Thursday, March 26, 2009

Donny, You're Out of Your Element

Shocked, shocked I tell you:

The Taliban’s widening campaign in southern Afghanistan is made possible in part by direct support from operatives in Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, despite Pakistani government promises to sever ties to militant groups fighting in Afghanistan, according to American government officials.

The support consists of money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders who are gearing up to confront the international force in Afghanistan that will soon include some 17,000 American reinforcements.

Support for the Taliban, as well as other militant groups, is coordinated by operatives inside the shadowy S Wing of Pakistan’s spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the officials said. There is even evidence that ISI operatives meet regularly with Taliban commanders to discuss whether to intensify or scale back violence before the Afghan elections.

Details of the ISI’s continuing ties to militant groups were described by a half-dozen American, Pakistani and other security officials during recent interviews in Washington and the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. All requested anonymity because they were discussing classified and sensitive intelligence information.

The American officials said proof of the ties between the Taliban and Pakistani spies came from electronic surveillance and trusted informants. The Pakistani officials interviewed said that they had firsthand knowledge of the connections, though they denied that the ties were strengthening the insurgency.

American officials have complained for more than a year about the ISI’s support to groups like the Taliban. But the new details reveal that the spy agency is aiding a broader array of militant networks with more diverse types of support than was previously known — even months after Pakistani officials said that the days of the ISI’s playing a “double game” had ended.

Afghanistan is directly adjacent to Pakistan. On the other hand, Afghanistan is half a world away from the United States. Powerful elements in the Pakistani government have long cultivated allies, proxies and influence in Afghanistan - which is viewed as a necessary ally, and strategic redoubt, given its proximity and Pakistan's ongoing conflicts with India.

After the toppling of the Taliban-led government (which had friendly relations with Pakistan), India has greatly enhanced its presence Afghanistan, developing strong ties to the Karzai government, complete with several million dollars worth of aid. Those same powerful Pakistani elements are not about to abandon their strategic objective of establishing influence in Afghanistan just because the United States is backing other factions, especially given India's evolving position and relations with those US-backed groups.

Long after we're gone from Afghanistan, Pakistan will still be its neighbor, India will still be Pakistan's regional rival and Pakistan will still be seeking influence in Afghanistan to balance its position with India. In the meantime, the Pakistani government will make official statements to the effect that no portion of its fragmented structure supports Afghan militants comprising the insurgency, despite the reality of the situation.

Some factions within Pakistan's government might sincerely want to sever those relations, but they lack the ability to exert control over the totality of Pakistan's government, and pushing too hard in such a direction will leave them vulnerable - both politically and, literally, to assassination. Expecting them to make such a push mostly at our behest is, in a word, unrealistic. And so the show will go on.

The only questions, really, are how much time and money we want to waste deluding ourselves about Pakistan's interests, and whether or not we can figure out a way to placate Pakistan while also convincing its potential proxies to sever ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Eliminating, or containing, al-Qaeda's presence should be the overriding goal, not undertaking a massively expensive and time consuming nation building exercise when at the end of the day, the sand castles we erect in a foreign culture on the other side of the globe will likely be washed away by prevailing regional ebbs and flows.

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