Last week, during an appearance by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke at the Brookings Institution, I had a chance to ask him a key question about the war, concerning the Pakistan-Taliban alliance. Oddly enough, in his answer, Holbrooke — who is the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that discussion of how to defeat the opponents of the US in Afghanistan shouldn’t be conducted "in public." Here the transcript of the exchange:
DREYFUSS "Good afternoon, Ambassador. I’m Bob Dreyfuss with The Nation magazine. … Isn’t it true that the Pakistani military and ISI is still to this day giving significant support to the very enemies that we’re fighting, the Taliban, Hekmatyar, Haqqani? And that if we squeeze [Pakistan] too hard on this that they could cut off our ability to supply our forces logistically so that we’re kind of hostage to the Taliban’s main supporter which we depend on in order to supply our forces in Afghanistan. Isn’t that the central paradox you’re facing?"
MR. HOLBROOKE "This is of course a much debated question, Bob, and all I can say is you’re welcome to your interpretations of what happens, but I do not believe we are hostage as you put it. It is true that well over 50 percent of our supplies into Afghanistan come in over the Khyber Pass and that’s a difficult piece of logistical resupply. It’s the longest logistical resupply in the history of the United States military. I’ve sat down with the logisticians, the logistics officers in the field and talked to them about the immense difficulties of bringing things in,although we are diversifying. But I don’t see the hostage issue.
"As for the question of Haqqani and Hekmatyar groups, we are deeply concerned about the activities of these groups. The Haqqani group straddles the border and is responsible for some of the most serious events that take the lives and injure American and allied forces. There is no question about that. We have discussed this and looked for ways to deal with it and I see signs of movement forward, but I think with all respect to all of you that continued discussion of this issue in public works against the goal which I know all of you share in this room which is a reduction in the risk to our American forces in Afghanistan."
You’ll note that Holbrooke ignored completely my reference to Pakistani support for the Taliban. And he said that the issue of fighters associated with Gulbuddin Hekmaytar, a leader of the US-sponsored 1980s jihad against the USSR, and the Haqqanis, heirs to another leader of that earlier Afghan war, is something best not discussed "in public."
Of course, US officials tread very carefully when dealing with the issue of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, Hekmatyar, and the Haqqanis. As I said in my question to Holbrooke, the fact that Pakistan, our key ally in the war, is also the chief supporter of our enemy, is a weird paradox. It’s as if, during the war in Vietnam, we were fighting the Viet Cong in southern Vietnam while at the same time supporting the government of North Vietnam in Hanoi.
The Obama administration apparently believes that it can wean Pakistan away from its Afghan allies. It’s true that some of the civilian elements of Pakistan’s governing elite despise the Taliban and, like Pakistan’s current ambassador to the United States, also despise fundamentalist Islam. But to Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, the Taliban are a useful tool, and one that they are not likely to surrender. Most of Pakistan’s generals and spies are not hard-core Islamic fundamentalists, of course. They’re well educated, urbane, whisky-drinking, skirt-chasing military officers. But, holding their noses, they use the Taliban as a way of projecting Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and, they hope, central Asia.