Too Close for Comfort: In the War in Afghanistan It Is Not Always Obvious Which Side Pakistan Is on
PAKISTAN REACTS WITH understandable resentment to criticism of its role in Afghanistan. During the long war there it has provided sanctuary to millions of refugees. It has lost far more troops fighting terrorists than has ISAF. After September 11th 2001 it swiftly repudiated the Taliban and threw in its lot with America and its “war on terror”. In 2004 it was named a “major non-NATO ally” by America. Its territory has provided ISAF with vital supply routes and bases for attacks on suspected terrorists by unmanned drone aircraft. Many of its civilians have also died in those and other attacks. It has provided intelligence that has led to the capture of a succession of al-Qaeda leaders. And the “American” war in Afghanistan has fuelled the rise of violent Islamist extremists in Pakistan itself, the “Pakistani Taliban”, bent on overthrowing the government.
Now, too, there is a reciprocal grudge against Afghanistan. Armed fighters from the Pakistani Taliban, defeated in the Swat region of Pakistan in 2009, have set up camp in eastern Afghanistan and continue to launch attacks on Pakistan. All of this helps fuel popular anti-Americanism, which is steadily worsening. The war is a political liability for the government.
Yet American politicians seethe at Pakistan’s refusal—despite large amounts of American aid lavished on the army—to start operations in the tribal area of North Waziristan against the Haqqani network, a group that Mike Mullen, then chairman of America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, last year called a “veritable arm” of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Pakistan’s main spy service. This year a NATO report leaked into the public domain alleged that “Pakistan’s manipulation of the Taliban senior leadership continues unabated.”
Yet even American diplomats believe that some of these charges are overstated. Having helped form, train and arm the Taliban in the 1980s (with American backing) to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and having in the 1990s used other terrorist outfits against India in Kashmir, the ISI has deep links with the extremists. But that does not make them all passive tools of the Pakistani state.
Publicly, the ISI plays down its links with such groups, mocking the tendency to see its shadowy hand everywhere. “We are a very responsible organisation,” says an ISI spokesman. “People think we are responsible for absolutely everything.” Yet at the same time the ISI somehow manages to give the impression that it has more control over the extremists than it probably does.
The army’s explanation for its restraint in North Waziristan is capacity. Roughly 150,000 soldiers are already deployed in the tribal areas; 10,000 are on UN peacekeeping missions; and 60,000-70,000 were diverted to providing flood relief in 2010 and 2011. Add in troops kept in reserve, and that leaves only around 200,000 to keep an eye on 2,900km (1,800 miles) of Pakistan’s eastern border with the traditional enemy: India.