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CIA served as 'bridge' between India, Pakistan

WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the CIA orchestrated back-channel intelligence exchanges between India and Pakistan, allowing the two former enemies to quietly share highly sensitive evidence while the Americans served as neutral arbiters, according to U.S. and foreign government sources familiar with the arrangement.

The exchanges, which began days after the deadly assault in late November, gradually helped the two sides overcome mutual suspicions and paved the way for Islamabad's announcement last week acknowledging that some of the planning for the attack had occurred on Pakistani soil, the sources said.

The intelligence went well beyond the public revelations about the 10 Mumbai terrorists, and included sophisticated communications intercepts and an array of physical evidence detailing how the gunmen and their supporters planned and executed their three-day killing spree in the Indian port city, which began Nov. 26.

Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies separately shared their findings with the CIA, which relayed the details while also vetting the intelligence and filling in blanks with gleanings from its networks, the sources said. The U.S. role was described in interviews with Pakistani officials and confirmed by U.S. sources with detailed knowledge of the arrangement. The arrangement is ongoing, and it is unknown whether it will continue after the Mumbai case is settled.

Officials from both countries said the unparalleled cooperation was a factor in Pakistan's decision to bring criminal charges against nine Pakistanis accused of involvement in the attack, a move that appeared to signal a thawing of tensions on the Indian subcontinent after weeks of rhetorical warfare.

"India shared evidence bilaterally, but that's not what cinched it," said a senior Pakistani official familiar with the exchanges. "It was the details, shared between intelligence agencies, with the CIA serving mainly as a bridge." The FBI also participated in the vetting process, he said.

A U.S. government official with detailed knowledge of the sharing arrangement said the effort ultimately enabled the Pakistani side to "deal as forthrightly as possible with the fallout from Mumbai," he said. U.S. and Pakistani officials who described the arrangement agreed to do so on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic and legal sensitivities. Indian officials declined to comment for this story.

"Intelligence has been a good bridge," the U.S. official said. "Everyone on the American side went into this with their eyes open, aware of the history, the complexities, the tensions. But at least the two countries are talking, not shooting."

The U.S. effort to foster cooperation was begun under the Bush administration and given new emphasis by an Obama White House that fears that a renewed India-Pakistan conflict could undermine progress in Afghanistan — and possibly lead to nuclear war. The new administration sees Pakistan as central to its evolving Afghan war strategy, and also recognizes that it cannot "do Pakistan without doing India," as Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it in a recent interview.

"In an ideal world, the challenge associated with Mumbai — handled well, led well — would lead to the two working together," he said.

There is little public support for rapprochement, and domestic politics in both countries often dictate hostility rather than cooperation.

Mullen said he hoped the countries could now restore some of the goodwill lost in the Mumbai case.

Despite public and political criticism, the two governments had taken "significant steps" in the months preceding Mumbai to diminish the tensions between them over the long-standing Kashmir territorial dispute. But after Nov. 26, "a lot was put aside (and) suspended."

The Mumbai attack was staged by 10 heavily armed terrorists who rampaged through Mumbai for three days, killing 173 people and wounding more than 300. Nine of the terrorists were killed, but the lone survivor confessed that the assault had been planned in Pakistan by Lashkar-i-Taiba, a group that seeks independence for Indian-controlled Kashmir. India has asserted that elements of Pakistan's government or intelligence services provided logistical support for the attack, an accusation that Islamabad flatly denies.

In recent days, Pakistan has moved aggressively against Lashkar-i-Taiba and allied groups, and has signaled its intention to work more closely with India. A Pakistani government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, insisted that Islamabad's commitment was genuine.

"Any Pakistanis who are shown to have been involved will be treated as the criminals they are," he said. He predicted that the two governments would cooperate to an unprecedented degree in upcoming prosecutions and trials, which he said will occur separately in the two countries with participation from both sides. He described Pakistan's response as decisive and "proof that we will not tolerate" groups that support terrorism.

Such policies pose clear risks for the embattled government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who faces a backlash domestically for cracking down on groups that Pakistan helped establish years ago as part of its anti-India strategy. Zardari also has come under fire for tolerating occasional U.S. missile strikes against suspected terrorists inside Pakistan's autonomous tribal region near the Afghan border. A strike on Saturday reportedly killed 27, most of them foreign fighters.

"This is a dangerous path for him," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council of the United States. A sustained clampdown would require a sustained commitment by the civilian government and the army, and far more arrests than the 124 already announced, Nawaz said.

India, meanwhile, has been eager for the United States to pressure Pakistan on terrorism in general and Mumbai in particular. But it has long rejected any attempt to interfere in Kashmir.

Early this month, a senior Indian official recalled that Barack Obama had suggested a linkage during the presidential campaign, saying in a foreign policy essay that he would "encourage dialogue" on Kashmir so that Pakistan could pay more attention to terrorists on its border with Afghanistan.

If Obama "does have any such views," Indian National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan told Indian television, "then he is barking up the wrong tree." Narayanan said India had made clear to Washington when Richard Holbrooke was appointed the administration's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan that India-Pakistan relations should not be part of his portfolio.

Holbrooke, who plans a stop in New Delhi at the end of his tour of the region, appeared to agree in a report last month by the New York-based Asia Society, where he was chairman before his appointment. The report called for Obama to continue the "de-hyphenation" of U.S. foreign policy toward India and Pakistan practiced by the Bush administration.

Concerned about China and searching for a positive new foreign policy headline at a low point in the Iraq war, Bush policymakers tried to elevate India to the status of major U.S. partner. The centerpiece of the policy was a bilateral civil nuclear agreement signed by Bush last year but still awaiting final action by Obama.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, asked last week about the agreement, responded vaguely that "I don't have the specifics of where we are on this particular day with regard to implementation, but it is certainly something that we want to see happen, and nothing more beyond that."