On September 21, 2001, Michael Rubin, a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1997 and 2000; David Isbey, specialist correspondent for Jane's Intelligence Review and director of the Committee for a Free Afghanistan; and Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Institute, specializing in military affairs, addressed the Institute's Special Policy Forum. The following is a rapporteur's summary of Mr. Rubin's remarks.
The Taliban's main concerns are domestic. They have accepted Osama bin Ladin because he is important to their ability to stay in power. They have used bin Ladin's brigade because it was the most capable brigade in countering Ahmed Shah Massoud, the former leader of the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance controls the area from Tajikistan down to within 40-50 miles of Kabul. It is doubtful that the United States can rely on the Northern Alliance. The alliance is marked by fiercely independent rival officials that resent working with each other, and Afghans are hostile to being ruled by outsiders -- that is, anyone who is not from their immediate region or city.
Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI) supports the Taliban because the Taliban provide a means for Pushtun control over Afghanistan without appealing to Pushtun ethnic identity. Most Pushtuns live in Afghanistan, comprising roughly 38 percent of the country, but Pushtuns also predominate the northwest frontier province of Pakistan. In the early 1970s, the monarchy in Afghanistan spoke of a "greater Pushtunistan." Pakistan has to worry about ethnic separatism; it is a failing nation that desperately tries to bring together diverse ethnic groups under an Islamic state. However, Islam has not proven sufficient to bind Pakistan together, as shown in 1971 when Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) split off. ISI made a strategic decision to support an Islamic-based movement in Afghanistan rather than risk having an ethnically based regime there. ISI feared a Pushtun nationalist regime that might want to take the northwest frontier province of Pakistan.
While Pakistani president General Musharraf's stated commitment to work with the United States is heartening, the Pakistani government has not previously been able to control the ISI, and there is no guarantee it will be able to do so for a prolonged period in this case. A window of opportunity exists for quick action. However, if the United States needed to engage in a prolonged operation against Afghanistan, Pakistan could be torn apart at its seams by populist and Islamic politics.
This Special Policy Forum Report was prepared by Jacqueline Kaufman.