Washington needs Islamabad to keep up its relationship with the Taliban if there is to be any lasting stability in Afghanistan.
The classified U.S. military documents revealed by WikiLeaks are partly notable for popularizing an open secret: the link between the Taliban and Pakistan’s premiere intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).
British Prime Minister David Cameron has been opportunistically incensed by the revelations, but he is virtually the only western leader who is. Consider that, according to U.S. military chief Admiral Mike Mullen, any actionable intelligence on the documents was perused during President Barrack Obama’s expansive “Af-Pak” review late last year, and was no doubt shared amongst NATO.
Ultimately, the U.S. understands that it is this ongoing relationship that allows Pakistan to exercise influence with the Taliban, potentially drawing them into talks. Accordingly, Pakistan has been cast as America’s enforcer in Afghanistan, charged with bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and – as in the 1980s and 1990s – to keep Kabul in check once the U.S. begins to withdraw from the country.
For the U.S., this approach is bearing fruit. Last week one of the Taliban’s main spokespeople, Qari Yousuf Ahmedi, stated, “We want to live as part of society in the world. We are not a threat to a person or a country. We are like an oppressed person, whose house was attacked by thieves and he is compelled to defend his house.” Ahmedi went on to say that if western forces truly wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, “then the Taliban will not create problems for you,” but “will help you in the process of withdrawal.”
Ahmedi is known for frequently contacting the media to claim credit for Taliban attacks. He is also associated with the Taliban “leadership” around Mullah Omar, indicating that his statement had “official” sanction. It is a powerful signal of the Taliban’s evolving stance, including a potential break with the forces of transnational, anti-American jihad. This is key.
George W. Bush turned to nation building in Afghanistan only after the largest manhunt in history failed to turn up Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri – the chief architects of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Scrambling to find another justification for the mission, a liberal democratic Afghanistan enamoured of human and women’s rights became the new marker of success.
Obama has returned to the early Bush model. For his administration the U.S. occupation has a clear and concise goal: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”
Washington’s “end game” is to pry the Taliban away from al-Qaeda’s embrace. In the lexicon of “Af-Pak,” the Taliban who give up their transnational outlook are “moderates”, notwithstanding their regressive, misogynistic tendencies.
This allows Pakistan’s security establishment to bring the pro-Pakistan (and conversely, anti-India) Taliban into the government in Kabul while isolating al-Qaeda and allied groups. This diverse grouping includes the so-called Pakistani Taliban and other jaded Kashmiri and Punjabi jihadists who have wreaked havoc across Pakistan, claiming thousands of lives.
The Taliban’s potential break with al-Qaeda is welcome news for Islamabad’s own counter-insurgency. It is also the latest in a string of recent successes for its Afghanistan policy. The U.S. has been increasingly accommodating of the Pakistani army’s security concerns in Afghanistan, particularly with regard to minimizing India’s role and influence. This new closeness was emphasized by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement of $500 million in development projects – part of a $7.5 billion multi-year aid package – and her endorsement of Pakistan’s strategy of negotiating with the Taliban, including the fearsome Haqqani network that is based in Pakistan’s border areas and is responsible for a large part of the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Clinton also sought to dispel the perception that the U.S. had shut down Pakistani shuttle diplomacy between the Haqqanis and Kabul. “We had never rejected [reconciliation]…We are not rejecting any offer,” Clinton stated, although she refused to rule out the possibility of the U.S. designating the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization. This American stick underscores the pressure on Pakistan to show steady progress in bringing the powerful Haqqanis onside.
The need to keep this boat of complex negotiations steady explains America’s successful push to extend the tenure of General Ashfaq Parvaz Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief and the former spymaster at the ISI from 2004 to 2007 – a period well-documented by WikiLeaks. They have also indefinitely extended the term of Anne Patterson, the U.S. Ambassador in Islamabad, who has developed a close working relationship with both the political and military leadership in Pakistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, reading the writing on the wall regarding the U.S.-Pakistani entente, and perhaps recognizing that he is no longer indispensable to the U.S. strategy in the region, has also been warming up to Pakistan. He recently fired Amrullah Saleh and Hanif Atmar, his able intelligence chief and interior minister respectively. Both were seen as hawks on Pakistan and opposed reconciliation with the Taliban. He has also equivocated on his relationship with India, and has given the go-ahead to a Pakistani training program for officers in the Afghan National Army.
Detractors such as Karzai’s national security adviser and former foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, used the WikiLeaks issue to argue against the West’s coddling of Pakistan. Regardless, although both Obama and Karzai may give brief nods to the public criticism of Pakistan, too much has been invested in the approach to backpedal now. Obama hopes it will offer a respectable exit from Afghanistan, while Karzai sees few other options for staying in power. The U.S.-Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship will remain business as usual.