WASHINGTON The U.S. government has evidence that militants who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan last week were in telephone contact with people connected to Pakistan's principal intelligence agency, according to an expert who has advised the White House.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst who advised President Barack Obama on Afghan policy, told Reuters administration officials have told him militants who attacked the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul on September 13 telephoned individuals connected with Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) before and during the attack.
Following the attacks, Riedel said, U.S. security forces collected cell phones which the attackers had used. These are expected to provide further evidence linking militants to ISI.
Obama Administration spokespeople declined to comment on or confirm Riedel's statements.
But a person familiar with private diplomatic discussions between senior U.S. and Pakistani officials who have visited the United States in the last few days said American officials informed their Pakistani counterparts that they had hard evidence linking ISI to the Kabul attacks.
The source said that when Pakistani officials asked the U.S. side to produce the evidence, they declined.
The apparent evidence about the telephone calls could explain the increasingly strong public declarations U.S. officials have made this week attributing the attacks to the Haqqani network.
The Haqqanis are a Pakistan-based group of Afghan militants alleged to be simultaneously aligned with ISI and elements of the Taliban, and the residual core leadership of al Qaeda.
On Thursday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Congressional hearing the Haqqani network was a "veritable arm" of ISI. "With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted (a September 10) truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy," he said.
PAKISTAN DENIES INVOLVEMENT
U.S. officials said Mullen would not have linked ISI to the attacks without strong evidence, but declined to elaborate.
Some U.S. officials caution that the evidence of ISI's involvement in supporting or instigating the Kabul attacks needs further corroboration.
Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister, flatly rejected U.S. accusations of ISI involvement in the attacks inside Afghanistan, telling Reuters: "If you say that it is ISI involved in that (embassy) attack, I categorically deny it. We have no such policy to attack or aid attack through Pakistani forces or through any Pakistani assistance."
Some U.S. officials and experts say relations between Washington and Islamabad have become so strained over the accusations that the Obama Administration has threatened Pakistan with U.S. military raids launched from Afghanistan against Haqqani hide-outs in Pakistan's tribal areas unless Pakistani authorities themselves move against the militants.
However, other U.S. officials say the Pakistanis would become more antagonistic toward the U.S. in the face of such threats. These officials said Pakistan had considerable leverage over Washington, in that it could take practical steps to curb U.S. drone operations against Pakistan-based militants, which until now Pakistan's leadership has quietly tolerated.
U.S. officials and experts have theorized that elements of ISI have encouraged Taliban and Haqqani network attacks on prominent U.S. targets in order to show displeasure at what some Pakistani security officials believe is the growing influence of India, Pakistan's arch-enemy, on Afghanistan's current U.S.- and NATO-supported government.
(Additional reporting by John Chalmers and Missy Ryan; Editing by Todd Eastham)