Talking to the Taliban

Why the Pakistan intelligence agency's close ties with the Taliban should not be condemned

No matter how much leverage you hold over a country, it is rare that you can get it to act against its core self-interest. The United States has struggled with this dilemma for decades in regards to its relations with Israel and South Korea. Self-interest based on the facts of geography is what makes America’s relations with these two close allies particularly fractious. Israel has long refused to scale back settlements in the occupied territories, frustrating U.S. efforts at peacemaking, even as American soldiers die in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conversely, South Korea has, in certain periods, extended an olive branch to the North Korean communists, frustrating U.S. efforts to erect a strong, united front against the Pyongyang regime. Now the U.S. faces the same problem with another of its ostensible allies, Pakistan.

The U.S. demands that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), its spy agency, sever relations with the Taliban. Based on Pakistan’s own geography, this makes no sense from a Pakistani point of view. First of all, maintaining lines of communications and back channels with the enemy is what intelligence agencies do. What kind of a spy service would ISI be if it had no contacts with one of the key players that will help determine its neighbor’s future?

This is particularly the case when one considers the long and unruly land border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and how both countries form one organic region. Indeed, Sugata Bose, a history professor at Harvard, in 2003 described the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier area as “historically no frontier at all,” but the very “heart” of an “Indo-Persian and Indo-Islamic economic, cultural, and political domain that had straddled Afghanistan and Punjab for two millennia.” The fact, which we all keep repeating, that there is no solution for Afghanistan without a solution for Pakistan, is itself an indication of the extent to which both countries are joined. This makes it even more crucial for the ISI to maintain contacts and highly developed networks with all principle Afghani political and guerrilla groups.

We've done the same thing ourselves. In 1976, U.S. special envoy Talcott Seelye was able to effect the evacuation of American diplomats and their families from war-torn Beirut only because of contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization, a group that we weren’t supposed to be talking to at the time. And all agree it was a grave mistake on our part to have abruptly left the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region after the fall of the Berlin Wall, letting our own carefully constructed networks there wither on the vine.

Remember, it wasn’t radicals burrowed deep within the ISI who made the decision to help bring the Taliban to power in the mid-1990s: it was the democratically elected government of the western-educated Benazir Bhutto who did that, on the theory that the Taliban would help bring stability to Afghanistan. This history indicates the degree to which talking to the Taliban has broad support within the Pakistani political establishment.

The Pakistani military and political establishment both view Afghanistan through the lens of their conflict with India. When they look to the west they envision an “Islamistan” of Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries with which to face off against Hindu-dominated India to Pakistan’s east. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, with his pro-western and pro-Indian tendencies, gets in the way of this Pakistani vision. But even if Pakistan were to come to terms with Karzai, it would still need to have lines of contact with all Afghan groups, including the Taliban.

Of course, we can and should demand that Pakistan cease helping the Taliban to plan and carry out operations. But cutting links to the Taliban altogether is something the Pakistanis simply cannot do, and trying to insist upon it only worsens tensions between our two countries.

So what do we do? There are those who say we should abandon the Afghanistan enterprise altogether, with the exception of direct strikes against al-Qaeda. But President Barack Obama has already decided against that, and is adding both troops and civilian experts to the campaign, which amounts to Afghan nation-building in all but name. The hope is that by turning the tide of the war in our favor, the Pakistanis will, for the sake of their own self-interest, cut a better deal with the pro-western Karzai, even as they continue to maintain less-harmful, low-level links with the Taliban. That is the best we can expect.

As in Iraq, we may find that in order to make progress and find an exit strategy, we will have to engage in negotiations with some of the very people we’ve been fighting. At some point we may even end up negotiating with elements of the Taliban ourselves. The one thing that we cannot afford in this messy situation is to issue very public, cut-and-dried ultimatums to our purported friends.