Beyond the Leaks: Our Pakistan Problem

Forget the secret war documents that WikiLeaks released and even Afghanistan. What counts is how the U.S. deals with Pakistan

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Kevin Frayer / AP

United States Marines from Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Marines fire machine guns for suppression during a gunbattle.

The release of 91,000 secret documents about the war in Afghanistan by WikiLeaks turned out to be your classic media bang-fizzle. The first-day bang was caused by the spectacular breach of security and the promise of devastating revelations, especially about Pakistan's clandestine support for the Taliban. The second-day fizzle was caused by the absence of much that was new in the documents. By the third day, it was pretty much over. But the war goes on, futilely at the moment. Indeed, the actual situation on the ground is worse than the secret documents describe — a fact that was made plain in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the third day of the story by David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert close to General David Petraeus.

"We need to kill a lot of Taliban," Kilcullen said, a statement that stands well outside the humanitarian spirit of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. But then, Kilcullen admitted, the Afghan government is too unstable for COIN to work very well — a major concession from a charter member of the Petraeus camp and a signal, perhaps, of a change in U.S. tactics. As for the Taliban, he said, there was no question that they were being supported by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Kilcullen recommended that the committee members read a recent paper by Matt Waldman of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy called "The Sun in the Sky."

The paper is astonishing. From February to May this year, the author conducted separate interviews with nine active Taliban field commanders in Afghanistan and 10 former Taliban officials. The commanders are unanimous in their belief that the ISI is running the show. It is a field-level view of the hierarchy and probably an exaggeration, but even at half-strength, the commanders' accounts of direct ISI involvement are entirely convincing. Some of them received training and protection in Pakistani camps run by the ISI. "[The ISI has] specific groups under their control, for burning schools and such like," one commander says. "The ISI [also] has people working for it within the Taliban movement. It is clearer than the sun in the sky." The commanders insist the ISI is opposed to any negotiations between the Taliban and Hamid Karzai's government; several cite as proof the February arrest by Pakistani operatives of Taliban second-in-command Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was involved in informal peace talks with the Afghans.

Why on earth are elements of the Pakistani military supporting the Taliban? In a word, India. India is, first and last, the strategic obsession of the Pakistani military. The U.S. has come and gone from the region in the past; the perceived Indian threat is eternal. With the defeat of the Taliban by U.S. forces in 2001, there was fear that the new government in Kabul would be sympathetic to India and provide a strategic base for anti-Pakistan intelligence operations. And so, despite professions of alliance with the U.S. by Pakistan's then dictator Pervez Musharraf, a decision was made to keep the Taliban alive. A spigot of untargeted military aid from the George W. Bush Administration helped fund the effort. A commander of the vicious Haqqani Taliban network tells Waldman that their funding comes from "the Americans — from them to the Pakistani military, and then to us." Waldman reports that the commander receives from the Pakistanis "a reward for killing foreign soldiers, usually $4,000 to $5,000 for each soldier killed."

This is devastating and outrageous, but slightly outdated — and decidedly incomplete. In the months since Waldman completed his research, the relationship between Pakistan and the Karzai government has warmed considerably. Karzai removed his intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, whom the Pakistanis considered an Indian agent. There is talk of a reconciliation deal in which the Haqqani network will stand down militarily. Most important, the Pakistanis' sense of the perceived threat has changed dramatically over the past 18 months. After a series of spectacular terrorist attacks, the army launched a major campaign against the indigenous Pakistani Taliban. More Pakistani army personnel have been killed in this fight than U.S. forces in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

Are you confused yet? Let me make things more complicated: Afghanistan is really a sideshow here. Pakistan is the primary U.S. national-security concern in the region. It has a nuclear stockpile, and lives under the threat of an Islamist coup by some of the very elements in its military who created and support the Taliban. The one thing the U.S. can do to reduce that threat is to convince the Pakistanis that we will be a reliable friend for the long haul — providing aid, mediating the tensions with India; that we will help stabilize Afghanistan; that we will support the primacy of Pakistan's civilian government. Over time, this could reduce the extremist influence in the military and Pakistan's use of Islamist guerrillas against its neighbors. If it does not — well, the alternative is unthinkable.