While the US remains mired in the increasingly bloody sands of Iraq, waging a costly and unnecessary occupation solely for President Bush's vanity, Afghanistan, the administration's supposed success story is beginning to fall apart. A resurgent Taliban is slowly retaking control of the countryside while the US-backed Afghan government still exerts no control outside the capital. But how is it that the Taliban has rebounded so quickly after its 2001 defeat at the hands of the US? One word: Pakistan
Pakistan has been violating club rules -- big time. President Pervez Musharraf not only knows but also approves all major operations by his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Official fiction holds that Pakistan is not assisting Taliban's comeback insurgency in Afghanistan. In fact, ISI is doing just that. The U.S. and NATO are being deliberately undermined by ISI with the full knowledge and approval of Mr. Musharraf.
ISI is also directing its Taliban proxies to agree to local coalition governments in return for a case-fire and the withdrawal of NATO troops. Such a deal is now in effect in Helmand Province, which borders Afghanistan and is officially the responsibility of British troops under NATO command.
Interrogation of Taliban prisoners and suspected agents -- about 1,500 so far -- by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's intelligence service shows every one (with no exception) came from Pakistan, many of them former pupils in madrassas (Koranic schools).
Most had been trained and equipped in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan's two provinces that border Afghanistan, both governed by pro-Taliban administrations and both friendly to al Qaeda. The entire Taliban resurgence, the interrogations show, was conducted "under the supervision of ISI operatives, one to three layers removed." Speaking privately, a U.S. general involved in the Taliban account at the Pentagon, said: "We know but maintain the fiction Musharraf doesn't know. Coalition partners also know. Hence their reluctance to increase Afghan troop commitments."
The White House knows about Mr. Musharraf's doublecross in Afghanistan, but the steady stream of bad news out of Iraq precludes even worse news from what is still described as a success story.
The Taliban prisoners also told Afghan security interrogators that Pakistan supplied medical services, as well as rest and recreation facilities near the provincial capitals of Quetta and Peshawar.
Pakistan's ISI served as the midwife at the birth of the Taliban more than a decade ago, helping it sieze control of Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviets' withdrawal from the war-torn nation. As the US turned away from Pakistan in the 1990's, the ISI became increasingly anti-American and increasingly pro-Islamist.
Taliban was an ISI project to quell the mayhem that followed the humiliating withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 after a disastrous 10-year occupation. Its first recruits came from major madrassas, Koranic schools, under Wahhabi or Deobandi control, where they were taught the holy book by heart, along with the love of holy war to kill all enemies of Islam.
ISI claims it did not sire Taliban. But it was present at its birth and assumed the role of wet nurse and then foster parent. ISI also provided training and equipment, and guided tactics and strategy as Taliban, based in Pakistan, under ISI supervision, conquered Afghanistan. Kabul fell to a victorious Taliban in 1996 where flat-Earth clerics established their medieval dominion. Mullah Mohammed Omar, an Islamist Torquemada, ruled as a tyrant for the next five years until the U.S. invasion in October 2001.
ISI had 1,500 officers and operatives in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The country represented Pakistan's defense in depth in the event of an Indian invasion. Many ISI agents were veterans of the anti-Soviet guerrilla campaign fought by the mujahideen under ISI direction, with funding and weapons from Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
The ISI culture has been anti-American ever since the U.S. turned against Pakistan after the Soviets left Afghanistan. The country's secret nuclear weapons program, protected by ISI, incurred a slew of hostile U.S. diplomatic, military and economic sanctions.
The Pakistani military, particularly ISI, is in a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde mode when it comes to U.S. military requests. President Musharraf reacts favorably to U.S. intelligence on al Qaeda's operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the rest of Pakistan. Almost 700 al Qaeda terrorists have been arrested since Osama Bin Laden and his entourage escaped from the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001.
It is no coincidence that the British Muslims who are waging jihad against Britain visited Pakistan to receive their Islamist training (see posts below). Indeed, virtually every Islamist terrorist seems to have spent some time in Pakistan or received support from Pakistanis.
Recall that Pakistan had to be threatened with little short of obliteration in the aftermath of 9/11 in order for the US to secure its support in routing the Taliban. That support has almost cost Musharref his life on several occasions because the average Pakistani by and large supports bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists. But as the US's position in the region has weakened - due entirely to the fiasco in Iraq - Musharref, rather like Iran, is less and less intimidated by US threats and more willing to give the ISI free reign to support the Taliban. Musharref knows that the American threats that brought him to heel in 2001 cannot be carried out with the US bogged down in Baghdad. Hence, he no longer feels the need to appease the US. Similarly, Iran and Syria, which were initially cowed by the successful invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are currently emboldened by the US's unfolding humiliation there.
Even Hamid Karzai, whose life hangs in precarious balance, has recently lashed out at Pakistan
for backing the Taliban's push back into his country:
Mr Karzai's latest verbal attack on Pakistan came while he was visiting a school in Kandahar.
Even if they kill 25 million people [in Afghanistan] I won't become their slave
Afghan President Hamid Karzai
"Pakistan has not given up hope of making us slaves. But they cannot," he said.
"This tyranny against our people is not by the nation of Pakistan, it is by the government of Pakistan."
The BBC's Alastair Leithead in Kabul says Taleban fighters are known to move across the border between the two countries and there are growing concerns that the insurgents are increasing their strength in the tribal-controlled areas on the Pakistani side in Waziristan.
Our correspondent says many diplomats support the view that elements within Pakistan are making things worse in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government has long denied suggestions that it could do more to stop cross-border attacks.
Officials point to the deaths of hundreds of Pakistani troops fighting pro-Taleban militants on the Pakistani side of the border.
But recent peace deals with the militants aimed at ending the bloodshed have been viewed with suspicion in Kabul and Washington.
Pakistani foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam did not respond directly to Mr Karzai's remarks, but repeated Islamabad's view that the roots of Afghanistan's violence were mainly to be found within its borders.
"The problem of Afghanistan is primarily inside Afghanistan and it should be resolved there. The Taleban are operating well inside Afghanistan," Ms Aslam said, the AFP news agency reported.
Pakistan can afford to blithely dismiss Karzai's accusations. They know that the US can do nothing to punish them at the moment because the mess in Iraq has sapped American military strenght and completely absorbs US strategic attention.
Sadly, that will very likely be the legacy of the Iraq invasion. A weakened American military, emboldened enemies, worsened relations with allies, and a diminished US strategic position in the Middle East and Asia. That is the legacy George W. Bush has created for himself with his crusade to bring "democracy" to Iraq.