Foreign Policy Blogs

ISI and Afghan Insurgency: Implications for India-Pakistan Relations

india-pakistan-afghanistanMatt Waldman in a recently published Paper, “The Sun is in the Sky: the Relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents” explores the extent of the ISI’s links and support to the problem of Afghan insurgency. Though Matt accepts that several endogenous factors are responsible for the emergence and sustenance of the Taliban, his interviews with insurgent field commanders in and around Kabul and Kandhar provide him with evidence to claim that the ISI orchestrates, sustains and strongly influences the movement. The research concentrates on two principal groups: the core Taliban movement lead by Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani. The Paper provides elaborate details of how the strategy, funding and operations of the two groups are dominated by ISI’s priorities and interests.


The study is impressive, given the detailed accounts of how the ISI directs and controls activities of the Taliban and Haqqani groups. Matt is not fully convinced of the pervasive and domineering role of the ISI but does see the Pakistani Intelligence Agency as having “strong strategic and operational influence” over the groups. The elaborate research for the Paper brings the author to an often repeated conclusion: without a change in Pakistani behavior it will be difficult if not impossible for international forces and the Afghan government to make progress against the insurgency. Matt is of the view that Pakistan government’s apparent duplicity – and awareness of it among the American public and political establishment – could have enormous geo-political implications.


Matt’s suggestion for dealing with this conundrum, though not new is somewhat intriguing. In Matt’s view resolving India-Pakistan tensions would help in addressing Pakistan’s sense of insecurity and consequently deprive the ISI of rationale for supporting the Afghan insurgency. The linkage between his contention (that the Pakistani ISI actively directs the Taliban movement and Haqqani groups) and the solution (improving India-Pakistan relations) are highly tenuous.


In Matt’s words, “However, an aggressive American response to Pakistan’s conduct is only likely to generate further instability, especially given the army’s on-going battle against Pakistani militant groups and widespread anti-American sentiment among the population. The priority must be to address the fundamental causes of Pakistan’s insecurity, in particular its latent and enduring conflict with India. This requires a regional peace process and, as Bruce Riedel has argued, American backing for moves towards a resolution of the Kashmir dispute (Reidel 2008). It should be accompanied by support for military and political reform, and a combination of incentives and disincentives to persuade Pakistan’s elite that support for Islamic militants is no longer in Pakistan’s national interests (see Fair 2009 and Fischer 2010). As a note of caution he adds, Even this is no panacea for the Afghan conflict; it merely makes treatment possible. So long as the root causes remain – especially a corrupt, exclusionary, unjust government, and the perception among some Afghans of an aggressive, self-serving foreign military presence – then the violence will continue.”

It is difficult to ascertain what makes Matt believe that resolution of Kashmir dispute will address Pakistan’s sense of insecurity? ISI’s leverage over these groups is not simply used to counter the Indian threat but is also employed to maintain its superiority in the hierarchy of domestic political authority. Benazir Bhutto in her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West makes clear the degree to which clash between the moderate and extremist elements within Pakistan condition the social and political milieu within the country. Mahmod Monshipouri and Amjad Samuel (see Development and Democracy in Pakistan: Tenuous or Plausible nexus? Asian Survey, Vol. XXXV, No.11, 1995) highlight various domestic factors that influence the priorities of the Pakistani Army.   “For the most part, thus the military rulers have been the final arbiters of Pakistan’s destiny. Dominated by Punjabis and representing the landed and industrial interests, the military regards its dominance of Pakistani politics not only as a right but as a duty based on the need to safeguard the territorial integrity of the country in the face of lingering ethnic, linguistic and ethnic fissures.” Monshipouri and Samuel’s observation indicate that the military (including its intelligence arm, the ISI) define their agenda not only in reference with India but also other domestic pressures.


J&K dispute is not the cause but simply a manifestation of India-Pakistan rivalry. Resolution of J&K is essential for regional peace and stability, but such a resolution (though highly improbable) will not address the psychological causes mistrust between India and Pakistan or impact ISI’s covert support for the Afghan insurgency. Matt suggests that Islamicization of Pakistan’s society and support for the extremist violence in J&K increased after the India ‘aided’ creation of Bangladesh. Renowned Indian journalist Praveen Swami’s account of jihad in Jammu and Kashmir in his book India-Pakistan and the Secret Jihad provides an insight into Pakistan’s obsession with J&K. According to Praveen Swami jihad in J&K had raged since 1947, though global developments in the 1970s and 1980s did impact its intensity.


Two themes of Matt’s paper appear problematic 1) Improvement of India-Pakistan relations will facilitate addressing the insurgency in Afghanistan; 2) Pakistan’s military and ISI’s agenda are solely India centric. India is willing to employ creative solutions for improving bilateral relations with Pakistan but it seems unlikely that India will allow the Afghanistan issue to dominate the already troublesome relations with her Western neighbor. It is important that India and Pakistan should be encouraged to resolve their bilateral disputes for the sake of advantages to the respective countries rather than for dealing with Afghan insurgency or the U.S. challenges in the region.



Madhavi Bhasin

Blogger, avid reader, observer and passionate about empowerment issues in developing countries.
Work as a researcher at Center for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley and intern at Institute of International Education.
Areas of special interest include civil society, new social media, social and political trends in India.