Taking on the Taliban, by Steve Coll

Cross Post from The New Yorker

http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/03/01/100301taco_talk_coll

The Taliban’s jihad, like rock and roll, has passed from youthful vigour 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 behaviour; 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.

19 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Army, India, Islamabad, Obama, Pakistan, Taliban, Terrorism, USA, violence, war, War On Terror

19 responses to “Taking on the Taliban, by Steve Coll

  1. Midfield Dynamo

    I am constrained to draw this analogy, but as Israel in response to its high handedness is responsible to create Hamas and Hezbollah, India’s aggressive posture in the region has caused the creation of militancy in Pakistan especially the sustenance of Taliban. If both of these countries were to calm down the world would be a better place.

  2. Gorki

    Hezbollah was a result of Israeli invasion and a prolonged subjugation of South Lebanon and the Hamas a result of a continued occupation of Palestine territories.

    What action(s) of India co relate with that of Israel?
    How can India ‘calm down’?

    Regards.

  3. bushra naqi

    Since 9/11, the Pakistani state and the I.S.I. have had to reconsider their policies on Afghanistan, India and militancy. Some people here still resent the turnaround and blame Musharraf for it.

    The point here is all about political expediency and shift in strategic interests, which every country makes when the right time comes, especially when realization dawns that the policy was flawed. The past proves that the Afghans have only used us and being a poor beleagured country will only use us further.

    Again we need to make a complete shift in our policy towards Afghanistan and also India, both of which are now based more on perception than reality.

    Afghanistan can only be at best neutral and can provide no benefits to us, neither politically, economically or strategically. Their brand of militant Islam is not acceptable to us, and we have shown our condemnation by fighting them in Swat and Fata

    As far as India is concerned its priorities have shifted towards economic development and they will not throw all this away by continuing its confrontation with Pakistan. Therefore by harboring militants and not taking necessary action against them, Pakistan will only unleash the demons against itself and jeopardize its survival

    In the final analysis the perception of threat can only be eliminated by changing mindsets.

  4. Mustafa Shaban

    @Midfield Dynamo: You are right in your analogies partially. However Hezbullah and Hamas are legitimate national resistance movements and are doing aa good job and are not fundamentalists. The Afghan Taliban on the other hand are fundamentalists and also they have become a nationalist movement due to the occupation. The Pakistani Taliban are just plain terrorists.

    @Gorki: There are tons of ways india can calm down. I think you must have noticed the constant anti pakistan stances in the media. Also you must have noticed the constant blaming of Pakistan at whatever goes on in India without evidence. Also explosive statements by indian army chief and politicians against Pakistan also cause problems. Its aggressive tone and stance is nt necessary but it does it to show its power in the region.

  5. Again we need to make a complete shift in our policy towards Afghanistan and also India, both of which are now based more on perception than reality.

  6. Hayyer

    When Deepak Kapoor says India can fight a two front war all that he means is that it can hold off the enemy on two fronts.

  7. rex minor

    Both Indian and Pakistan leaders need to look after their own respective citizens. In my opinion there are no terrorists either in India or Pakistan. As a first step they need to send their armies to the barracks and start a dialogue with the citizens to improve the democratic process.

    The second step would be to cease the clandastine activities of their intelligence networks against each other. The terrorists acts in India and Pakistan need to stop, most of them are being authorised by the respective inteligence units. And the real tragedy is that the Israeli (Mossad) and the American(CIA and co) are all now involved in destabilising both countries. The political leaders of the countries are telling their own citizens simple lies, as in the past.!!

  8. neel123

    @ Midfield Dynamo,

    If India is aggressive, which is your point of view, there is Pakistani Army to take care of Pakistan.

    Do you think by justifying and encouraging terrorism, fuelled with religious fanaticism will achieve what 62 years and four wars failed to achieve for pakistan ?

  9. banjara286

    @bushra
    u make some good points in ur post. i disagree to some degree on two points:

    first, while i agree that a neutral afghanistan is the best that pakistan can – and should – hope for, i feel that it is not correct to suggest that there is nothing the afghanistan can do for us. afghanistan is central to the access of central asia to facilities that paskistan can offer, as well as to the transit of pakistani good to central asia. this makes good relations between afghanistan and pakistan very important; of course it cannot be at the cost of either country “making use” of the other.

    my second point is in a way related to the first. pakistan is in a similar role vis-a-vis india that afghanistan is to pakistan, whether it is trade to central asia, or access to their energy resources – both being of critical importance to india. for exactly the same reasons, india should be concerned about the importance of good relations with pakistan. i categorically disagree that it is only the pakistani mindset that has to change. change to the indian mindset – leading to a resoultion of kashmir and water disputes – is even more crucial. under no circumstances is it in paksitan’s interest to back down on these issue; and both the leadership (political as well as military) as well as the citizenry has to be prepared to bear the cost that has to paid to resolve these issues.

  10. bushra naqi

    @banjara
    I do agree that Afghanistan being our neighbor will lend itself to some mutual benefits, but uptil now our relations have hinged more on subversive activities…smuggling of goods like wheat, sugar etc. of arms and ammunutions, infiltration of militants and support for them. Legal trade and regulations have been thus subverted by non-state actors in the absence of state functionaries leading to severe shortages and gross mismanagement.
    And we have stood back and allowed all this to happen. Our desire to seek strategic depth is an extension of these flawed policies and not a reflection of a non-political and independent stance on issues.

    With India too compromises will have to be made in the light of a constructive policy change keeping in view a mutually beneficial resolution of the basic issues of Kashmir and water disputes.

    Of course we will not opt to surrender, but to concede. in the light of a mutual agreement.

  11. Rashid Saleem

    Political and strategic interests of all countries can change with time and surrounding events. Pakistan is no different from any country. It is a state which would carefully analyze what is beneficial and change its policies accordingly. Even if a diplomatic front is being attempted with the Taliban along with the military operation, we must make sure that it goes in favor of Pakistan.

  12. Ammar

    The relationship between the ISAF command and the Pakistan Army seems to be slowly but surely improving. The trust deficit gap has bridged after the arrest of the second in command Afghan Taliban Commander Mullah Badar from Karachi which has reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to hunt down the terrorists within its boundaries. Thus there is a greater level of mutual confidence and the mantra of “do more” has stopped for now. However more efforts are needed to improve collaboration at the operational and intelligence level which can benefit both sides. The clampdown on the Afghani Taliban will affect the morals of their allies i.e. the Pakistani Taliban.

  13. Ammar

    The colossal inconsistency of closely collaborating with the US and receiving substantial economic in the aftermath of September 11 attacks with amounts to over 8.1 billion USD has been given in security-related aid.
    Therefore being a primary beneficiary of U.S aid and at the same time being supportive of Afghan Taliban’s can no more be consistent. Moreover, the cordial relations between the Jihadi outfits and our establishment are no longer that civil with numerous attacks on Police personals and military installments have forced the Einstein’s to re-think the previous security doctrine. We can longer continue to negotiate with such elements as these tactics are used to buy more time to launch more furious attacks on the public.

  14. PA

    Gorki – Hezbollah was inserted into Lebanon, by Khomeini, BEFORE the Shah was toppled. The Hezbollah was inserted into Lebanon to fight and terrorize Israel BEFORE Israel went into Lebanon.

  15. P Gill

    Pakistan’s concern about water is genuine. But as far as Kashmir is concerned , no government in India will survive if it gives up any part of Kashmir valley to Pakistan. I don’t know whether any government in Pakistan can accept peace without getting some additional part of Kashmir. Neither side can budge, even if they want to.

    Perhaps a good strategy for India is to raise the Pakistan’s concern for water (may be even cancel Indus water treaty if need be). Then give iron clad guaranty on water (joint management ) in exchange for accepting LOC as international border. Both sides may be able to live with it.

  16. Mustafa Shaban

    @PA: The Hezbullah were not started by Iran they began due to the occupation and oppression of the Israelis. Hezbullah never targets civilians, they only target military assests, maybe some civilians get killed in the process but the target has alwayz been military. Also Hezbullah dusnt terrorize Israel, its Israel that brutally terrorises its nieghbours and breaks tons of international laws and UN Laws.

  17. banjara286

    @bushra
    i am also in favor of flexibility and compromises (with both india and afghanistan). however, my point is that no compromises are possible without change in the indian mindset; only a change in pakistan’s mindset cannot achieve an honorable resolution.

  18. insight

    rexminor,
    @In my opinion there are no terrorists either in India or Pakistan.

    How do you explain Kasab (just one shining example)?

    Actually you disagree with yourself since you also said: “The terrorists acts in India and Pakistan need to stop, most of them are being authorised by the respective inteligence units.”

    Those who say that India always blame Pakistan for every violence, I’ll say it is not 100% right for Indians to say so. But those who know the bigger picture can see why Pakistan will be doing that. It is not always 50-50 violence. It is quite possible two have a scenario where one guy is a incurable criminal and the other one with petty crimes. Any effort to make them look equal bad will take lot of lies. Oh, but then where are te evidence that pakistan is doing all that in India. Yes that convinced me a lot as much as having evidence in Mumabi case convinced Pakistan.

    Are you trying to say terrorism in India is by ISI staff and in Pakistan by RAW staff? I am bit confused. It is nice to be sweet but the fact of the matter is in India, terrorist attacks are mostly direct or by indirectly by sleeper cells and some by home grown terrorists. These terrorists are common people who have fallen for Jihad (for whatever cause: be that Kashmir, showing them videos of Muslims killed in Gujarat and revenge for 1971).

    Perhaps, India should handover the whole Kashmir to Pakistan. That will make them happy. Terrorism will go away and there will be no need of Taliban or other terrorists, assuming so-called “no terrorists” do not go after Hyderabad and Gurdaspur.

  19. insight

    rexminor,
    @In my opinion there are no terrorists either in India or Pakistan.

    How do you explain Kasab (just one shining example)?

    Actually you disagree with yourself since you also said: “The terrorists acts in India and Pakistan need to stop, most of them are being authorised by the respective inteligence units.”

    Are you trying to say terrorism in India is by ISI staff and in Pakistan by RAW staff? I am bit confused. It is nice to be sweet but the fact of the matter is in India, terrorist attacks are mostly direct or by indirectly by sleeper cells and some by home grown terrorists. These terrorists are common people who have fallen for Jihad (for whatever cause: be that Kashmir, showing them videos of Muslims killed in Gujarat and revenge for 1971).

    Those who say that India always blame Pakistan for every violence, I’ll say it is not 100% right for Indians to say so. But those who know the bigger picture can see why Pakistan will be doing that. It is not always 50-50 violence. It is quite possible two have a scenario where one guy is a incurable criminal and the other one with petty crimes. Any effort to make them look equal bad will take lot of lies. Oh, but then where are te evidence that pakistan is doing all that in India. Yes that convinced me a lot as much as having evidence in Mumabi case convinced Pakistan.

    Perhaps, India should handover Kashmir to Pakistan. That will make them happy, terrorism will go away and there will be no need of Taliban or other terrorists, assuming so-called “no terrorists” do not go after Hyderabad and Gurdaspur.