By Chris Allbritton
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pressure from Pakistani intelligence for a cut in the number of U.S. Special Forces trainers working in sensitive regions is due to fears they are also spying, according to Pakistani sources with knowledge of the request, illustrating the extent to which growing mutual mistrust is hampering security co-operation.
The request was conveyed when Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan's powerful Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), visited his counterpart Leon Panetta at CIA headquarters on Monday.
A U.S. military official in Islamabad confirmed that a reduction in the number of Special Forces troops involved in training Pakistanis in counter-insurgency was being discussed.
"Throughout the history of the training mission there have been discussions about the force structure and location of the training," the official said. "So this should not be perceived as a done deal. ... But it's something that we're talking about."
The Pakistani military declined to comment.
About 120 U.S. Special Forces soldiers are in Pakistan's northwest to train local security forces in counter-insurgency, but given the increasing strain in the U.S.-Pakistan alliance over the past six months, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani now wants those numbers reduced.
A senior Pakistani intelligence official wouldn't officially comment on the reduction, but said it might be more about appearances than genuine pique, given the sensitivity over foreign troops on Pakistani soil.
"It makes it look like the Americans are here conducting operations," the official said.
Any reduction would impact Washington's ability to gather intelligence for its drone campaign and Pakistan's counter-insurgency efforts.
"We want American Special Forces to come and train our people so we can collaborate, but if they get into other activities we don't want them," said an instructor at the National Defense University in Islamabad. He works with serving Pakistani officers and is familiar with their concerns.
He said "other activities" could include spying on Pakistan's nuclear weapons program or having contact with militant groups. There is a suspicion among the senior military leadership that Americans troops are gathering intelligence on such groups and not sharing the information, or even actively helping them.
"The main suspicion is why are they staying after completing their job? Their job was to train the trainers so they should have gone back after that," another security official said. "But they are over-staying."
While it's unlikely American trainers are explicitly spying as some Pakistanis allege, they do often come across intelligence and report it up their command chain, sometimes sharing it with their Pakistani colleagues, but not always.
Thus suspicion toward the United States runs deeply into the officer corps, and conspiracy theories over plots to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons are a common narrative in the army.
REVERSAL OF EARLIER REQUEST
The pressure to pull American trainers out is a reversal of an earlier request in 2009 by the Pakistani military. In a leaked U.S. State Department cable dated October 9, 2009 and released by WikiLeaks, the U.S. Embassy noted previous opposition could only have been overcome by Kayani personally and represented "a sea change in Pakistani thinking."
According to the cable, American Special Forces were stationed in North and South Waziristan to train Pakistan's Frontier Corps in counter-insurgency. While not a secret, the Pakistani military has downplayed their deployment because of widespread anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and the extreme sensitivity of stationing American troops on Pakistani soil.
Another small contingent was embedded with the Pakistan Army's 11 Corps, stationed in Peshawar, as part of a "fusion cell," which brings together intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities for the Pakistani military.
"The Pakistanis are increasingly confident that we do not have ulterior motives in assisting their operations," the cable read.
No longer. In addition to the cutback in Special Forces troops, Pakistan has demanded greater scrutiny and control over CIA activities in Pakistan and an end to drone strikes. Such demands are unacceptable to the administration of President Barack Obama, U.S. officials said.
Pakistan suspended joint operations between the CIA and its Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) after a CIA contractor shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore on January 27.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Andrew Marshall)