WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. defense officials are concerned some elements of Pakistan’s spy agency may be interacting improperly with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, a Pentagon spokesman said on Thursday.
Colonel David Lapan said Pakistani Army General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, himself a former spy chief, was aware of U.S. concerns about the Inter-Services Intelligence agency and shared some of them.
Lapan’s comments followed a Wall Street Journal report this week that quoted some U.S. officials and Afghan militants as saying members of the ISI were pressing Taliban field commanders to fight the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.
“The ISI has done a great deal in fighting terrorism ... but we also have some concerns with ... the strategic focus of the ISI,” Lapan told reporters at the Pentagon.
He said U.S. officials were concerned about some elements of the ISI had interactions with the insurgents that “may be seen as supporting terrorist groups rather than going after them.”
Asked whether the ISI was supporting terrorists, Lapan said: “I don’t want to go that far, and that’s why I said interaction ... Elements of the ISI might be interacting with terrorist organizations in ways that aren’t consistent with what the government and the military are doing.”
Pakistan is a critical ally in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, which aims to prevent al Qaeda and its allies from establishing a safe haven in the rugged border region from which to stage attacks on the United States and other countries.
But U.S. rhetoric in recent days has become increasingly pointed in discussing Pakistan’s shortcomings in confronting al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, a development analysts say shows the administration has decided the status quo is not working and it needs to try something else.
The White House sent an assessment of the Afghanistan war to Congress this week that said Pakistani forces had avoided direct conflict with al Qaeda and the Taliban this spring, in part for political reasons.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Thursday Washington appreciated Pakistan’s efforts “to put al Qaeda under the type of pressure in the tribal areas that it has never faced before.” But he said the status quo was still not acceptable, which was underscored in the report to Congress.
Ties were further strained this week by a cross-border incursion that killed two Pakistani border guards, prompting Islamabad to close a border checkpoint for trucks ferrying supplies to international forces in Afghanistan.
A joint NATO-Pakistan investigation of the incident concluded that a NATO helicopter crossed into Pakistani air space while trying to fire on insurgents in Afghanistan. It opened fire on a Pakistani border post, killing two, after the guards inside fired what were apparently warning shots.
U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, formally expressed condolences to Kayani for the deaths in a letter on Thursday and promised to work to avoid a recurrence.
The apology was one of several issued by the United States since the investigation was concluded, but Pakistan has not yet moved to reopen its Torkham gate border crossing, which it closed for security reasons after the incursion.
Since then, militants have repeatedly destroyed trucks in supply convoys headed toward the frontier.
Asked whether the United States agreed with Pakistan’s assessment that the security situation dictated the gate remain closed, Lapan said, “I’d say no, because our desire is for that gate to be reopened.”
He said the Pentagon preferred to see the gate reopened immediately, “but again the Pakistanis ultimately are responsible so it’s their decision. We are hopeful that the gate will be reopened soon.”
About half of all non-lethal supplies for U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan are transported across Pakistan. U.S. officials have said the Torkham gate border closure has not significantly affected the ability to resupply troops.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Eric Beech