WASHINGTON The Bush administration is increasing pressure on Pakistan's fledgling civilian government to bring the country's spy service under civilian control, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
During meetings in Washington this week with Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, senior Bush administration officials pressed their Pakistani counterparts to assert control over Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the U.S. officials said. The pressure comes as relations between India and Pakistan deteriorate following reports of ISI involvement in the recent bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The U.S. pressure reflects heightened concerns at the State Department, Pentagon and CIA that operatives in the ISI, who have long been believed to have close ties to Pakistani militants, have become bolder and more open in their support for militant Islamist organizations.
The New York Times reported this week that U.S. intelligence agencies had said they have evidence that members of the ISI helped plan the deadly July 7 bombing of India's embassy in Kabul.
In an interview on Friday, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said that U.S. authorities have yet to show Pakistani officials specific evidence to support that conclusion.
"If any evidence were to be presented against any individual in Pakistan, or against the interest of Pakistan's neighbors, then the government would certainly act on that evidence," he said.
Haqqani hinted, however, that the civilian government would investigate any ISI officers who might be in league with militants, and laid blame on President Pervez Musharraf, who was firmly in power until elections earlier this year.
"Several outstanding problems in the relationship between the United States and Pakistan that the elected government inherited from the past are currently being resolved," Haqqani said. "These include issues of trust between our two intelligence services."
But bringing the ISI under civilian authority is easier said than done, as Pakistan's new government found out last week. On Saturday night, while Gilani was en route to Washington, his government announced that the ISI would report to the country's Interior Ministry.
One day later, after objections from inside Pakistan's security apparatus, the government issued a clarification, saying that it had been "misinterpreted" and that the decree only "re-emphasizes more coordination" between the Interior Ministry and the ISI.
The Indian foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, said Friday that his country's relationship with Pakistan had sunk to its lowest level since 2003, when the nuclear rivals stepped back from the brink of war and began peace talks.
"If you ask me to describe the state of the dialogue, it is in a place where it hasn't been in the last four years," Menon told journalists at the annual meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
"We face a situation where things have happened in the recent past which were unfortunate and which, quite frankly, have affected the future of the dialogue," he said. -->
India has not cut off the peace talks, and Indian officials have said privately that the peace effort has been strained by political problems in Pakistan and the openings they may have created for hard-line forces.
"If you have this fluid situation, you have elements within the army, within the ISI, who have the opportunity to move forward with their own agenda, with respect to Afghanistan and India," a senior Indian official said last week.
"The peace process is in limbo," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media."There is no direction. This is what has opened up the door to these elements." Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India is scheduled to meet with Gilani on Saturday in Colombo. -->
At the State Department, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte has been in charge of the administration's efforts to press Pakistan. Several officials noted that some officials in the Bush administration had begun to express a nostalgia for Musharraf, who has largely been pushed to the sidelines.
While the State Department has publicly called for democratic elections and civilian rule in Pakistan, some officials said they believed that Musharraf had more authority to bring reform to the security services.
Another Bush administration official said Pakistan's government had yet to assure the administration that it could control the ISI. "There are real questions about the organization's loyalty," the official said. "In the wake of political gridlock and a lack of a clear political direction, some elements of the ISI have started to exercise certain prerogatives."
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic rules.
But some experts said the Bush administration should be more patient in allowing the new Pakistani government to assert its authority after years of military rule in Pakistan.
"In general, this administration at its upper reaches has been cool to the elected government from the start," said Teresita Schaffer, a Pakistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They like to look at Musharraf as a factor for stability."
A senior Pakistani official sharply disputed that Musharraf had been more effective at exerting control over the ISI. "It's not disarray in the civilian government that has brought a lot of this to light," the senior official said. "It's the fact that the change of government has brought out to the open a lot that was kept secret before."
Several foreign policy experts noted that there was nothing new in the ISI's close ties to militant Islamist groups. "People tend to forget the frustrations that were there when Musharraf was in place," said Daniel Markey, a former South Asia expert at the State Department. "The civilians are a mess right now, and the government is in a state of flux. When there's flux, individuals in the ISI revert to form."