The Pakistani General Who Could Save or Doom Afghanistan

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News this week that a joint U.S.-Pakistani raid in Pakistan captured Mullah Baradar, the de facto military commander of the Afghan Taliban, is a tremendous accomplishment for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But the greater significance may be Pakistan's role. Long seen as tolerant or worse towards the Taliban, the Pakistani military led the operation. In the days since, it has helped orchestrate the seizure of two more high-ranking Taliban leaders and up to nine al-Qaeda officials. Pakistan's sudden willingness to partner with the U.S. in the crackdown, led by army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, demonstrates the incredibly valuable role Kayani's military can play in aiding the U.S. war in Afghanistan. However, the partnership is an extreme and sudden shift for Kayani, one that may not last without very careful U.S. policy.

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Neither the Pakistani military nor General Kayani have been much in the way of friends to America. As recently as January 2008, Kayani quietly brokered ceasefires with Taliban leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud, whose agreement with Pakistan allowed him to focus on fighting the U.S. in Afghanistan. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen pleaded with Kayani, but he refused to budge. (The ceasefire later collapsed; Mehsud was killed last August by a CIA drone strike.) That July, according to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos, Mullen confronted Kayani with evidence that the military's CIA-like Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was supporting a particularly vicious Taliban leader named Jalaluddin Haqqani who was ravaging American forces. Again, Kayani refused Mullen's request to reign in the ISI, which he had once headed. (Just four months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the ISI of tolerating al-Qaeda's presence.) In September 2008, when U.S. special forces launched their first operations inside Pakistan, Kayani was outraged. He promised the American troops would be shot on sight.

What changed? Barack Obama's election and his subsequent escalation of American involvement in Afghanistan changed the calculus for Kayani. Obama's emphasis on Afghanistan's civil society and long-term political stability, a focus some have criticized as nation-building, also happen to finally bring America's interests in line with Kayani's. And as The New Republic's Michael Crowley reports, Mullen has worked hard to court Kayani. Mullen has secured the general monetary aid, equipment such as helicopters, and political support from Washington. But the real reasons for Kayani's shift go back to the earliest American involvement in Pakistan.

The militant, politicized, anti-Western Islam that swept the Muslim world in 1979 still remains in much of Pakistan. But in the 1980s mutual U.S.-Pakistan mistrust was put aside in pursuit of a common enemy. The Pakistani military received up to $500 million dollars in annual U.S. funding to help fight the Soviet's Afghanistan invasion. When the Pressler Amendment forced the U.S. to cut off all funding to Pakistan in 1990 due to its nuclear weapons program, and in 1992 when President Clinton effectively ended American involvement in Afghanistan, the mutual interests evaporated. The Pakistan military incorporated the fundamentalist elements of Pakistani society as a way to co-opt and guard against the sometimes violent movement. In Afghanistan's brutal civil war between several competing warlords, it pushed all support to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who the military believed would protect Pakistani interests. Today, Hekmatyar leads one of the most dangerous Taliban elements and is highly sought by the U.S. for his ties to al-Qaeda.

Though the U.S. ostensibly renewed ties with Pakistan in 2001, cooperation under President Bush was limited and Pakistan's military has operated under fears that we will abandon them as we did in 1990. The ISI tolerates (or even supports) the Taliban because it knows that, should the U.S. depart early, the Taliban could retain significant military capability or even retake Afghanistan. Better not to needlessly antagonize what could one day be a very dangerous enemy.

Pakistan is a deeply troubled country barely able to withstand serious external military opposition. The Pakistani military's actions, though motivated at times by ideological zeal and a desire to dominate internal politics, are also meant to protect Pakistan. There are many factors in the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but the divergence of U.S. and Pakistani interests is surely one of them. The U.S. must prove to Kayani that our interests have become one and the same if we are to retain his clearly valuable cooperation and end the ISI's pro-Taliban hedging.

As long as President Obama maintains America's commitment to long-term stability and peace in the region, Kayani will rightly see helping America's mission as within his, his military's and Pakistan's best interest. Our partnership, as he demonstrated twice this week, is an incredibly potent tool. But American reliance on Kayani is a double-edged sword. As we arm his forces and extend his regional writ, he becomes more difficult to control. Our political support of Kayani tips Pakistan's very-delicate power scales between its military and civilian government. The civilian government is less effective at combating terrorists but more reliably pro-American. Should Kayani doubt our own allegiance to Pakistani interests, Kayani will have little choice but to return to the anti-American tactics that helped get us here in the first place.

Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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