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US-Pakistan rift puts war on terror on fragile footing

AS a sign of the times in the nominally close American ally Pakistan, it could not be more telling.

First, the US CIA’s top clandestine officer in Islamabad, its station chief, was forced to flee the country virtually overnight.

Jonathan Banks was a pivotal figure in the battle against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, with direct control over the Obama administration’s Predator drone attacks on terrorist targets. But his cover was blown in a dirty tricks operation by officials of the notorious Pakistani spy agency, the ISI.

It was a cloak-and-dagger drama and a rare event. Not for many years has the CIA had to bundle its top spy out of any country, least of all one that is a crucial ally and the recipient of billions of dollars in aid.

But the abrupt departure of the CIA station chief is only part of a wider story that reflects souring relations between Washington and Islamabad. Many analysts believe the situation could have dangerous implications for the fight against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida and attempts to deal effectively with Pakistan’s role as the epicentre of global terrorism.

As Banks was leaving Islamabad the other day, a political storm was erupting in the capital over attempts by a court in New York to summon the present head of the ISI, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, his predecessor General Nadeem Taj, and several other senior ISI officials to appear before it. This is over the agency’s alleged involvement in the November 26, 2008, terrorist attack on the Indian city of Mumbai.

Summoned together with the ISI officers were officials of the al-Qa’ida-linked Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist group based in Pakistan. The allegation against all of them, including the ISI officials, is that they masterminded the attack on Mumbai, something the Pakistanis deny vehemently.

The New York action maintains the ISI officers were “purposefully engaged in the direct provision of material support or resources” for the Mumbai attack.

The summons by the New York court followed the filing of a lawsuit by the family of Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his pregnant wife, Rivka, who were among those killed in Mumbai.

But the demand for the ISI officials to appear before the New York court caused outrage in Pakistan, and yesterday Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani made it plain the government would not allow this to happen. Pakistan would strongly contest the court’s demand and “take appropriate steps to obtain dismissal of this action”, he said.

That was the public statement. Behind the scenes, it is learned, much less temperate language is being used in exchanges between Islamabad and Washington as what is clearly a crisis in the bilateral relationship is played out.

As furious as the political and military establishment is about the attempts to bring the ISI commanders to book for alleged involvement in the Mumbai attack, so, too, is Washington enraged over the way the station chief’s cover was blown. It was an act that broke all the conventions of the world of espionage.

The circumstances surrounding blowing Banks’s cover goes to the heart of the way the Obama administration has stepped up Predator drone attacks as its main weapon against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida in Pakistan, with more than 100 strikes last year, more than twice those in 2009.

Effective though the drone attacks are, they are detested by most Pakistanis, especially in tribal areas, for the casualties they cause among civilians. They are seen as a powerful recruiting tool for the jihadist cause and the reason for the widespread anti-Americanism in Pakistan.

The government in Islamabad denounces the drones in public but supports them behind the scenes.

Recently a journalist, Karim Khan, who lives in the tribal areas, filed a complaint with Pakistani police after his brother and son were killed in a drone attack in North Waziristan, a militant stronghold. He named Banks as the controller of the drone attacks, said he was directly responsible for the death of his family members, demanded that he be charged with murder and executed, and also sought some $US500,000 in compensation.

Also named in the action were CIA director Leon Panetta and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. But it was Banks, holed up in the US embassy in Islamabad, who was the immediate target. As the action started feeding through the Pakistani judicial system, US officials were aghast that the CIA station chief had been so publicly identified.

The New York Times, which broke the story about Banks fleeing Pakistan, quoted US officials as saying they suspected ISI operatives had a hand in revealing his name, possibly in retaliation for the New York lawsuit.

This was denied by the ISI, which dismissed the charges as “nothing but conjecture”.

US officials said only that the CIA chief had been withdrawn after receiving death threats after he was publicly identified.

Given the rarity of the CIA action in putting Banks on the next plane out (it hasn’t had to do this anywhere in the world for a decade or more) and ongoing suspicions about the ISI’s loyalties, there is little doubt that powers within the Pakistani spy establishment wanted him out and got their way.

Suspicions about the ISI remain, despite the fact that Pakistan now has a nominally civilian government. The ISI is still believed to have close ties to the Taliban-and-al-Qa’ida-linked Haqqani network led by Osama bin Laden associate Jalaluddin Haqqani that forms the main jihadist force in North Waziristan.

As well, US officials are believed to be convinced ISI officials helped to plan the devastating 2008 bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul carried out by the Haqqani network.

Shortly after civilian government was restored to Pakistan in 2008, it tried to impose control over the ISI, which is run by the powerful military establishment.

An announcement was made that the spy agency would come under the management of the government’s civilian security chief, Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister. But that was withdrawn after the military objected.

Now, it seems the mistrust between the CIA and ISI — two vital elements in the war against terrorism in Pakistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden — has reached a new pitch following the outing of the CIA station chief and the New York court’s summons to Pasha, the ISI boss.

Tensions between the two spy agencies are described as acute. And that could have grave consequences for the battle against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida.

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