NEW YORKWASHINGTON – The Bush administration suspects rogue elements in Pakistan's spy agency are helping militants stage attacks from the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, a U.S. counterterrorism official said Wednesday.
Top CIA and U.S. military officials recently traveled to the country to press their concerns about the apparent ties with Pakistani officials.
Pakistan Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied accusations of any official Pakistan complicity with terrorist groups, calling them "unfounded and baseless," but he confirmed to The Associated Press that CIA Deputy Director Steven R. Kappes and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met earlier this month with Pakistani generals, including Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief. The meeting, first reported by The New York Times, occurred July 12.
That high-level meeting comes five months after Pakistan elected a new civilian government to replace Gen. Pervez Musharref, a U.S. ally who seized power in 1999. It also comes as a top Pakistani official publicly rejected giving the U.S. military authority to enter the tribal regions to attack terror networks itself, and shortly after a devastating attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul that Afghan and Indian officials claimed was done with the help of Pakistan's intelligence service.
The United States has grown increasingly frustrated as al-Qaida, the Taliban and other militants thrive in Pakistan's remote areas and in neighboring Afghanistan, and has asked that U.S. troops be allowed to strike at terror networks. The new regime says it prefers to negotiate a new peace agreement with militant groups in the relatively ungoverned region, which is about the size of Maryland.
U.S. officials have long suspected members of Pakistan's intelligence service support or turn a blind eye to tribal warlords who have built extensive criminal networks in the semiautonomous western border area. They traffic in narcotics, weapons and consumer goods, launch attacks on Pakistani and Afghan targets, and they support terrorist groups like al-Qaida.
The U.S. counterterrorism official said some Pakistani intelligence officers' support for the Jalaluddin Haqqani network — associated with both the Taliban and al-Qaida — is of particular and long-standing concern. He emphasized, however, that it has not been determined that Pakistan officially supports those groups or provides direct succor to al-Qaida.
"The Pakistani government and the (intelligence service) are not monolithic," the official said, suggesting rogue elements within the agencies are helping militants. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information relating to a critical ally.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a member of the House Intelligence Committee who travels frequently to Pakistan, said the Kappes-Mullen meeting is unlikely to have an effect on the Pakistani government.
Rogers said with every change in U.S. military, civilian, and intelligence leadership these high-level meetings occur and the results are always the same: the terrorist threat from the tribal area remains unchanged.
"We just have never pushed the envelope with these people as much as we needed to and could have," he said.
The counterterrorism official said there is a concern that if Pakistan puts too much pressure on the militants or allegedly rogue officers, the result could be destabilizing to the government itself.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Pakistan realizes that confronting terrorists along the Pakistani-Afghan border is "a common fight and a common threat." He said that "every indication" shows that the new Pakistani government "understands that and is committed to that fight. Is there a need to do more? Yeah, there's a need to do more."
Asked if the U.S. government is confident that Pakistan's government is in control of what the intelligence agency does, McCormack said, "As far as I have been told, there is not an issue there. I'm not aware of anything, any reports that the Pakistan government, the civilian government is not committed to the fight against terrorism."
Getting the Pakistani government to crack down on intelligence officers with links to tribal militants is difficult for several reasons. The tribal areas have never been fully under the control of Pakistan. Moreover, elements within the Pakistani government see utility in having strong tribal militias as a security buffer against Afghanistan, with whom the country has long-standing tensions, the counterterrorism official said.
Rogers believes the motivations also include money and family ties: intelligence officers are recruited from the tribal areas as well as the settled part of Pakistan. Tribal ties often trump national identity, and tribal criminal networks enrich themselves from smuggling and benefit from minimal government pressure.
According to Rogers, neither the Pakistani military nor the locally recruited Frontier Corps is trained, manned or equipped to assert control over the tribal area. He said it could take 15 years to achieve the needed competence and professionalism.
In the meantime, he favors direct engagement with the tribe, rather than relying on Pakistan to address the problem.
"We need to have friends in the tribal areas, not just Islamabad," Rogers said.