The past weeks and months have thrust a series of daggers into US strategy in Afghanistan. Each delay in Marjah and Kandahar, each fallen US and NATO soldier, one cut after another, has President Barack Obama bleeding in the Western political sphere. Thus Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s lack of faith in the West slashed like a sword stab to the heart.
Wounded and stumbling, US strategy cannot sustain further damage at the fundamental levels. But a report by the London School of Economics (LSE) is threatening to chop off Washington’s head off.
According to Harvard analyst Matt Waldman, the report’s author, "The Pakistan government's apparent duplicity - and awareness of it among the American public and political establishment - could have enormous geopolitical implications. Without a change in Pakistani behavior it will be difficult if not impossible for international forces and the Afghan government to make progress against the insurgency."
After interviewing Western and Afghan security officials, Taliban commanders, former Taliban ministers and a senior Taliban emissary, Waldman concluded that supporting the Afghan Taliban is “official ISI policy.”
With power circles in Washington and the US public growing increasingly anxious about Obama’s drifting surge, the notion that Pakistan is and has always been playing a double-game is sure to provoke outrage and denial. Islamabad's change of policy was widely credited by US officials as the most positive development of 2009, and eventually used to sell Obama’s surge.
At first the White House and Pentagon will likely defend themselves and their intelligence, denying the report or refusing to comment.
But they’re surely in heated discussions on the Pakistani hotline, dialing the moment they saw the report. They’ve likely had their own doubts. Now the headline Pakistan puppet masters guide the Taliban killers is wrecking havoc in the US and international media. Fallout is inevitable, especially if the following is anywhere close to true.
Waldman emphasizes both areas of collaboration - tactical and strategic - in vivid detail. On the one hand he claims the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) funds the Taliban with weapons and non-military supplies. Smuggling is encouraged. Border crossings are sometimes assisted, other times ignored.
And obviously the material support results from political and religious support.
Waldman alleges that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met with 50 high-ranking Taliban prisoners in early April. He supposedly assured them of Islamabad’s full support, a claim Zardari’s office “vigorously denies,” as one would expect. But while Waldman’s exact version is subject to scrutiny, his overall picture may not lurk far from the truth.
Relying on a Taliban source inside the prison at the time, Waldman alleges that Zardari explained the imprisoned commanders were arrested because of US pressure. Many analysts including ourselves speculated this possibility after the arrest of Taliban general Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Zardari “vowed to release the less well-known commanders in the near future and said that the ‘famous’ Taliban leaders would be freed at a later date.”
Five days after Zardari’s visit, a handful of Taliban prisoners “were driven into Quetta and set free, in line with the president’s pledge.”
The ISI’s purported protection of Taliban commanders leads to the darkest depth America can imagine. Waldman states, “To ensure that the Pakistani government retains its influence over the Taliban’s leadership, the ISI has placed its own representatives on the Quetta shura. Up to seven of the Afghan Taliban leaders who sit on the 15-man shura are believed to be ISI agents. However, some sources maintain that every member of the shura has ISI links.”
“It is impossible to be a member of the Quetta shura without membership of the ISI,” said a senior Taliban intermediary between the Afghan government and the Taliban’s shura.
On top of how plausible the LSE’s report already sounds, Afghanistan’s ex-intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh offered a similar account after resigning/being fired last week.
"The ISI is part of the landscape of destruction in this country, no doubt, so it will be a waste of time to provide evidence of ISI involvement,” The London Times quoted Saleh as saying. “They are a part of it. The Pakistani army of which ISI is a part, they know where the Taliban leaders are - in their safe houses.”
While Waldman isn’t “official proof” of Pakistan’s double game since the actions are readily apparent, his testimony acts like a cornerstone to the umbrella of existing evidence. Though the Taliban have every reason to spread discord between America and Pakistan, there’s sufficient reason to believe something similar to Waldman’s conclusion. Pakistan never demonstrated a verifiable break from past policy, but rather an adaptation to and exploitation of its internal crisis and Washington’s own political demands.
For instance the Kerry-Lugar aid bill is supposedly being sucked down the drain.
Nor has America truly changed its position on Pakistan, which rightfully sees itself being used to rescue Washington from an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. Like Palestinians, Pakistanis have a long history of US duplicity and hypocrisy. They know they’re still being manipulated and won’t be fooled so easily.
It’s going to be interesting watching how US officials handle this new PR disaster when so desperate for Islamabad’s support in North Waziristan and the entire effort in Afghanistan. Will America, realizing the futility, give up wooing Pakistan and launch unilateral operations? Or will Washington downplay the report and hope to fight it out with Islamabad in private?
Doubtful though that Washington can force a change on Islamabad; Richard Armitage tried and Musharraf played a double-game himself. And staying silent wouldn’t solve America’s problem anyway - the not-so-secret secret is loose. US strategy in Afghanistan has no political leadership, too few troops, and no answer to sanctuary in Pakistan.
Obama’s surge is dead in the water.