Don’t Look Back
March 1, 2010
The Taliban’s jihad, like rock and roll, has passed from youthful vigor into a maturity marked by the appearance of nostalgic memoirs.
Back in the day, Abdul Salam Zaeef belonged to the search committee that recruited Mullah Omar as the movement’s commander; after the rebels took power in Kabul, he served as ambassador to Pakistan. “My Life with the Taliban,” published this winter, announces Zaeef’s début in militant letters. The volume contains many sources of fascination, but none are more timely than the author’s account of his high-level
relations with Pakistani intelligence.
While in office, Zaeef found that he “couldn’t entirely avoid” the influence of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. Its officers volunteered money and political support. Late in 2001, as the United States prepared to attack Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the I.S.I.’s then commanding general, Mahmud Ahmad, visited Zaeef’s home in Islamabad, wept in solidarity, and promised, “We want to assure you that you will not be alone in this jihad against America. We will be with you.” And yet Zaeef never trusted his I.S.I. patrons. He sought to protect the Taliban’s independence: “I
tried to be not so sweet that I would be eaten whole, and not so bitter that I would be spat out.”
Earlier this month, outside Karachi, Pakistani security services, reportedly accompanied by C.I.A. officers, arrested the Afghan Taliban’s top military commander, Abdul Ghani Baradar, an action that has revived questions about the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban. The Taliban rose to power with extensive aid from the I.S.I.; the collaboration persisted, if less robustly, after September 11th.
More lately, the Pakistani military, of which the I.S.I. is a component, has seemed to waver, striking against some Taliban factions in Pakistan but tolerating or helping others. (As recently as December, U.S. intelligence was collecting evidence of mid-level contacts between the I.S.I. and Taliban factions fighting in Afghanistan.) Mullah Baradar’s arrest, which was followed, last week, by the arrests, in Pakistan, of two other significant Taliban leaders, suggests that the I.S.I. may be further reviewing its calculations. In any event, there are few strategic issues of greater importance to the
outcome of President Obama’s Afghan war.
Why might Pakistan consider modifying its strategy? In 2009, Islamist militants, mainly Taliban, carried out eighty-seven suicide attacks inside Pakistan, killing about thirteen hundred people, almost ninety per cent of them civilians, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. Last October, Taliban raiders staged an unprecedented assault on the Army’s General Headquarters, in Rawalpindi. Customarily, Pakistani officers have blamed “bad” Taliban for such domestic raids, while absolving “good” Taliban (who shoot only at infidels in Afghanistan). As the violence on Pakistani soil intensifies, however, it would be natural for Pakistan’s generals to question whether their jihad-management strategy has become mired in false distinctions.
American diplomats have been warning Pakistan for years, to little effect, that support for Islamist extremists would boomerang against its own interests. The Bush Administration made matters worse by delivering several billion dollars of covert aid to the I.S.I. for help against Al Qaeda without holding it to account for coddling the Taliban and other militant groups. The paranoid style of politics in Pakistan makes the American version look quaint. In recent days, there has been speculation that Mullah Baradar’s detention is evidence of some sort of diabolical I.S.I. conspiracy to thwart reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, or to manipulate such talks, or to split the Taliban. (A report in the Times indicates that Baradar’s arrest may have been accidental; in Pakistan’s national psyche, however, there are no accidents.)
The Taliban are a diverse, dispersed guerrilla force with multiple command centers and locally autonomous leaders. Nonetheless, the Afghan Taliban leadership group in which Baradar reigned, known as the Quetta Shura, has exercised significant authority in recent years, particularly over Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan, where U.S. marines have been fighting house to house. Uncontested sanctuary for Islamist guerrilla leaders in Pakistan contributed to the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan; the elimination or even the reduction of such a sanctuary for the Taliban (and Al Qaeda) would ease American burdens in Afghanistan by no small margin. American strategists claim to see encouraging changes in Pakistan’s behavior; intelligence-sharing between the United States and Pakistan, severely constrained by mistrust eighteen months ago, has increased.
Unfortunately, the geopolitical incentives that have informed Pakistan’s alliance with the Afghan Taliban remain unaltered. Pakistan’s generals have retained a bedrock belief that, however unruly and distasteful Islamist militias such as the Taliban may be, they could yet be useful proxies to ward off a perceived existential threat from India. In the Army’s view, at least, that threat has not receded. Indo-Pakistani peace negotiations that have been in suspension since the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack are only just re-starting. Absent a sudden breakthrough that charts the potential for normalizing relations between Pakistan and India—a framework settlement on Kashmir, freer trade, freer borders, and demilitarization—Pakistan’s rationale for preserving the Taliban and similar groups is not likely to change.
The I.S.I., by all accounts, is not a sentimental outfit. Although Zaeef witnessed its senior commanders wail over America’s plan to overthrow the Taliban (one I.S.I. general was “crying out loud, with his arms around my neck like a woman”), he was also savvy enough to take note of Pakistan’s “mixed signals.” Later, Zaeef defied the I.S.I.’s entreaties to break with Mullah Omar and lead a “moderate” Taliban movement; the Pakistanis arrested him, and handed him over to American soldiers, who transferred him to Guantánamo. (He was released in 2005 and has retired in Kabul.) In his memoir, Zaeef titles the chapter about his betrayal “A Hard Realisation.”
There will be more of those. The root problem in this murkiest theatre of the Afghan war is not Pakistan’s national character or even the character of its generals; rather, it involves Pakistan’s interests. The Pakistani Army has learned over many years to leverage its grievances, dysfunction, bad choices, and perpetual dangers to extract from the United States the financial and military support that it believes it requires against India. At the same time, Pakistan’s generals resent their dependency on America. For the I.S.I. to repudiate the Taliban entirely, its officers would have to imagine a new way of living in the world—to write a new definition of Pakistan’s national security, one that emphasizes politics and economics over clandestine war. For now, many Pakistani generals imagine themselves masters of an old game: to be not so sweet that they will be eaten whole by the United States, but not so bitter that they will be spat out.
Source: New Yorker