October 7, 2010

The Taliban and Pakistani intelligence - longtime allies

Here's a bit of non-news: the Pakistani intelligence service is actively supporting the Taliban. That includes urging the radical Islamist militant group to attack American forces in Afghanistan. The recent attacks on NATO supply convoys in Pakistan are part of that effort.

Why is anyone surprised by this?

The Pakistan Army Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, more commonly referred to as ISI, is Pakistan's primary intelligence agency. It has responsibility for both internal and external operations, including covert operations. These covert operations included assisting the United States Central Intelligence Agency in its support of the Afghan mujahidin during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980's.

The cooperation between CIA and ISI was not without controversy. All weapons and supplies for the mujahidin were required to be funneled through ISI. Since Pakistan is arguably one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, it stands to reason that some of the money and/or weapons were diverted to serve ISI's pet projects elsewhere, or more likely, to enrich ISI's senior officers.

For example, in the latter years of American support for the mujahidin, the U.S. Navy seized an Iranian ship in the Persian Gulf suspected of laying mines. Sailors found on that ship a battery pack for an American-made Stinger air defense missile. The serial numbers indicated that the battery was part of a shipment sent to the ISI but destined for the mujahidin.

The ISI is manned primarily by members of the Pushtun ethnic group. Keep in mind that Pakistan is yet another artificial country created by the British as their empire shrank. Just as the British created the countries of Iraq and Jordan in the aftermath of World War One, they created Pakistan from their Indian colony. Pakistan is made up of several disparate ethnic groups that vie for power in the country. Pushtuns are often found in the military and intelligence ranks.

The ISI was instrumental in the creation of the Taliban in the early 1990's. The ISI had easy access to Afghan refugees in the camps near Peshawar; it was from these camps that the Taliban drew its first recruits. Pakistan, via the ISI, supported the Taliban takeover of the government in Afghanistan, and was one of only a handful of nations that formally recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of the country.

After al-Qa'idah's attacks on the United States in September 2001, Pakistan allied with the United States and allowed American forces to use its airspace in its operations against the Taliban and al-Qa'idah. There was considerable American pressure put on then-President Pervez Musharraf to drop support for the Taliban and assist the United States. Many of Pakistan's senior military and intelligence officers did not support that decision. The Pushtuns in these services have always been sympathetic with the Taliban, and by extension, al-Qa'idah.

Sympathy is one thing; actively urging the Taliban to attack American targets is quite another. There is an internal struggle in Pakistan over how much the government in Islamabad should continue to provide support to American efforts in Afghanistan. The United States has repeatedly put pressure on Pakistan to step up its efforts against militants in the tribal areas (read: Pushtun areas) along the Afghan border. These efforts are aimed at what many ethnic Pushtuns in the military and ISI regard as their tribal homeland. It is not surprising that they do not support their government's efforts to move against their tribal brethren.

It is also not surprising, but nonetheless alarming, that members of the ISI are actively encouraging their Taliban allies to attack American targets. What we need to know is what the Pakistani government is prepared to do about it.

NATO supply lines are now under pressure. Taliban militants are attacking them, setting fire to scores of fuel tankers. They are doing so with either the acquiescence or even support of the ISI. If the Pakistani government is not willing to stop these attacks and take action against its own treasonous intelligence officers, the United States needs to rethink its financial support, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, to Islamabad and seek other ways to resupply its forces in Afghanistan.

If that happens, the United States should also wreak havoc on the Taliban and al-Qa'idah forces using the Pushtun tribal areas as safe havens. Drone attacks can only do so much. Might concentrated American air power be a better alternative?