The classified American military documents revealed by Wikileaks are notable for popularising an open secret: links between the Taliban and the ISI. According to American military chief Admiral Mike Mullen, actionable intelligence on the documents was perused during the Obama administration’s expansive “Af-Pak” review last year. UK Prime Minister David Cameron may be incensed. But the US understands that it is their ongoing relationship that allows Pakistan to exercise influence with the Taliban, potentially drawing them into talks. Pakistan has been cast as the American enforcer in Afghanistan, charged with bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and — as in the 1990s — to keep them in check once the US begins to withdraw from the country.
For the US, this approach is bearing fruit. Last week one of the Taliban’s main spokespeople, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, said: “We want to live as part of society. We are not a threat to a person or a country. We are like an oppressed person…compelled to defend his house.” He went on to say that if western forces wanted to withdraw then the Taliban will help in the withdrawal.
Ahmadi is associated with the Taliban “leadership” around Mullah Omar, indicating that his statement had “official” sanction. It is a powerful signal of the Taliban’s evolving stance, including a potential break with the forces of trans-national, anti-American jihad. George W Bush turned to nation-building in Afghanistan only when the largest manhunt in history failed to turn up Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. A liberal-democratic Afghanistan enamoured with human and women’s rights became the new marker of success. Obama has returned to the early Bush model. American occupation has a clear goal, to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, and to ensure that their safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot threaten the United States anymore.” Washington’s “end game” is to pry the Taliban away from al Qaeda’s embrace. In the lexicon of “Af-Pak,” those Taliban that give up their trans-national outlook are “moderates”, notwithstanding their regressive, misogynistic tendencies. For Pakistan’s security establishment, this allows it to bring the Taliban into government in Kabul while isolating al Qaeda and allied groups, including the Pakistani Taliban that have wreaked havoc across the country.
The Taliban’s potential break with al Qaeda is welcome for Islamabad’s own Islamist counter-insurgency. It is also the latest in a string of recent successes for its Afghanistan policy. The US is increasingly accommodating of the Pakistani army’s security concerns in Afghanistan, particularly regarding India. This was emphasised by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement of $500 million in development projects and her endorsement of Pakistan’s strategy of negotiating with the Taliban, including the fearsome Haqqani network. “We had never rejected [reconciliation],” she stated, while musing that the US may designate the Haqqani network as a terrorist organisation. This American stick underscores the pressure on Pakistan to show steady progress in bringing the powerful Haqqanis onside. Keeping this boat steady explains America’s successful push to extend General Kayani’s tenure.
Reading the writing on the wall regarding the American-Pakistani entente, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also been warming up to Pakistan. He recently fired his intelligence chief and interior minister, both hawks on Pakistan who opposed reconciliation with the Taliban. He has equivocated on his relationship with India, and given the go-ahead to a Pakistani training program for Afghanistan’s army.
Detractors such as Karzai’s national security adviser and former foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, used the Wikileaks issue to argue against the west’s coddling of Pakistan. Although the Afghan and American presidents may give a nod to public criticism of Pakistan, too much has been invested to back-pedal now. Obama hopes it will offer a respectable exit from Afghanistan, while Karzai sees few other options for staying in power. This will ensure that the US-Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship will quickly return to business as usual. And it is a dangerous business, playing with a fire that Pakistan may not be able to douse.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th, 2010.