Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is headed to Islamabad this week for what U.S. officials are billing as a last-ditch effort to patch up ties with Pakistan and urge the country's ruling generals to crack down on the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group based in Pakistan's tribal areas that Washington is increasingly putting on par with al Qaeda and the Taliban as a threat to the United States.
The recent drumbeat of stories about the Haqqanis began when Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Haqqanis "a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency." Although less frequently mentioned, the Pakistanis are also providing sanctuary to the other main Afghan Taliban group, Taliban leader Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura, based in Baluchistan province to the south. But very little has been written about why the Pakistanis support these groups. What possible motive, after all, could they have for supporting forces that are engaged in a nasty guerrilla war against their ostensible American allies in Afghanistan? The reason is simple: The Pakistanis fear that if these Taliban forces are defeated, the United States will abandon the country, leaving behind what they believe will be a hostile Afghan government allied to their mortal enemy, India. And if Clinton fails to understand this dynamic, the latest bid to salvage what's left of U.S.-Pakistani ties will end in failure.
Although the United States has tried hard to promote friendly relations between Kabul and Islamabad, it has had little success. The two neighbors are natural adversaries whose long history of mutual hostility predates the Taliban era. There is also bad blood between the Pakistanis and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai blames Islamabad for the death of his father, who was assassinated in Pakistan several years before the 9/11 attacks.
India, for its part, has moved into Afghanistan in a big way since 9/11, opening an embassy and four consulates, sending in thousands of aid workers, and providing almost $2 billion in aid. Just last Tuesday, Oct. 4, Kabul and New Delhi signed a strategic partnership agreement in which India agreed to help train and equip Afghan security forces. The Indians, long angered by Pakistani support for jihadi groups in Kashmir, sense a golden opportunity to threaten Pakistan on its western border and are determined to make the most of it.
Observing these developments, the Pakistanis have become increasingly alarmed at the prospect that they may be encircled by their historic foes. Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban needs to be understood in this light. It is not that the Pakistanis like the Taliban, whose support for al Qaeda prior to 9/11 ended up causing them so much grief, or even that they trust them, since they almost certainly do not. But faced with the alternative of a hostile Afghan government allied to India, supporting the Afghan Taliban is a relatively easy choice for Islamabad.