The buzz being generated by an LSE discussion paper is truly electric. The paper itself is rather unremarkable, alleging long-alleged, long-acknowledged, and long-standing links between Pakistani intelligence and the Kandahari Taliban (those Taliban associated with Mullah Omar and the original extremist political movement that rose in the Afghanistan of the 1990s). What is remarkable however is the vigor and confidence with which the author uses already established theories and facts to libel the president of Pakistan.
Matt Waldman, the Carr Center fellow who wrote the report claims to have interviewed 54 different people, out of which at least nine are Taliban field commanders in Afghanistan, ten are former Taliban government officials, twenty-two are Afghan "elders", and thirteen are foreign diplomats, analysts and experts. In a report that is essentially about Pakistan, Waldman must be the world's unluckiest researcher, having been unable to interview a single one of Pakistan's more than 180 million people. Waldman is at least honest about this, claiming no conversations with Pakistani officials, military officers, or indeed, any ISI agents. Not having spoken to an ISI agent is an aspect of the report that stands out. Because, if there is one thing Waldman's research really tries to prove, it is that the easiest thing to find in Afghanistan, other than finely-cut heroin, are ISI agents.
Remarkably, not a single one of the 54 honest and endearing protagonists in Matt Waldman's story wanted to be cited by name, or go on the record. In the footnote detailing who the nine Taliban field commanders are, he offers no details, stating that "Due to safety concerns each commander insisted on anonymity". This is terribly confusing. Waldman's Taliban commanders don't seem to have any particular safety concerns when blowing up and killing Gen Stanley McChrystal's JSOC boys while they are on patrol in Helmand. But an LSE report with their names in it scares the jihad right out of them?
Of course, Waldman is not the first to ravage Pakistan's policy of supporting religiously-motivated armed groups that support Pakistan's foreign policy objectives through terrorism. Pakistanis and foreigners have both advocated for years about the inherent risks of a strategy that creates monsters than have no pause, or stand-by button. Most of us have based our critique of this approach of using proxy warriors, whether Kashmiri, or Afghan, or Pakistani, on the very real damage they do to Pakistan itself, to the moral case they claim to espouse, to the establishment of a fledgling democracy, and to the prospects for prosperity and peace across the entire region. Matt Waldman tries with his paper to join a long and distinguished list of critics of Pakistani proxy warfare, not with substantial critique, but with rehashed polemics about the inherent evil of Pakistan's flawed national security paradigm.
Waldman is also not the first to draw conclusions from circumstantial facts. Since at least late 2007, Pakistani hypernationalists have been propagating the ideas that the TTP is an externally-funded terrorist coalition. Where else could the TTP possibly get its money, these war-loving, hypernationalists often ask? Waldman does one better. He collates press reports and analysis about the different sources of the Afghan Taliban's income (none of which mention Pakistan, or the ISI) and then asks the same question that Pakistani hypernationalists ask. "How could all this happen without 'external' support?" Of course it can't, according to Waldman's Zaid Hamid-esque logic. Waldman's answer to everything is the ISI.
This too, of course, is hardly novel. Until 2007, even President Karzai spared no occasion to depict Afghanistan as a victim of the ISI. Who can forget Karzai's dramatic performance from December 2006, when Karzai made a famous tearful appeal for an end to Pakistan's "murder of Afghan children"? Though Karzai seems to have found something agreeable about President Zardari and the post-2008 election Pakistan, other frontline Northern Alliance bosses continue to blame Pakistan for everything. Corruption, the drug-trade, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. All come from Pakistan. And everything from Pakistan, of course, is produced in a laboratory by the ISI.
Essentially, Waldman's report restates old allegations and sexes them up. It is really old wine, in a shiny new bottle. There is however one quite spectacularly novel thing about this report. It is a libelous and malicious attack on Pakistani democracy, beginning right at the top, with the President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari.
Waldman doesn't libel President Zardari accidentally. By including his wild allegation of Zardari's meetings with Taliban jailbirds in his abstract, he loudly proclaims that slurring Zardari, and by extension the Pakistani people, is part of the objective of the report. He states that, "President Zardari and a senior ISI official visited some 50 high-ranking Talibs who were held in a prison in a secret location in Pakistan". He then describes how Zardari assured the arrested Taliban of his support, and their subsequent release in keeping with those assurances. The report's allegations about President Zardari's meetings with the Taliban leaders are derived from a single, unnamed, low- to mid-level Taliban field commander operating in Afghanistan. Any person with a pulse will be able to discern how ridiculous and malicious this allegation is. Yet by the time folks have a chance to consider its qualifications the damage will have been done.
What makes Waldman's attack on Zardari particularly toxic is that it serves no purpose other than to paint the last decent thing about Pakistan in Westerners' eyes--Pakistani democracy--with the same colour as everything else here has been painted. That is immeasurably lethal, and its collateral damage is not just political, but economic too. Denials of the report's claims from Farahnaz Ispahani, Farhatullah Babar and Gen Athar Abbas don't go nearly far enough in countering Waldman's defamatory work.
Pakistan's national security paradigm deserves to be discussed, dissected, and deconstructed by Pakistanis and friends of Pakistan that wish this country a more secure future. This country has been an insecure, fidgety, spasmodic, neurotic, and obsessive-compulsive neighbour. Pakistan's military needs to be held to account for the money it spends, and the decisions it takes, by Pakistan's elected representatives. Pakistan's intelligence agencies have spent far too much blood and treasure trying to manipulate the hearts and minds of people, in Pakistan, and abroad into wars that are unwinnable, unloseable, and unendable. They should be reigned in and become more focused on protecting the life and property of Pakistanis.
When informed commentators, whether they are Pakistani, or not, write about Pakistan's problems, good sense must prevail. Freedom of speech does not only apply to journalism, but to academic discourse too. Pakistanis should embrace the critical lens that is being placed on their country. Clearly, we have failed ourselves. It cannot hurt to have some help in understanding the mess we've created. Honest critical analysis of Pakistan should be welcomed.
The difference between critical analysis and malicious slander however is quite stark. By deliberately targeting President Asif Ali Zardari, Matt Waldman has not simply bad-mouthed Mr Zardari. What Waldman has done is much worse. He has slandered the symbol of the Pakistani federation. One can't be anything but certain that President Zardari has never visited Taliban leaders in jail. If that is a certainty, then so must be a lawsuit. Accusing the Pakistani president of meeting with international outlaws, to offer them his support is outrageous, and is designed to injure Pakistan. It must be resisted with the full power of Pakistan's substantial legal human resources in courts of law in the United Kingdom. There is a big difference between accusing clandestine services of behaving badly and accusing the president of a country of aiding and abetting international outlaws. Without legal liability to deter it, this blurring of lines will become epidemic. Matt Waldman needs to be sued for libeling the President of Pakistan.
The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy.