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Pakistani spy agency closes ‘political wing’

King is a Times staff writer.

Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, has quietly shut down a unit that for decades spied on domestic politicians and exerted shadowy influence on affairs of state.

Analysts described the decision to deactivate the ISI’s “political wing” as the latest in a series of steps meant to separate the army and the security apparatus from domestic politics -- and rehabilitate the agency’s battered public image.

The ISI, which nurtured neighboring Afghanistan’s Taliban movement in the 1990s, has been dogged by allegations that elements within the agency are acting in concert with Islamic militant groups. These tensions came to a head this year when U.S. intelligence officials confronted Pakistan’s new civilian government with evidence of ISI complicity in militant activities, including the July bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan, and demanded agency reforms.

At the height of its powers, the ISI’s secretive political wing rigged national elections and arrested and intimidated domestic opponents, according to public accounts provided by some retired ISI officials.

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At times, the wing acted at the behest of elected governments. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country’s first popularly elected prime minister, who was deposed and hanged by the military in the late 1970s, was the first to make active use of it. But it also was accused of working to destabilize several administrations, particularly civilian ones. It was alleged to have arranged vote-rigging in a 2002 election that tightened then-military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s grip on power.

Pakistan has spent more than half its 61-year history under military rule, most recently under Musharraf, who until late 2007 served as both president and head of the army. He was forced to step down as president this August under threat of impeachment.

Word of the ISI wing’s dissolution first emerged in Pakistani news reports over the weekend, subsequently confirmed by government officials. Few details were disclosed, including when the action was taken and whether the decision originated in the civilian government or within the ISI.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said in a statement that the move would free the spy agency to concentrate on containing a burgeoning Islamic insurgency based in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

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“The ISI is a greatly valued national institution, and it wants to focus fully on counter-terrorism activities,” the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan quoted him as saying.

Some commentators, however, were skeptical as to the real scope of the change.

“Taken at face value, this is a commendable step in the right direction,” the English-language daily newspaper Dawn said in an editorial Tuesday. But it added: “Officially dismantling the ISI’s political wing will be meaningless if meddling continues through unofficial channels. An entire mind-set has to change.”

The civilian government, in power less than a year, had some bruising early encounters with the ISI. In July, Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani tried to bring the agency under formal civilian administration. He was forced to rescind the order within 24 hours.

But the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani -- himself a former head of the ISI -- has made it clear that he wants the security establishment to renounce influence on policy matters. In September, Kayani appointed a new ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, replacing a Musharraf loyalist.

Pasha visited Washington last month. Since then, there have been signs of closer cooperation between the ISI and U.S. intelligence, including the targeting last week of Rashid Rauf, an Al Qaeda operative who was believed killed in an American missile strike in the tribal area of North Waziristan.

“Maybe this is a symbolic first step toward establishing the supremacy of civilian authority, but the larger issue of civilian-military relations in Pakistan, including the ISI, will need to be watched for some years,” said Rasul Baksh Rais, a Lahore-based political scientist and commentator.

Rais also noted that the decision to disband the political wing was easily reversible.

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“If it were deemed necessary, it could be reactivated in a matter of hours,” he said. “So it’s a welcome step, but it’s not certain how far it goes.”

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laura.king@latimes.com


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