ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan's premier military intelligence agency has lost control of some of the networks of Pakistani militants it has nurtured since the 1980s, and is now suffering the violent blowback of that policy, two former senior intelligence officials and other officials close to the agency say.
As the military has moved against the militants, they have turned on their former handlers, the officials said. Joining with other extremist groups, they have battled Pakistani security forces and helped militants carry out a record number of suicide attacks this year, including some aimed directly at army and intelligence units as well as prominent political figures, possibly even Benazir Bhutto.
The growing strength of the militants, many of whom now express support for Al Qaeda's global jihad, presents a grave threat to Pakistan's security, as well as NATO efforts to push back the Taliban in Afghanistan. American officials have begun to weigh more robust covert operations to go after Al Qaeda in the lawless border areas because they are so concerned that the Pakistani government is unable to do so.
The revelations regarding Pakistan's leading military intelligence agency - Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI - emerged in interviews last month with former senior officials of the ISI and other Pakistani intelligence agencies. The disclosures confirm some of the worst fears, and suspicions, of American and Western military officials and diplomats.
The interviews, a rare glimpse inside a notoriously secretive and opaque agency, offered a string of other troubling insights likely to refocus attention on the ISI's role as Pakistan moves toward elections on Feb. 18 and a battle for control of the government looms:
One former senior Pakistani intelligence official, as well as other sources close to the agency, acknowledged that the ISI led the effort to manipulate Pakistan's last national election in 2002, and offered to drop corruption cases against candidates who would back President Pervez Musharraf.
A source close to the ISI said Musharraf had now ordered the agency to ensure that the upcoming elections were free and fair, and denied that the agency was working to rig the vote. But the acknowledgment of past rigging is certain to fuel opposition fears of new meddling.
The two former high-ranking intelligence officials acknowledged that after Sept. 11, 2001, when Musharraf publicly allied Pakistan with the Bush administration, the ISI could not rein in the militants it had nurtured for decades as a proxy force to exert pressure on India and Afghanistan. After the agency unleashed hard-line Islamist beliefs, the officials said, it struggled to stop the ideology from spreading.
Another former senior intelligence official said that dozens of ISI officers who trained militants had come to sympathize with their cause and had had to be expelled from the agency.