Pakistan faces calls to curb its pro-Islamist intelligence service

The ISI had links with the group blamed for carrying out the Mumbai attacks, reports Kim Sengupta

Tuesday 02 December 2008 01:00 GMT

As tension between Delhi and Islamabad mounts following the Mumbai massacre, the shadowy activities of Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, has come under renewed critical spotlight.

Pakistan is expected to face huge pressure from the US and the West to curb the organisation which has sponsored an array of Islamist terrorists, including Lashkar-e-Toiba, the group being blamed for the attacks which led to around 180 deaths.

However, Pakistan's recently elected civilian government has very limited room for manoeuvre. Many of those who are ministers now have had to deal with the ISI in the past to safeguard their careers, and the intelligence service knows where the bodies are buried in the violent and murky political history of the country. The agency also has a vast coffer, with revenues coming from an array of sources including a vast official budget and proceeds from the opium trade, and is unlikely to surrender its political and economic clout without a fight.

American and British commanders in Afghanistan and President Hamid Karzai's administration have repeatedly claimed that the ISI had been playing a key role in training and supplying arms to Taliban fighters carrying out cross-border attacks from Pakistan. Nato's commander in the country, the US general David McKiernan, charged that there was " a level of ISI complicity" between the organisation and the insurgents.

Last week the Pakistani government announced that it had taken major steps towards reforming the ISI by shutting down its political unit. The move aims to halt the organisation's domestic spying operations on politicians. In theory this should help protect public figures such as President Asif Ali Zardari who has a long shadow of corruption hanging over him.

Analysts point out that the move would have little practical effect. The staff from the political unit have not been dismissed but absorbed within the organisation and would carry on their work under another guise. Even if the ban worked, it would not, it is claimed, curtail the organisation's close links with Islamist extremists.

The Pakistani government and military insist that Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who took over as the ISI's head, with its staff of 10,400 and tens of thousands of informers, will oversee changes which will make it more accountable. There is, however, little sign of this at the moment.

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