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In Pakistan, Some Seek Spy Agency Reform

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's often said the U.S. will never win the war in Afghanistan unless it has the support of Pakistan. And Pakistan's new government says it is committed to battling insurgents. Its military has been pressing that point with assaults on the Taliban and other militants. But there's another crucial player in the mix, Pakistan's all powerful spy agency, the ISI. The U.S. suspects there are people in the agency who help the militants. NPR's Philip Reeves reports on the challenges of reforming the ISI.

PHILIP REEVES: It's hard to get away from the spies of Pakistan. They're even here. This is a camp outside the city of Peshawar. The place is full of leathery faced farmers and laborers who fled here with their families from their villages in the mountains to escape the fighting between Pakistan's army and the Taliban.

When we start interviewing these villagers, two men appear. Unlike all the other men, these two don't have beards. They hover nearby listening intently. They note down our names. They're agents of the ISI, or as it's officially known, the Directorate for the Inter-Services Intelligence. The ISI is so large, so powerful, and secretive that many Pakistanis call it a state within a state. The agency has just got a new chief. He's a 56-year-old army general called Ahmad Shuja Pasha. He was head of the Pakistan army's military operations and recently planned offensives against the Taliban.

Ms. AYESHA SADIKA(ph) (Expert on Pakistan's Military and Intelligence Services): General Pasha is known to be a secular, liberal man, very professional. He's a confident man, confident officer.

REEVES: That's Ayesha Sadika, an expert on Pakistan's military and intelligence services. Sadika says Pasha can work with Americans. But she says ultimately Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who's liked by the U.S., will determine the extent to which Pakistan's spies will cooperate. Pasha's taking over as ISI chief during a period when relations with Washington are frayed. Pakistan's fuming over a deadly raid by U.S. ground troops on a Pakistani border village last month. Tensions further increased recently when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, publicly called for the ISI to be reformed. General Shujaat Ali Khan(ph) was director general of the ISI's political wing for more than two years during the '90s. He's been mulling over Boucher's words.

General SHUJAAT ALI KHAN (Former Director General, ISI Political Wing): This particular demand by the American at this stage, I do not really fully comprehend it.

REEVES: Khan says the ISI helped the U.S. by arresting hundreds of al-Qaeda suspects in the aftermath of 9/11. He disputes American allegations that the ISI is also aiding the Taliban. Khan says there is a case for reorganizing the ISI. It's a huge, cumbersome organization with a huge remit, foreign and domestic intelligence, internal security, crime, sectarian violence and more. But he thinks it's a mistake for the U.S. publicly to demand its reform.

General KHAN: There are many, many who consider the ISI to be, you know, a state within a state, well such thing. Well, if the Americans want to believe that, then that means ISI is something good. Some quarters will start sympathizing with ISI.

REEVES: Right now, Pakistanis who sympathize with the ISI seem few and far between. The agency has a reputation for human rights violations, for meddling in politics, and holding vast amounts of power without being accountable. Pervis Hudboi(ph) is a writer and commentator.

Mr. PERVIS HUDBOI (Pakistani Writer and Commentator): The fact is that the ISI has been involved in political manipulations, that it has used funds to bribe politicians and to make its own foreign policy.

REEVES: Hudboi believes the ISI has been infiltrated by rogue elements. How else, he asks, could the militants have bombed an unmarked bus from the agency last year? Yet, he too says it's not the U.S.'s job to tell Pakistan's spies how to clean up their act.

Mr. HUDBOI: The ISI definitely needs reform, but that reform must come from within Pakistan. It must come from a realization within the army, above all, that having such a powerful institution making key decisions is just something that's impossible for a modern state to live with.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.