There are two reasons that NATO troops are providing protection and transportation for Taliban leaders traveling to Kabul for peace negotiations with the Afghan government. The first is to demonstrate to these leaders that the Afghan and NATO forces are sincere about offering them a peaceful return from fighting. The second is to keep them safe from Pakistan's military spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which both U.S. and Afghan officials warn will try to kill any Taliban commander who dares to enter peace talks. The New York Time's Dexter Filkins reports:
The discussions appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan's leaders, who are believed to exercise a wide degree of control over the Taliban's leadership. The Afghan government seems to be trying to seek a reconciliation agreement that does not directly involve Pakistan, which [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai's government fears will exercise too much influence over Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw.
But that strategy could backfire by provoking the Pakistanis, who could undermine any agreement.
Mullah Muhammad Omar, the overall leader of the Taliban, is explicitly being cut out of the negotiations, in part because of his closeness to the Pakistani security services, officials said.
Afghans who have tried to take part in, or even facilitate, past negotiations have been killed by their Taliban comrades, sometimes with the assistance of Pakistan's intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
"The ISI will try to prevent these negotiations from happening," the Afghan official said. "The ISI will just eliminate them," he said, referring to the people who take part.
Earlier this year, the ISI detained as many as 23 Taliban leaders residing in Pakistan after the intelligence service discovered that the Taliban leaders were talking secretly with representatives of the Afghan government.
In other words, the U.S., the NATO-led security force, and the Afghan government have all taken the extraordinary step of protecting the Taliban from the Pakistani military because we've decided that the latter is more dangerous. It's no secret that Pakistan's ISI has threatened Taliban commanders against peace with the U.S. -- Pakistan's ally and greatest benefactor. Recently, Filkins confirmed long-held suspicions that the ISI sabotaged Afghan peace efforts by kidnapping a senior Taliban leader who spent much of 2009 negotiating possible peace with the Afghan government. So the fact that Pakistan opposes peace is nothing new. But the decision to actively protect the Taliban, our stated enemy in Afghanistan, from our purported ally seems to set a symbolic new low in the already abysmal U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
Since the 1979 Soviet invasion, Pakistan has been the U.S.'s closest ally for furthering our goals in Afghanistan. Co-opting Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan and relying on the ISI's formidable presence there has been a consistent tool of U.S. strategy from the Reagan administration through the early days of the Obama administration. However, as President Barack Obama made clear in recent interviews with Bob Woodward, he now believes that "the cancer in Pakistan." If Obama can bring peace to Afghanistan, it will not be with Pakistan's help, as the U.S. has sought since the 1987 Soviet withdrawal. Rather, it appears peace would come in spite of Pakistan.
It's not crazy to think that the Taliban could be more amenable to peace than Pakistan. After all, Taliban commanders are generally fighting in pursuit of specific goals. Those goals vary widely -- some hate the Karzai-led government, some insist on the departure of all foreign troops, some want Saudi-style conservative religious rule -- but most of their demands can be addressed, if not resolved outright, by face-to-face negotiations. As Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, "War is the continuation of politics by other means." But, for the ISI, war in Afghanistan is both the end and the means. The military intelligence service wants to project Pakistani influence and ensure that neither India nor the U.S., which they see as India's eternal partner, ever have a stable footing in Afghanistan. There is nothing to negotiate. And, as contemporary military historian John Keegan argued in his book-length response to Clausewitz, sometimes war is driven by culture rather than politics. Whatever the reason for the ISI's continued opposition to peace, the U.S. and Afghan governments now seem to believe that it is the Taliban, of all groups, that would be more willing to lay down their arms and finally reconcile after 30 years of war.
Image: Afghan President Hamid Karzai listens to a member of the peace council during an inaugural meeting at the Presidential palace in Kabul on October 7. By Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.