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Profile: S Wing
S Wing was a participant or observer in the following events:
The New York Times reports that there is fresh evidence the Pakistani government supports many Islamist militant groups who are fighting US forces. Pakistani support for militants has mainly run through the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
US Pressure Not Effective - Shortly after Asif Ali Zardari became president of Pakistan in September 2008 (see September 9, 2008), he faced accusations by the US that the ISI helped the militants bomb the Indian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan (see July 7, 2008 and July 28, 2008). Zardari promised that the ISI would be “handled” and anyone working with militants would be fired. Some top ISI officials were replaced, including ISI Director Nadeem Taj (see September 30, 2008). However, many US and even Pakistani officials have since complained to the Times that there has been little effect seen. The Times reports that “new details reveal that the spy agency is aiding a broader array of militant networks with more diverse types of support than was previously known—even months after Pakistani officials said that the days of the ISI’s playing a ‘double game’ had ended.”
The Mysterious S Wing - US officials say that it is unlikely that the highest ranking Pakistani officials are managing relationships with militants. Instead, most of the contacts are done by the S Wing of the ISI. Very little is publicly known about the S Wing. [New York Times, 3/26/2009] However, a later Times article will note, “Pakistani military officials give the spy service’s ‘S Wing’—which runs external operations against the Afghan government and India—broad autonomy, a buffer that allows top military officials deniability.” [New York Times, 7/26/2010] The groups S Wing is believed to support include:
The Taliban. Taliban leaders are believed to be given safe haven in the Pakistani town of Quetta.
The Haqqani network. This is a semi-autonomous branch of the Taliban, based in Pakistan’s tribal region. Its leader is Jalaluddin Haqqani, who has been an ISI asset since the 1980s.
The Gulbuddin Hekmatyar network. Like the Haqqani network, Hekmatyar’s network is based in Pakistan but attacks US forces in Afghanistan in alliance with Taliban forces.
Lashkar-e-Taiba. This Pakistani militant group is not very active in Afghanistan, but it has been linked to a number of attacks, including the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India.
The ISI’s S Wing gives these groups funding, training, protection, and intelligence. The groups are tipped off to planned US drone strikes and other attacks. S Wing operatives even search radical madrassas (boarding schools) in Pakistan to find new recruits for the groups. Most shockingly, ISI officials regularly sit in on meetings of Taliban leaders and other militant leaders and help decide strategy. This practice has become so widely known that in recent months, the British government has repeatedly asked the ISI to use its influence with the Taliban to scale back attacks in Afghanistan before the August presidential elections there.
Opposition to Tehrik-i-Taliban - Not all militants are supported, however. For instance, the Pakistani government generally opposes the Tehrik-i-Taliban (also known as the Pakistani Taliban), even though it is linked to the Taliban and other groups Pakistan does support, because this group has the goal of overthrowing Pakistan’s government. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently told US senators, “There are some [groups the Pakistani government] believe have to be hit and that we should cooperate on hitting, and there are others they think don’t constitute as much of a threat to them and that they think are best left alone.”
Pakistan's Reasoning - Publicly, Pakistan denies all support for militant groups. But privately, unnamed Pakistani officials tell the Times that “the contacts were less threatening than the American officials depicted and were part of a strategy to maintain influence in Afghanistan for the day when American forces would withdraw and leave what they fear could be a power vacuum to be filled by India, Pakistan’s archenemy.” One official says that Pakistan needs groups like the Taliban as “proxy forces to preserve our interests.” [New York Times, 3/26/2009]
Shortly after the announcment of Osama bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011 (see May 2, 2011), some commentators are surprised to find that bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is only 800 yards away from Kakul, an elite military academy that is Pakistan’s equivalent of the West Point academy in the US. [New York Times, 5/6/2011] This fact made targeting the compound with a drone strike very problematic. One unnamed CIA official says, “All [a drone-fired missile] has to be is about 1,000 yards off and it hits the Pakistan Military Academy.” Additionally, Abbottabad is home to two regimental compounds, and many military families live there. [Washington Post, 5/6/2011]
Too Long Not to Know - Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani official who now teaches at Columbia University, says that there was a tight net of security around Abbottabad because of concerns about terrorist attacks on the many sensitive military installations there. The town was thoroughly covered with security guards and soldiers. Abbas says, “If he was there since 2005, that is too long a time for local police and intelligence not to know.”
"Willful Blindness" at Best - Former CIA officer Arthur Keller, who worked on the search for bin Laden, says the locale of bin Laden’s compound raises questions. He says that bin Laden must have known that the area has a high concentration of military institutions, officers, and retired officers, including some from the ISI’s S Wing. The ISI is Pakistan’s intelligence agency, and the S Wing is the part of the ISI many experts believe has worked with and protected some Islamist militant leaders (see March 26, 2009). Keller says that bin Laden also had to be aware that the town has a higher level of security, checkpoints, and so on, than many other Pakistani towns. While living near a military academy helped ensure bin Laden’s compound would not get hit by a US drone, there were safer towns to hide from drones. According to the New York Times, Keller does not understand why bin Laden would live in Abbottabad “unless he had some assurance of protection or patronage from military or intelligence officers.” Keller says, “At best, it was willful blindness on the part of the ISI.” [New York Times, 5/6/2011]
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