Dances With Devils: Pakistan and the Taliban

04/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Nick Mills Associate professor of Journalism, Boston University

A blogger called MinistryOfTruth writes in the Daily Kos that "Obama has caught more Taliban leaders in 1 month than Bush/Cheney did in 6 years." It must be noted that this roll-up of Taliban leaders, including Taliban chief Mullah Omar's number two guy, Mullah Baradar, would not have been accomplished without the collaboration of Pakistan's House of Spies, the I.S.I. So what's up with that? The I.S.I. was the godfather of the Taliban, present at the creation, and when the Taliban were routed in 2001 by a plucky band of C.I.A. agents on horseback (plus Mohammed Fahim and the Northern Alliance, plus, let's not forget, a fleet of B52s in the sky and a few hundred commandos on the ground who had been setting the stage in Afghanistan since a few moments after 9/11) the I.S.I. welcomed their bloodied brood back into Pakistan. There, sheltered by their own Dr. Frankenstein, fattened on a diet of drug dollars and heavy weapons, they grew into the monster we know today that is bedeviling the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan.

But the kids started feeling their oats, and thought, hey, let's take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too -- or, in their case, Peshawar, the Swat Valley, and maybe even Islamabad. The I.S.I. seemed like any other parent: they'd lost control of their offspring.

Pakistan has always wanted to be the dominant influence in Afghanistan. Allah forbid that Kabul should align with Moscow, because Moscow in those bad old days was aligned with Pakistan's mortal enemy, India. [A side note: one reason for the frostiness between the current Kabul regime and Islamabad may be that President Karzai was educated in India and has accepted reconstruction aid from New Delhi. Yes, it gets that petty.] Hence the care and feeding of the mujaheddin in the 1980s. But when the U.S.S.R. pulled out of Afghanistan after ten futile years, the mujaheddin screwed up things so badly that the Pakistanis came up with a new plan: the Taliban.

Now the Taliban threaten to retake Afghanistan and while they're at it, undermine the Pakistani government as well. This may go far in explaining the I.S.I.'s sudden partnership with the C.I.A. Not only does Pakistan want to preserve its own neck, it wants to be a major player in post-war Afghanistan, and if working with the U.S. to rein in the Taliban is what it takes to accomplish that, then that is the I.S.I.'s new mission. The imprisoned Mullah Baradar and the other captured Taliban further down the food chain may have a new role to play. A report in the Financial Times tells us what to watch for:

As Mr. Baradar contemplates his future, two very different scenarios arise. If his arrest signals a lasting shift towards greater Pakistani co-operation with the US, then he may soon be joined in jail by more of his friends. If Afghanistan draws on its tradition of deal-making to set aside conflicts, there might even be a chance that Mr. Baradar will resurface one day with a post in Kabul.

It may take more than three cups of tea to pull that off, but don't rule it out. Stranger stuff happens all the time out there.