Pakistan ISI: Friend or Foe?

Pakistan flag
Islamabad, May 12: The twin towers in New York were still smoldering in September 2001 when Pakistan spy chief Gen Mahmood Ahmed went to Afghanistan with the task of urging the Taliban to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The message he actually gave Mullah Mohammed Omar was quite different: "Protect Osama. Hide him. We will help you," according to former Taliban deputy interior minister Mullah Mohammed Khaksar. His version has been confirmed by US officials and former Pakistani spies.

A decade later, the US has raised a stinging question: Did Pakistan's premier spy agency, the ISI, know that bin Laden had been living for at least five years near a military garrison in Abbottabad? The answer is quite likely yes, according to ex-ISI agents, military men and analysts, but the issue is really who knew and how close they might have been to the top.

A week after Navy SEALS killed bin Laden, the US has demanded the names of ISI operatives from Pakistan to investigate what dealings they may have had with al-Qaeda.

An ISI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no formal inquiry was being held, and that it was "no one''s concern" whether Pakistan investigated how bin Laden had lived under the nose of the military without detection.

At the heart of the matter is the long, complicated relationship between the ISI and various militant groups.

The ISI, which is part of Pakistan's military, has a history of spawning and funding jihadi groups to fight India, in particular for the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Pakistan's military relies heavily on these groups in the absence of the conventional might to take on India, said defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqua.

For example, Pakistan has hosted training camps for militants and has sent them across the border into India, according to US intelligence reports.

"How else do you fight?" Siddiqua asked.

"It is the Pakistan version of private security guards." However, some of these jihadi groups have links to al-Qaeda and share with it a militant Islamic philosophy.

Harakat-ul-jihad-Islam, the leader of the Illyas Kashmiri group against India, is also believed by Western intelligence to be al-Qaida''s operational chief in Pakistan.

And Lashkar e-Taiba, which the US calls a terrorist group, is thought to have close funding and operational ties to al-Qaeda. 


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