Is Pakistan's Spy Service Finally on Our Side?

It may be the real breakthrough in the Taliban chief's capture

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The capture of Mullah Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's second-ranking official and operational chief, has been hailed as a major victory for the U.S. (though attended by notes of caution). Baradar's absence could cripple the Taliban and move it closer to peaceful reconciliation. But many South Asia watchers think that Pakistan's role in the capture could be even bigger news. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, the CIA-like branch of the Pakistani military, led the joint U.S.-Pakistani operation to capture Baradar in Pakistan.

The ISI has long history of sheltering and even funding the Taliban's most extreme elements. In October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused them of tolerating al-Qaeda. Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the ISI's refusal to fully cooperate has been one of the greatest hurdles for bringing stability to the region, and America's diplomatic standoff with Pakistan over the ISI has threatened to undo the U.S.-Pakistani alliance. Does their role in capturing Baradar finally signal ISI coming around to the U.S. side, or are they merely hedging their bets?

  • ISI Finally Seeking Peace?  The Daily Telegraph's Ben Farmer writes, "If the arrest of Mullah Baradar heralds a change in the ISI position towards its former protégés rather than being a one off, it will be a landmark event in the counter insurgency. It follows the ISI's declaration earlier this month that it wished to play a significant role in Hamid Karzai’s attempts to reconcile with senior insurgent leaders."
  • 'Temporary Confluence of Interests'  Gregg Carlstrom isn't holding his breath for more cooperation. "The ISI has a history of playing all sides, though; it's quite possible Pakistan's security apparatus saw a strategic benefit in capturing Baradar (fears about a mounting Taliban presence in Karachi, perhaps, or maybe the ISI is getting something in return) but doesn't plan to make a habit of these arrests."
  • Loss of Taliban Safe-Haven  National security think-tanker Michael Cohen says an ISI crack-down would devastate the Taliban. "One can only imagine the impact on Taliban feelings of security and reliance on Pakistani support: that safe haven ain't feeling so safe anymore. One has to think this will affect the drive toward political reconciliation in a dramatic way - because if you're the Taliban this news suggests that time is no longer necessarily on your side."
  • Pakistan Yields to U.S. Pressure  The Economist evaluates the move as "perhaps reflecting a change in policy by the government in Islamabad. [...] Pakistan had previously bought off Washington by co-operating on the capture of al-Qaeda figures, while keeping the Afghan Taliban leadership safe. But, with the Afghan insurgency spiralling and now arguably a bigger problem than al-Qaeda, it seems that the Americans had run out of patience."
With its contacts, geographic location, and new-found “responsible” approach, it’s Pakistan — not Iran, India, or Russia — that is positioned to play the role of stability guarantor in a post-American Afghanistan, especially as it pertains to U.S. interests.  Pakistan has an opportunity to come in from the cold and project its regional influence through more conventional and “legitimate” means.  In doing so, it can secure its interests and the respect and trust of others, while also containing the Taliban contagion infesting its border areas with Afghanistan.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.