Robert Kaplan continues to miss the plot

It’s not about “lines of communication”

Q: What do you get when you take Realist doctrine and apply it without regard to ground realities? A: This article by Robert Kaplan (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony). He writes:

No matter how much leverage you hold over a country, it is rare that you can get it to act against its core self-interest…

The U.S. demands that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), its spy agency, sever relations with the Taliban. Based on Pakistan’s own geography, this makes no sense from a Pakistani point of view. First of all, maintaining lines of communications and back channels with the enemy is what intelligence agencies do. What kind of a spy service would ISI be if it had no contacts with one of the key players that will help determine its neighbor’s future?

Of course, we can and should demand that Pakistan cease helping the Taliban to plan and carry out operations. But cutting links to the Taliban altogether is something the Pakistanis simply cannot do, and trying to insist upon it only worsens tensions between our two countries.[The Atlantic]

Mr Kaplan arrives at these conclusions because he fundamentally misunderstands both the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban, and the threat they pose to the interests of the Pakistani state.

There is a huge difference between “lines of communications and back channels” that all intelligence agencies have, and the cat-and-paw relationship between the Pakistani military establishment and the global jihadi groups. To use Mr Kaplan’s analogy, while the US used the “back channels” of the PLO to help evacuate American families from Beirut, the CIA—to our knowledge—does not use Palestinian terrorist groups to carry out terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. What needs severing is not the ISI’s lines of communications, but its use of the Taliban as a strategic proxy.

But Mr Kaplan’s greater mistake is the acceptance of the notion—that even some Pakistanis reject—that the ISI’s cat-paw relationship with the Taliban is in Pakistan’s interests. It is not. The Taliban pose the most serious threat to the survival and security of the Pakistani state. This fact is dawning on more and more Pakistanis. Yet, it escapes Mr Kaplan. The interests of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex are not quite the same as that of the Pakistani state. Mr Kaplan, however, conflates the two, and, unfortunately, ends up with a conclusion that could not be more wrong.

Actually, the relationship between the military establishment and jihadi groups has gone even beyond that of patron and client. It is now appropriate to consider them a military-jihadi complex. It is this complex that the United States must seek to dismantle. To equate the problem to mere lines of “lines of communications” is laughable.

Related Post: Robert Kaplan misses the plot: his earlier piece arguing that the ISI’s insecurities must be assuaged.

10 thoughts on “Robert Kaplan continues to miss the plot”

  1. Its a very simplistic view by Mr Kaplan. He does not realize the deep relationship between the jihadis and ISI. Also, ISI acts as an entity by itself and suppose the terrorists start gaining more power in Pakistan, what does he think ISI will do for self-preservation: of course, align with the jihadi interests even more.

  2. If you’re aren’t aware, the author oh this piece did a pretty devastating takedown of Kaplan: kh

  3. ISI and Pak Army consider Taliban’s preservation to be in their vital interests, if not Pakistan’s. So you won’t really see them trying to eliminate their Talibuddies.

    Here, listen to the delusional Hamid Gul:


    The worse it gets, the more deeply they’ll cling to the faith.

    You need to understand that Kaplan is writing for The Atlantic Monthly. They all lean toward Europe. And European interests require that the Talibuddies be preserved, in case there’s a need for them in any future wars with Russia.

    Neither Kaplan nor Obama have had to contend with another 9/11 attack on US soil thus far. Once that happens — and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t, given AlQaeda’s irredentism — then all the peaceniks will be scrambling to deny they ever voiced even a single hesitation in the war on terror.

  4. The NYT says that the PakTalibs are making ingress into Punjab:


    Well, since ISI/Army can’t afford to overthrow the govt directly in a coup, because of watchful Uncle Sam, you could say that this willful allowance of Taliban encroachment on Pakistan’s law and order are the ISI/military’s way of having a coup-without-a-coup. They’re trying to turn Pakistan into Schroedinger’s Cat, by putting it into a superposition of 2 states — lawful and unlawful.

    Oh, but the moment that someone in Baluchistan shouts slogans against the govt and demands secession, then Pak will shoot them dead. Interesting disparity there — when they really want to get someone, they’ll spare no effort. But to the Yankees, they’ll make every excuse to justify inaction.

  5. @Sanjay,

    Agree with you. But Atlantic is a US magazine for the US East Coast intellectual crowd: not sure if Europeans even read it.

  6. “To use Mr Kaplan’s analogy, while the US used the “back channels” of the PLO to help evacuate American families from Beirut, the CIA—to our knowledge—does not use Palestinian terrorist groups to carry out terrorist attacks in Jerusalem.”

    I don’t get this analogy. US’s relationship with Israel is different than that of Pakistan’s with India. Apart from a repartee there is little realism in the argument above which rests more on equivalence, something that comes at a discount in policy-making.

  7. Kaplan also says a couple of other things:

    Remember, it wasn’t radicals burrowed deep within the ISI who made the decision to help bring the Taliban to power in the mid-1990s:

    Probably the other way round – Bhutto’s “decision” came after the ISI Afghan bureau had decided to dump Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and prop up the Taliban. Given the power the civilian government has enjoyed in Pakistan, this is a more likely situation unless evidence shows otherwise.

    When they look to the west they envision an “Islamistan” of Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries with which to face off against Hindu-dominated India to Pakistan’s east.

    The fact is none of the countries in “Islamistan” have had a military pact with Pakistan nor did they have historical enmity with India. So not sure how much Pakistan could’ve counted on their help in a “face off against a Hindu-dominated India”. Unless, of course, it wanted to practise regime change in Central Asia – is this what Kaplan suggests?

  8. “Travel, Kaplan has written, “is where we truly meet ourselves.”
    “The bus ride from Tashkent to Samarkand provides some spectacularly rocky and mountainous scenery, but somehow Kaplan(The Ends of the Earth) notices only “high weeds” and an “achingly flat, monochrome landscape.”
    —Euphorias of Perrier

    —A reflection of his inner state of being.

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