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Jun 18, 2010 | Commentary

There is little doubt in the minds of most analysts that a connection exists between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the insurgency in Afghanistan.  However, there is a great deal of confusion as to how deep the connection between these two organizations goes.  Speculation has ranged from undercover agents gathering intelligence, to former agents providing assistance, all the way along the spectrum to outright control by the ISI.  A new report by the LSE’s Crisis States Research Group, The Sun in the Sky: The Relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents, based primarily on interviews conducted with nine insurgent (Taliban and Haqqani) commanders, has attempted to shed some light on this covert world.  The author argues that assistance to the insurgency has become official policy, and that while the insurgency has endogenous factors driving it, the ISI exerts a significant degree of control via coercion, training, and funding.  Of course, this bold assertion comes with some caveats: given the covert nature of intelligence agencies, and the heavy reliance on interviews, these claims cannot be conclusively verified.

In many ways, the connection between Pakistan and the Afghan insurgency is hardly surprising.  The ISI played an important role in the anti-Soviet mujahedeen, funnelling US and Saudi funds while providing training and logistical support.  And regardless of the presence of Soviet forces, Pakistan’s overriding strategic concern, India, has not changed since the 1970s.  This has set up a mutually beneficial relationship where insurgents require support and sanctuary, and Pakistan needs a friendly force in Afghanistan to counter India’s military and economic advantages, providing ‘strategic depth’.  Finally, India has developed a close relationship with the Karzai administration, and has provided reconstruction assistance.  With a withdrawal of US forces pending, a power vacuum in Afghanistan could be opened to India’s benefit and Pakistan’s detriment.

The interviews with insurgent commanders suggest that the ISI has representatives on the Taliban’s leadership council (Quetta Shura) as observers.  They claimed that agents were frequently Afghans, making it difficult to distinguish them from independent Taliban leaders.  However, commanders expressed fear that stepping outside of the bounds established by the ISI, or speaking openly about their presence, meant risking arrest or assassination.  Reliance on Pakistan for sanctuary and the ever-present danger of NATO has limited their field of action.  This coercion has allowed the ISI to exert significant pressure on Taliban leaders, whose orders are then carried down the hierarchy of the insurgency.  Many commanders also believed that the ISI backed and controlled certain factions of the Taliban, who were blamed for carrying out some of the more spectacular attacks against civilian targets.  Commanders also reported attending professionally-run training camps in Pakistan, believed to be run by the ISI, where they also received funds and supplies.  Two commanders were also interviewed from the Haqqani Network (HQN), which also possess similar historical ties with the ISI.  Here, there appeared to be an ever stronger direct connection, with a high level commander reporting that the ISI actively reformed the group in the wake of the 2001 invasion, promising funding and weapons.

Perhaps the most important connection to the SSR process in Afghanistan has been the influence of the ISI in the disarmament and reconciliation process.  In February, Pakistan arrested a group of Taliban leaders who had shown an interest in talks with the Afghan government.  This sent a message to both NATO and the Afghan government that no peace can be possible without the involvement of the ISI.  Similarly, President Zardari has ordered the release of some Taliban commanders who were not well-known to the media and according to one of the men released, promised the well-known commanders that they would be released, but in a way to deflect media scrutiny (for example, through prisoner exchanges).  These two allegations pose a serious threat to the DDR process, contributing to a culture of impunity among insurgents, and punishing those who seek reconciliation.  These factors may explain the poor response to Karzai’s reconciliation plan presented last month.

There are some important caveats to note in this report.  Intelligence work by its very nature is covert, and the nature of interviews could lead to erroneous findings.  Commanders could be deliberately overstating the influence of the ISI in order to divert blame for some of bloodier attacks against civilians and infrastructure.  Although there have been denials by all parties, given Pakistan’s strategic rivalry with India and the circumstantial evidence, there are grounds to suspect significant ISI involvement.  This involvement is present largely through funding, training, and threat of arrest, since the Afghan Taliban is heavily dependent on Pakistan for sanctuary.  However, the Afghan insurgency is also motivated by endogenous factors, such as joblessness, government corruption and the presence of foreign military forces.  This leads the author to conclude that the insurgency is not a direct proxy of Pakistan, although the ISI does exert significant influence.  This report raises new issues to be considered if the DDR process in Afghanistan is to be successful.  Pakistan’s strategic concerns can no longer be ignored by the United States if reconciliation is to move forward.  As long as Pakistan feels threatened by India, and perceives a pro-Indian Afghanistan and United States, it will continue to have the incentive to prevent peace from moving forward.