(CNSNews.com) – The decision to extend the tenure of Pakistan’s powerful army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani comes at a time of renewed scrutiny into alleged collusion between the military intelligence agency, which Kayani oversaw from 2004-2007, and terrorists in Afghanistan.
Kayani’s term was due to end in November, but Pakistan Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani has now extended it by another three years. In recent decades, the only army chiefs to have served more than one term were Pervez Musharraf and Zia ul-Haq, both military rulers.
Gilani said Kayani was held in high esteem internationally and praised his leadership in the campaign against terrorists in the country’s northwest.
The prime minister’s announcement on Thursday came three days after Kayani met with visiting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The general in recent weeks also has held talks with other senior American figures, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus and special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke.
Officials in Islamabad took pains to deny speculation in Pakistani media that the decision to keep Kayani on for three more years was made at the behest of the Obama administration, but commentators in the region widely held the view that the U.S. had lobbied for the extension.
The move comes amid controversy over a cache of Afghanistan battlefield reports released by the whistleblower site, WikiLeaks, some of them describing collusion between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Before Musharraf appointed him to the chief of staff post in October 2007, Kayani served as director-general of the ISI, a post he held since October 2004.
Two of the more sobering allegations in the leaked documents relating to the ISI – involvement in the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul and a plot to assassinate Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai – occurred after Kayani moved from the ISI to the top military position.
But other alleged ISI double-dealing took place while Kayani headed the agency. They include claims in one of the leaked reports, dated December 2006, that an ISI officer was in charge of suicide bombing operations in Kabul.
The document refers to training, reconnaissance of targets, the transportation of the bombers from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and the hosting of the bombers in houses near the target sites.
It said training of the bombers took place in “Ghalani camp Mohmand Ghar” (possibly referring to the mountainous Mohmand Ghar area, near Kabul) and a camp belonging to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal belt.
The Haqqani network, a militant Taliban faction headed by a veteran anti-Soviet mujahideen leader, is playing a significant role in anti-coalition violence in eastern Afghanistan.
It has been linked to serious attacks there including a suicide bombing on a base in Khost last December in which seven CIA agents were killed, and bombings of the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 and 2009.
The U.S. has long been urging Pakistan to expand its military offensive against militants in its north-west into the Haqqani hotbed of North Waziristan, but Islamabad has not complied.
The network has longstanding ties to the ISI. Just last month it was reported that Kayani was urging Karzai to negotiate a deal with the Haqqanis. Both the Afghan and Pakistani governments denied the reports.
Another of the documents released by WikiLeaks, also dated December 2006, said a former ISI head, Gen. Hamid Gul, paid monthly visits to a religious school (madrassa) in north-west Pakistan which provided 95 percent of suicide bombing recruits.
Suicide bombings were rare in Afghanistan until 2005, but by 2006 123 such attacks were reported, costing a total of 305 lives according to a major U.N. study the following year. Kabul and Kandahar were the worst-hit areas.
After the July 2008 suicide bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, U.S. intelligence agencies backed Indian and Afghan assertions of an ISI hand behind the attack, which killed 58 people, including an Indian defense attache.
“The Pakistan Army and the ISI operationally has had and continues to have linkages with the al-Qaeda, Taliban and jihadi terrorist organizations,” international relations and strategic affairs analyst Dr. Subhash Kapila of the India-based South Asia Analysis Group said this week.
“This is a fact that is globally well documented and even the most ardent U.S. supporters of Pakistan have now begun to concede.”
Kapila said it was “inconceivable” that Kayani, as head of the ISI, “had no contacts with the upper echelons of these terrorist outfits.”
Instrument of policy
Established six decades ago, the ISI has played a key, often controversial role in Pakistan’s political life, wielding a lot of power in a country, which has been under military rule for more than half of its existence as an independent state.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, when in power in the 1990s, accused the agency of planning her overthrow and years later said it was plotting to kill her. Bhutto was assassinated in late 2007, while campaigning ahead of elections she was favored to win.
The ISI’s main focus through its history has been India, Pakistan’s rival. Governments in New Delhi have long accused the agency of sponsoring violent groups fighting to end Indian rule in Kashmir, the mostly Muslim territory claimed by both countries and divided between them.
In Afghanistan, the ISI served as a conduit for U.S. aid to mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union during the 1980s. It subsequently played a leading role in setting up the Taliban, the fundamentalist militia that seized control of most of the country.
Pakistan was one of just three countries – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the others – to have diplomatic relations with the Taliban-ruled “emirate.”
After Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, that support continued until the Taliban-hosted al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Under massive U.S. pressure he then formally broke relations with the Taliban, which was toppled by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.
Reports have continued to surface in the years since of ongoing ISI support for the Taliban, including the Haqqani network, as well as for other formerly India-focused groups now also active in Afghanistan, such as Laskhar e-Toiba.