Ever since the United States issued a rather unceremonious threat to bomb the Pakistanis back to the Stone Age in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks unless they changed course, Pakistan has been America’s indispensible - if less than reliable - South Asian ally. A new report authored by Matt Waldman for the London School of Economics highlights what U.S. policymakers have long considered Pakistan’s greatest deficiency: that its military intelligence apparatus, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, supports the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The ISI’s support for the insurgency is no revelation to those who follow South Asia closely; it represents the culmination of decades of policy choices and developing organizational culture. Yet by providing a rare glimpse into the thinking of senior Taliban field commanders, whom Mr. Waldman interviewed around Kabul and Kandahar over a four-month period earlier this year, the report breaks new ground.
Nowhere is this knowledge more needed than in Washington. As a senior U.S. intelligence analyst who recently returned from Afghanistan concedes, the United States knows little about the mechanisms of ISI support for the Afghan insurgency. Lacking a sound understanding of the problems we confront, it’s nearly impossible to address them.
The most interesting aspect of Mr. Waldman’s analysis is the degree to which insurgents see the ISI as a driving force behind the fighting, rather than a peripheral supporter of their efforts; interviewees described its role as being “as clear as the sun in the sky.” Some commanders believed that ISI orders were critical to attacks against “road contractors, schools or aid workers.” While they may not like these target choices (preferring to fight American occupation forces), there was a palpable feeling that they had no choice. “When we are ordered to do these things, we cannot say no,” a commander based in southern Afghanistan told Mr. Waldman. “Many [Taliban commanders] have been assassinated by the ISI.”
Mr. Waldman illustrates specific mechanisms through which insurgent commanders believe the ISI has been able to maintain influence. One is through representation on the Quetta shura, the military command for Taliban operations in southern Afghanistan. Interviewees believed that the ISI “has representatives on the shura, either as participants or observers, and the agency is thus involved at the highest level of the movement.”
The ISI also wields influence by arresting senior Taliban leaders when they run afoul of its wishes. Earlier this year, the ISI prominently arrested Taliban military leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar after he engaged in reconciliation negotiations with the Afghan government without Pakistan’s permission. Although the agency held Mullah Baradar in captivity, it promptly released Taliban leaders Qayyum Zakir and Mullah Abdul Raouf Khadem, whom it had arrested around the same time. The clear implication is that the ISI thought Zakir and Khadem easier to control than Baradar.
Mr. Waldman draws no distinction between the various levels at which the ISI supports the Afghan insurgency. The agency can aid insurgents through official policy, through unofficial policy (which is alternately described as the work of ISI “rogue elements” or of wink-and-nod acceptance), and through ISI-affiliated entities who do not represent the official ISI, including contractors and retired officers who remain powerful forces. While the report’s assessment that Pakistan seems to be “playing a double-game of astonishing magnitude” is defensible, it raises questions as to which factions within the ISI are supporting the insurgents, as well as questions about the nebulous alliances within the Pakistani state, which can hardly be considered a unitary actor.
At times, Mr. Waldman’s interviewees express overly conspiratorial views, portraying the ISI as an omnipotent hidden hand responsible for virtually all the insurgency’s excesses. The agency is often obscured by shadow, as in one interviewee’s description of ISI trainers at a jihadi camp: “The ISI is hard to recognize; we could tell [who they were], but we kept it secret.”
Yet Mr. Waldman delivers new and granular detail of the insurgents’ perspective on the ISI’s role in Afghanistan, and as his analysis makes clear, the significance of its support is not the stuff of fevered fantasy.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross directs the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization. He is co-editor of “The Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater: Militant Islam, Security & Stability” (FDD Press 2010).