Pakistan’s ISI and the Taliban

Published: January 26 2010 02:00 | Last updated: January 26 2010 02:00

Pakistan’s security establishment, which wields influence over the Afghan Taliban, says it is ready to facilitate talks to end the Afghanistan conflict in return for greater US backing in its competition with India for regional influence.

A former Pakistani intelligence officer familiar with the Taliban said: “If the world wants our very active involvement in not just bringing the Taliban to the table but keeping them at the table, our security challenges have to be acknowledged.”

General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, has said political contacts between the Kabul government and the Taliban might be the best way to end the conflict.

While most analysts say the prospect of high-level talks between Kabul and the Taliban is remote, his comments reflect a view gaining currency among US policymakers that some form of power-sharing might be the most viable exit strategy for the US. Robert Gates, US defence secretary, has said the Taliban is part of Afghanistan’s “political fabric.”

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A federal minister in Islamabad echoed Pakistan’s fears that a fresh influx of 30,000 US troops might drive more Taliban fighters into Pakistan.

“We know they are not a popular force,” he said. “The Afghans will probably never give them a majority in parliament. But with Pakistan’s help and only with Pakistan’s help, the return of the Taliban to the political high table will be a far more stabilising development for Afghanistan than . . . [a US] surge.”

Renewed discussion of the possibility of a negotiated settlement presents an opportunity for Pakistan’s intelligence services, which were instrumental in the creation of the Afghan Taliban in the mid-1990s, to reassert their potential for US foreign policy objectives in the region.

Elements in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency are regarded as the gatekeepers to the Taliban leadership, believed to be based in Pakistan.

Pakistan has had an amb-iguous relationship with the US since 2001, allowing Nato supplies across its territory and extending tacit endorsement to strikes by US drones on its territory. But the military has resis-ted US pressure to broaden an offensive against its own militant groups to include Afghan insurgent groups based in Pakistan havens.

Pakistani security officials see the US tendency towards favouring negotiations as a way to leverage their country’s ties to the Taliban to wring greater concessions from Washington. Those would concern a range of policy issues, most notably its rivalry with India over Kashmir and for influence in Afghanistan.