike on Pakistan’s equivalent of the Pentagon, which led to a 22-hour hostage standoff that ended with at least 19 deaths.

A suicide car bomb on Friday killed more than 50 civilians at a crowded market in Peshawar, and an attack on a U.N. office a week ago killed five aid workers.

The Pakistani defense official said that “dated intelligence delivered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Pakistan months ago” that al Qaeda leaders and the Taliban leadership council run by Mullah Omar are in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, is too “flimsy to act on.”

“Now the U.S. intelligence says that [al Qaeda] is holed up in Quetta,” the official said. “Has any U.S. intelligence agency given us any actionable intelligence with Pakistan? No. This is only talk.”

There have been concerns that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency still contains sympathizers with the Afghan Taliban, which the ISI helped create in the 1990s during an Afghan civil war.

In a recent assessment of the Afghanistan war that was leaked to the press, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal noted reports that ties remain between the ISI and the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan denies this.

Asked about the situation in Quetta, Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters and editors at The Times last week that the U.S. must trust Pakistan for the fight against terrorism to succeed.

“If you are working for a common objective, the more you share real-time intelligence, the more effective your operations will be,” he said.

“We consider you to be [a] friend and we want to be friends,” Mr. Qureshi said. “But we want to be equal friends. We want to be friends with a common objective. You’ve got to trust us; only then will we trust you.”

Later, he told the Council on Foreign Relations, “We have no liking for the Quetta shura and what it stands for. … Collectively we can do a better job. … We will have to build a relationship of trust and confidence. If you keep doubting our intentions and we keep doubting your intentions, then where is this partnership going?”

A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said the U.S. takes “exception to the notion that information on the Quetta shura hasn’t been shared with the government of Pakistan.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work, added that “on matters related to terrorism, there is regular information sharing with the Pakistanis at all levels of their government.”

Pakistani officials acknowledge, however, that shared U.S. intelligence on al Qaeda may have leaked by what they term “rogue agents” in 2006 and 2007, when a target of a U.S. drone attack escaped just before the planned strike.

“Still, it was only a hunch on the part of the U.S. that the leak came from the ISI,” the Pakistani defense official said. “Even if the leak came from the ISI, things have improved. We have told the CIA and the Defense Department to give the information to only our two most prominent officials - no one else. If it leaks, then they’ll know who leaked it. It does no good to leave your ally in the dark. If you think by sharing, that there would be a tip-off, then share with the top of us.”

The Pakistani defense official said his country has military and intelligence capabilities in Quetta that could target terrorists with U.S. help.

Over the past year, U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in a different region - the tribal belt in Pakistan’s northwest - has led to the killings of 13 senior militants in U.S. drone attacks. The latest victim, in September, was Najmiddin Jalolov, alias Yahov, 37, leader of an Uzbek militant group, the Islamic Jihad Union, closely associated with al Qaeda. The group had attempted several attacks in Germany and Uzbekistan.

A Pakistani official said Jalolov was killed in North Waziristan.

Although the drone attacks have been increasingly successful, U.S. officials say, Pakistani militants whose groups were supported by the ISI in the past are helping al Qaeda recruit new operatives. Among these groups are Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Laskhar-e-Jhangvi and the Islamic Jihad Movement.

The ISI backed these groups to gain leverage in Pakistan’s efforts to wrest Kashmir away from India. Recent attacks on India proper, including an attack in Mumbai last year that killed more than 170 people, also have been blamed on the groups.

A U.S. defense official said that the ISI may “have lost enormous control over” these organizations. The official asked not to be named because he was discussing intelligence matters.

While targeting leaders of Pakistan’s own Taliban movement, the ISI is thought to retain links with the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against any U.S. withdrawal from that country and the rise of Indian influence there. Pakistan also wants to counter a separatist movement in Baluchistan.

“To a certain extent, they play both sides,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in May, speaking of the Pakistani relationship with the Afghan militants.

Mr. Qureshi said Pakistan intended to devote more resources to Baluchistan and that policies toward Islamic militants had changed with the return of democratic government last year and the election of a party whose leader, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated.

He told the Council on Foreign Relations that “if we feel there is an element in Quetta that is destabilizing Pakistan, we will not spare that element. … Because we want to clear our territory of all kind of mischief. These people have caused us more harm than anybody else.”

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