(Cross-posted at Registan.net)

The most common complaint in the U.S. about Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is "the ISI did it." This is certainly true for a big stretch of the 1990s, when supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and supporting other militant Islamist groups focused on Kashmir (of which the Taliban were a small part) made strategic sense. But after 2001 or so, that relationship became significantly more complicated, first by Pervez Musharraf caving to mis-placed American pressure to "do something," then by his own government’s unwillingness to turn its back on its clients.

The challenges in discussing the ISI’s relationship to the Taliban is that the ISI is not a single, monolithic organization. There are permanent agents who may or may not loyalty issues, but also big chunks of its officers are seconded from the Pakistani Army—who again, may or may not have loyalty issues. It has multiple divisions with different foci, including one developed solely to research and analysis (much like India’s external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing). Within those divisions, there can sometimes be tremendous leeway for operations officers to behave semi-autonomously—much like in the CIA in the U.S.

Anyway, while the structure of the ISI is very interesting, it is important to keep in mind when we hear news like the bombing of the ISI building in Lahore (pics here). Does this mean the Taliban are unhappy with the ISI? Perhaps—it would be foolhardy to extrapolate much from this single instance, but it does help to highlight that, just as the U.S. government is not one single monolithic entity behaving with a singular purpose and methodology, neither is the government of Pakistan—and especially not its intelligence service. So there is probably a much deeper issue at play here, including strategic considerations on the part of the militants, and whether the ISI really does have its act together.

And let’s not forget Afghanistan: if Syed Saleem Shahzad is to be believed (and he really is), then al Qaeda has nixed plans to further destabilize Pakistan through targeted assassinations in its efforts to remain focused on Afghanistan—which could mean that all this talk of interconnectedness (i.e. "the insurgent syndicate") is a whole lot of bunk. But again: extrapolating from single instances is a dangerous game. Keep your mind open about what’s happening, and let’s try to avoid narrow, stererotype-laden thinking in the pundit class. Alright?

Joshua Foust

Joshua Foust