The monsoon flooding in Pakistan is an unprecedented humanitarian disaster larger in scale than previous disasters such as Katrina or the Asian Tsunami. No wonder then that it has perhaps rightly eclipsed the import of the WikiLeaks disclosure of classified US military intelligence on operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those 90,000 pages released in July were merely the latest in a series of reports alleging the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) ongoing support for Islamist militant networks.
Also forgotten is British Prime Minister David Cameron’s pre-flood condemnation of Pakistan’s “export of terror”. But then, this is not entirely surprising given that only a month earlier, British Foreign Secretary William Hague had praised Pakistani Army chief General Kayani’s efforts to combat extremism, emphasising the significance of Britain’s long-term strategic and economic relationship with Pakistan.
The danger is that while the humanitarian catastrophe in Pakistan grabs the world’s attention, the long-term consequences for regional security have been largely overlooked. Zardari’s visit to the UK to confront Cameron’s allegations in the early stages of the flooding – despite 4 million Pakistanis affected at the time – was heavily criticised for exemplifying a lack of genuine concern for the plight of his people, compared to his greater willingness to engage in international PR. Now up to 20 million people are suffering from the impact of the floods, little has changed.
To this day, Zardari’s administration has provided virtually no effective support to the flood victims, while Taliban-affiliated militants have rushed to set-up relief camps. State inaction fuels already rampant socio-political grievances. But the floods have only exacerbated an already dire situation, in which the Pakistani government’s unwillingness or inability to cater for the needs of its people has fuelled grassroots resentment that, in turn, has ramped up support for Islamist groups. Government corruption, rife under Musharraf and growing under Zardari, has for long meant that impoverished Pakistanis frequently have little choice but to turn to Islamist groups who set up madrassas for free, establish medical camps and even provide generators. In summary, the militants are filling the social vacuum left by an ineffective and corrupt state – and the floods, as Zardari himself has recently conceded, are making it worse.
A similar process is underway in Afghanistan under NATO-tutelage, where the focus on military solutions at the expense of infrastructure-development fuels the insurgency. In the summer 2009 edition of Military Review, Afghan war veteran and senior NATO official Lt. Col. Thomas Brouns warned that “the possibility of strategic defeat looms” as “violent incidents” increase in direct proportion to the NATO troop surge. This is compounded by the failure of many investments to reach poverty-stricken rural areas, further encouraging insurgent recruitment. Afghans “need to see delivery on promises of improved security” as well as improvements in their personal situation, for lasting stability to be achieved.
In this context, the WikiLeaks revelations confirm that NATO’s unconditional military support for Pakistan has almost certainly subsidized the 90 percent increase in violence in Afghanistan over the past year. Although the US response has been quite different to the British - with Vice President Joe Biden vehemently insisting that the leaks predate the current administration’s policy – official disclaimers were contradicted early on by anonymous US officials interviewed by the New York Times, who confirmed that the portrayal of the ISI’s “collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence.” The documents show that the ISI has “acted as both ally and enemy”, appeasing certain American demands for cooperation while exerting influence in Afghanistan.
More disturbing is that the WikiLeaks ‘revelations’ offer nothing new – US military intelligence has been fully cognizant of Pakistan’s sponsorship of Islamist extremist networks for several decades. This is revealed by two declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reports, dated two weeks after 9/11, released in September 2003, which observed that bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network was “able to expand under the safe sanctuary extended by Taliban following Pakistan directives” and funded by the ISI.
Confidential NATO reports and US intelligence assessments circulated to White House officials in 2008 documented consistent ISI support for Taliban insurgents. As head of the ISI from 2004–2007, Gen. Kayani presided over Taliban training camps in Balochistan and provided over 2,000 rocket-propelled grenades and 400,000 rounds of ammunition. In 2008, US intelligence intercepted Kayani’s description of senior insurgent leader, Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, as a “strategic asset” in the insurgency around Kabul and eastern Afghanistan.
The British have never been in the dark either. In 2006, a leaked report by the Ministry of Defence-run think-tank, the Defence Academy, spelled out the ISI’s “dual role in combating terrorism” while simultaneously “supporting the Taliban [and] supporting terrorism and extremism.”
The evidence is hardly commensurate with the official position (that ISI support for the Taliban is a rogue operation by isolated ‘elements’), instead implicating the highest levels of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies – including Kayani. Yet last August Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that Kayani was committed to purging the ISI to end its support for militant networks. He and other Obama officials persuaded US Congress to commit to an unconditional five-year package of $6 billion in military and economic assistance to Pakistan. As long as Pakistan’s security mandarins believe that NATO is dependent on them to win the war in Afghanistan, they will expand regional strategic influence through exploitation and diversion of aid to militant groups, who continue to operate with impunity.
The contradictory nature of US-UK policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has created speculation that US regional war aims obscure the wider geopolitical objectives of the ‘War on Terror’. Ola Tunander of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, in a confidential report to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued that the US strategy in Afghanistan is to deliberately “support both sides” in order to “calibrate the level of violence.” The broader agenda is to mobilize other governments to support US global policy, thus legitimizing the US-dominated unipolar order. The perpetuation of a state of permanent global warfare is not merely directed against a local insurgent or anti-American ruler, but against “the economic-political multipolar power structure” that would give Europe, China and Japan a significant world standing.
Whatever the case, David Cameron’s pre-flood outburst – albeit an interesting departure from Britain’s past record of ignoring ISI duplicity – achieves little, as does the Obama administration’s growing willingness to talk to the Taliban. Negotiations should not be off the table, but they are not the solution, particularly if diplomacy is seen as a last resort adopted to avoid a prospective military failure in Afghanistan. President Obama should recall that a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban was also previously explored by the preceding Bush administration in hopes of establishing sufficient stability for a trans-Afghan gas pipeline. At that time, the Taliban rejected the federal proposal – but if it accepted now, would this not provide militants an unprecedented platform of legitimacy to operate with regional impunity?
NATO should not jettison diplomacy, but far more is needed – namely, serious joint US-UK action to make military and economic aid to Pakistan conditional on the cessation of support to Islamist insurgent networks, undercutting their principal source of financial and logistical support in Pakistan; and a draw-down of NATO forces in Afghanistan to reverse the direct correlation between the troop surge and the escalation of insurgent violence.
Does this mean that humanitarian and development aid to Pakistan should be stopped? Not by any means. On the contrary, it is clear that the lack of sufficient official support to disenfranchised communities has been deeply counterproductive. NATO allies need to focus on the root causes by which militants have been able to recruit from these communities. This requires diverting aid from military to humanitarian, development and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly by supporting the work of credible independent NGOs in the region. Such efforts must be re-doubled in the wake of the accelerating flood devastation, which could empower militants unless we act now. Such a strategic shift focusing on welfare at the grassroots level would strike a decisive blow against Taliban recruitment efforts without firing a single bullet – signalling to the ISI that the game has truly changed.