Pakistan's Generals Really, Really "Heart" the Afghan Taliban

One of the zingers from the WikiLeaks War Diaries -- some 92,000 classified reports on secret military hunting squads, on military encounters with the Taliban, unreported accidental killings of innocent civilians, and more -- is that there may be detailed logistics and financial support of the Afghanistan Taliban by Pakistan's ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence.

As some have commented, this is not necessarily a surprise -- but given frequent Pakistan denials coupled with US military and White House claims that it has confidence that Pakistan's national security chiefs are "with us" and "not with them" -- this kind of evidence, if true, is clarifying and troubling.

King's College London War Studies Professor and New America Foundation Senior Fellow Anatol Lieven captures well the strong linkages between Pakistan's military elite and the Afghan Taliban in this graph from a longer essay, "All Kayani's Men," that ran in the March/April 2008 edition of National Interest:

Concerning the Afghan Taleban, the military and the ISI are at one, and the evidence is unequivocal: The military and ISI continue to give them shelter, and there is deep unwillingness to take serious action against them on America's behalf, both because it is feared that this would increase Pathan insurgency in Pakistan, and because they are seen as the only assets Pakistan possesses in Afghanistan.

The conviction in the Pakistani security establishment is that the West will quit Afghanistan leaving civil war behind, and that India will then throw its weight behind the non-Pathan forces of the former Northern Alliance in order to encircle Pakistan strategically.

Concerning the Pakistani Taleban and their allies, however, like the military as a whole, the ISI is now committed to the struggle against them, and by the end of 2009 had lost more than seventy of its officers in this fight - some ten times the number of CIA officers killed since 9/11, just as Pakistani military casualties fighting the Pakistani Taleban have greatly exceeded those of the US in Afghanistan. Equally, however, in 2007-2008 there were a great many stories of ISI officers intervening to rescue individual Taleban commanders from arrest by the police or the army - too many, and too circumstantial, for these all to have been invented.

It seems clear therefore that whether because individual ISI officers felt a personal commitment to these men, or because the institution as a whole still regarded them as potentially useful, actions were taking place that were against overall military policy - let alone that of the Pakistani government.

Moreover, some of these men had at least indirect links to Al Qaeda. This does not mean that the ISI knows where Osama bin Laden (if he is indeed still alive), Aiman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda leaders are hiding. It does however suggest that they could probably do a good deal more to find out.

Some of the WikiLeaks documents allege that former Pakistan ISI Chief Hamid Gul ordered attacks against NATO forces and attempted to meet with senior al Qaeda members. The leaks also claim close coordination between Gul and Taliban operations. Gul has denied all of these claims.

That said, General Gul recently appeared at the 5th Al Jazeera Forum in Doha on a panel with the former Foreign Minister of the Taliban and was actively engaged over the length of the forum with the Foreign Minister and a couple of other top tier 'former' Taliban leaders, including the former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan.

I attended the forum and spoke with General Gul and these various 'former' Taliban officials.

During his panel presentation in Doha, General Gul made the controversial comment about America's presence in Afghanistan:

"Losers can't be choosers! America can cut and run like it had to in Vietnam or it can negotiate its departure with the Taliban which would like to avoid unnecessary instability and disruption. But either way, America has lost in Afghanistan."

Another Pakistan general who seems more circumspect than Gul told me:

No matter what the Americans hear from Pakistan about cutting ties with the Afghanistan Taliban, these Taliban give Pakistan "strategic depth."

It is difficult to overstate the enthusiasm that a great many Pakistani generals have for these Taliban. They will not simply shelve that enthusiasm. They may hide it, but they won't shelve it.

An interesting side note about former ISI chief Hamid Gul involves the U.S. attempting to place him on the Interpol "Terrorism Watch List."

I have learned from reliable sources that China vetoed the U.S. effort to blacklist Gul.

The interconnectedness of America's challenges today and the constraints on American action are substantial.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons