Dexter Filkins'article from Pakistan in the Aug. 23 New York Times raises anew the question that has long haunted even many supporters of the U.S. war in Afghanistan: Have we gotten ourselves into something that's way over our heads?
Filkins reports that a much-celebrated triumph of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in combating jihadist terrorism—the joint arrest, earlier this year, of a top Taliban leader in Karachi—was, in fact, a ruse.
It turns out that the arrested Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, had been engaged in secret peace talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Pakistani security agents used the CIA to help them track down Baradar precisely because they wanted to shut down any peace initiative that didn't involve Pakistan.
In the weeks after Baradar's arrest, Filkins reports, the security forces detained as many as 22 other Taliban leaders, as a result of which the peace talks ended. Filkins quotes a Pakistani security official as saying, "We picked up Baradar and the others because they were trying to make a deal without us."
This official also told Filkins that they warned the detained Taliban leaders not to conduct any more talks with the Afghan government without Pakistan's permission. A "former Western diplomat with long experience in the region" confirmed to Filkins that the ISI—Pakistan's intelligence service—sent a warning to its Taliban protégés. "The message from the ISI," he said, "was: 'No flirting.' "
So here's the situation: All the top U.S. officials, from President Barack Obama and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down, have said that winning this war will ultimately require making a deal with "reconcilable" members of the Taliban; yet our main ally in this war—whose assistance is necessary for victory by any definition—has been arresting any Taliban members who try their hand at reconciling.
Back when he was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus once asked, "How does this thing end?" He must be asking the same question, with a considerably deeper furrow in his brow, now that he's the commander in Afghanistan.
And Iraq was the proverbial cakewalk compared with Afghanistan. The difference isn't merely that Iraqi insurgents could be co-opted because of the threat from foreign jihadists (whereas the Afghan Taliban are homegrown), or that Iraq's sectarian divisions are basically among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd (whereas Afghanistan's schisms are multiple and tribal), or that Iraq is a fairly modern, literate nation (whereas much of Afghanistan is nearly medieval).
The main difference—and the difference that's at the core of the Pakistan problem—is that the Iraq war was mainly about Iraq, whereas the Afghanistan war is mainly about Pakistan, and Pakistan's worries are mainly about India.
Pakistani leaders, as is well known, have been reluctant to devote much effort to combating Taliban fighters on the western border with Afghanistan because, in their eyes, the main threat and mortal enemy is the country across their eastern border—India.
As Barnett Rubin, an expert on the region and a professor at New York University, put it in a Foreign Affairs article three years ago:
Pakistan's military establishment has always approached the various wars in and around Afghanistan as a function of its main institutional and national security interests: first and foremost, balancing India, a country with vastly more people and resources, whose elites, at least in Pakistani eyes, do not fully accept the legitimacy of Pakistan's existence. [Italics added.]