What’s wrong with this picture?

THE vehement denials that have lately been pouring out of Islamabad with reference to Matt Waldman’s controversial discussion paper on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate’s embroilment with the Afghan Taliban offer little cause for surprise. Even a relatively milder indictment of the ISI’s role in Afghanistan would have been greeted with a dismissive counter-offensive.


At the same time, however, even a cursory perusal of the report demonstrates that what’s disconcerting about it goes well beyond the striking allegation that President Asif Zardari (whose name is consistently misspelt as “Zadari” in the discussion paper) actually visited incarcerated Afghan Taliban in a Pakistani prison and harangued dozens of them for half an hour.


Even his most vociferous foes would concede that Zardari is adept at covering his tracks. How could he conceivably hope to make such an appearance and then expect it to remain secret? It is not entirely inconceivable, of course, that the ISI could use its powers or persuasion to place him in a compromising position. But it’s nonetheless highly unlikely. As Ahmed Rashid was quoted as saying by The Guardian on Monday, “The last person the Taliban would want to see is Asif Zardari.”


It’s intriguing all the same that Waldman’s allegation, based on an interview with a Taliban source who wasn’t there but is supposed to be in the know, is supplemented in a report in this week’s The Sunday Times by Miles Ammore, who cites “a Taliban leader in jail at the time” as saying that the attitude of the prison authorities changed five days before the presidential visit in early April. It quotes Zardari as saying, “You are our people, we are friends, and after your release we will of course support you to do your operations.”


The same quote appears in Waldman’s paper, citing “a Talib who has regular contact with the Quetta shura”. Both reports say Zardari assured the prisoners that the less well known among them would be released shortly, to be followed in due course by those who were better known. The Times’ source goes on to allege that during this visit Zardari also met Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the reported second-in-command to Mullah Omar, who was arrested in Karachi last February.


Reports at the time said Baradar’s capture was the result of a cooperative effort between the ISI and the CIA – even though it apparently disrupted negotiations between the Taliban and the Karzai government in Kabul. The latest take on this episode paints it as an attempt by the ISI to forestall any such discussions that did not enjoy its imprimatur.


The second most damaging charge in the Waldman indictment is the allegation that the ISI actually has seats on the so-called Quetta shura that ostensibly directs the Afghan insurgency – although the report’s author appears to be uncertain as to whether this means the intelligence agency has a direct say in operational plans or operates as an observer. He also seems to be unclear on whether the ISI participation refers to actual agents monitoring the proceedings, or to Taliban henchmen who obey the ISI because it happens to be their primary paymaster.


Provided the Quetta shura is not a mythical entity, it can more or less be taken for granted that the ISI keeps a close watch on its activities, and the agency’s direct involvement in the shura’s affairs would be unsurprising. But Waldman’s paper can hardly be construed as independent confirmation on this score.


For one thing, it is remarkable that Waldman appears to be unfazed by the fact that all of his anonymous sources appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet. At least two of them cite the clarity of “the sun in the sky” as a simile for the ISI’s involvement, and almost all of them claim that the Taliban’s most heinous excesses – terrorist attacks against schools for girls, for instance – are prompted by the ISI, whereas the nationalists among them are motivated mainly by the urge to rid their nation of Nato occupation.


Waldman concedes that such statements could be an attempt to blames the worst Taliban crimes on the ISI. He also casts doubt on the allegation that the United States, through its military aid to Pakistan, is indirectly paying for a range of atrocities. And although he cites one interviewee as saying that “the only people [the Taliban] hate more than the Americans are the ISI”, notably because the latter is determined to disrupt prospects of peace in Afghanistan, he appears to ignore the motivation of his informants.


Hamid Karzai has lately indicated that he’s more inclined to negotiate a peace through Pakistan auspices than to trust the American military strategy. Waldman’s paper and The Sunday Times report could be part of a concerted effort to undermine Karzai’s efforts. On the other hand, there is much to be said for his assertion that Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan is aimed chiefly at undermining India’s investments in the Great Game.


Which makes it all the more vital that efforts should be made to restore relations between India and Pakistan to an even keel. It’s not easy, but it could all the difference as far as Afghanistan is concerned.


At the same time, even if half of what the Waldman report alleges is close to the truth, the American assumption that Pakistan is on its side would need to be reassessed. 


At the same time, it has lately been amply reiterated that Pakistan has profound problems of its own, not least in the obscurantist reaction to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s somewhat belated response to the terrorist attack late last month on two mosques in Lahore, that “Ahmadi brothers and sisters are an asset” to the nation. The subdued reaction to the massacre at the mosques, ostensibly by elements insufficiently detached from the ISI, that claimed almost 100 lives is as incriminating an indictment as any of the state of the nation 63 years after Mohammed Ali Jinnah declared that matters of faith would be no business of the state.


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