Pakistan: Friend or Foe?

Taliban in Quetta, Pakistan Photo

One longstanding question is which side the Pakistan military — particularly the ISI — is on in our war with the Taliban.   A new report gives strong credence to the long-held suspicion that they are not only tacitly backing the enemy but actively supporting them "as clear as the sun in the sky."

Jeremy Page for The Times:

Pakistan’s military intelligence agency directly funds and trains the Afghan Taleban and is officially represented on its leadership council, according to a report by a British academic. The study, published by the London School of Economics, also alleges that Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, met Taleban leaders imprisoned in Pakistan and promised them early release and future support.

Pakistan dismissed the report by Matt Waldman, a Harvard fellow who interviewed current and former members of the Taleban, as “baseless” and “naive”. A spokesman for the Pakistani Army said that the state’s commitment to opposing the Taleban was demonstrated by the number of soldiers killed fighting on the Afghan border.

Western officials and analysts have often accused elements within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency of supporting the Afghan Taleban, even as its army combats the Pakistani Taleban on the northwestern frontier.

However, Mr Waldman’s report goes further, arguing that support for the Afghan Taleban is “official ISI policy” and is backed at the highest levels of Pakistan’s civilian administration. “Pakistan appears to be playing a double game of astonishing magnitude,” the report says. “There is thus a strong case that the ISI orchestrates, sustains and shapes the overall insurgent campaign,” it said. “Without a change in Pakistani behaviour it will be difficult if not impossible for international forces and the Afghan Government to make progress against the insurgency.”

The ISI helped to create the Taleban in the early 1990s, principally to prevent its arch-rival, India, from gaining a strategic foothold in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. It claims to have severed all links with the Islamist movement but remains determined to prevent a pro-Indian government from taking power in Kabul after Nato troops leave.

Waldman’s credentials are first rate and people taking his findings very seriously.   Among those people are the commanders of the Taliban themselves.  Myra MacDonald for Reuters:

The report, based on interviews with Taliban commanders, former senior Taliban ministers and Western and Afghan security officials, says research strongly suggested support for the Taliban was the “official policy” of the ISI. ”Pakistan appears to be playing a double-game of astonishing magnitude,” it says.  Interviews with Taliban commanders ”suggest that Pakistan continues to give extensive support to the insurgency in terms of funding, munitions and supplies.”

“These accounts were corroborated by former Taliban ministers, a Western analyst and a senior U.N. official based in Kabul, who said the Taliban largely depend on funding from the ISI and groups in Gulf countries,” the report, which was dismissed by Pakistani officials as spurious and unfounded, says.

Almost all of the Taliban commanders interviewed in the report believed the ISI was represented on the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s supreme leadership council which Washington says is based in Pakistan. “Interviews strongly suggest that the ISI has representatives on the (Quetta) Shura, either as participants or observers, and the agency is thus involved at the highest level of the movement.”

“Pakistan’s apparent involvement in a double-game of this scale could have major geopolitical implications and could even provoke US counter-measures. However, the powerful role of the ISI, and parts of the Pakistani military, suggests that progress against the Afghan insurgency, or towards political engagement, requires their support. The only sure way to secure such cooperation is to address the fundamental causes of Pakistan’s insecurity, especially its latent and enduring conflict with India,” it says.

Then again, as Newshoggers editor Steve Hynd observes, this is shocking  "only if you hadn’t read about a Spanish report in October 2008, the WaPo’s report on what US officials knew in April of this year, just about everything Afghan and Indian intelligence have ever said about the Taliban, NATO reports back in 2006 and, in fact, every bit of evidence since well before Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the stone age if it didn’t play ball with Bush’s adventure in Afghanistan."

Security analyst Mark Safrasnki agrees but argues its time to "Accept that Pakistan, for all intents and purposes, is an enemy of the United States for internal reasons related to domestic politics and regional ambitions and will be for some time."  He adds,

Strategy involves making choices and giving up fantasies of having one’s cake and eating it too. That Pakistan is our ally in any normal sense of the word is one of those fantasies that is past the time for letting go. Pakistan’s ISI is biting us every day with each flag draped coffin that comes home from Bagram. Opposing every US goal in Afghanistan, taking our bribes does not make Pakistani leaders our friend, much less a reliable ally.

I share their frustrations but do think it’s more complicated than whether Pakistan is our friend or enemy or the military is fighting the Taliban or helping them.  In both case, it’s a mixed bag.

First, no country is any other country’s friend.  Pakistan is on our side when it serves their interest.  Which, oddly enough, is how we’ve long dealt with Pakistan.

But Safranski is right:  I do think the report calls into question, yet again, who’s running the show in Pakistan.  The answer, generally, has been "The army, of course" but the ISI is theoretically a part of the army, which seems genuinely to be treating the Taliban as a threat.  Pakistani soldiers are killing Taliban forces in great number and dying in the process.

How do we square this circle?

My colleague Shuja Nawaz, director of the Council’s South Asia Center, tells me that the ISI "differentiate between the Afghan and the local Taliban."  He adds, "The ISI may well be overestimating its control or influence over the Afghan Taliban, as it did in the past."  

Which makes sense.    Indeed, Hynd wrote a piece for New Atlanticist back in February 2009 titled "Taliban: What’s in a Name?" which argued that we needed to understand that "taliban" is a broad term encompassing disparate groups including "actual foreign terrorists, actual Taliban fighters from two different countries, narco-warlords jockeying for regional power and influence, regular warlords jockeying for regional power and influence, angry Afghan citizens who’ve grown weary of civilian casualties, angry Afghan civilians who’ve grown weary of foreign forces and their broken promises, regular Afghan citizens who side with the Taliban out of sheer necessity for survival, angry opium farmers, Pakistani agents, and, finally, the invisible blight of government corruption."   Indeed, he told us, "Reducing that complexity to a simple ‘Us and Them’ formula hinders much of the debate about Afghanistan."

Now, of course, Americans are indeed fighting several of these Talibans, most especially Mullah Omar’s old gang in Afghanistan and the foreign terrorists.   So, it would seem that the ISI is indeed at cross purposes with our interests, if not with Pakistan’s.   But given that there’s little evidence that the United States and its NATO allies are in it for the long haul  — and even Hamid Karzai seems to be hedging his bets — it’s not shocking that the ISI is doing what it’s apparently doing.    And it’s not clear that the United States has any particularly pleasant options.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Image: pakistan-taliban.jpg