Pakistani authorities have reacted angrily to a study released this month by the London School of Economics, which concludes that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has been systematically funding and maintaining top-level ties with the Taliban, and on a larger scale than generally believed. Despite the attention it has garnered, the report affirms what has been common knowledge among academic specialists on Afghanistan and journalists with extensive experience in that country.
The ISI, together with the armed forces, has long amounted to a state-within-a state in Pakistan. Certainly, no policy concerning national security can be designed without it being involved and in charge of implementation. That this applies to the Taliban is beyond doubt. The Taliban’s rise and subsequent triumph, in 1996, over the various Islamist forces battling for control of a chaotic, war-ravaged post-Soviet Afghanistan was the result of ISI sponsorship, training and funding.
Not only did the Taliban’s victory owe itself to the ISI and the Pakistani military, successive Pakistani governments maintained diplomatic relations with Afghanistan’s Taliban-ruled government (Pakistan was only one of three states to do so; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the others). This policy changed only when, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States gave Pakistan an ultimatum. In his memoirs, former Pakistani president and army chief Pervez Musharraf claims that Secretary of State Colin Powell told him: “You’re either with us or against us.” Facing the wrath of a traditional ally, one that, moreover, was forging a strategic alignment with Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, the Pakistanis ditched the Taliban.
Except that they didn’t do so entirely. Pakistan has been the front-line state in America’s anti-Taliban counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. It has fought the Afghan Taliban, and even more assiduously its Pakistani wing, the Tehrik-e-Taliban, which, unlike its Afghan counterpart, poses a direct threat to the Pakistani state and to the dominance within it of the military-intelligence complex.
Pakistani presidents, first Musharraf and now Asif Ali Zardari, have proclaimed that Pakistani soldiers have given their lives in the fight against the Taliban and that the work of Pakistani intelligence has been crucial in catching key Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, most recently the February capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top deputy of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. In exchange for this role, Pakistan has gained billions in U.S. economic and military aid and defused a U.S. policy that, in Islamabad’s view, was moving closer to India and sidelining Pakistan.
But that’s always been only one part of Pakistan’s strategy. Although the Tehrik-e-Taliban is regarded as a foe, the Afghan Taliban is seen somewhat differently. Sure, there are gains to be made with the United States by launching offensives against the latter and delivering up some of its operatives from time to time. But Pakistan also wants to hedge its bets lest the campaign of the United States and its allies fails and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai is forced to make peace, and even accept a power-sharing deal with the Taliban. Should this happen, Pakistan is determined it to play a pivotal role in shaping a post-American Afghanistan, just as it did in post-Soviet Afghanistan through its sponsorship of the Taliban. Its continuing ties with the Afghan Taliban — and with two other Afghan Islamist movements with which it has a long history, those led by Sirajuddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — have been retained for the latter scenario.
And the more the evidence mounts of the unpopularity of Karzai’s corrupt and ineffectual government; of the disappointing results of Operation Moshtarak, which was launched in February amid great fanfare and was supposed to retake control of Marja from the Taliban; of declining support among Americans for the Afghan campaign; of signs that key NATO allies are eager to exit Afghanistan, while others are wondering about the prospects for success; and of Karzai’s reported overtures to the Taliban and his pique with Washington, the more the Pakistani are preparing for a post-American Afghanistan.
Pakistan is determined that there be a friendly, indeed dependent, government in Afghanistan once the Americans and their allies call it quits — President Obama has pledged to start withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011 — and they are well aware of the India-friendly governments that prevailed for decades in Afghanistan until the collapse in 1992 of the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. Pakistan is determined to not be outflanked again. And though the Taliban may not be its first pick to rule Afghanistan, Islamabad knows that it can do business with the movement. Why? Because it has done so before, and because, for all the talk of a partnership, the United States is deeply distrusted within Pakistan generally and its military-industrial complex in particular.
Washington may not like what Pakistan is doing, but given Islamabad’s circumstances it should hardly be surprised by it. Pakistan has not one, but two policies on Afghanistan, one crafted for what it sees as the diminishing possibility of an American success, the other for a post-American Afghanistan.
Rajan Menon is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and of political science at City College of New York/City University of New York.