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ISI has lost hold over militants it nurtured: NYT

The Times report confirms that in the 1990s, the ISI supported the militants as a proxy force to contest Indian-controlled Kashmir.

world Updated: Jan 15, 2008 23:08 IST

Pakistan's main military intelligence agency has lost control of some of the networks of militants it has nurtured since the 1980s, and is now suffering the violent backlash of that policy, former senior intelligence officials and other officials close to the agency have said.

They also admitted that the secretive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had supported militants in Kashmir, albeit at the behest of the agency's political masters, confirming what New Delhi had believed all along and repeatedly complained about to Islamabad in vain.

The disclosures about the ISI, that has a fearsome reputation for interfering in almost every aspect of Pakistani life, also confirm some of the worst fears and suspicions of US and Western military officials and diplomats, The New York Times reported on Tuesday in its lead story.

As the army has moved against them, the militants have joined hands with other extremist groups to battle Pakistani security forces and carried out a record number of suicide attacks last year, including some aimed directly at army and intelligence units as well as prominent political figures, possibly even Benazir Bhutto, the Times writes in a detailed full page report.

The growing strength of Pakistani militants, many of whom now back Al-Qaeda's global jihad, presents a grave threat to Pakistan's security as well as NATO efforts to push back the Taliban in Afghanistan, forcing US officials to consider covert operations to go after Al-Qaeda in the lawless border areas, the report says.

Other disclosures about the ISI are bound to raise fears among opposition parties of rigging of polls scheduled next month.

The Times sources acknowledge that the ISI led the effort to manipulate Pakistan's last national election in 2002, and offered to drop corruption cases against candidates who would back President Pervez Musharraf. Now, he has, however, ordered the agency to ensure that the coming elections were free and fair.

The officials also acknowledged that after Sep 11, 2001, though Musharraf publicly allied Pakistan with the Bush administration, the ISI could not rein in the militants it had nurtured for decades as a proxy force to exert pressure on India and Afghanistan.

After the agency unleashed hard-line Islamist beliefs, the officials said, it struggled to stop the ideology from spreading. Worse, dozens of ISI officers had come to sympathise with the militants' cause and had had to be expelled from the agency.

"We could not control them," said a former senior intelligence official, speaking to the Times on condition of anonymity about the militants. "We indoctrinated them and told them, 'You will go to heaven.' You cannot turn it around so suddenly."

The Times report confirms that in the 1990s, the ISI supported the militants as a proxy force to contest Indian-controlled Kashmir and to gain a controlling influence in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The US too supported the militants, in the 1980s, directing billions of dollars to Islamic fighters battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan through the ISI, vastly increasing the agency's size and power.

Publicly, Musharraf has vehemently defended the conduct of the ISI, an agency that, according to American officials, was under his firm control for the last eight years while he served as both president and army chief.

Musharraf has also dismissed criticism of the ISI's relationship with the militants. He cited the deaths of 1,000 Pakistani soldiers and police officers in battles with the militants in recent years - as well as several assassination attempts against himself - as proof of the seriousness of Pakistan's counter-terrorism effort.

But some former US intelligence officials have argued that Musharraf and the ISI never fully jettisoned their militant prot?s, and instead carried on a "double-game".

They say Musharraf cooperated with US intelligence agencies to track down foreign Al-Qaeda members while holding Taliban commanders and Kashmiri militants in reserve. In order to undercut major opposition parties, he wooed religious conservatives, according to analysts. And instead of carrying out a crackdown, took half-measures, the Times reports.