For the ISI to work with the CIA in the apprehension of a Taliban leader in Pakistan is an astonishing development.
It could suggest either a sea-change in Pakistani policy toward the Taliban, or a shake-up in the Pakistani intelligence agency on the orders of Pakistan’s clever military chief, General Kiyani. More likely there may be a general recognition in Islamabad that U.S. patience is finally running low — and that without some genuine and visible cooperation with the American-led surge in Afghanistan, relations with Washington could get very sticky.
It may even have dawned on the generals and the more sensible ISI top brass that all it would take is a spike in U.S. casualties in Afghanistan and some high-profile stories about Pakistan’s role there, and Washington might start paying its feckless “friend” rather less and violating its territory rather more.
Yes, the ISI has sometimes been a valuable ally in the past, especially in the pursuit of al-Qaeda suspects with connections to 9/11. But like the rest of Pakistan’s military and security establishment, when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, the ISI has actively backed the Taliban in its attacks on U.S. and NATO forces, and in its terrorism against all foreigners involved in Afghan reconstruction.
Indeed there is no question the Taliban’s comeback since December 2001 would not have been possible without its safe havens in Pakistan and the active support of the ISI and other elements of the Pakistani military.
All too often, U.S. and NATO leaders have radically underestimated the depth and seriousness of that commitment, somehow forgetting that even more secular elements within Pakistan’s military see the Taliban as Pakistan’s proxy force in a country that is rightly their sphere of dominance. They have failed to realize that it is not just the “bearded” elements in Pakistan who are paranoid about India’s regaining influence in Afghanistan or who see the Northern Alliance government as the result of some kind of Indian-Russian-American-Iranian plot.
Much to the fury of the Afghan government, which remembers perfectly well the role and purpose of Pakistan in setting up the Taliban regime, America and her allies have treated Pakistan as a “partner” in the Afghan war, foolishly including Pakistan in tripartite security discussions, even while Pakistani officers have been training Taliban fighters and Pakistani border guards have deliberately fired on U.S. forces.
While elements of the Pakistani military have attempted to seal parts of the border and have sustained large losses in doing so, others — in particular the ISI — have undermined those efforts by allowing Mullah Omar’s key commanders a safe base in and around the city of Quetta. (Even though the CIA must know of their presence in Quetta, the Taliban bases there have not been a target of drone strikes.)
And it has long seemed that no amount of blowback from the North West Frontier Province and no amount of U.S. pressure could shake Pakistan’s semi-covert support of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Now, however, something has changed. Something big enough for the ISI to make a powerful symbolic gesture. It will be interesting to see if it is a one-off or the beginning of a positive trend.