Can Pakistan Be Untangled from the Taliban?

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Tariq Mahmood / AFP / Getty

Taliban militants patrol on a humvee during a patrol in the Mamouzai area near the border.

In Washington, a New York Times report that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency is directly assisting militant groups fighting against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has barely raised an eyebrow. Veteran Pakistan watchers here have known — or suspected — as much for several years. "It confirms what a lot of us have been saying for a long time," says Lisa Curtis, South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation. In the area of cooperation with the U.S. on counterterrorism, Curtis says, "the Pakistanis have the initiative — they play us." Adds Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution: "The problem from the beginning has been that elements [of the ISI] have gone off and done things they think are in [Pakistan's] national interest — and nobody wants to stop them."

Although the ISI's association with the Taliban has hardly been a secret, some observers caution against rushing to judgment. Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, says "this is a very complicated, very nuanced situation." Grenier, now with the security firm Kroll Associates, explains that the ISI operatives who have links to "people we regard as enemies are not so much trying to aid them against America as preparing for a future when Americans and NATO are no longer in Afghanistan." In such a future, "the Pakistanis would be reluctant to concede the field to people whom they regard as enemies, like elements of the Northern Alliance and the Indians." (See pictures of Pakistan's vulnerable frontier with Afghanistan.)

But, Grenier adds, the Pakistanis may be in for a rude shock if they think they can depend on relationships with anti-American warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. "Hekmatyar is a bad player, and if the Pakistanis think they can get into this dance with him and win, they are mistaken," he says. "And that's even more true of Haqqani." (See pictures from the front lines of the battle with the Taliban.)

More remarkable than the report itself was its timing: the Obama Administration is about to announce the conclusion of a comprehensive review of Afghanistan policy, and Congress is discussing massive new aid — worth $1.5 billion a year for five years — for Pakistan. For U.S. officials — a group that provided a substantial part of the Times's sourcing for its story — to drop their long reticence on the subject of the ISI's duplicity at this particular juncture suggests, to some observers, an effort to put some pressure on Islamabad. "It seems like a prelude to a new strategy, which may include asking Pakistan to do something" in the province of Baluchistan, where the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is hiding in plain sight.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment. But it announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the location or capture of Haqqani's son Sirajuddin. A similar amount is being offered for information on Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, and a $1 million bounty for information on al-Qaeda propagandist Abu Yahya al-Libi. (Rank Baitullah Mehsud and others in this year's TIME 100 poll.)

Shuja Nawaz, a South Asia expert at the Atlantic Council, points out that Pakistan has had a relationship with Hekmatyar and Haqqani for decades, stretching back to the 1970s, before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Nawaz argues that if ISI operatives are indeed helping these warlords and the Afghan Taliban, "it has to be happening with full knowledge of the [Pakistani] authorities — the leadership of the ISI, the military, the government."

Another possibility, Nawaz says, is that the warlords and the Taliban are getting help from contractors hired in the tribal areas by the ISI. "These are people with a history of local relationships, and they are likely to be ambivalent," he says.