As General David Petraeus takes over the war in Afghanistan from General Stanley McChrystal, he faces a daunting set of challenges. Thirty years of fighting have taken their toll on the country. Afghanistan is a backwards place with little infrastructure. The heroin capital of the world, its opium fields are a rich source of income for the Taliban and its allies. The country is rife with corruption and tribalism.
To make matters worse, the Afghan government is shaky. President Hamid Karzai is expressing doubts that America can win and hedging his bets. He has entertained the idea of a deal with the Taliban. Two of Karzai’s most pro-American subordinates, including his intelligence chief, resigned earlier this month.
General Petraeus knows all of this. “I’ve always said that Afghanistan would be the tougher fight,” he remarked in late 2008. Last year Petraeus and McChrystal together developed a counterinsurgency strategy—based on the one that brought Iraq back from the brink—to suit the peculiarities of Afghanistan.
But Petraeus and U.S. forces cannot do it alone. The fight for Afghanistan requires, as President Obama himself noted earlier this week, “a unity of purpose on the part of all branches of the U.S. government that reflects the enormous sacrifices that are being made by the young men and women who are there.” Such unity of purpose is essential to dealing with one of the most serious challenges facing Afghanistan today: Pakistan.
Many of Afghanistan’s woes can be traced to its southern neighbor. Pakistan provided crucial counterterrorism assistance in the post-September 11 world—September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high-level al Qaeda operatives would not have been captured in Pakistan without the assistance of local authorities. But the Pakistani government remains divided and duplicitous. For years, its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has nurtured jihadist organizations and exported terrorism to Afghanistan, Kashmir, and India as part of its foreign policy. Some parts of the ISI are on our side. Others are not. That’s why President Obama said on Thursday that in addition to making sure “we have a stable Afghan government” in the fight against terrorism, “we also have to make sure that we’ve got a Pakistani government that is working effectively with us to dismantle these networks.”
This requires consistent diplomatic and political pressure on the Pakistani government. Petraeus and the military can exert some of this pressure through their liaison relationship with the Pakistani military—America provides training for the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, and supplies the armed forces. This provides some of the levers needed. But a concerted effort by State Department and intelligence officials, and President Obama himself, is needed as well.
Obama has not been negligent in this regard. A recent study by RAND notes that President Obama sent a letter to Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari that “bluntly warned that Pakistan’s use of militant groups to pursue its policy goals would no longer be tolerated.” It is not clear what, exactly, this means absent concrete action, or even if Zardari could rein in the ISI should he want to. But Obama, according to RAND, also “offered additional military and economic assistance, as well as help in easing tensions with India.”
Looming over America’s military and diplomatic efforts is the withdrawal timetable. It does not matter that the July 2011 date for the beginning of the draw-down is more nuanced than a complete “switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,” as President Obama said on Thursday. The arbitrary date sends the message that America’s commitment is limited. Those in the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment who support the Afghan insurgents do so because they see them as a means to project power in Afghanistan. The timetable tells the Pakistanis that support for the Taliban and their ilk may be rewarded in the not distant future.
Afghanistan is a contest of wills. President Obama insists that Pakistan must give up its support for militant groups, but the July 2011 deadline undercuts his efforts. The deadline indicates that America may not have the will necessary to fight for its own interests, which differ in important respects from Pakistan’s.
The three principal insurgent groups in Afghanistan—the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) organization—share a common goal: the expulsion of American-led forces from Afghanistan. While they fight in Afghanistan, they are rooted in Pakistan, where the senior leadership for each organization is headquartered. McChrystal noted this in the strategy review he submitted to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in August 2009. “Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan.”
As the name “Quetta Shura Taliban” indicates, this group has long been based in Quetta, Pakistan. It is widely known that Taliban chief Mullah Omar and his cohorts have met in Quetta for the better part of a decade. As McChrystal noted last year: “At the operational level, the Quetta Shura conducts a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his guidance and intent for the coming year.”
Likewise, Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the father and son who lead their own Taliban-affiliated network, are based in northern Pakistan. So is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of the HiG. All three organizations maintain training camps there and draw recruits from the Afghan refugees who live along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The leaders of the three main Afghan insurgency organizations were all originally proxies of the ISI and maintain a relationship to this day. The degree of the ISI’s current involvement with the Afghan insurgents is a topic of debate. Undoubtedly, parts of the ISI have assisted American efforts to disrupt the jihadist hydra’s operations. Other ISI operatives have, however, continued the patron-client relationship. McChrystal recognized this in his review, which noted that the three groups are “reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI.”
There is ample evidence to support this proposition. During an appearance on 60 Minutes in May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “somewhere in [the Pakistani] government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda is, where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is, and we expect more cooperation to help us bring to justice, capture or kill, those who attacked us on 9/11.” Although Secretary Clinton did not name names, she was almost certainly referring to elements of the ISI.
Indeed, in late 2009 the Washington Times reported that the ISI moved Mullah Omar and members of the Taliban’s Shura council from Quetta to Karachi. In Quetta, the senior Taliban leaders were more susceptible to American Predator strikes. In Karachi, which is dotted with radical madrassas that can be used as hideouts, they are safer.
A more dramatic example of the ISI’s ongoing sponsorship occurred on July 7, 2008, when a suicide car bomb exploded at the gates of the Indian embassy in Kabul, killing 58 and wounding more than 140. The attack was carried out by the Haqqani network, but American intelligence officials quickly concluded that the ISI backed the operation. According to the New York Times, the “conclusion was based on intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the attack . . . providing the clearest evidence to date that Pakistani intelligence officers are actively undermining American efforts to combat militants in the region.” There are also persistent reports that the ISI continues to fund, train, and protect leaders and fighters from all three of the Afghan insurgency organizations.
Each also has long-established ties to al Qaeda. The men who lead the insurgents’ campaign counted Osama bin Laden as a friend and ally long before the September 11 attacks. This is why they have shared their safe haven in northern Pakistan. McChrystal noted this in his review last year, explaining that the three groups are “linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups.” More important: “Al Qaeda and associated movements based in Pakistan channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial support.”
The fight against the Pakistan-based Afghan insurgency groups is directly related to the fight against al Qaeda. They are all part of the same jihad. And defeating the jihadists requires a focus on Pakistan as well as on Afghanistan.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.