Leslie Gelb, the former head of the Council on Foreign Relations and a current columnist for the Daily Beast, looked at the 90,000 USG document dump on WikiLeaks, and focused on the issue that matters most: Pakistan. “To put the issue somewhat melodramatically,” he wrote, “the United States is giving ‘moderate’ Pakistanis and the Pakistani military billions of dollars yearly in military and economic aid, which allows Pakistani military intelligence to ‘secretly’ help the Taliban kill Americans in Afghanistan, which will drive America out of Afghanistan and undermine U.S. help for Pakistan.” Obviously a surreally ironic and unsustainable position, which has convinced Mr. Gelb, and surely many others, that America’s current policy is nuts (and by inference, a massive drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan—if not a total withdrawal—is the only sensible option).
Mr. Gelb’s take on Pakistan is, however, not sufficiently ironic. If it were, he could be a bit more optimistic. I am uncertain about which documents released by WikiLeaks should be believed—some of the damning information about Pakistani/Taliban/Al Qaeda ties is so detailed that it suggests either an intelligence competence that neither the United States nor the Afghan intelligence service possesses, or a fictive imagination. It also underscores the anti-Pakistani paranoia that is both understandable and common within Afghan security and intelligence circles. Understandable because, as is now well known, though at one time adamantly ignored within the U.S. government, Pakistan was deeply involved with the Taliban, and had liaison ties with a variety of Islamic terrorist organizations in Afghanistan, including Al Qaeda, which co-located some of its training camps with radical Kashmiri groups favored by former Pakistani generalissimo, Pervez Musharraf.
Yet Mr. Gelb glides over the fact that Pakistanis themselves, including officers of the much-feared Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the regular army, have become victims of official Pakistani support to Islamist groups. The Pakistani military knows this even if they adamantly refuse to say publicly that their pro-militant activities have now bitten them. Their self-reflection and self-criticism have been dulled, of course, by anger at the United States for upsetting the status-quo the Pakistanis enjoyed before September 11: Islamabad supported militant groups in Afghanistan, which pleased Pakistani militants, which also pleased the army that really liked having an Afghan base for its insurgent activity in Kashmir. Al Qaeda was happy, the Afghan Pashtun Taliban were happy, the radical Pakistani Pashtuns were happy, the Kashmiri radicals were happy, and the Pakistani military, which has a fairly big slice of Pashtuns within it, especially within the ISI, was content. Then the Americans arrived and made Islamabad choose another side. Even today, after all the Pakistani blood that has been spilled by Pakistanis who have declared war on Islamabad, this resentment is common. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, many Pakistanis would love to click their shoes and have a pre-September 11 world reappear.
But resentment and dreams aren’t policy. The reality: The Pakistani army and the ISI are now at war with their country’s jihadists, especially the Pashtun Islamists who make up the Pakistani Taliban. Lots of military and intelligence officers have now died in this conflict. The impulse to backtrack is no doubt still there—an impulse made much more powerful by Americans who want to wash their hands of Afghanistan, and who somehow believe that Pakistan will be no worse off with an American withdrawal. But civil war north of the Durand Line would certainly follow a U.S. retreat, and Islamabad would have to support massively the “new” Afghan Taliban in this conflict. The militant forces in Pakistan, especially within the army and the civilian bureaucracy, who have argued all along that the Americans would leave defeated, would be supercharged.
To a great extent, Al Qaeda has already become a subcontinent terrorist organization (although its global ambitions remain undiminished). If there is one thing that the Americans could do to globalize the ambitions of the “new” Afghan Taliban and the radical Pakistani groups that have already shown an appetite and capacity for terrorism, abandoning those in Pakistan—especially within the army and the ISI—who have decided to fight their own demons is probably the best way to do it. We may all be tired of an “endless” war, but we really should have enough imagination left to see history repeating itself.
Pakistan, like most of the Greater Middle East, is a seriously schizoid land, where people passionately believe contradictory ideas, especially about God, man, and America, and leaders pursue policies that often do not redound to their advantage, let alone to the miserable denizens they rule over. But what Mr. Gelb and others are recommending will give Pakistan a much worse personality disorder than anything we’ve seen so far. No doubt: The Pakistanis are going to have to fight this out among themselves, as did the Iraqi Sunnis, who once pretty broadly embraced Al Qaeda’s savagery against the United States and the Iraqi Shia. It’s their fight much more than it is ours. But as in Iraq, we need to hold our ground. If we do not, the right people shall lose. Pakistani schizophrenia is deeply distressing and frightening, but an American retreat would make the ISI’s former die-hard Islamist boss Hamid Gul, a dangerously captivating man, into a compelling shrink. That’s not a good idea.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard.