Commentary Magazine


Undue Optimism on Pakistan

The Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has become the foremost explainer of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the West. But his latest New York Times op-ed about the prospects of Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, negotiating a peace deal between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban appears to reflect little more than wishful thinking.

Rashid concedes: “Pakistan’s Army has managed the country’s policy on Afghanistan since 1978.” He also notes, at the very beginning of the article, how elements of Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani army’s powerful intelligence branch, sabotaged a 1992 effort by Sharif to negotiate a truce among the various Afghan Taliban factions. Yet somehow he expects that this time will be different–that Sharif will decide to push for peace in Afghanistan, which will involve ending ISI’s long-standing record of support for Taliban militancy, and the army will let him get away with it.

Why should the army do this? Because Rashid says it should? That’s not a very compelling reason when you have decades of strategic thinking in Islamabad which suggests that the Taliban are a reliable proxy for Pakistani interests. Rashid suggests that the army brass is getting uncomfortable with its habit of supporting Islamic militants because they see how Pakistani militants threaten their own hold on the state. Maybe so, but it’s a stretch to say that ISI is ready to give up on the Haqqanis, Taliban, and other Afghan militant groups–or to give up its control of national security policy to a prime minister who in the past had actually been deposed and exiled by the army.

In fact, the coming withdrawal of most Western troops from Afghanistan–an event which Rashid does not mention–will undoubtedly suggest to the generals in Islamabad that they need to continue their current support for the insurgency in Afghanistan because the Taliban will have a good chance to seize power once the Americans are gone. If they abandon the Taliban, the paranoid Pakistani generals undoubtedly figure, Indian influence will trump theirs in a future Afghanistan. This may be a misguided worldview, but it is one that ISI and the broader Pakistani army has clung to for years. A fundamental shift in Pakistan’s policy would be nice, but there are few signs of it so far.