In the latest issue of The New Yorker, famed journalist Steve Coll offers his thoughts on “Taking on the Taliban,” arguing that “there are few strategic issues of greater importance to the outcome of President Obama’s Afghan war [as Pakistan].” Simply put, one of the root problems for NATO in Afghanistan is its militarized neighbour, Pakistan. Coll discusses the latest development in the Afghan War–the capture of Mullah Baradar–and places it in the context of an ostensible change in Pakistan’s strategic priorities in Afghanistan. As I’ve mentioned before, after facing the menace of Pakistani Taliban terrorist attacks through out all of last year (some of which targeted top Army personnel), Pakistan’s military is probably considering a shift in its strategy. It may no longer be actively supporting the Afghan Taliban, which it had previously cultivated as a hedge against a pro-Indian Karzai administration in India. But it’s hard to judge what exactly is going on inside the minds of the boys in Islamabad.

Here are bits from a live chat with Steve Coll I participated in the on The New Yorker‘s website:

Me: In light of recent accomplishments–the capture of Baradar and the strike on the Haqqani network–do you believe that the Obama administration has succeeded in offering Pakistan a “grand bargain”–that is, Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan in exchange for a greater voice for Pakistan in a post-NATO Afghanistan and more aid and armaments for Pakistan?

Steve Coll:
Another good question. I think the administration has succeeded in offering the bargain, yes. I don’t think they’ve succeeded in completing it yet or even ratifying it as the formal and final plan. I did a little reporting before writing this week’s Comment (kind of a radical thing to do when forming opinions, but I was really desperate) and one well-placed person I chatted with on the American side, someone I know to be pretty hard-headed about these things, compared the Pakistan high command to someone who has climbed over a fence, and is now hanging on the other side, looking down, looking around, trying to decide whether to let go and jump. That is, the fence is letting go of the old habits of mind and action. That seems like a pretty optimistic metaphor – not sure I see the evidence for it yet, but it would be great if it’s true.

Saba Imtiaz:
Steve, you wrote today – “For the I.S.I. to repudiate the Taliban entirely, its officers would have to imagine a new way of living in the world—to write a new definition of Pakistan’s national security, one that emphasizes politics and economics over clandestine war” – This has been said repeatedly before, but the Baradar arrest sees to have given people ‘hope’ that the ISI will change. Do you think its possible?

Steve Coll:
It’s the most important question facing Pakistan. I don’t think ISI or the Army’s high command will change their assumptions overnight. My sense of it from passing through and listening from time to time is that because of all the violence and turmoil inside Pakistan, there IS a debate, a new discourse, inside the military and I.S.I. about where Pakistan’s interests really lie vis a vis the Taliban and like groups. But this has not led to the sea change people hope for – not yet.

It can happen, however, if the incentives change. I think of a country like Indonesia. Its military and its civil-military relations were deeply troubled just 15 years ago. Look at the place now – not perfect, but vastly changed in a relatively short period of time because the external incentives all around Southeast Asia and within Indonesia itself have changed.

On Indian-US relations

Hi, Steve. At the London Conference, there was lots of discussion about talking with elements of the Taliban, much to India’s dismay. How is this going to affect the U.S. relationship with India?

Steve Coll:
India’s government is led at the highest levels by people who understand counterinsurgency theory and practice. India pushes the United States to be tough-minded about Pakistan and particularly I.S.I. and its links to the Taliban – it fears the pattern of clientitis in U.S. relations with the Pakistani military. At the same time, India wants a stable relationship with a Taliban-free Pakistan and knows that ultimately might include a poltiical solution of some sort, just as India has negotiated with its opposition in Kashmir and many other places. So it’s just a question of sequencing, emphasis and whether all of the parties can work in alignment from month to month and season to season. In public, there have been some gaps in the U.S.-India relationship during the last few months. In private, I think things are better, but I’m not sure how much better.

On changing the mind of Pakistan’s national security decision-makers

Hi Steve. I know this is a hard question to answer, but how do you think the US can shift the “geopolitical incentives [as you see it[ that have informed Pakistan’s alliance with the Afghan Taliban”? National security thought is more a habit of mind than just a fact-based, geopolitical calculus. I think it’s pretty hard to alter the assumptions and worldview with which Pakistan’s top thinkers function–just as it’s hard to do in the realm of US foreign policy.

Steve Coll:
You’re right. The incentives can’t be abstract. They have to be material. India’s economy is growing at eight percent plus. Pakistan’s economic potential – and therefor, the economic potential of its military, its military families, etc. – is as basic to the country’s survival as its tanks and airplanes, but whether the country’s leaders will ever find the will and courage to take risks around that insight is hard to know.