Why Pakistan Is Getting Cocky

Pakistan’s Army and intelligence service are behaving ever more provocatively—with potentially drastic ramifications for the war in Afghanistan. Bruce Riedel on the ISI’s psyche.

09.23.11 5:21 PM ET

Admiral Mullen's candid and stunning testimony that directly links Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, to recent attacks on NATO forces and the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan puts America and Pakistan on a collision course.

Why are the ISI and the Pakistani Army making such risky moves? What is the calculation in the generals’ minds? Short answer is, they believe we are on the run in Afghanistan and they want to push us out faster. Mullen has been Pakistan’s strongest advocate inside the White House situation room since President Obama took office in 2009. He prudently argued for patience and tolerance with the ISI’s duplicity for years, rightly stressing Pakistan’s critical importance on many vital issues like the nuclear-arms race, counterterrorism, and the Afghan war. This makes his remarks linking ISI to the Afghan Taliban’s Haqqani network attacks on our forces this month all the more stunning. Mullen labeled the Haqqani Taliban a “veritable arm” and “proxy” of the ISI. Afghan sources have said the Taliban suicide team that attacked our embassy was in constant contact by cell phone with their masters back in Pakistan during the firefight.

More questions are coming about ISI. The assassination last Tuesday of former Afghan president Rabbani, who was leading Afghanistan’s effort to develop a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban, dealt a literal death blow to any hope of a peace settlement between NATO, the Karzai government, and the Taliban insurgency. Rabbani was murdered by a suicide bomber who allegedly brought a message from the Taliban’s top authority, the Quetta Shura, which has long been directly linked to the ISI as well. We still don’t know enough about the assassination plot, but it is highly unlikely the Taliban leadership in Quetta would have blown up the reconciliation process without a green light—or at least an amber one —from the ISI leadership.

These are incredibly provocative actions for the ISI. Over the past three decades it has developed a well-deserved reputation for sponsoring terror, like the 2008 Mumbai attack. It is accountable only to the Army and chief of Army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari and his ministers has zero control over the spies and live in fear of them. It is not a rogue agency; it is a state within the state. The generals who run ISI have worked with the Taliban for more than 15 years. They provide critical sanctuary for its leaders like Haqqani and Mullah Mohammed Omar. Without direct and substantial Pakistani help, the Taliban could not have recovered from its defeat in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 and become the threat it is today.

But now the generals feel increasing heat from the U.S. and sense a growing chance that America and NATO are looking to cut and run from Afghanistan, hence their willingness to take risks to accelerate America’s departure from their doorstep and help their clients win. The stepped-up drone operations and especially the May 1 SEAL raid in Abbottabad have humiliated the generals deeply. They also know Osama bin Laden’s success in hiding out for six years in eyesight of the Army’s premier academy has raised profound suspicions in America about whether the ISI was clueless or complicit in his hideout.

So the heat was rising well before Mullen’s testimony. Yet the ISI also knows American and European support for staying in Afghanistan is dropping. Canada has already left. Obama has started withdrawing faster than his generals wanted. The Pakistani officers want to accelerate this process—the sooner NATO is gone, the better for them. So their advice to their Afghan proxies is to carry out operations designed to impact the home audience in America and Europe. Make the war look unwinnable and hopeless. Make Kabul appear chaotic and unsafe. Kill any hope for a political process. The darker Afghanistan appears on TV screens, the sooner the foreign armies will be called home.

Reality is less important than image in this war. The Army leadership also feels it can weather any blowback from Washington. The generals assume U.S. military aid will be cut or eliminated by Congress sooner rather than later, and they are confident that the Saudis and Chinese will fill the gap. They also know NATO’s logistical supply line to Kabul runs through Karachi (more than half of everything NATO eats, drinks, and shoots arrives via Karachi despite intense efforts to find alternatives). They have leverage and they know it. And of course, they have the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world with a developing tactical nuclear capability. They feel they hold a lot of aces, maybe more than they should. Cocky poker players are dangerous.