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Pakistan’s ISI and Steps Towards Progress in Afghanistan

August 6, 2010

The most contentious issue highlighted in the recent Wikileaks release was the allegation that Pakistan’s intelligence services (the ISI) has maintained tacit support of the Taliban elements it purports to fight against. It is unlikely that anybody in the know was surprised by this statement; American and Afghan officials have long suspected the ISI of playing a double game, and the Wikileaks Papers serve only to further confirm their suspicions. It is no secret that the ISI has traditionally allied itself with the extremist militants; after all, it was the ISI – along with the CIA – who trained and armed the Taliban in their fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

The allegations specifically target Hamid Gul, the Pakistani Lt. General who was once the director of the ISI. Intelligence reports included in the leak suggest that Mr. Gul: has actively worked to maintain his connections to senior Taliban leaders since he left the ISI at the end of the Soviet-Afghan War; has been working with current ISI members to orchestrate terrorist attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan; has been facilitating the movement of insurgents across the AfPak border; has been complicit in the training of suicide bombers; and has concocted plans with the ISI to assassinate Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Gul, however, vehemently rejects these charges and denies any involvement with the Taliban. On July 26, 2010, he told the BBC that “[The USA] is looking for a scapegoat. They have to pin the blame on someone for their defeat, and they are getting defeated. I am exposing the deficiency in the generalship in Afghanistan. I am exposing the deficiency in their planning [and intelligence], and it worries them a lot, so they want to bash me.” Though Mr. Gul’s culpability remains to be proven, it is generally accepted that some elements within the ISI are tacitly allied with the Taliban, at least to some degree. In order for the American war effort to proceed effectively, the elements within Pakistan which seek to undermine Coalition forces must be rooted out and brought to justice. Unless Pakistan’s government begins to undertake meaningful action, it could be them – and not just Mr. Gul, who will bear the brunt of the scrutiny in the future.

The Obama administration is facing several difficult problems in Afghanistan. The issues in Pakistan, though peripheral, present a significant challenge to the progress and eventual success of the war. President Obama’s new strategy will continue to be undermined by the ISI so long as Pakistan’s government remains fragmented. Though Pakistan’s central government is legitimate and democratically elected, it is not totally in control.

Much of the ISI is composed of remnants of the Musharraf regime – which once almost overtly supported the Taliban while paying lip service to the Bush administration. The ISI that remains today falls under the prime minister’s authority, but sometimes seems to operate clandestinely outside of – or in opposition to – his policies. And yet, America maintains its substantial financial support of the Pakistani government. Pakistan should consider Lt. Gen. Gul’s eerily clairvoyant words as fair warning: unless the Pakistani government actively and publicly roots out the Taliban-aligned elements of the ISI, it is likely that Pakistan could end up as the scapegoat for America’s defeat in Afghanistan – a fate with possibly devastating ramifications.

Hamid Gul

For Coalition forces in Afghanistan to see improvement in months to come, the United States will have to tackle a wide range of issues. First of all, America must continue to confront the Pakistani government about the ISI’s Taliban-sympathizing ranks and must demand a swift and decisive result. Though the ISI publicly cooperates with President Zardari, it has most likely been pursuing a hidden agenda. While appeasing American diplomats, it simultaneously seeks to expand its influence using the same Taliban extremists whom it claims to oppose. However, the ISI’s cooperativeness and transparency is now at an all-time high. If the American and Pakistani governments wish to see meaningful changes within the shadowy agency, now is the time to act.

Second, Coalition forces must acknowledge the deficiencies of their intelligence and limit the use of precision UAV strikes. Though these weapons are exceptionally good at hitting specific geographic targets, their human victims are often less than certain. Since Afghanistan is a tribal, community-based society, the unintended killing of civilians affects far more people than just the immediate families of the victims; it fosters widespread resentment of the Coalition forces and tends to polarize the local population in favor of the insurgents. This is a cyclical process: as the emphasis shifts toward better intelligence collection and civilian casualties are reduced, the local population will become more willing to provide information on the whereabouts of the insurgents – thus making future intelligence more plentiful and accurate, and military operations more successful.

Third, President Hamid Karzai’s government must eventually be replaced or, at the very least, rendered more transparent and democratic. His government is corrupt and ineffective on both the local and federal levels, so Afghanistan’s citizens are reluctant to vest any confidence in its ability to protect or provide for them. So long as this distrust remains, Afghanistan’s local population will continue to fear the potential repercussions of cooperating with Coalition forces. After the fraudulent election in 2009, it is unlikely that any government under Karzai will be able to achieve the trust and cooperation of Afghanistan’s provincial population. In these areas, they will likely continue to see Karzai as what he is: illegitimate, and untrustworthy.

-Stephan Guertin

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tanveer Bokhari permalink
    August 7, 2010 6:08 pm

    The three points outlined by Mr. Guertin don’t make sense because together they don’t represent a coherent approach – Point #1 nullifies point #3 and point #2 nullifies both #1&3 – Today, South Asia is at a defining moment: Propaganda assault on Pakistan has led to the disabling of the equilibrium solution for South Asia. As NATO predominates Afghanistan the right approach should have been to facilitate settlement of the boundary dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan; the issue of the Durand-Line, which dates back to the time of the Second British War. Only then Pakistanis and Afghans will start trusting each other and stop interfering in each other’s internal affairs! The bottom line is that threats to Pakistan will not suffice.

  2. James L. permalink
    August 9, 2010 6:58 pm

    I agree. Threats to Pakistan will not suffice; I would submit, however, that they must play a role. The article by Mr. Gurtin strikes me as a commentary on the Pakistani part of the equation, not on everything necessary for operational success in Afghanistan.

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