Secret Pakistan: why the ISI is playing on both sides of the crease in Afghanistan

A stable Afghanistan, run by more moderate elements, is not in Pakistan’s strategic interests as defined by the ISI. This explains why it is currently fighting two wars.

Pakistani troops endure Afghanistan's rocky, winter terrain
Ghaffar Hussain
On 7 November 2011 10:30

The BBC recently ran an excellent two-part documentary entitled ‘Secret Pakistan’. This documentary sought to unveil Pakistan’s covert support for the insurgency in Afghanistan.

It showed interviews with Taliban fighters, US officials and Afghan officials who all agreed that Pakistan was playing both sides of the crease.

On one hand it was supporting international efforts to eradicate terrorist elements in Afghanistan, whilst on the other it was actively training and supplying militant groups to attack ISAF, Indian and Afghan government targets in the region. If you missed it, catch here whilst you still can.

The fact that Pakistan has been playing a double game in Afghanistan is perhaps the worst kept secret in counter-terrorism.

Whilst it has only become acceptable for officials to say this openly in recent months (thanks to the bin Laden raid in May 2011) those following events closely in the region have known for years that if it wasn’t for Pakistani support, the Taliban would have been wiped out some time in 2002.

Every time Pakistani officials are confronted with this claim we are immediately treated to the familiar mantra of how Pakistan has lost so many civilian lives in the fight against terrorism and how thousands of Pakistani soldiers have died fighting militants in the FATA region. Whilst factually these statements are true, they are also deliberately misleading.

In Pakistan’s eyes there are ‘good’ militants and ‘bad’ militants.

The ‘bad’ militants are those who have not been tamed by Pakistan’s powerful ISI and who are following an agenda that is in conflict with the intelligence agency. For example, the Tehrik-e-Taliban and elements of al-Qaeda who harbour ambitions of over throwing the Pakistani state.

In contrast, the ‘good’ militants are those who only have designs for Afghanistan, i.e. the Afghan Taliban and the powerful Haqqani network.

In essence, Pakistan is fighting those militants which are considered hostile to its own interests whilst actively assisting those that are seeking to destabilise the Afghan government and attack ISAF troops.

Pakistan’s negative role doesn’t stop here; the documentary also illustrated how the ISI has been actively seeking to prevent negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This explains why they arrested Mullah Baradar in Feb 2010 but have yet to arrest other senior Taliban leaders sheltering in Pakistan; Mullah Baradar was seeking to enter negotiations with the Afghan government behind the ISI’s back.

The question that most in the West will be asking is why the ISI is so keen to see ISAF and the Afghan government fail? Has the ISI embraced Jihadist ideology en mass? Is Pakistan engaged in a secret war against the west?

In order to answer the above questions we must try to see things from Pakistan’s point of view.

Ever since the establishment of the Pakistani state in 1947, Afghanistan has been hostile to it and colluded with its arch enemy, India. Afghans were initially upset about the fact that the Durrand line, which cuts right through Pashtun heartlands, was made into the official border. This, in effect, annexed territories which Afghanistan believed it had a right to.

Throughout Pakistan’s existence, conservative elements in the Pashtun tribal areas have proven useful for Pakistan in its wars with India. Their mixture of fealty to their fellow Muslims and traditions of warfare have made them the perfect proxy forces.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, allowed the ISI to consolidate its relationships with key militants in the region. It also allowed the ISI, following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, to turn Afghanistan into a colony run by the only elements in Afghanistan that are not hostile to it, namely conservative Pashtun militias.

This ‘strategic depth’ policy was partly driven by a fear of India but also by the ISI’s arrogance, sense of self-importance and short-term thinking.

A stable Afghanistan, run by more moderate elements, is therefore not in Pakistan’s strategic military interests as defined by the ISI. However, the fact that it thought it could get away with playing such a naïve and dangerous game is simply astonishing.

This policy will backfire on Pakistan in spectacular fashion.

Firstly, the international community is not as stupid as senior planners in the ISI think and, ever since the bin Laden raid, the secret plan is no longer a secret one.

This is already having a huge impact on Pakistan’s reputation around the world and will affect the way in which foreign countries, aid agencies and multi-national companies view Pakistan.

Secondly, once the beast of Jihadist militancy has been unleashed it won’t see any limits. It won’t be content with just ruling Afghanistan.

The temptation of Pakistan and the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal will prove too much to resist.

Ghaffar Hussain is a leading independent counter-extremism expert 

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