At first glance it appeared that the smoking gun had finally been found. That was certainly the initial impression when, on July 25, Internet whistleblower site WikiLeaks posted official documents claiming extensive Pakistani support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But, as the dust has gradually settled, surprisingly little appears to have changed.
Undoubtedly, tensions between Pakistan and its closest ally have risen, albeit in an unlikely fashion. Although the White House described the revelations as ‘unacceptable,’ Britain—not the US—has borne the brunt of Pakistan’s frustrations following British Prime Minister David Cameron’s criticism of the garrison state for apparently playing a double game, with Pakistan ceasing key intelligence sharing with the United Kingdom in response.
With Cameron’s comments having come hot on the heels of his visit to the United States, there’s been speculation that he was merely delivering a message on behalf of Washington. But if this is the case, then Pakistan’s decision to momentarily end intelligence sharing with Britain sends a message to the White House too—that Pakistan remains the pivotal guarantor of a credible US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
So what do the WikiLeaks disclosures mean for the future of Pakistan’s engagement with the US, and, by extension, its role in Afghanistan?
Although the documents actually held few surprises, the extent to which they confirmed so many existing suspicions about the troubled war in Afghanistan was indeed a defining moment. It’s difficult to determine the veracity of most of the claims about Pakistani support for the insurgency, if only because the primary sources for the most explosive allegations are either Afghan agents or Afghanistan’s intelligence services. These include claims that retired Inter Services Intelligence chief Hamid Gul, a 74-year-old who left the post nearly two decades ago, was personally working with al-Qaeda and the Taliban to arrange attacks on US-led forces. Another report claims an ISI hand in an attempt to poison beer supplies to Western troops.
Yet although the ethnic Tajik-dominated National Directorate of Security is notoriously anti-Pakistan, the fact that both foreign powers and many Afghans believe Pakistan is assisting the Taliban is itself still significant—and the fact that the US has remained closely bound to Pakistan’s military despite this perception is arguably even more significant.
Setting aside any uncertainties over the documents, though, some obvious conclusions can be reached. For a start, the war is clearly not going well for US-led forces in Afghanistan, and if the United States is seeking Pakistani assistance at a time when it really does feel Pakistan is supporting the insurgency, then clearly it’s not fighting from a position of strength.
This was a point confirmed to me by leading analyst Ayesha Siddiqua, who told me she thought the US will continue to depend on Pakistan’s army simply because Washington doesn’t have many other options now. The US has become ever more dependent on Pakistan since publically concluding it will set a timetable for starting to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. But by viewing Pakistan’s military establishment as the only guarantor of stability in the AfPak region, the US has arguably stoked the very situation it now finds itself in.
Like any state, Pakistan seeks to maximise its interests. Given the influence of the Army over the state, and especially over Afghanistan policy, it’s unsurprising that it has decided to support the Taliban and its allies as the only viable future client once foreign forces leave Afghanistan. As a result, informed Pakistani observers find it odd that their country is being criticised for following its own direction in Afghanistan when NATO forces have shown little interest in providing an alternative.
Those same observers, including Islamabad-based analyst Imtiaz Gul, point to the fact that the New York Times, one of only three newspapers privy to the voluminous documents prior to their public disclosure last month, chose to focus on Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence relationship with the Taliban rather than the role of US forces in alleged atrocities in Afghanistan.
Intriguingly, the leaks haven’t been a major story in Pakistan. This may have something to do with the disastrous floods that have ravaged the country and the latest spate of violence in Karachi. But there’s also an awareness that Pakistan is again in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons and the popular view here is that the leaks are a politically motivated attempt by foreign enemies to defame Pakistan.
Ultimately, Pakistan is again becoming the fall guy for the Western and Afghan failure to stabilise Afghanistan. The fact is that US-led efforts in Afghanistan have been poorly managed from the moment the US unilaterally invaded back in 2001 and its reliance on the intensely corrupt Karzai regime and a complex network of provincial strongmen widely resented by ordinary Afghans have been key factors in intensifying support for the insurgency.
Without that basic calculus, Pakistani support for the insurgency would count for little. While the US may seek political mileage out of the WikiLeaks revelations to put pressure on Pakistan, and especially its Army, there are no obvious signs of the special relationship between the two being irreparably damaged.