War in Afghanistan: Which side is Pakistan fighting for?

Military analysis.
Sept. 23 2011 5:00 PM

Friend, Foe, or Pakistan?

The nation's role in Afghanistan is getting more and more baffling as the war goes on.

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(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?

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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.