Pakistan and Afghanistan: interdependent, distrustful neighbours
The relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a lot more complex than described in the stories of ISI goons.
- No one should be surprised that 180 of the leaked intelligence reportssound alarm bells about the involvement of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service in Afghan insurgency. Plenty such alarm bells have been sounded in the public domain already. But it is important that policymakers draw the right conclusions.
- During the period covered by these reports, I sat in on one of the first national workshops of the Afghan reconciliation commission, headed by former president, Sebghatullah Mojadedi. Provincial police chiefs and governors and other officials split into small groups to discuss the causes of ongoing conflict. Encouraged by Mojadedi himself, every single working group fed back the conclusion that Pakistani ISI interference was the prime cause of conflict in the country.
- This was more an article of faith than an empirical finding. Assembled Afghan officialdom simply worked on the basis that Pakistan had supported the Taliban, was opposed to the post-Taliban set-up and must be behind any resistance to this new setup.
- In an even more blatant fashion, while visiting one of the Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan I asked the provincial intelligence chief to explain his role. He described his main function as being to inculcate in the people of the province a belief that Pakistan could never tolerate a stable Afghanistan, so that they would always be on their guard to check ISI interference.
- The point is that Afghanistan and Pakistan are countries with a complex history of interdependence. Although most of Afghanistan’s trade comes through Pakistan and Pakistan was the main place of refuge for Afghan refugees during the 1980s, the most popular way of establishing credentials as an Afghan nationalist has long been to denounce Pakistan as the enemy.
- Among the 180 reports of ISI interference, most are drawn from informants or briefings from the Afghan intelligence service, who describe in lurid detail direct involvement of ISI officers in trying to wreak havoc inside Afghanistan. The bulk of them can now be dismissed as unreliable either with the benefit of hindsight (they warn of impending disasters which never happened) or on the basis of implausibility (conveying details the source could not have known) and because they fit in with a pattern of disinformation (stories constructed from recurrent themes and familiar characters).
- One set of informants most likely passed on these reports because they found there was a market for them. More politically motivated informants, such as those Afghan officials who supplied briefings which US personnel later wrote up as intelligence, probably wanted to strengthen US backing by turning the US against Pakistan.
- If you try and understand the Pakistan-Afghanistan links in the Afghan insurgency without the benefit of the largely concocted reports supplied to the US military, you still conclude that the insurgency depends upon a safe haven in Pakistan. All the commander networks which actually do the fighting in Afghanistan maintain a presence in Pakistan and use this to support their war effort. This is hardly surprising given the length of border, the amount of civilian movement, the tribal relationships and the intricate commercial links, even before you factor in a pre-2001 history of covert actions across the border. The relationship is a lot more complex than described in the crude stories of ISI goons.
- Most Taliban I have talked to regarding the role of Pakistan make three broad points. They say that they require some degree of official blessing to be able to operate from Pakistan. They say that this blessing is never assured – it is an uncomfortable relationship. And they say that any solution to the insurgency must have Pakistan’s blessing.
- The conclusion I draw from the intelligence controversy is that anyone charged with negotiating an end to the conflict in Afghanistan will have to guard that process from exactly the kind of disinformation we have all been studying. They will need to keep Pakistan, the insurgents and the various parts of today’s Afghan establishment on board, and overcome a high degree of distrust which years of disinformation have contributed to.