Originally published in The Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2014
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In the film Zero Dark Thirty, one of the CIA men in Pakistan tells his station chief, in regard to the hunt for Osama bin-Laden, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” To which the chief replies, “what the f— is that supposed to mean?” A good question. The above statement is a tautology, a self-reinforcing argument. However, in unraveling the support network for terrorism in Pakistan we are often presented with this narrative that it is “unknowable.” But as a recent report reveals, we know what we know: Pakistan is a bankroller of terrorism, and has supported operations in India, including bombings in Mumbai and attacks in Kashmir, for years. It has also sought to colonize Afghanistan with Islamic extremism, the Taliban being its latest creature.
YET LIKE a child who doesn’t learn from touching the hot stove, the West, and particularly America, has time and again forgotten what it knows. Some of this is willful blindness, motivated and necessitated by a Pakistani- created narrative that “we need them” as interlocutors with the Afghans. The border is porous, so the narrative goes. “We wouldn’t want something to happen,” the Pakistanis whisper, like a Mafioso telling a store owner that “sometimes fires happen.”
Let’s dispense with the parables. In a frontpage article in The International Herald Tribune, Carlotta Gall described her first-hand experience in Pakistan over the past decade trying to pinpoint how the Pakistanis gave aid and comfort to Osama bin-Laden. “In trying to prove that the ISI [Pakistani intelligence service] knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts and protected him,” she writes, “I struggled for more than two years to piece together something other than circumstantial evidence and suppositions.” Gall put her life on the line investigating the dark secret of Pakistan’s dirty war. The truth came one winter evening in 2012. “I got the confirmation I was looking for,” she writes. It turns out the ISI had a whole desk assigned to “handle” (read: “protect”) bin-Laden. Gall pinpoints the correct conclusion: “Americans fail to understand and actively confront Pakistan on its support and export of terrorism,” but makes the wrong assertion about the import of the information, claiming this is “one reason [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai has become disillusioned with the US.
Forget Karzai. The “revelation” of Pakistani support for bin-Laden is not about Karzai, it is about the whole charade of US operations in Afghanistan. It reveals that America is, in essence, funding a war against itself. On the one hand US soldiers man the lonely and ruggedly beautiful landscape of Afghanistan, and on the other hand, America works with the devil in Islamabad by supporting the Pakistan government financially. Pakistan in turn supports part of the Taliban, and the Taliban fights America. We already knew this in the 1990s. We knew it in 2001 on 9/11. And we keep pretending that we don’t know it. The first time I became privy to this “secret” information was in 2000.
The vice-president of my fraternity was a Pakistani gentleman whose family were wealthy industrialists. Over a game of tennis one night he boasted, “You know this war in Afghanistan, where this Northern Alliance is causing such trouble to the government”? I didn’t. “Well, the real story is that the ISI created the Taliban that runs the country and we are the main reason they won’t fall. This is a national security interest for us, we can’t have enemies on our border.”
Not long after, the film LOC-Kargil came out. It depicts how a Pakistani soldiers and their allied Islamist militia invaded India in 1999.
Overrunning a few Indian border units, it threatened to sweep down into the vale of Kashmir. The film depicts the heroism of the Indian army as units are dispatched piecemeal into battle against an unseen enemy. “When I was a young man, sometimes a wolf would break into the village and we would shoot it. Something similar has happened here, wolves have broken into our house,” explains one commander to his men.
Except the Islamist militias in Kashmir, such as Laskar e-Taiba, were not wild animals; they were directed by the Pakistani ISI.
Like many intelligence services, the ISI views itself as above the state; it is the “sword around the throne.” And Pakistan is a failed state, so the ISI in fact runs a kind of parallel state to keep Pakistan from imploding. The ISI state supports terror throughout Pakistan, against “internal enemies,” and throughout the region. It believes that if Afghanistan and India can be kept permanently unstable through financing Islamist insurgencies, then they will not be able to meddle in Pakistan’s crumbling internal affairs.
During the long war against the Soviets, the ISI actively recruited, trained, paid and encouraged specific commanders. In 1989 it was the main reason a peace agreement was not worked out when the Soviets left. In 1992 when Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister, tried to arrange a cease-fire in Afghanistan, according to Ahmed Rashid, “one section of the ISI helped Mr. Sharif broker his talks, another tried to stage a coup by smuggling hundreds of fighters loyal to the extremist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar into Kabul.”
The failure of the West is misunderstanding the nature of the ISI. It is more akin to the Revolutionary Guards in Iran than it is to the intelligence service of a “friendly” state. The problem is that the US became an unwitting ally of Pakistan in the 1970s. America conveniently ignored the radical Islamic government and its threat in the 1990s. Instead it coddled the ISI. For instance when they demanded that assistance to the mujahideen being funneled through Pakistan not be labeled as coming from America. So the Pakistanis passed off billions of aid as “from your Islamic brothers” as they sent it over to fight the Soviets.
In the 1990s the Arab Islamists who had drifted in from Saudi Arabia, and other places, such as China’s Xinjiang, Bosnia, Algeria, all passed through Pakistan. Murderers around the world received their training in Pakistan and the bases it funds across the border in Afghanistan. Mohammed Merah, the killer of French Jews in Toulouse, traveled to Pakistan in 2011. The London bombers traveled to Pakistan in 2003, the Times Square Bomber, and many others, were all connected to a Pakistan network. The Mumbai attackers were in regular phone contact with their Pakistani handlers in 2008 throughout their murder spree.
Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani author, has argued for years that America is naïve in its dealings with Pakistan. He revealed in his 2008 book Descent into Chaos that in 2001 the US even allowed ISI agents working with the Taliban a window to escape Afghanistan through a Pakistani operation called the Kunduz airlift. The ISI, which helped direct Taliban operations, which worked with bin-Laden, was allowed to safely exit the country.
Those that evacuated were partially responsible for 9/11, and the US gave them a carte blanche.
Rashid argues that after the US invasion the ISI set up a parallel department to back the Taliban, while at the same time pretending to work with the Americans. He writes “The ISI sent memos to [Pakistan president Pervez] Musharraf stating that the Americans would not stay long in Afghanistan and that the Taliban should be kept alive.” Meanwhile the US gave almost $12 billion in aid to Pakistan, of which 80 percent went to the military. Some was funneled back into the Taliban. Only after the departure of US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Rashid argues, did the US begin listening to its commanders, who were sure that ISI was behind the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Rashid claimed in 2010 that “The key to more formal negotiations with Taliban leaders lies with Pakistan and the ISI.”
Consider another source, Abdul Salam Zaeef, Taliban ambassador to Pakistan in 2001. He wrote a book in 2010, My Life with the Taliban, in which he relates that “since the start of the Jihad [against the Soviets] the ISI extended its roots deep into Afghanistan like a cancer puts down roots in the human body.” He compares the ISI to a wolf invading Afghanistan.
Why hasn’t Pakistan been declared an international pariah? Why has it not been sanctioned? Aid withdrawn and its ISI declared a terrorist organization like Iran’s Revolutionary Guard? Because the Pakistanis argue any reduction in aid might make them more “radical.”
But how can a terrorist state become more radical? Will it support more international terrorism than it already does? Will it have more terrorist training bases than it already does? Some Pakistanis have woken up. In a letter to the International Herald Tribune, Hasan I. from Lahore writes; “I must say that the American government is responsible for wasting trillions of dollars in the wrong war and in the wrong place. So, if the ISI is the root cause of all evil (read terrorism) then, America should’ve gone after Pakistan, not give its army billions of dollars… maybe now if the Americans really wanted to make things better, they’d try to funnel the aid through civilian governments.”