October 8, 2010 / 11:33 AM / 7 years ago

Pakistan's ISI, a hidden, frustrating power for U.S.

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Top U.S. defense officials are concerned some elements of Pakistan's main 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 chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, himself a former spy chief, was aware of U.S. concerns about the military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and shared some of them.

Here are some questions and answers about the ISI, the most powerful intelligence agency in Pakistan, a country the United States sees as indispensable to its efforts to tame a raging Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

HOW POWERFUL IS THE ISI?

The shadowy military intelligence agency has evolved into what some describe as a state within a state.

Widely feared by Pakistanis, it is believed to have a hidden role in many of the nuclear-armed nation's policies, including in Afghanistan, one of U.S. President Barack Obama's top foreign policy priorities.

The ISI is seen as the Pakistani equivalent of the U.S. Central Agency (CIA) -- with which it has had a symbiotic but sometimes strained relationship -- and Israel's Mossad.

Its size is not publicly known but the ISI is widely believed to employ tens of thousands of agents, with informers in many spheres of public life.

Hardline elements within the ISI are capable of being spoilers, no matter what position a Pakistani government might take, a reality the U.S. and Afghan governments should take into account if they attempt to exclude Pakistan from negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.

WHAT ABOUT THE ISI'S PAST?

Created in 1948, the ISI gained importance and power during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and is now rated one of best-organized intelligence agencies in the developing world.

The ISI along with the United States and Saudi Arabia, nurtured the Afghan mujahideen, or Muslim holy warrior guerrillas, and helped them win the war. It helped to plan many of their operations and was the main conduit for Western and Arab arms. It later helped create the Taliban.

Although Pakistan officially abandoned support for the Taliban after joining the U.S.-led war against al Qaeda and Taliban, critics, including Western military commanders in Afghanistan, say it has maintained its ties with, and support for, the Afghan Taliban. The military denies supporting the Taliban but says agents maintain links with militants, as any security agency would do, in the interests of intelligence.

Analysts say the main preoccupation of the ISI, and the Pakistani military, is the threat from nuclear-armed rival India and it sees the Afghan Taliban as tools to influence events, and limit India's role, in Afghanistan.

The ISI was heavily involved in the 1990s in creating and supporting Islamist factions that battled Indian forces in the disputed Kashmir region. Some of those groups have since joined forces with the Pakistani Taliban to attack the state, including the ISI. That militants alliance may be the biggest threat to Pakistan's long-term security, analysts say.

WHAT ABOUT THE ISI'S CURRENT LEADERSHIP?

Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha is the director general of the ISI and a close ally of Kayani. Pasha is seen as anti-Taliban, unlike some of his predecessors, and analysts suggest he is using the ISI to broker some sort of deal between factions of the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. Although he is seen as relatively moderate, the ISI is almost certain to come under a new wave of pressure as the United States gets increasingly frustrated with the army's perceived reluctance to go after Afghan Taliban fighters who cross the border to attack Western forces in Afghanistan. But the strategic interests of the ISI, headquartered in a sprawling, well-guarded complex in Islamabad, will invariably come first, analysts say.

(Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Zeeshan Haider and Robert Birsel)

For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here

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