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Q+A: Is Pakistan spy agency serious about tackling militants?

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Pakistan for talks on the fight against militants, may be encouraged by Pakistan’s crackdown on some Afghan Taliban militants and the extension of the term of Pakistan’s spy chief.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been a key player in first nurturing the Taliban militants active in both nations and, recently, in turning against some of them.

ISI Director-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha is seen as an advocate of the crackdown.

Here are some questions and answers on the ISI and Pakistan’s strategy as momentum for peace builds in Afghanistan.

WHAT EVENTS HAVE BEEN UNFOLDING?

Nuclear-armed Pakistan’s performance against militants has come under the spotlight again since the arrest here of Afghan Taliban top military strategist, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, last month. It came as a surprise.

Islamabad has for years resisted U.S. pressure to crack down on Afghan militants on its soil who cross the border to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The arrest, which has been described as a U.S.-Pakistani joint operation, came after calls by Karzai for peace with Afghan militants who denounce violence, in a bid to start stabilizing the country before a gradual U.S. troops withdrawal in 2011.

Pakistan has also arrested other Afghan Taliban leaders, though it has only announced the arrest of Baradar.

WHAT DOES PAKISTAN WANT?

Pakistan wants the biggest say in any settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan, mainly to keep arch-rival India’s influence there in check. Of all the regional players, it is best placed to achieve that goal.

Pakistan’s worst-case scenario would be a repetition of 1989, when the United States abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Chaos and a civil war followed. Now, the same situation could create more mayhem, or an unfriendly government that undermines Pakistan’s gameplan in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s ISI has cultivated militants in Afghanistan since it supported their fight against Soviet occupation troops in the 1980s, and it has nurtured Afghan Taliban groups since they fled here after a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Hardline members of those groups who have no interest in peace could be used by the ISI as spoilers in any future reconciliation efforts if Pakistan is not satisfied with power-sharing plans in Afghanistan.

DOES THE ARREST OF BARADAR SIGNAL ISI POLICY SHIFT?

Some analysts say the detention signals a Pakistani change of heart after improved cooperation with ally Washington.

Under the command of Director-General Pasha, deeper U.S.-Pakistani intelligence sharing has facilitated, for instance, deadly U.S. drone aircraft strikes on Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in northwest Pakistan, a global hub for militants.

There have also been unprecedented domestic offensives against homegrown Taliban militants.

Keeping Pasha in his post could ensure that those improved ties will continue, boosting chances of pacifying the Afghan Taliban in time for the U.S. troop withdrawal.

But some analysts are cautious. They raise the possibility that Baradar was pursuing talks with the Afghan government and wanted to exclude the Pakistanis, inviting the wrath of the ISI, who then decided to nab him.

There have also been reports that Baradar was picked by pure chance in a raid in Karachi on other Taliban officials. That would mean there is no change in Pakistani policy, dashing hopes of progress in Afghanistan any time soon.

U.S. officials, for their part, welcomed the arrest. Earlier, Pakistan was denying it had access to the Afghan militants, whereas now it was arresting them. But Washington is unlikely to jump to any conclusions in the short term.

There are still threatening groups in the northwest who Pakistan, and the ISI, seem to regard as untouchable -- mainly the powerful, al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network.

The Haqqani group, long seen by the ISI as an asset in Afghanistan, is regarded by the U.S. military as the most dangerous Taliban faction. Antagonizing the network could backfire and create a new enemy for Pakistan as it fights homegrown militants.

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