Can Pakistan’s ISI sever ties with Taliban?

April 13, 2009

The United States has begun demanding rather publicly that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence make a clean break of its ties with the Afghan Taliban to help stabilise the situation in Afghanistan.

But can you force a country to act against its self-interest, despite all all your leverage, asks Robert D. Kaplan  in a piece for the Atlantic. And does it make sense for an intelligence agency to break off all contact with arguably the biggest player in the region?

Since President Barack Obama placed Pakistan at the centre of his strategy to fight the Afghan war, the debate over the ISI has gotten more open and more heated. Some Pakistani officials and experts with links to the establishment have taken exception to the United States openly painting the spy agency in enemy colours, accusing elements within it of supporting the Talibam.

Kaplan argues that Pakistan’s geography as well as a history of instability makes it almost impossible for it to cut ties to the radical Islamists. Pakistan and Afghanistan have a long and unruly border and that alone would make it necessary for security agencies to build a network of contacts with the principal players in Afghanistan.

On top of that, Pakistanis tend to see Afghanistan through the prism of the country’s unending conflict with India. “When they look to the west they envison an “islamisation” of Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries with which to face off against Hindu-dominated India to the east,” Kaplan writes.

So just as Israel will not scale back settlements in the occupied territories, frustrating U.S. peace efforts, or South Korea will from time to time extend an olive branch to North Korea, undermining U.S. efforts to contain the communist state, Pakistan, another one of America’s allies is not going to act against its core interest, he says. You can tell Pakistan to stop helping the Taliban plan and carry out operations, but you can’t tell them to cut links to the militant group altogether.

But isn’t Pakistan itself threatened by the Taliban? “Quetta Burns. Karachi on Edge. Islamabad on Alert”  ran a headline on the popular blog All Things Pakistan. Author Adil Najam says he wouldn’t recommend reading Pakistani newspapers for the faint-hearted. It’s a perfect storm, and if this doesn’t threaten Pakistan’s core interest what does?

[A protest in Karachi and Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani with chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committe John Kerry]

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