On a cold day in January 2009, in the tribal area of South Waziristan, Taliban and (possibly) Al-Qaida militants met to plot a response to a CIA drone attack on a senior Taliban commander. Huddled among them was “an older man and a very important person from ISI,” according to a field report from the U.S. Army’s Task Force Castle engineering group. That gentleman was a 72-year-old boisterous, mustached Hamid Gul, a retired Lieutenant General from the Pakistani army, who had served as the ISI’s head between 1987-1989.
In the West, Gul is cast as a dreary figure with “laser black eyes,” whose audacious pronouncements against the U.S.-led War on Terror and public support for the Taliban have led to attempts to label him an international terrorist. The attempt ultimately failed–due in part to scant definitive evidence, and in part to China’s interjection on Pakistan’s behalf. But, despite the looming threat to place him on a list of international terrorists, Gul continues to bluster in support of the Taliban.
“The Americans are defeated,” he told Al Jazeera English in an interview earlier this year. He went on, “[t]here is fatigue now…There is no way that the Americans can hold on to Afghanistan.” Gul should know: he helped orchestrate–with CIA funding and arms–the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan over two decades ago. It was during that time that he developed close relations with the mujahideen, who would later form the core of the Taliban, and with many of the Arab fighters, some of whom later joined extremist Islamist groups, including Al-Qaida.
His sympathy, and that of many of his ISI colleagues, for the Taliban stems from the years they spent in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan together, helping the Taliban create their Islamic Emirate, and at the same time, helping Pakistan gain “strategic depth”–which is Pakistani military lexicon for a friendly government in Afghanistan that would, during a war with India, allow Pakistan to regroup on Afghan soil.
The loquacious and hardened former ISI chief is to be found on nightly Pakistani political talk shows, decrying the government’s acquiescence to CIA drone strikes on Pakistani soil or its support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. He is no stranger to foreign media either. Just after the Wikileaks story broke, accusing the ISI of “[guiding] the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand,” Gul jumped to the agency’s support. He denied ever meeting with the Taliban, and termed as “flawed” the intelligence briefs suggesting that Pakistan’s ISI was working against NATO and the U.S. in Afghanistan. To the BBC, he dismissed Wikileaks as “pure fiction which is being sold as intelligence.”
It is hard to believe that, on the one hand, Gul and the ISI sympathize with the Taliban and its goals, but, on the other, that they provide it no material support–even harder to believe, when considering that Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus is extremely active in the region and abroad. The ISI’s support for the Taliban is an open secret in Pakistan. When pushed on the topic of ISI-Taliban links, some well-informed Pakistanis will wryly admit it, and will follow up with a “so what?”, articulating the same argument put forth by Gul: the Americans will tire of war, and Pakistan will be left to deal with the mess. Isn’t it better, they say, that Pakistan hedge its bets now and support a pro-Pakistan Taliban insurgency?
Even in Washington and other Western capitals, the Wikileaks revelations–that the ISI provides support to the Taliban–are not treated as revelations at all. One blogger described the allegations akin to discovering that LeBron James was going to play for the Miami Heat. (He will, it’s old news.) Twitter was awash with sarcastic comments too, including one by the Washington Post‘s twitter handle, which purposefully placed quotation marks around the word “revelations.” Former State Department speechwriter, Michael Cohen, notes that the White House shrugged at the news as well: “National Security Advisor Jim Jones congratulates the Pakistani military for going after Taliban forces that killed hundreds of Pakistani civilians, but fails to mention the protection provided by Pakistan for the insurgent forces that are killing Afghan civilians and, of course, US troops.” Jones’ apparent mental trapeze act–flipping what should be grounds for condemnation into a statement congratulating Pakistan’s military–is evidence of Washington’s willful blind-eye to, even acceptance of, the ISI’s activities in Afghanistan. The revelations should have at least elicited a sharp rebuke, a statement that Pakistan should shape up–but it didn’t.
That it didn’t is perhaps indicative of an emerging consensus that an active military mission in Afghanistan will no longer serve the interests of the U.S. and NATO. Already, Britain, the Netherlands, and Canada have announced their intention to withdraw, sooner rather than later, from Afghanistan. And the Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan, a conservative, is now calling the war in Afghanistan, “The Unwinnable War.” The hawkish American commentator Ann Coulter—notable for her desire to “invade their [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity“—agreed with GOP Chairman Michael Steele’s assessment that the war in Afghanistan may prove difficult to win. Over 1000 casualties, $300 billion, and nine years later, Americans of all stripes are bound to ask if the war is still worth it.
And that fatigue and aversion to prolonged conflict in distant lands is something Hamid Gul and his ilk in the ISI understood far better than American politicians did. They grasped, early on in the war, that America would once again leave—as it abandoned them after the Soviet-Afghan war, and then later slapped a series of sanctions on the country. Whether their prescience is owed to sophisticated analysis or to mere ideological bias, in retrospect, they made the better bet. They knew better than the Bush administration that a diverse, rugged Afghanistan would not become the paragon of democracy the neocons imagined. They knew, also, that public support in America would wane, noting that the cost and the deaths of American lives was too cumbersome.
A war that was once touted as a just war–the right war, unlike Iraq–is today openly called a “morally ambiguous” one. And as the war grows unpopular by the day, questions arise about the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan. Will the Obama administration withdraw on schedule, and by doing so, cede ground to Pakistan and the Taliban? Or will it continue the fight, and risk alienating an already fatigued public?