With the successful US mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, attention has justifiably turned again to whether Pakistan is playing a double game, collaborating with our forces while simultaneously aiding the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In reality, we cannot say that Pakistan is two-faced: that would imply a degree of unity that does not square with what we know about that country. Pakistan has many faces because no one is fully in control.
The first and weakest face is the civilian, elected government led by Asif Ali Zardari, the President. The husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, he is the political heir of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Consistent with that tradition, he stands for a constitutional democracy in which there is plenty of room for corruption and clientelism. His principal civilian rival, Nawaz Sharif, stands for the same thing, but with a different crowd in power. Either can hold power only as long as the Army finds it convenient. Neither would ever be permitted to have much impact on national security policy.
The real power in the country is held by the Army and especially the intelligence directorate (Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI), and it is here that the contradiction that is Pakistan becomes clear. To understand it we have to start with two fundamentals. First, Pakistan was founded as an explicitly Muslim excision from India in 1947, after which the two countries fought to a draw over the predominantly Muslim region of Kashmir. The second point follows from the first: all of Pakistan’s foreign and defense policy since its inception is predicated on its rivalry with India. Pakistan’s long alliance with the United States served to strengthen its hand against India. Most spectacularly, the rivalry with India is the whole explanation for Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons after India joined the nuclear club.
The rivalry with India also explains why Pakistan has made a practice of supporting Islamist irregulars. Consistently unsuccessful against India in conventional military confrontations, terrorism and guerrilla warfare are useful—indeed essential—tools for Pakistan. Here is where, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan could reinforce its alliance with the United States. The ISI used its rapport with the Islamists to assist the US in promoting insurgency against the Soviet occupation. This was the origin of the Taliban, a collaborative product of Pakistan and the United States.
After the 9/11 attacks of 2001, however, it became clear that the collaboration had produced a monster—from the perspective of the United States, but not necessarily from that of Pakistan. The US needed Pakistan as it invaded and occupied Afghanistan. Pakistan still needed US support for its rivalry with India, but it also needed to continue to cultivate its Islamist allies, who were essential for attacking India in Kashmir, and even in Mumbai.
So Pakistan found itself with the strategic imperative of serving both sides in Afghanistan. It’s not entirely clear how they are managing to do it. One possibility is obviously that the High Command has ordered the double game, because Pakistan cannot turn its back on either side.
A second model is that the High Command has intentionally insulated itself from this dilemma by executing a radical division of labor, such that the military and ISI sectors that work with the US have no contact with or control over those who work with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist combatants.
A third possibility is that various actors within the Army and ISI are playing their own games, competing for the upper hand in controlling the State. In this model, the double game results from a lack of command and control.
How does the attack on the Bin Laden compound illuminate these models? It is inconceivable that Bin Laden could have been there for five years without the knowledge of any military or ISI authorities. That would be a sign of incompetence on a level that defies belief.
If the High Command really knew that Bin Laden was there, they would either have captured him or protected him, depending on which side they came down on. That they did neither argues against the first model: the double game was probably not centrally ordered.
It is conceivable that elements of ISI were helping Bin Laden without informing the local military garrison. But it is equally possible that the garrison was in on the deal, playing its part by turning a blind eye. We cannot, then, exclude the second model whereby the High Command intentionally insulated itself from the horns of its dilemma.
But equally likely is the third model, of no effectively central control at all. Imagine an enterprising ISI operative paying off the local garrison commander to look the other way, using cash from Al Qaeda. In future, should Bin Laden succeed, this hypothetical operative would stand to gain a great deal. If things don’t work out, he can plead ignorance.
If the double game was not centrally ordered, there is very little the US can do to stop it. The best the Obama administration can do is become less dependent on Pakistan. To do that, we have to get out of Afghanistan. Then we can build on our emerging entente with India, a more stable, more democratic, and more powerful friend.