What the hell is going on in Afghanistan? Specifically, what the hell is going on with Pakistan's relationship to Afghanistan? Whose side is it on?
These are not new questions. They have plagued this war from the beginning. The betrayals, the reversals, the various players' multidimensional interests in the conflict, which have them working with the United States one minute and against us the next—even those who are well-versed in the game are seeing the wilderness of mirrors on the "AfPak" border as an increasingly impenetrable thicket. And the operative questions—who is friend, who is foe, where can common interests be found with either; in short, what can we do to foster a decent settlement of this war?—are, more and more, baffling.
The latest ratchet in this progression toward opaqueness occurred on Thursday, when Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional committee that Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency—the ISI—was behind the recent attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
Well, actually, that's not quite what he said, and parsing his actual words—as well as those of Pakistan's official response—provide a hint of the shadowy games that all the sides are playing.
What Mullen said was that the embassy attack was carried out "with ISI support." The logic here runs as follows: The attack was launched by the Haqqani network, a militant wing of the Afghan Taliban that's particularly active in the area around Kabul; Haqqani has long been associated with the ISI (Mullen said Thursday that it "acts as a veritable arm" of ISI); and, in this sense, it's valid to say that everything it does has "ISI support."
Whether ISI had a hand in the embassy attack, or knew about it ahead of time, is less clear, officials say. There are factions within ISI, and there are believed to be factions within Haqqani.
Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik, issued a reaction to Mullen's charge Friday, and it too is intriguing. "If you say that it is ISI involved in that attack, I categorically deny it," Malik told Reuters, adding, "We have no such policy to attack or aid attack through Pakistani forces or through any Pakistani assistance."
The italics are mine. Mullen, Malik well knows, didn't quite say ISI was "involved" in the attack, nor did he charge there was some "policy" to launch such an attack, nor to do so "through Pakistani forces." Malik's response, in short, is a textbook case of a "non-denial denial."
As for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who appeared alongside Mullen at Thursday's hearing, it is hard to tell whether his spin on recent events was evasive, delusional, naïve, or a combination of the three. The assault on the embassy, Panetta insisted, marks "a sign of weakness in the insurgency." Having been dealt a string of setbacks on the battlefield, the insurgents are now shifting tactics to go after "high-profile" targets, such as Afghan officials, peace negotiators, and the American embassy. This shift, Panetta said, will have no effect on the Taliban's "odds of military success."
These remarks are also worth some detailed parsing. It is certainly true that U.S. military forces have killed and captured a lot of insurgents in the past year or so, to the point where many rank-and-file Taliban fighters shirk direct confrontation. But the shift to "high-profile" targets is not a "sign of weakness."
An insurgency war is, among other things, a competition for political power. One of the insurgents' key strategic aims is to undercut the existing government's legitimacy. The main way a government builds legitimacy is to provide its people with security. And a precondition for that is to prove that it is capable of protecting itself.
The advantage that insurgents hold (as every book on the subject recognizes) is that, when they meet resistance in one realm, they can easily switch to another. Assassinating officials, infiltrating peace talks (then assassinating the top peace negotiator), mounting an assault on the embassy of the government's chief protector—these are classic techniques for disrupting a regime and sowing distrust among the people. The question of "military success"—the variable that Panetta said stands unaffected—is beside the point. The goal is political success, political power, to be achieved through whatever means are available.
(During the 1975 negotiations ending the Vietnam War, a member of the U.S. delegation, Col. Harry Summers, told his North Vietnamese counterpart, Col. Nguyen Don Tu, "You know, you never beat us on the battlefield." Tu replied, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.")
So what is really going on here? What signals are the Americans and Pakistanis sending each other with these statements that say little and, in any case, nothing new?
The significance of Mullen's statement is that he has been the U.S. military's emissary to Pakistan and has spent endless hours with the heads of the ISI and the Pakistani military. For him to state publicly what everyone has long known and winked at—that there is a link between the ISI and Haqqani—is enough to raise eyebrows. He's saying, on the eve of his retirement, that he's finished playing games and that his successor won't likely resume them.
Then Mullen threw the cards on the table. If Pakistan continues to support Haqqani and other terrorist organizations, he said, it could face U.S. sanctions. This is something that the Pakistani military, which receives $2 billion a year in U.S. security assistance, genuinely fears. Successive American presidents have continued this aid, despite knowing that some of the money goes to support militants, because they also know that if the aid is cut off, the support for militants may well intensify. Now Mullen seems to be saying the kabuki theater is over. Attacking the U.S. embassy was the proverbial bridge-too-far, and the Pakistanis have to pick a side—to cut the cord to militants or face the consequences.
It's a risky gambit. The ISI and Haqqani have always been tight; some specialists believe the Haqqani network is the ISI, or at least the wing of ISI protecting its interests inside Afghanistan. And from Pakistan's point of view, those interests are vital.
To a degree that, even now, many Americans underestimate, Pakistanis believe their main threat comes not from the Taliban, or even al-Qaida, but rather from India. Most of their army is geared to fight a war with India (either on the eastern border or over rival claims to Kashmir). Meanwhile, India has its own growing presence in Afghanistan, a presence that Pakistanis regard as "encirclement." So whatever happens in Afghanistan, Pakistanis want some control, and their agent for ensuring that is the Haqqani network.
In 2010, the ISI arrested more than 20 Taliban leaders, a feat that garnered much praise. But as Dexter Filkins then reported in the New York Times, it did so because all those Taliban leaders were trying to negotiate a separate peace. It wasn't so much the "peace" that bothered the ISI; it was the "separate," the attempt to make a deal without them.
This war within the war, and the moves and countermoves enveloping both, are intensifying in part because the United States is in the process of pulling out—and all sides are positioning themselves for what they foresee as the ensuing chaos. This may be part of why the Haqqani network is splintering into factions, and why the ISI and the Pakistani government are reassessing all options (if, in fact, these entities really are doing any of those things).
The question is whether the United States has the wherewithal and the diplomatic chops to make something of the cataclysm, to exert some leverage in the cracks, and—finally—to force some serious regional negotiations. The road to a settlement in Afghanistan runs through Pakistan, but that same road takes some Alpine curves through India. And it would be useful, in this process, to bring in neighboring powers for reinforcements and security guarantees—which is one reason, among many, why Iran's current state of hostile chaos is so unfortunate.
Everything is connected. The problem, all around, is that so many of the globe's linkage points are embroiled in so many crises. Entropy may be the defining characteristic of the early 21st century. If so, Afghanistan ranks among the least of our worries.