Roving thoughts and provocations

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Our Strange Dance with Pakistan

Khalid Tanveer/AP Photo
Admiral Michael Mullen, left, arrives in Multan, Pakistan with Pakistan’s army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, center, to visit flood-affected areas, September 2, 2010

Osama bin Laden’s death in a mansion in exclusive club house territory of retired Pakistani officers has exposed the terrible paradox at the heart of our war in Afghanistan—Pakistan’s hypocrisy and our acquiescence. Bin Laden’s Pakistani hosts, two rich businessmen called Arshad and Tariq Khan who owned the house and were killed with him, hail from Charsadda, 15 miles north of Peshawar. Their uncle was a retired Brigadier. (Arshad was apparently the courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who led intelligence officials to the compound.) This is not a lawless land. This is highly controlled territory.

We give billions in aid to Pakistan’s military and civilian government. Yet Pakistan is harboring our enemies and even the enemies, one could argue, of its own healthy survival. Portions of our money are being funneled into the variety of insurgent networks whose fighters are killing American soldiers, Afghan soldiers, American civilians, Afghan civilians, European civilians, Pakistani civilians—mothers, fathers, children on multiple continents. Why, asks a US army major, did all his friends die in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province when the real problem is on the other side of the border? Why, asks a twelve-year-old Afghan girl in Kandahar whose family has been wiped out by US air strikes, are you bombing us? How has this come to pass?

In 2006, I traveled through Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, meeting with many Taliban fighters. I described it at the time as a kind of Taliban spa that offered them rest and rehab between battles in Afghanistan to which they would be returning. But it was more than that. I met Afghan Taliban who’d tried to make a deal with the Afghan government to get back to a life without fighting. One told me he was then arrested by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI, and blackmailed—they would release him if he would resume fighting and dispense with notions of reconciliation. He rose up the ranks of the Taliban command, traveling freely between Quetta in Pakistan and Zabul, a province in Afghanistan, where he was an intelligence commander for Afghan Taliban fighting coalition forces.

Another young Afghan Taliban I met in Peshawar was involved in the production and distribution of propaganda and recruiting DVDs—beheadings, inspirational music videos, and killings of American soldiers, all set to Pashtun war songs. But after spending hours and hours with him, I noticed his anti-infidel rhetoric beginning to subside, and when the subject of the ISI’s operatives came up, his whole demeanor changed. “Snakes,” he called them. Their first offense, he said, was trying to oust Mullah Omar and create a more obedient Taliban leader—like Jalaluddin Haqqani, an old jihadi we once financed to fight the Soviets but who has now set up shop in Waziristan under ISI protection. (Along with his son Sirajuddin, Haqqani stages the big-media-grabbing attacks in Afghanistan but seems to abide by the rules of his hosts—no attacks against Pakistan. He also runs a virtual kidnapping factory in Waziristan and the Pakistanis have done nothing to stop it.)

Then he said:

I told you that we burn schools because they’re teaching Christianity, but actually, most of the Taliban don’t like this burning of schools or destroying of roads and bridges, because the Taliban, too, could use them. Those acts were being done under ISI orders. They don’t want progress in Afghanistan.

He told me about ISI orders to behead an Indian engineer who was captured (and these orders were later corroborated). “People are not telling the story, because no one can trust anyone,” he told me. “And if the ISI knew I told you, I’d be fucked.”

That was 2006. Since then, just about everyone has learned the rules of the game: The ISI will continue to support the various jihadi groups (like Lashkar-e-Taiba) in order to attack and intimidate India, and get what it wants in Afghanistan—more or less a semi-independent extension of Pakistan. In 2008, American intelligence even proved definitively what Afghans and Indians on the ground already knew: that the deadly attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul was planned with the help of the ISI.

And it isn’t just the ISI that is supporting the Taliban. During my travels through Pakistan, I had a long discussion about the Pakistan Army’s conflicted loyalties with Najam Sethi, the longtime editor of Lahore’s Friday Times. What does it want? Where does it stand? The Pakistani military retains a secular strain, but religion is central to its ideology. Since its inception in 1947, its raison d’etre has been to defend the Muslim world. This mission, however, is constantly undermined by the fact that, while Pakistan was founded as a refuge for South Asia’s Muslims, more Muslims live in India, and most of the attacks by the militant groups it supports have ended up killing fellow Muslims. There is a contradiction at the heart of the Pakistani Army and it’s expressed in what everyone has come to call Pakistan’s “double game.”

The military officers I met—many of them retired, living better than bin Laden, in lavish Latin-American style mansions with pure-bred dogs, English-style cooks, and manicured lawns—spoke to me as if they envied the jihadists’ clarity of purpose, their moral vision. In Sethi’s view, the military also harbors “a degree of self-disgust for selling themselves” to the Americans. They are still angry with the US for abandoning them after the Afghan jihad, and for sanctioning them over the nuclear program. The standard army phrase about their treatment by the Americans was, Sethi said, “They used us like a condom.”

Despite these widely held sentiments and the evidence against a strong alliance, US diplomats and generals have tried to sustain the image of close cooperation.

In 2010, I had the chance to ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the US relationship with Pakistan. He’d just been to the country to urge its generals to go after the jihadists, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network. I asked Gates how he could possibly consider Afshaq Kayani, the chief of the Pakistani army, an ally. “It’s frustrating,” Gates told me. I waited for more, but nothing came. Your silence says a lot, I said. “Well, I was very specific in a couple of my meetings in looking at them point-blank and saying, ‘Haqqani and his people are killing my troops. I’ve got a problem with that,’” Gates responded. And what did they say, I asked. Gates is all control, but he cracked a small smile as he said: “They listened.”

Admiral Mike Mullen has spent the better part of the first two years of the Obama administration—hours and hours of flight time, face time, and phone time—cultivating a strong relationship with Kayani. Up until recently, Kayani’s Wikipedia entry said that he counted Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a close friend and ally. That line has now been removed. US officials maintain they don’t think that Kayani or ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha had direct knowledge themselves about bin Laden. But even before Sunday’s assassination of bin Laden, a friend of mine told me that when he recently saw Mullen the admiral seemed puzzled by the breakdown of the relationship. “What relationship?” my friend asked. “[Kayani] was never on your side.”

Or as an advisor to Ambassador Holbrooke told me not long before Holbrooke died: “We see Pakistan as a flawed ally and the Afghan Taliban as our enemy. The truth is the reverse.” It is the Taliban, the advisor suggested, who can be worked with; they who distrust—and in many cases despise—the ISI overlords they depend on for safe havens and support. All along they’ve let it be known through different channels that they want to talk directly to the Americans. The question is how?

Will the revelation that bin Laden and family were dwelling in a newly built Pakistani Army mansion not far from the capital finally change the nature of the strange dance between the US and Pakistan? One wonders how good and smart men and women are taken in by diplomatic friendships, how they allow themselves to believe lies they know to be lies, or worse, settle for the lie because it seems there’s no way out, no creative solution to change the trusted old forms of diplomacy or the definitions of enemy and ally.

Of course at the heart of the problem lies Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. We’d rather our Pakistani army enemy controls it than our Pakistani Taliban enemy. But will we ever know who is who, and can we tell them apart? And so our policy in Pakistan has collided with the Lot equation: How many righteous men must there be for God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, asks Abraham. And when God says fifty, Abraham keeps lowering the number. What if there is just one? How many American, Afghan, Pakistani, European casualties are worth keeping this Catch-22 policy alive?

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