The moving story of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the CIA

March 10, 2008

I just came across a feature on Salon.com headlined Killing ourselves in Afghanistan which I’d recommend to anyone interested in U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Writer MatthewCole has collected evidence which he says shows that some of the $10 billion given in U.S. aid to Pakistan since 9/11 has been used to fund Taliban militants killing American and other troops in Afghanistan. “In part because of Pakistani help, the Taliban have made a steady comeback and American and Afghan casualties are at their highest annual levels since the war began,” he writes. “Islamabad has denied complicity and Washington has maintained official silence, but the double-dealing is not surprising. It’s just the continuation of the Pakistani government’s former alliance with the Taliban, which was itself an outgrowth of a decades-old Pakistani policy of trying to exert control over the internal affairs of its chaotic neighbor.”

U.S. soldier near Afghanistan-Pakistan border/Ahmad Masood

Cole quotes European and American analysts as saying thatPakistan stepped up aid to the insurgents in 2004 because the administration led by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf saw that U.S. forces were achieving no better than a stalemate in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s stronghold. “The Pakistanis stepped into the resulting power vacuum by aiding the Taliban.”

As any journalist who has ever tried to write about this part of the world will know, establishing the truth is nearly impossible, and much of Cole’s evidence will no doubt be challenged, both in Islamabad and elsewhere. But what makes this article interesting reading is the way in which he has tried to put his own experience on the ground together with the CIA perspective on Pakistan.

“The Americans were quickly aware that the Pakistanis had no enthusiasm for fighting the Islamist insurgency,” he writes. “Gary Schroen, a former senior CIA official who led the first U.S. team into Afghanistan days after 9/11 and a former station chief in Islamabad, told me recently that where the Pakistan army does engage in battle against militants, they do so without vigor. ‘The Pakistanis don’t want to fight a counter-insurgency inside their own country,’ he said. “They don’t want to fight against Muslims, they want to fight against India.’ Ultimately, the Americans came to realize that the (Pakistan intelligence agency) ISI was not just avoiding conflict with the insurgents, or shielding them, but actively abetting them.”

That the U.S. administration did nothing about this, he considers “an American foreign-policy debacle”.

Whatever you think about his article, I’d recommend you read through to the end, for it’s only then that you realise that pinning down the relationship between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban is like trying to hit a moving target. Cole says that the Pakistan administration has now turned against many of theIslamist militants,  fearing that they are endangering Pakistan itself:

Pakistani refugees in Afghanistan/file photo by Ahmad Masood

“Of late, however, the foreign-led Taliban factions in the Tribal Areas, the ones believed to shelter al-Qaida’s Arab leadership, have begun focusing more attention on destabilizing Islamabad than Kabul. Now Pakistani intelligence has reason to work with the Americans, at least when it comes to some jihadis, including those known locally as ‘the Arabs’. Many of these insurgents were once aligned with the ISI, but no more,” Cole writes. “The ISI and the Pakistani army are now at war with a powerful, many-tendriled insurgent band they helped to create. The ISI’s history of double-dealing has come back to haunt it.”

Cole’s article does what many journalists aspire to do — “a first writing of history”. It’s already history in the sense that Musharraf is now battling for survival. It’s history because Cole himself says that the attitude of Pakistan has changed. It’s history too in the sense that Pakistan, which for so long looked to Afghanistan to give it strategic depth againstIndia, is now trying to make peace with its much bigger neighbour.

So where does that leave us? As a journalist, who is interested in history, I’d like to know what you think. What did happen after 9/11 and what is happening now?

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