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Considering the ISI

September 23, 2009

In a recent report, General McChrystal explains Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are aided by international intelligence agencies, referring specifically to Iran’s Quds Force and Pakistan’s ISI. This is perhaps the first time a top ranking official cites a current, and direct link between the state run ISI and Taliban. McChrystal says the insurgency in Afghanistan is supported by way of aid given through “some elements of Pakistan’s ISI”. That is alarming, and definitely runs against our interests. However, most reporting on this news leaves out details that elucidate the situation and might help maintain productive, progressive work with Pakistan during this critical period.

Most importantly, the Taliban is historically distinct from militant groups like Al Qaeda. Unlike the Taliban, Al Qaeda is directly responsible for 9/11 and the reason President Obama refers to our engagement in Afghanistan as a “war of necessity”. Before, our invasion the Taliban were not as violently inclined against international targets. Simply put, the Taliban was an ideologically fundamental group, while Al Qaeda is a militant, terrorist group. Both are dangerous as such, but

distinctions between Taliban and Al Qaeda are increasingly blurred and both spilled over into Pakistan in a security vacuum created since our invasion. A security vacuum allowed both groups to find safe haven in an economically and politically volatile Pakistan, while we simultaneously face mounting casualties in Afghanistan and send more troops there now.

Effectively addressing the security vacuum and ISI links involves a look at history. In a nutshell, during the 1980’s in cooperation with the United States, Pakistan’s ISI was funded to train ideological extremists and militant groups who could defeat the Soviets in a long, costly engagement, ultimately ushering a fall of the USSR. Once this was achieved, redevelopment efforts for Afghanistan were missing, and neighboring Pakistan became home to one of the worlds largest refugee problems. What happened to the battle hardened extremist and militant groups who fought the Soviets? Some found there way into Pakistan, along with their Klashinkovs, others stayed in war torn, perpetually unstable Afghanistan. Eventually one extremist, well armed group, the  Taliban garnered control:

“The Taliban emerged as a force in Afghan politics in 1994. They gained an initial territorial foothold in the southern city of Kandahar, and expanded their influence through a mixture of force, negotiation, and payoffs. In 1996, they captured the capital, and took control of the national government”

Taliban thus had national interests in controlling Afghanistan under strict ideological rules while Al Qaeda is a militant organization with international ambitions. Both however developed in opposition to Soviet invasion:

In 80s, the Services Office, a clearinghouse for the international Muslim brigade opposed to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—run by bin Laden—recruited, trained, and financed thousands of foreign “holy warriors”, from more than fifty countries. Bin Laden wanted these fighters to continue “holy war” beyond Afghanistan and formed al-Qaeda around 1988″

Pakistan’s ISI has no present, or past link with this group, explains Steve Coll of the New Yorker in a PBS interview:  there was not a strategic partnership between ISI and Al Qaeda, certainly not prior to 9/11. There were also sources of tension between ISI and Al Qaeda”. The Taliban on the other hand, with de-facto control of Afghanistan and limited by only national aims, bound Islamabad to dealing with their neighbors as best they could. Plus given training Pakistan offered in the 1980’s, some ISI inevitably have associations with the Taliban until today. But that does not necessarily mean those associations are defined by cooperation.

The ISI is a vast institution with over “25,000 active men on staff, not including informants and assets”.

I speculate the latter group of “informants and assets” is the “aid” Genearl McChystal refers to in speaking of links to the Taliban. Plus Pakistan’s amplified offensive in the War on Terror, especially this year is yielding far too many blows to the Taliban in capturing top level leaders. And in Pakistan without full ISI support such successes are not achievable.

So, General McChrystal’s analysis is useful in drawing out history which can help craft more pin-pointed strategies in dealing with the Af-Pak quagmire . To avoid mistakes from the Soviet Afghan war to our current War on Terror wherein extremism has not subsided, but increasingly inflamed this region, considering historical realities is key. Because pin-pointed, more effective policies require a comprehensive understanding of recent history and beckon amplified social and developmental efforts in addition to our troop increase.

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4 comments

  1. Very well written, Interesting viewpoint, does make you look at a whole new perspective.

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  2. […] trying to uproot extremism, it just hasn’t worked in tandem with the military offensive. I’ve mentioned the importance of a distinction between these groups previously: The Taliban is historically distinct from militant groups like Al Qaeda. Unlike the Taliban, Al […]

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  3. […] of the Year: Unfortunately, the Terrorist. Al Qaeda militants who spilled over from the nebulous Afghan-Pakistan border have gripped the country and sadly had major impact on the lives of innocent civilians. Brazen, […]

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  4. […] of the Year: Unfortunately, the Terrorist. Al Qaeda militants who spilled over from the nebulous Afghan-Pakistan border have gripped the country and sadly had major impact on the lives of innocent civilians. Brazen, […]

    Like



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