In recent weeks the US has begun to pressure Pakistan into doing more to counter the insurgency in Afghanistan, by interdicting supplies going to insurgents and by helping to target Taliban leaders operating near Quetta, in western Pakistan. Joint chiefs head Admiral Mullen has strongly urged Pakistan to do more against the Taliban insurgency, and blunter statements have almost certainly been given in private.
Restricting supplies from Pakistani intelligence and the demise of key Taliban leaders in their Pakistani havens would be important developments in the war. They would not turn the tide but they would damage the Taliban’s unity of command, increase the possibility of dissension between regional commanders, and perhaps even lead to a few important defections.
But Pakistan is rejecting these requests, whether expressed diplomatically or forcefully. Though possibly for domestic consumption, the most recent rejection appears firm, leaving Washington in a quandary regarding its putative ally in the war on terror, and regarding how best to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Ties with Terrorist Groups
It is puzzling why the previous administration refrained from greater pressure on Pakistan, though it is not puzzling as to why Pakistan chooses to protect the Taliban and other insurgent and terrorist groups such as Hizb-i Islami and the Haqqani network. Americans see Afghanistan as part of the war on terror. Pakistan sees it quite differently. While paying lip service to American concerns in the region, Pakistan considers Afghanistan as part of the war on India. And various groups such as the Taliban and Lashkar-i Taiba enjoy government patronage. Even al Qaeda has ably served Pakistan by training volunteers to wage guerrilla war in parts of Kashmir under Indian rule. Indeed, al Qaeda’s base in Eastern Afghanistan, where the 2001 attacks on the US were planned, was built with the assistance of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Pakistan has turned against the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) but only because its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was so unwise as to launch an attack toward Islamabad, instead of fighting against westerners in Afghanistan, which was the modus vivendi Pakistan and the TTP reached in early 2009. The army launched a counterattack in the Swat Valley, one is unfolding in the TTP’s homeland of S. Waziristan, and ISI likely helped the US find and kill Mehsud with a Predator strike. Support for like groups remains, and one suspects that the military seeks only to disabuse the TTP of further adventures to its south. Better to focus on Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s support for Islamist terrorism and the Taliban insurgency has been sometimes considered the unofficial acts of rogue elements in ISI, but the recent rejection of targeting Taliban leaders near Quetta suggests broad support, in and out of the military. The Pakistani public sees the Kashmir issue as central to their aspirations and identity, and are not discriminating in whom they ally with to fight India.
Public hostility to the US is widespread and fierce. Pakistanis agree on very little, have little regard for their politicians and generals, but they share a hatred of the United States – a passion that politicians and generals encourage and capitalize on it, as they are now by standing up to the US, harassing its embassy personnel, and protecting the Taliban and their like.
Problems from Greater US Pressure
Pakistan’s duplicity is no recent revelation. US policy makers have known, though perhaps not as fully as they should, that Pakistan and ISI have supported the Taliban and other militant groups as part of its India strategy. Following the 9/11 attacks, it was hoped that more generous trade policies and foreign aid would induce Pakistan to break with the network of Islamist militant groups and become a reliable ally in the war on terror. That has failed.
The US is presently weighing reductions in the inducements of eight years ago. The Pakistani military relies greatly on American support, but decades of military defeats and political failures have not led to professionalization and depoliticization, only to overweening senses of honor and messianic mission to guide the nation. The military will give disingenuous assurances but continue support for its allies. Civilian leaders are wary of those allies but even warier of bowing to Washington and giving the generals reason to ponder more intervention in politics.
The US could move closer to India, or at least pretend to. The US commitment to Pakistan was a product of the Cold War, when Indian neutrality was seen as sympathy for the Soviet Union and Pakistan was deemed a reliable ally against communism. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s concerns and misapprehensions are such that many generals in Rawalpindi already believe a realignment is underway and that India and the US are conspiring to break up Pakistan by supporting an insurgency in the western province of Baluchistan – reinforcing the belief in Rawalpindi that Pashtun militants are the country’s most reliable allies.
Pakistan is perilously close to political chaos and faces an insurgency in the Tribal Agencies, an emerging one in the Punjab, and growing urban populations that are sympathetic to Islamist militancy. Any US pressure to break with the Taliban et al must be exerted cautiously lest it bring about a political implosion in a country with scores of nuclear weapons and a hub of terrorist networks. Perversely, Pakistan might exploit its own frailty and point to it as a reason not to cooperate more with the US.
Unilateral Action in Pakistani Territory
The US has warned of unilateral action inside Pakistan. This could take the form of commando raids on Taliban headquarters near Quetta. A few such raids have already been conducted on al Qaeda targets in the tribal agencies, so more raids would not be a departure from past practice. However, Pakistan’s refusal to help against the Taliban might signal that raids against them will not be tolerated.
Unilateral action could also take the form of drone strikes around Quetta. Such strikes in the northwest have been highly successful in killing al Qaeda and TTP leaders and in sowing fear and mistrust in surviving figures. The demise of Mullah Omar would deprive the Taliban of its charismatic leader and cause a power struggle at the top and maneuverings by regional commanders in Afghanistan.
But the success against al Qaeda and TTP leaders was based in large part on the cooperation of Pakistani intelligence, which is willing to get rid of Arab zealots who dream of a caliphate and also contumacious vassals who dare to strike at the king, but not willing to dispense with a key strategic partner against India. In the absence of ISI help, the US will have to rely on special forces personnel on the ground or on fragmentary images from drones several thousand feet up. Neither is likely to be as useful in identifying targets as ISI agents have been; both will likely lead to misdirected strikes and more non-combatant deaths.
* * *
Pakistan’s rebuff of the request for help against the Taliban may well be for domestic consumption. But the absence of substantive aid south of the frontier leaves the US and NATO with the difficult task of countering an insurgency that has become deeply embedded in Pashtun regions over the last few years – and enjoys support from across a lengthy and porous frontier. For their part, Pakistan and its generals must assess what it provides the US to merit so much economic and military aid.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: email@example.com