A report by London School of Economics has garnered a stream of news attention since its release yesterday, as well as some choice headlines, (The Sunday Times piece had my personal favorite headline, “Pakistan Puppet Masters Guide the Taliban Killers.” Seriously.) The report, written by Matt Waldman, a fellow at Harvard University, ultimately claims that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, has a direct link with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
However, unlike past assertions that “rogue elements” within the ISI were supporting the Taliban, Waldman instead argues that “this is a significant underestimation of the current role of the ISI in the Afghan insurgency.” According to Taliban commanders he interviewed, the ISI’s powerful role with the organization is “as clear as the sun in the sky.” He wrote,
The Taliban-ISI relationship is founded on mutual benefit. The Taliban need external sanctuary, as well as military and logistical support to sustain their insurgency; the ISI believes that it needs a significant allied force in Afghanistan to maintain regional strength and ‘strategic depth’ in their rivalry with India.
I won’t go into an exhaustive post about the report, because frankly, it does point to assertions and suspicions that have been discussed and widely acknowledged for years – namely, that the ISI has supported insurgent fighters to fight proxy wars against India (Lashkar-e-Taiba for one), and the agency wants to maintain “strategic depth” in Afghanistan because of rising Indian influence in the country. For both the ISI and the Pakistani military, India is and always has been Enemy Number One. And while the military has gone against the “Pakistani Taliban,” militants that have been targeting the state and Pakistani citizens, a similar operation against the “Afghan Taliban,” (the Haqqani Network, Hekmatyar) has not exactly materialized, despite U.S. pressures.
But does this mean that the ISI-Taliban link is part of an “officially sanctioned policy”? Even Waldman isn’t 100% sure.
- While Waldman cites numerous academics and analysts (including Steve Coll, Ahmed Rashid, Bruce Reidel, and Seth Jones) to back his claims, his conclusions are essentially grounded in interviews in or near Kabul and Kandahar, from February-May 2010, with nine insurgent field commanders, ten former senior Taliban officials, twenty-two Afghan elders, tribal leaders, politicians and analysts; and thirteen foreign diplomats, experts and security officials. Interestingly, Waldman did not interview any former or current officials on the Pakistani side. As a result, the report is admittedly one-sided, with claims corroborated by numerous insurgents but not by any ISI agents or even anonymous sources “close to the ISI.”
- In the report, Waldman prefaces his own claims numerous times, even noting, “Given that the ISI and its operations are by their nature secret, the findings described below are based on interviews and cannot by conclusively verified.” Throughout the paper, the Harvard fellow consistently hedges his findings, using terms like, “apparently” and “appears” and stated on page 11, “It should be borne in mind that insurgents may seek to shift the blame for some of their most egregious activities, such as the execution of elders or attacks on schools; they may misapprehend and overstate ISI power; or they may in fact be in a state of denial.”
- In an interview with Al Jazeera English, when probed by the anchor on what direct evidence he had to make such comments on an official ISI policy, Waldman answered, “Well of course Pakistan’s intelligence is not going to leave any evidence around…[but] the pressure and dependence [of these insurgents] on the ISI explains why they confided” in him for this report.
Here’s an interesting question – are insurgent commanders and militants qualified to make grand conjectures about an intelligence agency’s “officially sanctioned” policy? Are they legitimate sources for a report of this kind, that is ultimately making very serious allegations against not just the ISI, but also President Zardari? If such claims and statements were corroborated by sources within the ISI or close to the agency, such a report could be very credible. But as Huma Imtiaz noted for the AfPak Channel, “reports like Waldman’s must be read with a grain of salt” even if it tackles many of the suspicions we all continue to have.