RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (Reuters) – Reports in the New York Times criticizing the Pakistan army and the powerful intelligence agency is a “direct attack” on Pakistan’s security, the army spokesman said on Saturday.
Major General Athar Abbas, the Pakistan army’s chief spokesman, repeatedly criticized the Times’ reporting and said it was part of a calculated plan by “unnamed officials” to “weaken the state.”
“This is a direct attack on our security organization and intelligence agencies,” he told Reuters in a rare on-the-record in-person interview. “We consider ISI as a strategic intelligence organization, the first line of our defense.”
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been on a downward spiral since last year, but the decline accelerated after the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in Lahore in January and the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden, which Pakistan complains it was not told about and says was a breach of its sovereignty.
Abbas was responding specifically to a July 8 editorial that said there was evidence of complicity by the ISI intelligence agency in sheltering bin Laden, of ties to the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people and of involvement in the abduction and murder of Asia Times Online journalist Saleem Shahzad.
The ISI, or Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, is Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence service.
Long suspected of maintaining militant ties it nurtured in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in a Pakistan garrison town raised concerns that Pakistan was playing a “double-game” with the Taliban and al Qaeda.
“This whole reporting through media, quoting unnamed officials, anonymous sources, is part of a design to undermine the authority and the power of the organization in order to weaken the state,” Abbas said.
He declined to specify exactly who the unnamed officials were, although the New York Times specified they were American officials.
The editorial called for the removal of ISI chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha and said: “The United States needs to use its influence to hasten Mr. Pasha’s departure. … The ISI has become inimical to Pakistani and American interests.”
It added: “It’s not clear how high up the culpability for Mr. Shahzad’s murder goes – or whether there are any officials left in the ISI or the army who have the power and desire to reform the spy agency.”
Abbas said there had been unease because of the bin Laden raid. “We have taken certain measures, which we consider, are in the best national interest.”
Pakistan has demanded the number of U.S. military personnel in Pakistan be slashed, and the United States has complied. Pakistan also wants to cut the number of U.S. intelligence officials.
“We have also ordered a number of them to be reduced, to go back, because we consider these as non-essential personnel in certain areas, and they’ve been asked to leave,” he said.
The ISI and CIA, he said, which have worked together for decades, should “formalize” their relationship.
He said Pasha had “asked them that the relationship between the two intelligence agencies should be formalized. It should be documented. It should not be open-ended. It should not be left to the other side to interpret the way they want to.”
He said the ISI wanted the United States to tell Pakistan about its intelligence operations and who it was sending into the country.
The cross-border exchanges of fire on the Afghan border are also a source of concern, Abbas said.
Afghan officials say nearly 800 rockets fired from Pakistan over the past month have killed 42 people, including children, wounded dozens more and destroyed 120 homes. There are Islamist insurgents on both sides of the porous and disputed border and it is extremely difficult to verify events.
“I think this report has been grossly inflated, exaggerated,” Abbas said. “During firing engagement of fleeing militants, a few rounds must have gone across and may have caused casualties.”
Pakistan has for months complained to Afghanistan and coalition forces fighting the Taliban there of allowing safe havens for Pakistani militants that have been driven across the border by Pakistani army operations.
“All the militants’ leaders have gathered there, and are reorganizing their forces who cross over and attack our posts.”
Pakistan has lost more than 55 security personnel in six major cross-border raids by militants based in Afghanistan in the last month.