On WikiLeaks, Pakistan and Afghanistan; the tip of an old iceberg

July 28, 2010

arghandabI’ve been resisting diving into the WikiLeaks controversy, in part because the information contained in the documents – including allegations of Pakistani complicity with the Taliban - is not new. Yet at the same time you can’t entirely dismiss as old news something which has generated such a media feeding frenzy. So here are a few pointers to add to the discussion.


On the likely implications (or non-implications) for U.S. policy towards Pakistan,  go back to 2009, and this piece in the National Interest by Bruce Riedel who conducted the first review of Afghan strategy for President Barack Obama. Having assessed all the evidence, including well-known American misgivings about the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, he concluded that Washington had no option but to stay the course in trying to build a long-term partnership with Pakistan.

American policy for the last 60 years, wrote Riedel, had oscillated wildly between love and hate.  “What the U.S.-Pakistan relationship needs is constancy and consistency. We need to recognize that change in Pakistan will come when we engage reliably with the Pakistani people, support the democratic process and address Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns. Candor needs to be the hallmark of an enduring commitment to civilian rule in Pakistan.

“U.S.-aid levels should not be the product of temper tantrums on Capitol Hill … Our goal should be to convince Pakistanis that the existential threat to their liberty comes not from the CIA or India, but from al Qaeda.

“We also need to engage India constructively on how to reduce and then end the tensions, including in Kashmir, that have resulted from partition. Ironically, the Pakistanis and Indians have made great progress on this issue behind the scenes in the last decade … Quiet and subtle American diplomacy should now try to advance this further.”

“None of this will be easy. Pakistan is a complex and combustible society undergoing a severe crisis. America helped create that crisis over a long period of time. If we don’t help Pakistan now, we may have to deal with a jihadist Pakistan later. That should focus our attention.”

That message of U.S. commitment to Pakistan was reinforced in a statement released this week by the U.S. embassy in Islamabad and as my colleague Chris Allbritton writes in this analysis, there is little reason to believe the WikiLeaks uproar will change Washington’s approach of trying to build a long-term relationship with Pakistan while also leaning on it to “do more” to tackle Islamist militants

The danger of course – and that is one reason why the WikiLeaks uproar cannot be dismissed as old news –  is that allegations will stoke already strong anti-American feeling in Pakistan, making it all the harder for Washington to persuade Pakistan to do more. As Chris quotes Pakistani political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi as saying: “The Islamic parties and the extreme political right in Pakistan already view the U.S. as a major threat to Pakistan. They don’t view the Taliban as a threat. Now these reports have given them a lot of ammunition.”


In one of the more thoughtful reactions to the WikiLeaks reports, Michael Semple, the former deputy EU representative to Afghanistan, writes in this article in The Guardian that it had become an article of faith in Afghanistan to blame the ISI for conflict in the country (many of the WikiLeaks reports came from Afghan intelligence). This he says was based not on empirical findings but on the assumption that Pakistan would never tolerate stability in its neighbour. That is not to say there is no interference, nor that the Taliban do not benefit from safe havens in Pakistan, but rather that in the Afghan war all information/disinformation needs to be treated with caution.

“… the most popular way of establishing credentials as an Afghan nationalist has long been to denounce Pakistan as the enemy,” he writes. ”Among the 180 (WikiLeaks) reports of ISI interference, most are drawn from informants or briefings from the Afghan intelligence service, who describe in lurid detail direct involvement of ISI officers in trying to wreak havoc inside Afghanistan.”

“Most Taliban I have talked to regarding the role of Pakistan make three broad points. They say that they require some degree of official blessing to be able to operate from Pakistan. They say that this blessing is never assured – it is an uncomfortable relationship. And they say that any solution to the insurgency must have Pakistan’s blessing.

“The conclusion I draw from the intelligence controversy is that anyone charged with negotiating an end to the conflict in Afghanistan will have to guard that process from exactly the kind of disinformation we have all been studying. They will need to keep Pakistan, the insurgents and the various parts of today’s Afghan establishment on board, and overcome a high degree of distrust which years of disinformation have contributed to.”

Pakistan and Afghanistan have been trying to improve their relationship in recent months, with President Hamid Karzai in March describing the relationship between the two as that of “conjoined twins”. That does not mean that suspicions of heavy ISI involvement in the insurgency have disappeared - on the contrary they continue to play a strong role in the perceptions of Taliban commanders in the field, as outlined in a report released by the London School of Economics in June. Nor does it suggest that Pakistan’s own approach to the many militant groups based on its territory is any less opaque.  But it did help open up the possibility of an eventual negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan.

Will the WikiLeaks uproar now sour those ties again?  The allegations do not come as any more of a surprise to the Afghans than to the Americans, but they have given Afghanistan an opportunity to reassert its long-standing complaint about ISI interference.


This to me is a far more interesting question than whether Pakistan has a role in Afghanistan. You can be fairly sure the U.S. administration has a shrewd idea of the answer and has been working for months to narrow its differences with a country which has a powerful role either as ally or adversary. 

It says it wants a stable and neutral Afghanistan, and a rollback in Indian influence there. While “neutrality” is hard to define given Pakistan’s deep distrust of India, and while it would be expected to push for a friendly government in Kabul, this does not imply that it wants the Taliban back in power in Kabul (although it would probably expect them to be part of any political settlement.)

Pakistan found the Taliban hard enough to control when they were in power from 1996 to 2001 – it was not, for example, able to persuade them to recognise the Durand Line, the colonial era border dividing the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. A resurgent Taliban, fresh from any victory against the Americans, would be even harder for Pakistan to manage. So it would be against its interests for the movement to have too much power, particularly since this might embolden Taliban allies on the Pakistan side of the border, who have already unleashed a wave of bombings across the country.

On top of that, there is little love lost between the Taliban and Pakistan, and certainly no liking for the ISI, if  you go by comments made by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the last Taliban ambassador to Islamabad. “In my dealings with them (the ISI) I tried not to be so sweet that I would be eaten whole, and not so bitter that I would be spat out,” Zaeef writes in his book “My Life with the Taliban”.  

Pakistan has also been pushing for a political settlement which it says should include all Afghanistan’s different ethnic groups (a Pashtun/Taliban only settlement would likely lead to renewed civil war and de facto partition, both of  which would leave Pakistan still struggling with an unstable neighbour).  But I’ve not heard anyone suggest that Pakistan wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan within a year – rather the talk is more of a three to five-year time horizon (coincidentally or not, the three-year timetable matches the unexpectedly-long three-year extension in the term of office just given to Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.) 

So far the U.S. administration has said it needs more time to weaken the insurgency and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table;  but acknowledges there will eventually have to be a political settlement (a propos of which, it’s interesting to note that David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, quotes General James Jones as saying that elements of the Taliban might be willing to meet one U.S. condition for talks, which is to disavow al Qaeda. “The Taliban generally as a group has never signed on to the global jihad business and doesn’t seem to have ambitions beyond its region,” it quotes him as saying.)  It’s not entirely clear, therefore, that there is such a huge gulf between the United States and Pakistan on the need for a political settlement, except on the timing.

Where it does get impossibly murky, is in managing the tortuous relationship between India and Pakistan. Pakistan accuses India of using its large presence in Afghanistan to destabilise its border areas, including by backing separatists in Baluchistan – an allegation India denies. India fears Pakistan wants to use Afghanistan as a base for anti-India militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir – as happened before 2001.  With the kind of “quiet and subtle” diplomacy advocated by Riedel in 2009, Washington has been pushing the two countries to talk, although so far progress has been limited. So while Pakistan might eventually be able to lean on the Taliban to negotiate, and may not be that far apart from Washington on the kind of settlement it wants to see in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to want to give much ground until it has some reassurances about India (that India, in turn, still angry about the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, is unwilling to give.)

Add into that all the uncertainties of the region, including a potential showdown over Iran’s nuclear programme, the practical difficulties of persuading the Taliban to sever ties with al Qaeda (something it is unlikely to want to do as long as it needs it as an ally), the difficulties of persuading Pakistan’s population to turn against Islamist militancy, and a 60-year-old conflict over Kashmir, among many other things,  and you have a situation that is incredibly hard to manage.

Compared to that, the WikiLeaks reports are only the tip of an iceberg that everyone has always known is there. 

Or as Andrew Exum argues in this op-ed in the New York Times: “I can confirm that the situation in Afghanistan is complex, and defies any attempt to graft it onto easy-to-discern lessons or policy conclusions. Yet the release of the documents has led to a stampede of commentators and politicians doing exactly that.”


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