If the counterinsurgency (COIN) in Afghanistan is America’s longest war, it is also among its more complicated. Insurgencies have their own sets of confusions, intelligence puzzles, and dubious allies. Afghanistan adds its own challenges through its rich tapestry of clans and ethnicities, centuries-old rivalries, poorly defined borders, and myriad of cultural dynamics that make it difficult to distinguish between friends and enemies. In the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, today’s friends can very quickly become tomorrow’s enemies. Pakistan is a country that markets itself to Washington as a friend but whose primary intelligence service may function as an enemy.
The Taliban’s ascent to power fits into the pattern of modern Afghan authoritarian and clan-based politics. Many of today’s insurgent leaders took part in the fight against the Soviets in the 1980s and were directly supported by Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and supplied by the United States. In the summer of 1994, the Taliban entered a general fracas to control Afghanistan. The reclusive leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, led an assortment of religious leaders and students to control 90 percent of the country within five years. Recruits were largely drawn from slums and refugee camps in Afghanistan and adjacent areas in Pakistan. The Taliban was supported, to some extent nurtured, by the ISI. The relationship was born, in part, from elements of common Pashtun identity and a long border. Pakistan views Afghanistan’s security concerns as its own as it has long seen Afghanistan as lying within its sphere of influence.
After the United States invaded Afghanistan to rid the region of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistan, which had armed the anti-Soviet insurgents, pledged to partner with Washington as an ally. In turn, Washington substantially increased the level of military and developmental aid to Pakistan, making it the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Between 2001 and 2009, Pakistan received approximately $12 billion in direct U.S. aid. In 2009 alone, Congress passed a five-year $7.5 billion civilian aid package and in October 2010 the U.S. announced a new $2 billion military aid package as an incentive to work harder at clearing its country of terrorists. Soon, however, observers became skeptical of Pakistan’s true intentions and grew concerned that some of the funds and weapons provided to Pakistan to ferret out the Taliban were, in fact, being handed to the Taliban and used to kill Americans.
A Janus-Faced Ally
Had there been any doubts about Pakistan’s double game, recent revelations by Wikileaks would have put some to rest. The Wikileaks website and the New York Times, The Guardian of London, the German magazine Der Spiegel, and other media outlets revealed Pakistani direct partnering with the Taliban. In addition, a report produced by the London School of Economics in 2010 detailed the assistance of mid-level ISI officials to the Taliban. The report claimed that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari met and coordinated with senior Taliban officials and assured the Taliban that he would resist U.S. pressure to close the insurgents’ sanctuary in Pakistan. Pakistani officials were, predictably, quick to dismiss this report, calling it “rubbish.”
In fact, it is not rubbish. The RAND Corporation produced an extensive study verifying a dynamic and extensive ISI role in the insurgency, and U.S. senators such as Russell Feingold, then-member of the Foreign Relations Committee, have acknowledged the veracity of elements of the Wikileaks reports. This sentiment was echoed by former State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley who said, “It [the ISI aid to the Taliban] is a real threat.” Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton explained that he understood this problem well when he served in the Bush administration and hoped then-Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf would purge the ISI of the more radical and militant elements.
The extent to which the ISI collaborates with the insurgents is debatable. Some observers claim that the ISI’s “S” Wing is the main culprit and operates with relative autonomy and often without approval of high-level leaders in the ISI. Others are skeptical that any element of the ISI could offer large-scale and sustained lethal aid without approval of the ISI’s chief.
Explaining ISI Support
There are three basic reasons why Pakistan’s most important intelligence service supports the anti-American insurgents: Pashtun connections with the Taliban; a consuming hatred for the United States; and Pakistan’s demand to be a regional actor in South Asia.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of ethnic solidarity in parts of South Asia. Vast literature has been written about these bonds and of the sweeping Pashtun nationalism that overarches the porous and contested borders. A Pashtun code of conduct known as Pashtunwali requires tribesman to aid each other and close ranks against a common enemy. The common enemy of some Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns is the Coalition Forces of Afghanistan. About a quarter of the Pakistani military is Pashtun, which is greater than the 15 percent in the general society. The ISI is approximately 25 percent Pashtun. Even more important than Pashtunwali and solidarity, however, is the fear that Pashtuns in Afghanistan may agitate for a Pashtunistan, drawing Pakistani territory into the equation.
A second reason for the ISI aid to the Taliban is driven by a nation-wide consuming hatred for the United States, which receives surprisingly little play in U.S. media. If Pakistan is, indeed, a friend of the United States, the Pakistani intellectuals, clerics, journalists, local politicians, and retired ISI offices have yet to learn this. There is a constant screed against American hegemony, human rights abuses against Pakistanis, and American cultural degradation corrupting Pakistani youth. Above all, Islamic clerics and leaders of civil society fulminate against an American-led war on Islam. For over 25 years, Gulf states have funded Pakistani religious schools, or madrassas, which inculcated boys in the most narrow, puritanical, misogynistic, and religiously chauvinistic strains of Wahhabi-oriented Islam.
Two issues illustrate this broad-base hatred and embrace of wild conspiracy theories. In a trial barely covered by the dominant U.S. media, Afia Saddiqui, also known as “Lady al-Qaeda,” became a national hero in Pakistan. Born in Pakistan, she was raised in the U.S. where she received her doctorate in neuroscience. Soon after 9/11, her allegiances were revealed as she traveled to Pakistan with documents connected to biological weapons of destruction. She hoped to make herself useful to al-Qaeda, but was apprehended in Afghanistan by the U.S. military and shot at a U.S. soldier. She missed, but will be serving the next 28 years in prison. There have been countless demonstrations, political rallies, even a national petition-signing campaign orchestrated from the highest echelons of the Pakistani government, which express the anger and contempt for the United States held in Pakistan. Under the moniker the “daughter of the nation,” Siddiqui is considered a victim of American “Islamophobia.”
Driven by nationalism, the third cause for aiding the Taliban is Pakistan’s insistence on playing a dominant role in South Asian affairs and the need to prove independence from Washington. Many Pakistanis believe that the United States works in concert with India and that Afghan security personnel partner with Indians to undermine Pakistani interests. Pakistani leaders can ill afford to develop the image of being controlled by Washington. They need to appear tough towards the U.S.
Evidence of this pervasive fear of India and hatred for the West is personified in retired ISI chief Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, who headed the ISI from 1987 to 1989. In the late 1980s, Gul worked with Taliban commanders loyal to Mullah Omar, as well as the Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar groups, who are all are tied to al-Qaeda. Today, Gul is flamboyant with his hatred of the United States, India, and Israel. Some of this may be narcissistic braggadocio, but some of his comments reflect his conviction that these three countries are allies in a war against Islam. U.S. leaders have tried to put Gul’s name on a list of international terrorists.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan will remain an important actor in the greater Afghan drama. A U.S. government leader said, “The key thing to bear in mind is that the administration is not naive about Pakistan. The problem with the Pakistanis is that the more you threaten them, the more they become entrenched and don’t see a path forward with you.” This may be the case. Still, there are things the U.S. government can do.
Demand a full accounting by all external players who support the insurgents. Iranian and Pakistani intelligence services have repeatedly, significantly, and enthusiastically supported the Taliban. The data revealed through Wikileaks makes Pakistani denials no longer plausible. Further, Saudi Arabia funds the Pakistani religious schools that preach contempt of the United States, India, and world Jewry. Post-Wikileaks robust and rigorous Congressional hearings could clarify the role of Pakistan in the Afghan insurgency. If the ISI helps the Taliban kill U.S. soldiers, the American people are entitled to know. This issue has been investigated before but insufficiently.
Educate the U.S. military. Establish a hard-hitting security briefing to protect the force against political Islam, or Islamism. This briefing should have three parts—a background on political Islam, to include Islamic mandates for global supremacy, dissimulation, and allegiance to the world’s Islamic community; a second part could focus on service-specific issues and threats; a final part would turn to threats by the world’s Muslims in areas of operation, particularly Afghanistan, in which U.S. forces are deployed or likely to deploy.
Expose the lobbyists. Honest discussion on the role of external players in the Afghan COIN is clouded by the vast army of “consultants” who serve on the payroll of Pakistan, as well as Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting states. Often, these hirelings boast impressive credentials such as retired general, former ambassador, senior intelligence officer, and university professor. While it is their right to work in the interests of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, television audiences could profit from understanding their employment status. They are not honest brokers.
Pakistan may render aid to the United States, but elements of its chief intelligence service also aid the enemy. It may be that one element, “S” Wing, is the singular supplier of lethal aid, but ISI leaders are unlikely ignorant. It may be that a cost-benefit analysis will determine the current relationship with Pakistan is sufficient. Perhaps. But there are reasons to doubt it.
Mark Silinsky is a senior intelligence analyst for the United States Army. His views do not represent those of the Army or any element of the U.S. government.