Why America's Allies Are Hedging Their Bets

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Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty Images

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani arrive for a meeting at the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad, Pakistan

So how do you say "Duh!" in Urdu? There's nothing new or remarkable in the suggestion that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been aiding and abetting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, as highlighted in coverage of the massive leak of U.S. military documents published on Sunday, July 25. If anything, it's conventional wisdom among Afghanistan watchers that Pakistan continues to treat the movement it helped bring to power in 1996 as a strategic counterweight against Indian influence on its western flank. The latest revelations, fantastical as some of them may be, are simply a discomforting affirmation that Pakistan, the beneficiary of $1 billion in U.S. aid every year, continues to pursue interests at odds with those of its Washington patron — just as everyone else in the Afghan war theater does. Contemporary American slang may not have easy Urdu equivalents, but Count Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince ("Badshah") — the timeless handbook on duplicity and cunning in statecraft — was translated into Pakistan's main language in 1947.

Although Islamabad issued routine denials, the Obama Administration offered no strenuous challenge to the suggestion of Pakistan's double dealing. Instead, its statement reiterated that "the status quo is not acceptable" and that it expects Pakistan to do more to remove the "intolerable threat" posed by insurgent sanctuaries on its soil. The Administration also sought to dodge the implications of the documents' gloomy portrait of America's prospects for winning what is now President Obama's war, stressing that the documents cover the period until December 2009 — meaning they reflect mostly on the Bush Administration's conduct of the Afghanistan campaign. But that may be missing the point.

Although some of the problems highlighted in the massive document dump could be rectified by an Obama Administration expansion of troop levels and an increase in resources for the Afghan war effort, most of them concern issues familiar in the conduct of a war in an alien and hostile terrain, amid a skeptical civilian population and dependent on allies who are sometimes at odds with U.S. strategy. The reliability of Pakistan, or indeed of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his security forces, did not change when the U.S. elected a new Administration.

It's not that Pakistan doesn't back the U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda; it simply sees the Afghan Taliban as a different matter. As the Bush Administration prepared for war in Afghanistan in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, then President Pervez Musharraf pleaded for more time for Pakistan to persuade its erstwhile protégés in Kabul to break with al-Qaeda and expel Osama bin Laden. Pakistan's security establishment had from the get-go doubted that the U.S. invasion would succeed where other foreign armies had always failed in Afghanistan. And it saw the American strategy of empowering the Northern Alliance, the Tajik-dominated resistance to the Taliban, as weakening its own position in Kabul relative to its key strategic rival, India, which backed the Alliance.

Islamabad's concerns would be amplified in November 2001 when the Northern Alliance, having swept south as the Taliban resistance melted away under an assault backed by U.S. air power and special forces, simply ignored the Bush Administration's demand that it refrain from entering Kabul to allow time for an international agreement to take shape. Through the lens of its primary conflict, Pakistan saw the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan as having put in power an Indian proxy. And as hard as U.S. officials have tried to convince Pakistan that regional extremism, not India, is their major strategic challenge, the Pakistanis have nodded indulgently but don't appear to have ever bought the U.S. view or acted on it.

While President Bush may have soft-pedaled on the Pakistanis and Karzai when the former's support for the Taliban and the latter's reliance on corrupt local warlords clearly imperiled the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration made more of a show of reading both parties the riot act. But neither side appears to have significantly changed its behavior, because neither side believes Washington is capable of imposing its will in Afghanistan. Pakistan's military leaders don't flatly reject demands that they act against the Afghan insurgents on their soil; they simply say their hands are full coping with the domestic insurgency of the Pakistan Taliban. And almost nine years after the Taliban was driven out of Afghanistan, it's an open secret that its leadership continues to operate from Pakistan.

Today, Pakistan's relationship with and access to the Taliban leadership is viewed by many as a key element in any U.S. exit strategy — not least among them President Karzai, who has lately developed a once improbable relationship with Pakistan independent of the U.S., with a view to negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban. Karzai reportedly shares Pakistan's doubts that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy will prevail, and he is reaching out to his erstwhile foes in a pragmatic bid to ensure his own survival in a post-U.S. Afghanistan. The Pakistanis may once have preferred to get rid of Karzai, but they could see their best interests served by working with him to develop a separate peace with the Taliban to end the war on terms that secure their interests. And, no surprise, India is increasingly alarmed by the inclination of Karzai, in whose government they have invested more than $1 billion in aid projects, to deal with the Taliban.

The leaked documents, offering limited proof, also suggest that Iran is giving support to the Taliban and allied insurgents in the south. If this were true, it would involve Tehran making common cause with a onetime mortal enemy that it had helped the U.S. overthrow, suggesting that its conflict with Washington over its nuclear program had produced an "enemy of my enemy" rethinking of the Taliban. Perhaps, perhaps not — Iran is reportedly also anxious about any move by Karzai to share power with the Taliban and is encouraging greater investment in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance.

Of course, it may simply be that while the U.S. plows on with a troubled counterinsurgency war, Afghan and regional stakeholders are more inclined to a Machiavellian hedging of their bets. Machiavelli once suggested that it's more important to be feared than to be loved. But what the latest documents reveal about the activities and outlook of America's ostensible allies in Afghanistan is that Washington is neither loved nor feared as much as it is increasingly ignored.