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Spies challenge Pakistan government

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Indian soldiers on the Loc
Relations between India and Pakistan have been under stress recently

After four months in the saddle, Pakistan's new civilian government still gives the impression of having mounted a wild horse.

On several occasions in recent weeks it has embarrassed itself by issuing important orders and statements it has had to retract within hours.

And critics say it has displayed little skill in managing either food inflation, virtual anarchy in the natural gas market or the country's ever worsening power crisis.

Meanwhile, the ruling alliance that was formed after the February elections appears to have degenerated into an unsavoury union of strange bedfellows.

But there are some sectors, traditionally handled by the army, where life goes on as usual.

The military statistics released by the Pentagon late last month suggest an almost 40% increase in attacks by Taleban militants in eastern Afghanistan.

Not in control

Nato forces believe this is due to increased infiltration by militants from sanctuaries in the adjacent Pakistani tribal region.

On the eastern front, the peace process with India seems to be coming under stress following recent border clashes between Indian and Pakistani troops across the Line of Control (LoC) that divides the disputed Kashmir region.

The response of Pakistan's pro-establishment analysts is - the militants are not in our control, and the Indians are encircling us both from their spy stations in Afghanistan and from across the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Prime Minister Gilani with President Bush on 28 July 2008
Mr Gilani put up a brave face during his visit to the US

But observers in India and Afghanistan believe that while the new Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government struggles to find its feet, the country's top intelligence outfit, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is resurrecting the Indian threat as a means to divert attention from its "strategic assets" - Islamic militants - in the region.

The Pakistani government, led by the reputedly anti-establishment PPP, appears to be in two minds on the issue.

During his visit to the United States this week, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani put on a brave face amid allegations that the ISI was tipping off militants about the moves of coalition troops in Afghanistan.

"Actually, ISI is a great institution," he told CBS in an interview. "As far as this is concerned [that] some of them... are sympathetic to the militants, this is not believable."

But just days before this statement, Mr Gilani himself had issued an order putting the ISI under the Interior Ministry, a step clearly intended to bring the service under more direct civilian control.

Eyebrows were raised when he had to rescind that order within six hours, presumably after a shocked military ratcheted up the pressure on his government.

Directly accused

Apparently, the PPP was forced to back down from a position it had initially considered justified in view of the storm raised in the aftermath of the 7 July suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai directly blamed the ISI for the attack.

Soon afterwards, the Indian national security adviser, MK Narayanan, said his government had "a fair amount of intelligence" suggesting that the ISI had been involved in the attack.

Rescue and security forces at the scene of the Indian embassy blast in Kabul
President Karzai has blamed the Indian embassy attack on ISI

On Wednesday, Pakistan's Defence Minister, Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, publicly admitted that US President George Bush had shared with Mr Gilani his annoyance that some ISI elements were leaking to militants intelligence the US had shared with Pakistan.

A day later, the New York Times quoted American officials saying they had intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the Kabul bombing.

Meanwhile, the Indians accuse Pakistan of stepping up the pressure on the LoC to facilitate infiltration of militants into Indian-administered Kashmir.

Pakistan denies all these charges.

But there are credible reports of renewed militant presence in some areas on the Pakistani side of the LoC since April, soon after Mr Gilani was sworn in as prime minister.

Clear choice

Last month, several dozen women in the town of Athmuqam in the Neelum valley marched to an army post and told officers there that the militants had renewed their activities in the area and local people feared that the ceasefire, in force since November 2003, would break down.

"All we want is peace, we don't want to spend the rest of our lives living in bunkers like we did before the ceasefire," one of the marchers, Sarwar Jan, told the BBC Urdu service.

Many in Kashmir and north-western Pakistan believe this to be a dangerous game which a popular political force like the PPP must guard against.

The party has a clear choice.

It can own up to the army's traditional perception of the "Indian threat" and settle down for a secondary role in the government.

Or, it can order an entirely fresh assessment of whether India poses a real and immediate military threat to Pakistan at all.

The first choice is likely to make life easy but inglorious for the PPP, whereas the second will require it to first learn to tame the horse it has mounted.


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