(Mission of folly: Part six) Without the large scale support of Pakistan, it is exceedingly unlikely that the Taliban would ever have taken power in Afghanistan. What is more, assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, there is ample evidence that elements of the Pakistani state, and important tribal groupings in the regions of Pakistan that border on Afghanistan continue to back the Taliban. There is every reason to believe that the motives for this Pakistani intervention in Afghanistan which pre-dated the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 remain potent to this day and that they will continue in the future.

Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan proceeds from deep seated geo-political interests. Pakistan prefers a weak and divided Afghanistan as its neighbour, and above all does not want Afghanistan to fall too much under the sway of either the Iranians or the Russians.

In addition, Pakistan fears the rise of Pashtun nationalist forces on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that would be inclined to agitate in favour of a Pashtun state that would threaten Pakistan’s hold in its border regions. To deflect Pashtun energies away from this, Pakistan has supported Islamist forces in the region, whose goals are theocratic rather than nationalist. It is a dangerous game Pakistan has been playing, attempting to extinguish one fire by lighting another.

As long ago as the early 1970s, Pakistan has played a role in arming various factions in Afghanistan. The ethnic identity of the peoples who live on the Pakistani side of the frontier is virtually identical to that of the peoples on the Afghan side of the border. As a consequence of their ethnic makeup, these regions of Pakistan are semi-autonomous and are officially designated as tribal agencies, administered by an agent appointed by the Pakistan government.

This administrative arrangement has lessened the reach of Islamabad in the border regions. Owing to this governing system, arising from the close ties between peoples on both sides and to mountainous terrain, the frontier area has been a highly porous one, with smugglers, refugees, and military units able to slip across, while being subjected to little control.

During the era of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, about two million Afghan refugees crossed the border into Pakistan. In those days, the frontier region of Pakistan was the most important base for the Mujahideen in their hit and run raids against the Soviet regime in Kabul.

Today, it is the Americans and their allies, among them the Canadian forces in the Afghan south, who are the victims of similar hit and run raids, launched from Pakistani territory. In the 1980s, however, the Americans were completely onside with the raids from Pakistan. The CIA covertly pumped $2.3 billion into the region, to be used by Pakistan to train as many as eighty thousand Mujahideen fighters for the Afghan struggle.

After the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989, serving and former Pakistani military officers continued training irregular military units in camps in Afghanistan. During the 1990s, as the warring factions in Afghanistan fought for supremacy, Pakistan played a very considerable role. Pakistan funded the Taliban, provided their forces with armaments, trained Taliban units, recruited fresh manpower for them, and provided diplomatic aid for the Taliban internationally, among other things supporting the virtual embassies established by the Taliban in key countries. As late as the spring of 2001, just months before the September 11 attacks, Pakistani military vehicles crossed the border on a daily basis, delivering artillery shells, munitions for Taliban tanks, and rocket-propelled grenades.

As has been made clear in the recent, and exceedingly frank, memoir by President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan was heavily pressured into the American “War on Terror” in the autumn of 2001. Two days after the September 11 terror attacks, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met in Washington with the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and the visiting head of Pakistan’s military intelligence service.

As Musharraf has told the story, Armitage threatened that unless Pakistan, one of the few countries that maintained diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime in Kabul, ruptured its ties with the Taliban and enlisted in the U.S. War on Terror, the Americans would bomb Pakistan “into the Stone Age.” Armitage, who disputes the language, does not deny making the threat.

Musharraf explained that his government considered its options and concluded that it was not realistic for Pakistan to go to war against the United States. Facing the prospect of U.S. aerial attack and an American alliance with Pakistan’s historic enemy, India, Musharraf cleaved to the side of the United States under extreme duress. Explaining his decision, the Pakistani president told the CBS television show 60 Minutes that “one has to think and take actions in the interests of the nation, and that’s what I did.”

Within a few days of the Armitage threat, Pakistan severed ties with the Taliban and cooperated with American efforts to stop Al Qaeda and Taliban forces from crossing the frontier into Pakistan. That cooperation won Musharraf and his country the fulsome praise of President George W. Bush. In his frequent speeches on the War on Terror, Pakistan and its leader have always been prominently listed as among his valued allies.

Cooperation at the top between Islamabad and Washington did not mean that cooperation reached all the way to the operational level on the ground — at least not all the time. Reliable reports have revealed that much of the Taliban leadership is installed in regions of Pakistan, along the Afghan border. Whenever it gets too hot for the Taliban in Afghanistan, their units retire across the border, refit and return when it suits them. While the Bush administration has put pressure on Musharraf to take the fight against the Taliban more seriously, Washington’s main aim is to keep nuclear Pakistan broadly onside. If this means winking at Musharraf’s game-playing with Taliban forces, so be it.

Despite praise from the Bush administration, President Musharraf remains ambivalent about his country’s relationship with the United States, a stance that suits the internal politics of his country admirably. In his 60 Minutes interview, he talked openly about the list of seven demands that Richard Armitage had issued to the two Afghan diplomats. Two of them were particularly irksome to Musharraf. The Americans had demanded that Pakistan turn over its border posts and bases to the U.S. for use in the assault on the Taliban. The second demand, which Musharraf dismissed as ludicrous, was that Islamabad crack down on internal expressions of support for terrorist attacks on the U.S.

“If somebody’s expressing views,” Musharraf told CBS “we cannot suppress the expression of views.” This was a tart statement of his position, deftly mirroring such utterances over the years from American leaders who lecture foreigners on the inability of Washington to suppress the free expression of views in the United States.

While Washington does not approve of Pakistan’s ambivalence, it is not prepared to have a showdown over it with the Musharraf government. The United States has strategic interests in Pakistan that far exceed those in Afghanistan. Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state that plays a crucial role in establishing the balance of power in Asia with Russia, India, China and Japan. Should the Musharraf government collapse in favour of a militant Islamic regime, the blow to Washington would be incalculable.

The dual tactic of helping Musharraf stay in power in Islamabad, while keeping a gun to his head, has paid high dividends to the Americans, and they will not abandon it in the interest of NATO troops, even their own, fighting in southern Afghanistan. The beauty of Musharraf’s position is that for the Americans he is the only game in town in Pakistan. While the Bush administration does not like the frank things he says, they need him just as much as the Pakistani president needs the Americans.

In this game of smoke and mirrors, Canadian soldiers are engaged in a dirty war in which a supposed major ally in the region has been playing a duplicitous role. Washington is anxious to have NATO allies do as much of the difficult fighting as possible in southern Afghanistan, where the revitalized Taliban has been taking a toll. Not least, this is because the Bush administration needs to keep U.S. military casualties to a minimum, because American public opinion, already highly critical of the war, is negatively affected by rising casualties.

On the other hand, Canadian casualties provoke no such reaction in the United States. The deaths of Canadian soldiers are rarely reported in the American media. Should Canadians be paying a price in blood in a conflict in which double-dealing is the name of the game?