NEW YORK -- The almost forgotten war in Afghanistan, that was supposed to have been won in 2001, has roared back to life with a vengeance. More American soldiers are now dying in Afghanistan than Iraq.
As resistance to the US-led occupation of Afghanistan intensifies, the increasingly frustrated Bush administration is venting its anger against Pakistan and its military intelligence agency, Inter-Service Intelligence, better known as ISI.
The White House leaked claims ISI is in cahoots with pro-Taliban groups in Pakistan's tribal agency along the Afghan border and warns them of impending US attacks. Some administration officials believe ISI may even be hiding Osama bin Laden.
On top of this, the Bush administration just leaked to the New York Times, which lost no time in again acting a megaphone for the administration, a claim that CIA had electronic intercepts proving ISI was behind the recent bombing of India's embassy in Kabul.
President George Bush angrily asked Pakistan's visiting prime minister, Yousuf Gilani, "who's in charge of ISI?" This is a good question, and one not easily answered.
I was one of the first western journalists invited into ISI HQ in 1986. ISI's then director, the fierce Lt. General Akhtar Rahman, personally briefed me on Pakistan's secret role in fighting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. ISI's `boys' provided communications, logistics, training, heavy weapons, and direction in the Afghan War. I kept ISI's role in Afghanistan a secret until the war ended in 1989.
ISI was primarily responsible for the victory over the Soviets, which hastened the collapse of the USSR. At war's end, Gen. Akhtar and Pakistan's leader, Zia ul Haq, both died in a sabotaged C-130 transport aircraft. Unfortunately, most Pakistanis blame the United States for this assassination.
On my subsequent trips to Pakistan I was routinely briefed by succeeding ISI chiefs, and joined ISI officers in the field, sometimes under fire.
ISI is accused of meddling in Pakistani politics. The late Benazir Bhutto, who often was thwarted and vexed by Pakistan's spooks, always playfully scolded me, `you and your beloved generals at ISI.'
But before Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over as military dictator, ISI was the third world's most efficient, professional intelligence agency. It still defends Pakistan against internal and external subversion by India's powerful spy agency, RAW, and by Iran. ISI works closely with CIA and the Pentagon and was primarily responsible for the rapid ouster of Taliban from power in 2003. But ISI also must serve Pakistan's interests, which are often not identical to Washington's, and sometimes in conflict.
In fact, Washington has been forcing Pakistan's government, military and intelligence services through huge secret payments and threats of war into policies that are bitterly opposed by 90% of Pakistan's people. Small wonder Pakistan's leadership is so often accused of playing a double game.
The last ISI Director General I knew was the tough, highly capable Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmad. He was purged by Musharraf because Washington felt Mahmood was insufficiently responsive to US interests. Ever since 2001, ensuing ISI directors were all pre-approved by Washington. All senior ISI veterans deemed `Islamist' or too nationalistic by Washington were purged at Washington's demand, leaving ISI's upper ranks top-heavy with too many yes-men and paper-passers.
Even so, there is strong opposition inside ISI to Washington's bribing and arm-twisting the subservient Musharraf dictatorship into waging war against fellow Pakistanis and gravely damaging Pakistan's national interests.
ISI's primary duty is defending Pakistan, not promote US interests. Pashtun tribesmen on the border sympathizing with their fellow Taliban Pashtun in Afghanistan are Pakistanis. Many, like the legendary Jalaluddin Haqqani, are old US allies and `freedom fighters' from the 1980's. When the US and its western allies finally abandon Afghanistan, as they will inevitably do one day, Pakistan must go on living with its rambunctious tribals.
Violence and uprisings in these tribal areas are not caused by `terrorism,' as Washington and Musharraf claimed. They directly result from the US-led occupation of Afghanistan and Washington's forcing the hated Musharraf regime to attack its own people.
ISI is trying to restrain pro-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen while dealing with growing US attacks into Pakistan that threaten a wider war. India, Pakistan's bitter foe, has an army of agents in Afghanistan and is arming, backing and financing the Karzai puppet regime in Kabul in hopes of turning Afghanistan into a protectorate. Pakistan's historic strategic interests in Afghanistan have been undermined by the US occupation. Now, the US, Canada and India are trying to eliminate Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.
ISI, many of whose officers are Pashtun, has every right to warn Pakistani citizens of impending US air attacks that kill large numbers of civilians. But ISI also has another vital mission. Preventing Pakistan's Pashtun, 15-20% of the population of 165 million, from rekindling the old `Greater Pashtunistan' movement calling for union of the Pashtun tribes of Pakistan and Afghanistan into a new Pashtun nation. The Pashtun have never recognized the Durand Line(today's Pakistan-Afghan border) drawn by British imperialists to sunder the world's largest tribal people. Greater Pashtunistan would tear apart Pakistan and invite Indian military intervention.
Washington's bull-in-a-china shop behavior pays no heeds to these realities. Instead, Washington demonizes faithful old allies ISI and Pakistan while supporting Afghanistan's Communists and drug dealers, and allowing India to stir the Afghan pot -- all for the sake of new energy pipelines.
As Henry Kissinger cynically noted, being America's ally is more dangerous than being its enemy.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2008