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.

Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
Soldier in Afghanistan

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?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is writing a book about the soldier-scholars who changed American military strategy. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

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.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.