The Afghan Debacle

Can’t Win in Afghanistan? Blame Pakistan

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis


Soon after the US invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban government in 2001, I predicted that Taliban resistance would resume in four years.

My fellow pundits, who were cock-a-hoop over the US military victory over a bunch of lightly-armed medieval tribesmen, became drunk on old-fashioned imperial triumphalism, and denounced me as "crazy," or worse. But most of them had never been to Afghanistan and knew nothing about the Pashtun tribal people. I had covered the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980’s and was well aware of the leisurely pace of warfare favored by Pashtun warriors.

"Do not stay in Afghanistan," I warned in a 2001 article in the Los Angeles Times. The longer foreign forces remained in Afghanistan, the more the tribes would fight against their continued presence. Taliban resumed fighting in 2005.

Now, as resistance to the US-led occupation of Afghanistan intensifies, the increasingly frustrated Bush administration is venting its anger against Pakistan and its military intelligence agency, Inter-Service Intelligence, better known as ISI.

The White House just leaked claims ISI is in cahoots with pro-Taliban groups in Pakistan’s tribal agency along the Afghan border and warns them of impending US attacks. The New York Times, which allowed the Bush administration to use it as a mouthpiece for Iraq War propaganda, dutifully featured the leaks about ISI on front page. Other administration officials have been claiming that ISI may even be hiding Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders.

The Bush administration claims that CIA had electronic intercepts proving ISI was behind the recent bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul. India and Afghanistan echo this charge. No hard evidence has yet been produced, but the US media has been lustily condemning Pakistan for pretending to be an ally of the US while acting like an enemy.

President George Bush angrily asked Pakistan’s visiting prime minister, Yousuf Gilani, "who’s in charge of ISI?" An interesting question, since all recent ISI director generals have been vetted and pre-approved by Washington.

I was one of the first western journalists invited into ISI HQ in 1986. ISI’s then director, the fierce Lt. General Akhtar Rahman, personally briefed me on Pakistan’s secret role in fighting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. ISI’s "boys" provided communications, logistics, training, heavy weapons, and direction in the Afghan War. I kept ISI’s role in Afghanistan a secret until the war ended in 1989.

ISI was primarily responsible for the victory over the Soviets, which hastened the collapse of the USSR. At war’s end, Gen. Akhtar and Pakistan’s leader, Zia ul Haq, both died in a sabotaged C-130 transport aircraft. Unfortunately, most Pakistanis blame the United States for this assassination, though the real malefactors have never been identified and the investigation long ago shelved.

On my subsequent trips to Pakistan I was routinely briefed by succeeding ISI chiefs, and joined ISI officers in the field, sometimes under fire.

ISI, which reports to Pakistan’s military and the prime minister, is accused of meddling in Pakistani politics. The late Benazir Bhutto, who often was thwarted and vexed by Pakistan’s spooks, always playfully scolded me, "you and your beloved generals at ISI."

But before Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over as military dictator, ISI was the third world’s most efficient, professional intelligence agency. It still defends Pakistan against internal and external subversion by India’s powerful spy agency, RAW, and by Iran. ISI works closely with CIA and the Pentagon and was primarily responsible for the rapid ouster of Taliban from power in 2001. But ISI also must serve Pakistan’s interests which are often not identical to Washington’s, and sometimes in conflict.

ISI was long and deeply involved in supporting the uprising by Kashmiri Muslims against Indian rule, and has been accused by India of abetting groups that have committed bombings and aircraft hijackings inside India, including a wave of terrorist bombings against civilians in Bangalore and Gujarat over recently weeks. For its part, India’s powerful intelligence service, RAW, has mounted bombing and shooting attacks inside Pakistan.

The reason it is often difficult to tell whether Pakistan is friend or foe is because Washington has been forcing Pakistan’s government, military and intelligence services into supporting the US-led war in Afghanistan and rounding up and torturing opponents of Pakistan’s military dictatorship. Pakistan was forced to bend to Washington’s will through a combination of over $11 billion in payments and threats of war if Pakistan did not comply. The ongoing prosecution of the US-led war in Afghanistan depends entirely on Pakistan’s provision of bases and troops.

While Pakistan’s government, military and intelligence services were forced to follow Washington’s strategic plans, 90% of Pakistan’s people bitterly opposed these policies. President-dictator Musharraf was caught between the anger of Washington and his own angry people who branded him an American stooge.

Small wonder Pakistan’s leadership is so often accused of playing a double game.

The last ISI Director General I knew was the tough, highly capable Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmad. He was purged by Musharraf because Washington felt Mahmood was insufficiently responsive to US interests. Ever since 2001, ensuing ISI directors were all pre-approved by Washington. All senior ISI veterans deemed "Islamist" or too nationalistic by Washington were purged at Washington’s demand, leaving ISI’s upper ranks top-heavy with too many yes-men and paper-passers.

Even so, there is strong opposition inside ISI and the military to Washington’s bribing and arm-twisting the subservient Musharraf dictatorship into waging war against fellow Pakistanis and gravely damaging Pakistan’s national interests.

ISI’s primary duty is defending Pakistan, not promote US interests. Pashtun tribesmen on the border sympathizing with their fellow Taliban Pashtun in Afghanistan are Pakistanis. Many, like the legendary Jalaluddin Haqqani, are old US allies and "freedom fighters" from the 1980’s. When the US and its western allies finally abandon Afghanistan, as they will inevitably do one day, Pakistan must go on living with its rambunctious tribals.

Violence and uprisings in these tribal areas are not caused by "terrorism," as Washington and Musharraf falsely claimed. They directly result from the US-led occupation of Afghanistan and Washington’s forcing the hated Musharraf regime to attack its own people.

ISI is trying to restrain pro-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen while dealing with growing US attacks into Pakistan that threaten a wider war. India, Pakistan’s bitter foe, has an army of agents in Afghanistan and is arming, backing and financing the Karzai puppet regime in Kabul in hopes of turning Afghanistan into a protectorate. Pakistan’s historic strategic interests in Afghanistan have been undermined by the US occupation. Now, the US and India are trying to eliminate Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.

ISI, many of whose officers are Pashtun, has every right to warn Pakistani citizens of impending US air attacks that kill large numbers of civilians. But ISI also has another vital mission. Preventing Pakistan’s Pashtun, 15—20% of the population of 165 million, from rekindling the old "Greater Pashtunistan" movement calling for union of the Pashtun tribes of Pakistan and Afghanistan into a new Pashtun nation. The Pashtun have never recognized the Durand Line (today’s Pakistan-Afghan border) drawn by British imperialists to sunder the world’s largest tribal people. Greater Pashtunistan would tear apart Pakistan and invite Indian military intervention.

Washington’s bull-in-a-china shop behavior pays no heeds to these realities. Instead, Washington demonizes faithful old allies ISI and Pakistan while supporting Afghanistan’s Communists and drug dealers, and allowing India to stir the Afghan pot — all for the sake of new energy pipelines.

As Henry Kissinger cynically noted, being America’s ally is more dangerous than being its enemy.

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