FOR many Pakistanis, the military’s much-awaited operation in the tribal region of North Waziristan has come a little too late. Reports indicate that high-level Taliban commanders and hardened fighters — many of Uzbek, Arab, Turkmen and Chechen descent — walked across to neighbouring Afghan provinces to wait out the military intervention. Earlier, political consensus to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban led to mounting attacks aimed at the state and its law enforcing institutions, showing that peace talks were not going to work.
Most of the books that have appeared in the period in which America has fought its longest war in Afghanistan — during which it has repeatedly urged Pakistan to put an end to cross-border terrorism and tackle terror schools on home soil — have explored the history of certain dangerous liaisons and unsuccessful civilian and military partnerships in Pakistan. However, much less has been written about the links between the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Taliban network on both sides of the Durand Line.
Here steps in veteran reporter Carlotta Gall, who has infuriated the Pakistani establishment with her controversial revelations, including her claim — attributed to just a single anonymous source — that Pakistan was not only hiding Osama bin Laden but that the ISI was in the loop all along. In her book The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014, Gall writes about a Bin Laden desk manned by the ISI and also documents her personal experience with intelligence agents storming her hotel room in Quetta.
Written after a decade of working in Pakistan and Afghanistan, The Wrong Enemy examines why the West failed in Afghanistan. Gall holds the Pakistani military and security services culpable, stating they worked as facilitators for the Afghan Taliban, training and recruiting fighters, and helping with the import of arms from the Gulf for their own myopic purposes of control within Afghanistan.
Many before Gall have claimed the same. What was a grand project built to enjoy political leverage in a neighbouring country has led to a desperately untenable situation internally where militant groups have not only turned on their handlers, but their metamorphosis and links have proven more lethal than anticipated.
Another recent book that looks carefully at the problem of growing extremism in Pakistan’s tribal region is journalist Abubakar Siddique’s The Pashtuns: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan. By delving into the history and culture of the Pakhtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, Siddique explores reasons that compelled a peaceful tribal people, who had lived in relative isolation until five or six decades ago, to turn their borderlands into an incubator of extremism.
The Pashtuns is an extensive historical documentation that traces the origins of the Taliban movement in Pakistan and Afghanistan; focuses on the rise of extremism in three Pakhtun regions in Afghanistan (Kunar, Paktia and Kandahar) and poses a solution for crafting peace on both sides of the border. While this subject has been written about extensively, Siddique’s work adds value because of his first-hand knowledge and well thought out analysis.
With the Afghan Taliban leadership ensconced in Quetta and scores of displaced fighters who have found sanctuary in North Waziristan, southern Punjab and Karachi, it appears that the political and economic implications for Pakistan will be played out for a long time yet. Quoting Pakhtun nationalist leader, Mahmood Khan Achakzai, who says that “[Musharraf’s government] has handed over the entire tribal belt to Al Qaeda” while publically denying it, Gall argues that America fought the wrong enemy in the wrong country. Consequently, what will become more apparent is that the present government’s military offensive in North Waziristan will lead to another generation of displaced militants, influenced by extremist Islam, wreaking havoc on societies not in confluence with their ideological world view, whether in Pakistan, Afghanistan or on loan to broader Middle East conflicts.
The historical significance of the relationship between the Pakistani military, the ISI and the region’s extremists groups with links to Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan means that making peace is an elusive deal. Conflict perpetuated by non-state actors has not only spilt across Pakistan, but complex religiously-motivated reasoning is further able to destabilise a country that perpetually suffers internal political divisions and economic challenges. Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan has largely been unprovable. If there has been evidence, it has remained under wraps (as America is known to keep its ally calm), despite Afghans openly revealing their dislike for Pakistan’s security establishment (allegedly supportive of the Haqqani network), holding it responsible for mounting terrorist attacks within their cities.
Originally from Waziristan, Siddique knows the region and its people closely and so is able to search for reasons behind this conflict by delving into the history of local tribes and their alliances. In contrast to Gall’s explanation for the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, he talks about the Taliban’s emergence as student militias.
I am not sure if Gall has the entire account down correctly when she writes that the Taliban wanted to take over Afghanistan when they began their movement when in fact that happened two years after their emergence in southern Afghanistan. History has it down that the Taliban movement began in the early 1990s comprising an Afghan faction of the ‘mujahideen,’ who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with the backing of America and the ISI. They initially rose out of a rag-tag army of pious, simple villagers wanting to get rid of criminal gangs and introduce an Islamic system of life.
Like others who have delved into the rise of the Taliban, Siddique writes that they came together because of poor governance and poverty as the civil war had meant hardships for local Afghans and the inability of the government to address their demands. But he also refers to the effort at the time by Pakistan to create an Afghan leadership that would do its bidding. Siddique writes that it was decades of “Pakistani investment [that] transformed Pakhtun nationalism into a formidable political force and reduced the Pakhtun nationalist threat.”
Interestingly, while the concept of Al Qaeda as a global ‘jihadi’ conglomerate might have been formulated in Peshawar in the 1980s, it has never had a Pakhtun leader. However, as Siddique points out, the wars in Pakistan (tribal region) and Afghanistan have nurtured and polished the leaders and ideologies of modern global ‘jihad’ where Al Qaeda’s veteran Arab leaders — Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam — cut their teeth. For example, ISIS, which sought to merge initially with the Al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, is now an independent, organised and dangerous offshoot in the Middle East. The Arabs who were part of the early anti-Soviet war stayed behind in the Pakhtun regions and regrouped with volunteers and converts from Chechnya, Central Asia, Chinese Turkistan, Europe and Asia in the 1990s. They managed to pull together a global militant conglomerate under Arab leadership which found an opportunity to be put to use when the war in Afghanistan called for recruits.
It was Al Qaeda that transformed Waziristan into a terror haven for global freelance ‘jihadists’ who travelled to the region, were trained and then deployed further. Siddique and Gall both write about Washington’s mounting pressure on Islamabad. In the past, Islamabad had failed to take action against groups in North Waziristan which meant Pakistani Taliban had fled there when the government launched an offensive in South Waziristan.
Widely known as Islamabad’s proxy players, the Haqqanis of North Waziristan were seen as a “government in a box,” writes Siddique. Even though the Americans had evidence to show that the Haqqani network was responsible for attacks within Afghanistan, especially targeting Indian projects and Afghan politicians, the US “support for the relationship with Pakistan became a mantra,” Gall says. That the American administration deliberately did not address the role of the ISI after the Abbottabad raid is significant. But this part of Gall’s analysis becomes slightly puzzling as the relationship was on rocky footing before the Abbottabad raid and got worse in the months after. It has been established that the Obama administration decided not to inform the Pakistani authorities of the Bin Laden raid because they believed he would be removed by Pakistan’s security services.
The Wrong Enemy borrows its title from a quotation by Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, who had identified Pakistan’s ISI as the real problem for America in Afghanistan. “We might be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country,” he noted. Middle East expert Vali Nasr, who had worked closely with Holbrooke at the State Department, has written in The Dispensable Nation of Holbrooke’s advice to the Obama administration on tackling extremism within Pakistan through aggressive economic development projects to thwart the younger middle-classes from signing up to militant causes. Far-sightedness being his specialism, Holbrooke had encouraged the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to address a student audience when she visited Islamabad in 2009, hoping to revamp the image of America’s role in the region.
Gall points directly at Pakistan’s collaboration with insurgent groups for America’s failure to contain extremism and a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, failure could also be attributed to other factors since documented. Noteworthy among them include the constant infighting between the US State Department and the Pentagon when it came to applying a counterinsurgency strategy in Taliban-run Afghan provinces; the disastrous civil-military partnership on the ground; the distribution of USAID assistance; and development projects that were unable to sustain after Nato-led troops vacated insurgent-hit districts.
Moreover, Islamabad’s vacillation on whether or not to fight growing extremism in Waziristan and other tribal regions did not contribute towards tackling the Afghan insurgency.
Musharraf’s idea was to root out the ‘bad’ Taliban and prescribe to the ‘good’ which were attacking American-led forces in Afghanistan. Keeping the Haqqani network on Pakistan’s side meant keeping the Afghan Taliban watered and fed which has always resulted in sacrificing the Pakhtun tribal belt and local communities to narrow state interests. Siddique writes that “the full integration of Pakhtuns into economic and political life would help stabilise the troubled megalopolis and prevent it from turning into another Beirut and Baghdad.”
Gall reiterates how the never-ending wars in Afghanistan have cost its people for generations. Her analysis is spot on when she questions Pakistan’s logic in its association with the Taliban and America’s silent acknowledgment as she describes a series of events after 9/11 — the airlifting of ISI agents and military trainers out of Kunduz before it fell to the Northern Alliance is well known as is George Bush’s pledge to Musharraf that the Northern Alliance would not enter Kabul.
This double-edged approach has come to haunt those who believed that they were protecting Pakistan’s interests by supporting militant ideologies that negate the existence of a secular, economically strong and democratic state.
The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014
(WAR ON TERROR)
By Carlotta Gall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US
The Pashtuns: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan
(WAR ON TERROR)
By Abubakar Siddique
Random House, India