Pakistan rejects report saying nation's intelligence agency aids Afghan Taliban

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistani officials on Monday angrily dismissed a report published this weekend alleging that the nation's primary intelligence agency finances, trains and at least partially controls the Afghan Taliban insurgency.

The report, issued by the London School of Economics and based on interviews with Taliban commanders and former Taliban officials, concludes that it is official Pakistani policy to support the rebellion as a bulwark against Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan is an ally of the United States, which leads coalition forces fighting the Taliban.

Pakistan has long-standing ties to the Taliban, and some Western officials and Pakistani terrorism analysts allege that elements of the country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency continue to foment the movement. The new report asserts that links remain so deep that ISI representatives are "participants or observers" on the Taliban's leadership council, the Quetta Shura.

The ISI's role in the Afghan insurgency remains one of the biggest sources of mistrust between the United States and Pakistan, and the report could heighten those tensions. Although Pakistan's army has gone after militants who attack inside Pakistan, it has resisted U.S. pressure to attack Afghan Taliban havens on its soil, saying it is overstretched.

Pakistan has long denied that it provides support to the Afghan Taliban, although ISI officials say they still have lines of communication to some of the movement's leaders. On Monday, a military spokesman dismissed the report as a "malicious" account with little solid evidence. "If there is great turbulence on the other side, it directly affects this side of the border," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army spokesman. "Nobody would be more interested in seeing a more peaceful, more stable, more friendly Afghanistan than Pakistan itself."

According to the report, written by Harvard University fellow Matt Waldman, the ISI provides Taliban leaders with sanctuary in Pakistan's border region but maintains control over them with threats of arrest. Taliban commanders interviewed said the ISI provides ammunition and funding and supports training camps where militants learn to lay roadside bombs, among other skills.

"Pakistan appears to be playing a double-game of astonishing magnitude," the report says.

Some U.S. officials and analysts suspect Pakistan is interested in maintaining good relations with the Afghan Taliban in the belief that the group will eventually hold power in Kabul. On Monday, a senior Pakistani official suggested that supposition is true but strongly denied that the ISI supports or controls the Taliban.

"If [the Americans] decide to pack up and go, what is going to happen to Pakistan? We are going to be alone to face these people?" said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We've got enough problems on our homestead. Why should we go for people who are not our enemies?"

Many Afghan and some U.S. officials suspect the ISI has played a part in some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan. Last week, after resigning, Afghanistan's former intelligence chief told the Reuters news agency that the ISI is "part of the landscape of destruction in this country."

But U.S. officials rarely publicly state their suspicions about the ISI for fear of jeopardizing what they view as one of Washington's most strategic, but fragile, relationships. They stress that cooperation with Pakistan has improved, pointing to examples such as its arrests in February -- at times in coordination with the CIA -- of a handful of Afghan Taliban commanders, including deputy leader Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The report also accuses Pakistan of releasing senior Taliban prisoners. Earlier this year, senior U.S. intelligence officials said they had seen evidence that Pakistan had let at least two high-level Taliban operatives go at roughly the same time as Baradar's arrest.

U.S. officials said the releases reflected Pakistan's strategy of working closely with the United States on key fronts while also maintaining relationships with militant groups capable of serving Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan when U.S. forces are gone.

Among the report's most striking claims is that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met with Taliban prisoners and assured them of Pakistan's support. That assertion was greeted with skepticism by several analysts and U.S. officials, who note that Pakistan's civilian government and military establishment have mutually suspicious relations. One U.S. official said the assertion "didn't make sense, to put it mildly."

The senior Pakistani official said Zardari "doesn't deal with these people. . . . I cannot think of a more ridiculous story or a bigger fairy tale."

Staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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