THE UNITED States and NATO cannot endure an open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan. But they know — or should know — that there can be no hope of ending the war unless Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency stops arming, funding, and training Afghan insurgent groups.
President Obama must recognize the necessity of persuading Pakistan’s military leaders, who control the ISI, to stop playing a double game with America. This can be done. Washington has valuable carrots to offer and credible threats to make. To succeed, however, Obama must be willing to play hardball.
There is no point applying pressure on Pakistan’s civilian government. Whatever its flaws, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is aligned with the United States on fighting Islamist extremists. Zardari’s wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by Pakistani extremists. Rather, it is the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, himself a former head of the ISI, who has the power to end the agency’s backing for the Taliban.
Pakistan originally sponsored the Taliban in the mid-90s as a proxy force that could ensure Afghanistan would be friendly to Pakistan and not be absorbed into an Indian sphere of influence. Anxiety about India’s role in Afghanistan remains the driving force behind the ISI’s support for the Taliban.
Recent attacks on India’s embassy and Indian nationals in Afghanistan point to the Pakistani military’s continuing obsession with Indian designs on Afghanistan. And when Kayani held high-level meetings in Washington this March, he reportedly objected to a plan for India to train Afghan soldiers under NATO auspices, offering instead to have Pakistan train them.
Obama’s leverage over Kayani is this same fixation on India. Obama should make a few things clear to the general: that America knows the extent of the ISI’s backing for the Taliban; that Pakistan’s army will not keep getting money and weapons from Washington if it goes on backing groups that kill American soldiers; and that if Pakistan does not end all support for its Taliban proxies, the US will seek India’s assistance in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Then, if Kayani makes the right choice, Obama can use America’s growing influence with India to help reduce tensions with Pakistan. This is the key to a stable future for that part of Asia. To extract American troops from Afghanistan without leaving behind a crucible for new calamities, Obama will have to master the craft of balancing power.