As Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was en route to Afghanistan Wednesday to mend strained relations between the neighboring countries, the BBC published excerpts from a secret NATO document accusing Pakistan of directly aiding the Taliban's bloody battle against the Afghan government and U.S.-led forces. The NATO report, based on 27,000 interrogations of some 4,000 Taliban and al Qaeda detainees, also paints the picture of a confident Taliban that expects to conquer Afghanistan when NATO forces leave. Still, Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency "emerges from this document looking considerably more villainous, even, than the Taliban itself," editorializes The Times of London. Here, six key talking points surrounding NATO's "painful" report:
1. Pakistan is the Taliban's puppet-master
Pakistan publicly supported the Taliban until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., after which it ostensibly cut ties. But "Pakistan's manipulation of the Taliban senior leadership continues unabated," the NATO report says. The "ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel," some of whom even "maintain residences in the immediate vicinity of ISI headquarters in Islamabad." This "fascinating" report "mostly confirms what was already known," says Matthew Symonds in The Economist. But it's "rich in anecdotal evidence about the way... the ISI controls and sustains the Taliban."
2. The Taliban isn't thrilled with the relationship
The leaked report "portrays the Taliban as being under the thumb" of the ISI, but also "resenting that control," says Julian Borger in Britain's The Guardian. In one quote, a senior al Qaeda commander in Kunar province gripes: "Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. I can't [expletive] on a tree in Kunar without them watching. The Taliban are not Islam. The Taliban are Islamabad." The report concludes that "the Taliban do not trust Pakistan, yet there is widespread acceptance of the status quo in lieu of realistic alternatives."
3. Pakistan denies the allegations
Khar dismissed the report as "old wine in an even older bottle," and "a potentially strategic leak" aimed at derailing her trip to Kabul. The accusations are "ridiculous," foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit tells the BBC. "We are committed to non-interference in Afghanistan." Besides, Pakistani legislator Tariq Azim tells Reuters, the Taliban "don't need any backing." NATO still can't control a singe province after 10 years "because of the wrong policies they have been following," not Pakistani interference.
4. Nobody's buying the denial
"The semi-comforting belief that only 'rogue elements' in the ISI have close connections to the Taliban never had much basis in fact and it has less now," says The Economist's Symonds. I don't blame the ISI, says Paul Koring in Canada's Globe and Mail. With NATO cutting and running next year, leaving a resurgent Taliban next door, I'd say the "Pakistani decision to hedge its bets and retain influence, if not control, over the Taliban seems to be paying off." There's a big difference between maintaining contact with the Taliban and "helping a disruptive insurgency," says Aryn Baker in TIME. If NATO's right, the ISI "has crossed that line."
5. The Taliban believes it is winning the war
"Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable," the report says. "Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding, and tactical proficiency remains intact." Taliban prisoners also tell NATO that they have broad support among Afghanis, and even defecting Afghan security forces. That's certainly a "stark contrast to NATO's far more bullish official line, that the insurgent movement has been severely damaged and demoralized," says The Guardian's Borger.
6. That doesn't necessarily mean they are
The report only reflects the views of "ruthless, highly motivated" Taliban detainees, so "you have to take it all with a really big grain of salt," says Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for NATO forces. "It is what they either do believe or what they want us to believe," says another spokesman, Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson. But they're wrong. It's hard to know how seriously to take "the bullish view of the Taliban's prospects," says The Economist's Symonds. The detainees are wrong that a Taliban-led Afghanistan is inevitable, but the Taliban can keep trying "as long as Pakistan believes it is in its strategic interests to give it material and moral support."
Sources: BBC News (2), Economist, Globe and Mail, Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, TIME