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.