Help Pakistan rein in the ISI

By David Rohde
September 23, 2011

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

Admiral Mike Mullen’s blunt declaration on Thursday that a Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network acts as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency is a welcome shift in U.S. policy. After a decade of privately cajoling the Pakistani military to stop its disastrous policy of sheltering the Afghan Taliban, the United States is publicly airing the truth.

Pakistan’s top military spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), supported the Haqqanis as they carried out an attack on the American embassy last week, Mullen said during Congressional testimony. Last year, they arrested a Taliban leader who engaged in peace talks without their permission, according to American officials. And many Afghans suspect ISI involvement in the assassination this week of the head of Afghan peace talks that did not involve Pakistan.

The airing of the ISI’s links to the Haqqanis is long overdue. To me, the ISI is a cancer on Pakistan. It is vital, though, that American officials punish the Pakistani military–not all Pakistanis–for the ISI’s actions.

Dominated by hard-line ultra-nationalists obsessed with defeating archrival India, the ISI has killed Pakistani journalists who openly criticize it, harassed human rights activists and undermined efforts to establish democracy. A shadow government unaccountable to the country’s weak civilian government, the ISI is widely feared by Pakistanis.

The agency is dominated by military officers wedded to a paranoid, antiquated and dangerous mindset the C.I.A. helped foment during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad, according to American and Pakistani officials. More ultranationalists than jihadists, ISI officers believe they are the true guardians of Pakistan. To them, the U. S. is an untrustworthy and dissolute nation that is in rapid decline. India is Pakistan’s primary threat. And militants are proxies that can be controlled.

Instead of blaming all Pakistanis for the action of the ISI, the United States must help Pakistan reform an out-of-step, out-of-control agency. Military aid to Pakistan should be halted until the ISI stops sheltering the Afghan Taliban. At the same time, civilian aid to Pakistan should be continued and even increased.

I have a clear bias when it comes to the ISI and the Haqqanis. In November 2008, two Afghan colleagues and I were kidnapped outside Kabul by the Haqqani network. Within days, they shifted us from Afghanistan over the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas. There, the Haqqanis enjoyed a safe haven where they plan spectacular attacks on Kabul, hide from American troops and hold kidnap victims. After seven months of imprisonment, we escaped from captivity.

During my time in Pakistan’s Tribal areas, I saw no effort by Pakistani security forces to confront the Haqqanis. Instead, Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and foreign militants openly walked the streets of large towns, set off explosions during bomb-making classes and brainwashed young men into being suicide bombers. The Taliban operated the local police, schools and road repair crews. The Afghan Taliban fighters that the U.S. thought it had defeated in 2001 had simply shifted a few miles east, into the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Pakistani civilian officials say the Pakistani military views the Haqqanis as proxies they can use to thwart Indian encroachment in Afghanistan. When American forces pull out of the country, Pakistani generals see the Haqqanis as a card they can play in the resulting vacuum. If peace talks do emerge, the Haqqanis can serve as Pakistan’s proxies there as well.

The delusion of this approach is the ISI’s belief that the Haqqanis can be controlled. The agency has lost control of militants it trained in the 1990s to attack Indian forces in Kashmir. Now known as the “Pakistani Taliban,” the militants have declared war on the Pakistani army and state, killing an estimated 2,100 Pakistani civilians this year, according to news accounts.

During my time in captivity, I saw repeated examples of the Haqqanis and the Pakistani Taliban working seamlessly together. Afghan Taliban derided the Pakistani army as an apostate force that was the enemy of any true Muslim. The ISI’s obsession with India is prompting it to follow policies that endanger Pakistan.

One former American military official who served in Pakistan presented an even more frightening scenario to me earlier this year. He said that Pakistani generals might have concluded that the Haqqanis have grown so powerful in North Waziristan that the Pakistani army cannot defeat them. After coddling the Haqqanis for a decade, the ISI has created a Frankenstein it cannot control.


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