Afghanistan: Karzai and ISI each play both sides?

If reports on the recent two-part BBC documentary “Secret Pakistan” are to be believed, Pakistan’s security service is providing weapons, training and logistical support to Taliban insurgents fighting US and British troops in Afghanistan, despite official denials. A number of middle-ranking Taliban commanders revealed the extent of Pakistani support in interviews for the documentary, the first part of which was broadcast Oct. 26. One purported insurgent commander, Mullah Qaseem, told the BBC: “Pakistan plays a significant role. First they support us by providing a place to hide which is really important. Secondly they provide us with weapons.” Another commander, Mullah Azizullah, said the men overseeing the training are members of Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), or are closely linked to it: “They are all the ISI’s men. They are the ones who run the training. First they train us about bombs; then they give us practical guidance.” (Reuters, Oct. 26)

If Islamabad is playing both sides—caught between loyalty to its imperial patron in Washington and the jihadists it has cultivated as proxies against regional rivals India and Russia—so is Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Just a few days ago, Karzai stood with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Kabul and accused Pakistan of giving refuge to the Taliban. But in response to the BBC revelations, he told Pakistan’s Geo TV: “God forbid, if ever there is a war between Pakistan and America, Afghanistan will stand by Pakistan. If Pakistan is attacked, and if the people of Pakistan need help, Afghanistan will be there with you. Afghanistan will never deceive its brother.” (McClatchy Newspapers, Oct. 23)

Karzai is not only torn between loyalty to his imperial patron and his need to win the good graces of his neighbor Pakistan. His flip-floppery also reflects divisions within his own government—between his own Pashtun base (long cultivated by Pakistan as a proxy force, and representing the stronghold of Taliban sympathy) and the ex-Northern Alliance warlords who still wield great power, both in Kabul and in the northern hinterlands. Kabul and Islamabad both feel the need to appease Pashtun tribal leaders, fearing the specter of an independent “Pashtunistan“—which would take a critical chunk of both states’ territory, and widen the war yet further… Note that Pakistan last year changed the name of its North West Frontier Province to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in an open bid to appease Pashtun ethno-nationalist sentiment (and presumably undercut the jihadis).

See our last posts on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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