The Worst Kept Secret

WikiLeaks sheds disturbing light on Pakistan's two faces in the terror war.

The Wikileaks document dump containing classified reports giving a worm’s eye view of what is happening in Afghanistan, also contained intelligence reports revealing the not very well kept secret that the Pakistani intelligence agency - the ISI - has been assisting the Taliban with killing Americans in Afghanistan.

The complete extent and nature of that support is unknown. As the New York Times points out, some of the intelligence in the documents pointing to Pakistani support for the enemy may be self-serving or even part of a disinformation campaign, given their provenance. After all, the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai considers Pakistan an enemy. They created the Taliban in the early 90’s and have constantly sought to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.

They also have upwards of 70 nuclear weapons -- perhaps as many as 90 -- with missile delivery systems possessing a range capable of delivering a nuke up to 2,500 miles. And there has been a long-standing US concern that those weapons are not guarded as well as they should be. A study by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University titled "Securing the Bomb 2010," found that Pakistan’s stockpile “faces a greater threat from Islamic extremists seeking nuclear weapons than any other nuclear stockpile on earth.”

You don’t have to go very far to find extremists in Pakistan. This from Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, at the Council on Foreign Relations:

Only in Pakistan do you have the juxtaposition of a significant nuclear arsenal and the world’s most sophisticated terror network. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not uniquely vulnerable, but they are geographically close to al-Qaeda’s core leadership, which has a declared intention to obtain a nuclear device.

Markey points out that not only foreign extremists have set up shop in Pakistan, but the home grown variety is well ensconced in the Pakistani body politic with Islamist parties making inroads against the more secular-oriented governing coalition. Religious schools dominate education in the country, indoctrinating the young with hatred against the west and the glory of jihad. (Note: Not all madrassas are breeding grounds for terrorists, but with many being funded by the Saudi Wahhabis, it gives most of the more than 13,000 madrassas a decidedly anti-Western orientation.)

Then there is the Pakistani version of the Taliban who are currently engaged in a hot war with the military in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Allied with al-Qaeda, their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, has claimed a connection with the failed Times Square car bombing. Meshud most recently gave the central government fits in the Swat region, using that stronghold as a base to strike against Pakistani population centers with suicide attacks, while carrying out assaults against government police and army bases. With such boldness, it is no wonder that the US and our allies fear that Meshud would attack a nuclear base with catastrophic results.

But the document dump revealing ISI involvement in the Taliban should not come as a surprise to anyone. The US government has lodged complaint after complaint, going back to the regime of President Musharaff, regarding Pakistani support for the Taliban. At that time, Musharaff appeared to be trying to play both ends against the middle. He signed a “peace treaty” with the Taliban in North and South Waziristan, in effect allowing the terrorists a free hand in the border regions with Afghanistan, while representing to the United States government that the treaties would keep the Taliban pinned down. Meanwhile, it gave breathing room to Musharaff both with the US government, and his political allies in the Islamic parties who were agitating for an end to Pakistan’s dealings with the US.

In the end, the treaties blew up in Musharraf’s face. The Taliban increased their incursions into Afghanistan while setting up networks and bases in “no-go” areas for the Pakistani military. It also made the US very unhappy, as the Bush administration threatened to cut off aid to his government. When free elections were held in 2008, Musharaff’s coalition suffered badly at the polls and the husband of slain Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto, Asif Zardari, rolled to victory.

None of these internal political squabbles affected Pakistan’s continuing support for the Taliban. This from the TimesOnline last month:

Pakistani support for the Taliban in Afghanistan runs far deeper than a few corrupt police officers, however. The Sunday Times can reveal that it is officially sanctioned at the highest levels of Pakistan’s government.

Pakistan’s own intelligence agency, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), is said to be represented on the Taliban’s war council — the Quetta shura. Up to seven of the 15-man shura are believed to be ISI agents.

The London School of Economics issued a report stating, ““Pakistan appears to be playing a double game of astonishing magnitude” in Afghanistan. The report’s author, Matt Waldman, continued:

As the provider of sanctuary and substantial financial, military and logistical support to the insurgency, the ISI appears to have strong strategic and operational influence — reinforced by coercion. There is thus a strong case that the ISI orchestrates, sustains and shapes the overall insurgent campaign.

Forget the Wikileaks. ISI support for the Taliban has been the worst kept secret in international affairs. Spengler, writing at the Asia Times, explains why grown-ups in the international community are playing “Let’s Pretend” when it comes to Pakistan’s double crossing government:

This raises the question: Who covered up a scandalous arrangement known to everyone with a casual acquaintance of the situation? The answer is the same as in Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery about murder on the Orient Express, that is, everybody: former United States president George W Bush and vice president Dick Cheney, current US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, India, China and Iran. They are all terrified of facing a failed state with nuclear weapons, and prefer a functioning but treacherous one.

The bottom line is that it serves US interests to make believe that Pakistan is a help and not a hindrance in Afghanistan. It is real politik on steroids. Indeed, prosecuting the war in Afghanistan would be immensely more complicated if we were to switch gears and start treating Pakistan as less than a valuable ally. Nearly 80% of the supplies destined for the Afghan theater pass through Pakistan and finding an alternative would be extremely difficult. If you add the complicating factor of Pakistan’s less than secure nuclear stockpile, it is clearly better for the US to maintain as close relations with Pakistan as possible - even if that means sacrificing their total cooperation in fighting the Taliban.

But the Wikileak revelations might change that calculation. Congress may have second thoughts about the huge. $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan passed last year. At the time, there was a huge row in Pakistan over strings attached to the aid by Congress, with the military going so far as appearing to threaten a coup if the government accepted the package with all the stipulations.

The argument was eventually smoothed over but it has engendered distrust between the two governments. Any additional friction may give President Zardari no choice but to cut back on his cooperation with our military regarding supplies destined for Afghanistan while refusing to share valuable intelligence that has been vital in the prosecution of our drone warfare.

There were ominous rumblings from the ISI that seemed to indicate that just such a scenario might become reality:

The official acknowledged, however, that some of the allegations sound “very damning” and could erode support in the United States for the alliance with Pakistan. If the CIA does not denounce the suggestions, the official said the ISI might need to reexamine its cooperation.

The answer to the question of what can we do about Pakistan is not very much if we expect to continue prosecuting the war in Afghanistan at the same level we are now. For the present, we must accept that the Pakistani government has their own fish to fry in Afghanistan, while hoping that the nominally pro-Western government of President Zardari can successfully overcome challenges posed by Islamic extremists and safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile.

As with Afghanistan itself, there simply are no good options in dealing with the two-faced nature of Pakistan’s attitudes toward our efforts in the War on Terror.