Why Pakistan Covertly Aids the Taliban

By Bill Moore

Posted: 14 Sep 2010

A little-known web site run by a vagabond Australian skyrocketed into worldwide notoriety when it released tens of thousands of U.S. military classified documents on the war in Afghanistan. The embarrassing data-dump revealed much about the gruesome realities of war in general, and the Afghanistan struggle specifically through endless streams of casualty reports, friendly fire incidences and intelligence analysis.

One of the more glaring revelations was the strong suspicion within the allied military command that the Taliban were being aided by the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service. Ostensibly an ally of the United States in the "War on Terror," why would Pakistan be supporting -- clandestinely -- the very people America was fighting across its border? I think I finally have an answer to that question.

I am currently reading Vali Nasr's new book, Forces of Fortune, subtitled, "The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World." I had previously read his NY Times best seller, "The Shia Revial," which launched me on a long journey of similar books on the Middle East, including Robin Wright's "Dreams and Shadows," Stephen Kinzer's "All the Shah's Men", and Manucher Farmanfarmian's "Blood & Oil: A Prince's Memoir of Iran from the Shah to the Ayatollah," which I highly recommend as a riveting read. I also highly recommend both "Three Cups of Tea" and "Turning Stones Into Schools," both highly inspiring books about Greg Mortenson's efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan to build rural schools in the region.

While I think I have a better appreciation for the politics of the Middle East in general, and Iran in particular, none of these provided much illumination on why Pakistan would be interested in playing the U.S. off against the Taliban. Apart from billions of dollars in US military aid, as well as getting economic sanctions dropped, what possible reason could justify such betrayal?

The answer, according to Nasr, goes back to the British Raj, when its English masters decided to create the Durand Line in 1893, separating what was then the northwestern frontier of British-ruled India and the troublesome Pashtun tribes across the mountains in Afghanistan. The agreement was made with the ruling Khan at the time and was meant to serve as a buffer between British-controlled India in the age of Queen Victoria, and Czarist Russia's interests in the regions to the north. The problem was, the line was drawn rather arbitrarily through the middle of Pashtun territory, rather than the traditional tribal border at the Indus River 120 miles to the southeast. This left a significant population of Pashtuns in what became Pakistan in 1947. Writes Nasr..

"The Pakistani military has long feared a Pashtun nationalist uprising that would claim the territory, an especially troubling prospect in light of the large Pashtun population within Pakistan itself.

"It was this fear that drove secular and more moderately Islamic Pakistani military men to support the Taliban in 1994 in its bid to take over Afghanistan. The Taliban were Pashtun, and it was clearly better for Pakistan to get Pashtuns to fight to the north, in Afghanistan, than to dream of nationalism and set their sights on grabbing Pakistani territory to the South."

What we in the West often fail to appreciate is the "other guy's" perspective. A unified Afghan government made up mostly of Pashtuns and ruled by a Pashtun president largely beholden to the United States for his position, would not serve the interests of Pakistan, but might lead instead to calls of reunification of territory now under Pakistani control.

Matters are made even more complicated by the role of India in Afghanistan, Pakistan's long-time regional rival. Nasr again...

"The degree of Pakistani concern about Indian influence in Afghanistan should not be underestimated. For Americans, the most important statistics about Afghanistan since 2001 have been the number of Taliban attacks, NATO casualties, and the volume of the drug trade. For Pakistanis, the key figures are the number of Indian consulates in Afghanistan and the number of people they employ."

According to Nasr, a Pakistani general once asked him, "Why does India need so many consulates? How many Indian tourists go to Kandahar to justify 250 Indian personnel at their consulate there? This 250 people are there for intelligence gathering. We have to think of when it is that we will be facing the Indian army on two fronts [the second being Afghanistan)."

With its economy in turmoil and the continual threat of the Pakistani Taliban gaining more territory and political influence, one can see how Pakistan's military and political elite are worried about a stable Afghanistan, one over which they have little influence and control, seeing themselves caught between the powerful Indian Army and a potential US-trained and equipped ally, one who might promise the return of lost Pashtun lands in return for military support.

And then there's Afghanistan's lithium, estimated to be worth as much as a trillion U.S. dollars! [See map below. Click for larger version]. Reported the New Yorks on 14 June 2010:

The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.

“This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” said Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines.

If the Afghans can finally end their decades-long civil war and reach some sort of internal accord between the moderates and fundamentalists, it may have a chance to capitalize on its mineral wealth. However, this currently is not a very likely prospect in the near term, but then all that lithium can wait a few more decades, if need be. You can imagine the discussions going on within the ISI about what a Pashtun-dominated government with that kind of economic clout at its disposal might mean to Pakistan. I guess I might be a worried too.

Welcome to the mad mad world of southwest Asian politics where Pakistan aids and abets both sides of the conflict to its own advantage, or so it hopes. But by helping the Taliban and its radical fundamentalist offshoots, the ISI and its political allies in Pakistan may also be handing the Taliban the knife with which they'll cut Pakistan's throat.

Click to see larger map of Afghanistan's mineral resources

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