At Large

The Taliban’s BFF

The U.S. well knows that the Taliban and elements in Pakistan will remain best friends forever.

By 8.6.10

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It's doubtful anyone would find objectionable a U.S. government advisory that states, "The Taliban is a movement based on strict Islamic religious beliefs that influence all aspects of societal behavior." Yet somewhere that document should also note that if the U.S. and its NATO partners are to remain in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, they'll need to accept there always will be a sanctuary for Taliban leaders and fighters in Pakistani territory. That is a fact of geography as much as politics.

The Durand Line, named in 1893 after Sir Mortimer Durand, was established by the British to define the border between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. No reference was made regarding the existing Pashtun tribal demarcation spreading outward on both sides of the line. Some of the most famous units of the old British Indian Army fought the tribesmen for domination of the area. But it was always recognized that peace could be maintained only with the acquiescence of the tribes that made up the broad Pashtun tribal alliance. Why would any responsible intelligence assessment contemplate that the situation could be different today?

This unfortunate fact was driven home when al Qaeda and their Taliban allies escaped the hard charging U.S. forces that had driven them through the mountains of Waziristan into Pakistan in a supposed classic hammer and anvil strategy. The only problem was that the Pakistan security forces provided only a very porous anvil as bin Laden's and Mullah Omar's experienced irregulars slipped through with Pashtun clan cooperation.

Pakistan's multi-faceted central intelligence instrument, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has been a principal conduit for foreign contact with Pashtun tribal resistance, though American and British special operations teams have made some inroads. This is the same situation that existed during the Soviet invasion. Back then it was through ISI cut-outs and contacts that the U.S. funneled most of its support to the mujahedin. The Taliban grew as a movement out of the Pashtun clan structure and the ISI was there as an accommodating supplier of equipment and technical advice. This liaison continued after the Taliban formed their government in Kabul. All this was well known to U.S. intelligence when the Afghan expedition was launched in 2001.

There is a conspicuous disconnection of logic when commentators become apoplectic over news that Pakistani intelligence officers, businessmen, and religious leaders have had continuing contact with the Taliban. Of course such intercourse exists. It existed long before there was a Taliban as such. There are kindred tribes and clans on both sides of Sir Mortimer Durand's artificial border. The real issue is not that such close relations continue to exist in this modern day, but rather how the U.S. copes with this fact of conflicted allegiances.

Pakistan's ISI deals with this problem by structuring multiple levels of operational contact and support. On the far end is the Mehsud clan of fierce fighters mostly from South Waziristan, though they seek to extend their operations north in the Swat Valley. They maintain alliances with militant groups in Punjab such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taibi and lead the movement called Tehrik-y-Taliban Pakistan to counter Islamabad's control of the federally administered tribal areas and elsewhere as suits their political interests.

In October '09 the newly appointed TTP leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, claimed responsibility for an attack in Rawalpindi and ISI headquarters in Lahore. This supposedly was in retaliation for an ISI-approved American drone attack that killed the previous Mehsud clan chief, Baitullah Mehsud. Obviously there is no love lost between the ISI and the Mehsud Taliban.

On the other end of the spectrum are the traditional clans of Pashtun fighters who worked closely with the ISI, and the Americans, as mujahedin during the war against the Soviets. A community of former leaders and their families continue to live under ISI protection in Quetta, Pakistan, and provide a support structure for sub-tribes all along the border. Important among these old Pakistani allies are the Haqqani of North Waziristan and the Northwest Frontier province. The appropriate sections of ISI maintain covert liaison with all these groups even though they may be active anti-U.S. and anti-Kabul government insurgents, as certainly are members of Haqqani network.

The Economist has stated that within the Pashtun nation there are 60 tribes and 400 sub-tribes and uncounted clans. Pakistan must have a special relationship with the tribal forces along the 2,640 km. border between it and Afghanistan. The highest priority for Pakistani intelligence is to maintain the traditional tribal alliances that provide the first line of defense in the northern territories against India. It is ISI's job to make sure it has adequate penetration of and a degree of influence on the clan structure of the Pashtun tribal amalgamation -- and thus where possible the various Taliban-linked forces.

Islamabad's military leadership believes the future of the ISI -- and through it, Pakistan -- requires a Pashtun, and thus Taliban, entente. For the U.S. to conceive any future role relative to Afghanistan without this fact in mind is operationally illogical and ultimately self-defeating.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.