WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has indications that elements of Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence agency provide support to Taliban or al Qaeda militants, senior U.S. military officers said on Friday.
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said the agency must end such activities.
The officers made their remarks as the United States unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which promises more aid for Pakistan but seeks increased cooperation in the fight against al Qaeda and Taliban militants in return.
Mullen noted Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence service had links to militants on both its western border with Afghanistan and its eastern border with India.
“Fundamentally, the strategic approach with the ISI must change and their support ... for militants, actually on both borders, has to fundamentally shift,” he told CNN television’s “Situation Room” program.
Asked if there were still elements within the ISI who sympathized with or supported al Qaeda and the Taliban, Mullen said: “There are certainly indications that that’s the case.”
Although links between the ISI and Islamist militants are widely suspected, it is rare for senior U.S. officials to talk publicly about them, for fear of damaging possible cooperation with Pakistani authorities.
The New York Times, citing anonymous U.S. officials, reported on Wednesday that the Taliban’s widening campaign in southern Afghanistan was made possible in part by direct support from ISI operatives.
A senior U.S. intelligence official, asked on Friday to describe the problem of ISI information-sharing with militants, said, “too big, too often.”
He said Pakistan had in the past failed to act on “actionable intelligence” that could lead to a strike against militants.
Petraeus, speaking on PBS television’s Newshour program, noted some militant groups had been established by the ISI, with U.S. funding, with the aim of helping drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“Those links were very strong and some of them, I think, unquestionably ... do remain, to this day. It is much more difficult to tell at what level those links are still established,” he said.
Petraeus said there were some cases “in the fairly recent past” in which the ISI appeared to have warned militants that their location had been discovered.
“It’s a topic that is of enormous importance, because if there are links and if those continue and if it undermines the (anti-militant) operations, obviously that would be very damaging to the kind of trust that we need to build,” he said.
Petraeus’ headquarters is responsible for U.S. military operations in a volatile swath of the world which stretches from the Middle East into Central and South Asia.
The intelligence official said the United States and Pakistan viewed militant groups differently, and that Pakistan focused on those it saw as the biggest threats to itself, which meant it overlooked some groups with a higher U.S. priority.
“Our intelligence shows that these groups also threaten them, so we are asking them to be a little bit more enlightened, to rethink their security calculus in a way that we think is consistent with ours,” he said.
Reporting by Andrew Gray and Randall Mikkelsen; editing by Mohammad Zargham