The core challenge to President Barack Obama’s Afghan War may not be the Taliban, nor even al-Qaeda, but rather Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence service, the ISI, with its dual loyalties when it comes to fighting Islamic extremists.
Indeed, the success of Obama’s Af-Pak policy may depend on whether Pakistan’s ISI – officially named the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate – can be neutralized or dismantled.
If the ISI remains intact, Obama may never know exactly what side of the street the Pakistani government is really working, given ISI’s historic role in organizing many of the miltant Islamic forces that are now challenging U.S. interests in the region.
During the long-simmering dispute with India over Kashmir, ISI-backed Pakistani Taliban were deployed to bloody up Pakistan's bitter rival, Hindu-ruled India. In the mid-1990s, the ISI-organized Afghan Taliban were used to establish an Afghan regime closely tied to Pakistan.
Those groups of ISI-trained militants are now at the center of the Af-Pak conflicts, with the Afghan Taliban fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Taliban seeking to dislodge the Pakistani government, which the ISI ostensibly serves.
These dual loyalties also are not confined to the ISI. In Pakistan, which defines itself as an Islamic republic, a substantial minority if not a majority of military officers believe they should not fight fellow Muslims but should save most of their resources for the main battle against India and to a lesser extent the United States.
Many of these officers will play a double game, appearing to side with the Americans to get needed resources, but it is just that, a game.
Strong sympathy for the militants pervades 20 percent of the officer corps that is of Pashtun ancestry and thus has tribal loyalties to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.
The ISI’s role in organizing and nurturing the Afghan Taliban forces also has created strong personal as well as institutional bonds. The ISI’s own rise from a minor part of the Pakistani intelligence community to its most influential element tracked with its work organizing those paramilitary militant forces.
The Covert War
In the 1980s, Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq assigned the ISI to handle the billions of dollars in aid pouring in from the United States and Saudi Arabia to help the Afghan mujahedeen fight a Soviet army that was propping up an Afghan communist regime.
ISI officers were steeped in Zia’s mindset which promoted Islamic fundamentalism as a way to advance the cause of securing Kashmir for Pakistan and dominating Afghanistan. President Zia pushed this militant Islamic vision from 1977 until his death in 1988.
As the war with the Soviets raged in Afghanistan, the ISI also helped set up madrassas for young male Afghan refugees inside Pakistan, teaching them a fundamentalist form of Islam.
After the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 and the communist government fell in 1992, chaos reigned in Afghanistan as warlords fought for control. To establish order – and ensure a pro-Pakistani regime in Afghanistan – the ISI fashioned the refugee students into a well-disciplined military force called the Taliban.
In 1996, the Taliban wrested control of Afghanistan, driving out a rival force, the Northern Alliance, which Pakistan suspected of having ties to India. That defeated group, led by Tajik mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, took refuge in the far north.
With the Taliban’s victory, the ISI was no longer just an adviser to the Afghan militants; it was a full partner in the new government.
The ISI also organized a network of Pakistani Pashtuns to assist the comings and goings of al-Qaeda, a band of Arab extremists who first arrived in Pakistan to assist the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and later turned their anti-Western fury on the United States.
That Pakistani network merged with the Pakistani militants who had been part of the Kashmir struggle, creating a powerful Pakistani Taliban movement that is now spreading rapidly across the country.
The double game played by the Pakistani military and intelligence services came into focus in 2001 when Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf found himself in a tight spot after al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
President George W. Bush gave Musharraf an ultimatum: join the international community and fight al-Qaeda or face the whirlwind. Musharraf agreed to assist in the “war on terror,” as did the ISI – at least publicly.
Behind the scenes, however, the ISI immediately created and funded an organization -- mainly staffed by retired ISI officers -- to assist and fund the Afghan Taliban in their resistance to the Americans. [See Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos, p. 222.]
Some ISI agents even balked at leaving Afghanistan when ordered to do so, choosing instead to stay behind and help the Taliban during the U.S. invasion in October 2001.
Most of these ISI operatives were caught along with other foreign fighters (including many Arabs) when the Northern Alliance surrounded Kunduz.
Musharraf intervened with Bush to gain permission for an airlift that transported the Pakistanis and some foreign fighters to safety.
This event, which Pakistanis call the “Great Escape,” convinced many in the Pakistani army that they could continue to play their double game with the United States, confident that some officials in the Bush administration remained sympathetic.
(The airlift likely saved the lives of those fortunate enough to get out, since the Northern Alliance suffocated many of their captives by locking them in trailers.) [See Rashid’s Descent into Chaos, p. 91.]
The Pakistani army also contributed to what might have been President Bush’s worst military blunder when he counted on the Pakistanis to block escape routes from Tora Bora as U.S. warplanes pounded al-Qaeda’s base camps.
When Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants fled to Pakistan, they evaded the Pakistani army which proved ineffective in preventing key al-Qaeda personnel from reaching safe havens in Pakistan.
Though Pakistan maintained a surface cooperation with the United States – helping to capture a number of second-level al-Qaeda operatives holed up in Pakistan – suspicions remained about the true sentiments of the Pakistani government and especially the ISI.
Six years after 9/11, NATO officers serving in Afghanistan blamed U.S. failure to get tough with Pakistan as a key impediment to defeating the Afghan Taliban, which operated from bases along the Pakistani border.
When the Pakistani army did mount an offensive in the border region two years ago, it suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban. Western analysts suspected that the army officers didn’t have their heart in fighting their former allies.
Even today as the Pakistani army finally has stepped up its attacks on the Pakistani Taliban – after the group launched a campaign of terrorist attacks designed to destabilize the Pakistani government – Pakistani officials still are unwilling to engage the Afghan Taliban.
In July, Pakistani officials complained to the Obama administration that a U.S. Marine offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan was driving more militants into the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
“Pakistan does not have enough troops to deploy to Baluchistan to take on Taliban without denuding its border with its archenemy, India,” the Pakistanis told the Americans, according to New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez.
“The Pakistani account made clear that even as the United States recommits troops and other resources to take on a growing Taliban threat, Pakistani officials still consider India their top priority and the Taliban militants a problem that can be negotiated.
“In the long term, the Taliban in Afghanistan may even remain potential allies for Pakistan, as they were in the past, once the United States leaves. …
“The United States maintains that the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammed Omar, leads an inner circle of commanders who guide the war in southern Afghanistan from their base in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan.
“American officials say this Taliban council, known as the Quetta shura, is sheltered by Pakistani authorities, who may yet want to employ the Taliban as future allies in Afghanistan.” [NYT, July 22, 2009]
With the Pakistani military still playing its old double game – and still obsessed about India – the Obama administration faces a stark choice: either shower Pakistan with aid money in hopes that the situation will improve, or pursue a policy of isolating Pakistan and giving only limited amounts of humanitarian and development aid.
The first course is the current policy as reflected in the $7.5 billion civilian aid package signed by Obama on Thursday. Despite the American largesse, the aid bill raised hackles in Pakistan because it included conditions like greater civilian control over the military and a demand that Pakistan stop supporting militant groups.
Pakistani officials criticized the conditions as a violation of their nation’s sovereignty, prompting a White House statement that sought to smooth the ruffled feathers.
The second approach, isolating nuclear-armed Pakistan, could have two likely results:
The Pakistani people, in a voluntary act of the exercise of people’s power, might overthrow the ISI and related army generals and form a new government of national reconciliation with prospects for democracy and a healthier civil society.
Or more likely, there would be a coup against the democratically elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, who would be replaced by a pro-Taliban military officer. Given Pakistan’s possession of a small nuclear arsenal, that prospect terrifies many U.S. officials.
However, despite the risks, I regard an isolation strategy as superior to current policy because it would clarify the truth about the Pakistani military – that it continues to coddle violent extremists as part of its strategy to undermine India.
In time, I believe the Pakistani people would act like the people of Iraq and find a way out of the current chaos.
In Iraq, it was the Sunni tribal leaders’ rejection of al-Qaeda extremism and the unilateral cease-fire by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia forces – not the actions of Gen. David Petraeus – that contributed the most to the relative peace in Iraq today.
Similarly, Pakistani-based terror attacks like the one on Mumbai, India, and against the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan – as well as the spread of harsh Taliban control over parts of western Pakistan – could cause the Pakistani people to rise up against the extremists and their ISI allies.
In my view, the United States will never have a fruitful partnership with the Pakistani government until the ISI is gone, their personnel dispersed and their buildings razed.
The Afghan Theater
Afghanistan represents a different, though related, problem, with the pressing issue there the level of U.S. troops – now at about 65,000 – with Gen. Stanley McChrystal recommending about 40,000 more.
But the more fundamental problem is the lack of qualified Afghan officials and a functioning Afghan government. By and large, Afghanistan has been without a professional cadre of bureaucrats since the communist government collapsed in 1992. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart.”]
While President Hamid Karzai’s administration is frequently denounced for corruption, it also deserves condemnation for ignoring the tedious work of building a skilled government bureaucracy.
And it makes little sense for a beefed-up U.S. military to occupy unsecured areas and provide government services when Afghanistan lacks the civil affairs personnel to take over those jobs.
This summer, after 4,500 U.S. Marines routed Taliban forces from parts of Helmand Province, U.S. officials were struck by the shortage of trained Afghan troops to augment the force and the unwillingness of Afghan officials to provide government services in a relatively remote and dangerous area.
Rather than a second wave of Afghan bureaucrats providing civilian services, the Marines were followed by a small international “stabilization team.”
U.S. and British officials said “several factors, including a lack of qualified and educated workers in the remote province, a shortage of housing and office facilities for professionals from larger cities like Kandahar or Kabul, and a series of tensions and rivalries among various Afghan agencies, were impeding the kind of follow-up needed to convince residents that the Afghan government is credible, committed and a better alternative than the Taliban,” reported the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable.
"What we need is to put visible Afghan government in these areas," said John Weston, a U.S. civilian aide in Helmand who also had worked in Iraq. He added that without a solid Afghan presence, "we will have a lot of well-meaning Americans doing good things, but it will be a trap." [Washington Post, July 18, 2009]
So, in Afghanistan, the key issue is not specific U.S. troop levels, but the desperate need to build up the Afghan army and to create a bureaucracy of competent civil servants.
Meanwhile, the greatest U.S. military imperative will be to do no harm.
While pulling out U.S. troops entirely could be devastating to democratic elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is little good that would likely come from new military offensives, outside of limited counter-terrorist strikes and defensive operations.
Rather than trying to extend U.S. and NATO military control everywhere, a wiser course might be to concentrate on areas of Afghanistan that are relatively friendly. The ethnic map lends itself to such a retrenchment, which would involve shifting away from the Pashtun heartland in the east and south.
The U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces could base themselves around Kabul and in northern areas dominated by the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen. Coalition forces also should be able to establish themselves in the Dari-speaking Shia Muslim (Hazara) areas to the west of Kabul.
In these secure areas, the coalition could accelerate reconstruction, including development of a decentralized bureaucracy to provide an array of government services.
Schools can be built outside Kabul for students who have shown promise. Health agencies could lower infant mortality, ameliorate chronic diseases such as malaria, measles, polio and tuberculosis, and stem outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever and cholera.
The goal would not be to create a paradise, but even modest progress would be welcomed by Afghans who have experienced only poverty and misery during three decades of violent interventions by both international and regional powers – including the Soviet Union, United States and Pakistan.
These U.S./NATO reconstruction efforts would advance slowly, only moving into districts that the U.S. military is confident it can hold and where development can be painstakingly promoted.
The Afghan Taliban are well financed with a hand in the drug trade valued at $3 billion to $4 billion and with untold millions of dollars flowing from sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.
However, the United States and its allies are in a position to compete by providing valuable goods and services.
Despite McChrystal’s alarming report about a possible “mission failure” if more U.S. troops are not deployed, it should be remembered that even after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the Afghan communist army managed to beat back rebel offensives.
At that time, the mujahedeen were receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid, including sophisticated U.S. military equipment. But the communist regime didn’t collapse until 1992, after the new Russian government of Boris Yeltsin cut off support.
The tribal nature of Afghanistan, accentuated by the rugged terrain, makes military conquests difficult whether by a high-tech super-power or a lightly armed guerrilla force.
So, even if the United States must settle for a temporary stand-off with the Taliban – while an Afghan government infrastructure is assembled and negotiations with more moderate Taliban are tried – the likelihood is not for a sudden collapse.
By tamping down the violence and showing some patience with reconstruction, President Obama might find that time is on his side and that calls for an urgent military buildup are misguided.
Too often, the American reaction to a problem has been to use force. Sometimes, the United States has been lucky in the outcomes even when a military intervention was a bad idea. Other times, vast quantities of blood have been spilled for no good reason.
This time, a U.S. escalation would surely kill many of the enemy – along with civilians and American soldiers – but such a slaughter would not likely achieve victory and would surely alienate many more Afghans.
The bottom line is that there appears little the United States can achieve militarily in this volatile region at least in the near term. So, the best strategy may be to refrain from the temptation to escalate – and instead count on the Afghan and Pakistani people to point the way toward a solution.
Bruce P. Cameron has served as a Washington lobbyist for various governments over the past several decades, including Nicaragua, Mozambique, Portugal and East Timor. He is the author of My Life in the Time of the Contras.
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