Tensions between Washington and Islamabad are at an all time high over Pakistan's support for the Afghan Taliban. While Pakistan has long been the Taliban's patron, providing it with sanctuary, the insurgents' attacks on the US Embassy in Kabul and other high-profile NATO targets this fall have pushed long simmering tensions to a boil. Pakistan is encouraging provocative Taliban operations, raising questions: What is Pakistan's goal in Afghanistan? What endgame does Pakistan's army seek in the Afghan war?
Pakistan's support for the Taliban is not new, of course, but US Admiral Mike Mullen was unusually blunt during his last testimony for the Senate Armed Services Committee before retiring as chairman of the joint chiefs. He rightly noted that both the central leadership of the Taliban, the so-called Quetta Shura, named after the city in Pakistan where it meets, and its most deadly cell, the Haqqani network, "operate from Pakistan with impunity."He said Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, uses them as "a strategic arm" and that ISI was directly involved in attacks on NATO targets. Since Mullen visited Pakistan 28 times as chairman and has described himself as Pakistan's "best friend," his remarks were especially powerful.
In response, the Pakistani chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Parvaz Kayani, convened an extraordinary meeting of the corps commanders of the army, the most powerful men in the country, and dispatched the head of the ISI on an urgent visit to Saudi Arabia to make sure Pakistan's key ally was in step with the generals. Former ISI chief Hamid Gul spoke for the generals when he said the US was flirting with the "dangers of a third world war" by threatening Pakistan; another former ISI chief Javed Ashraf Qazi said the US is "pressuring Pakistan to hide its own failures in Afghanistan." The Pakistani foreign minister chosen by the generals, Hina Rabbani Khar, warned that America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have always been conflicted neighbors. Afghanistan was the only country to vote against giving Pakistan a seat in the United Nations in 1947 because it disputes its British-imposed border, the Durand line drawn in 1893 by a British diplomat. No Afghan government, even the Taliban in the 1990s, has ever accepted the legitimacy of the border line, and some Afghan governments have laid claim to all of Pakistan west of the Indus River.
Pakistan's generals have thus always been concerned about the danger of a hostile Afghanistan, especially one aligned with India. In the 1980s then dictator Zia ul Huq constantly warned the CIA of the threat posed by the Soviet-supported Afghan communist regime aligned with Indira Gandhi's India, a treaty ally of Moscow. General Zia's support for the ISI-CIA war against the Soviets was a function of his concern about Pakistan being squeezed between Afghanistan and India.
Today's Pakistani generals see the same squeeze at play. General Gul warned after Mullen's comments that Washington seeks an Afghan "proxy" for India. The ISI has used the Haqqani network more than once to attack Indian diplomatic targets in Afghanistan, which the Pakistanis suspect are bases for Indian intelligence operations aimed at Pakistan.
The Pakistani generals see the American and NATO presence in Afghanistan always in the context of America's increasingly close relations with India. President Barack Obama's visit to India in November, when he chose not to visit Pakistan, only reinforced Islamabad's sense of isolation and the siege mentality that springs from it.