Should the U.S. Deem Pakistan a State Sponsor of Terrorism?

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An Afghan man holds a picture of slain former Afghan president and head of the government's peace council, Burhanuddin Rabbani, during a protest in Kabul September 27, 2011. (Photo: Ahmad Masood / Reuters)

It seems not a week goes by without more accusations heaped upon Pakistan’s controversial military intelligence agency, the ISI. The shadowy agency, seen by many as an enabler and tacit ally of militant extremists and terrorist groups in South Asia, had just been in headlines following a Taliban assault on the U.S. embassy and other Afghan ministerial buildings in Kabul. In a provocative move, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, pointed the finger directly at the ISI. Despite vociferous Pakistani denials, the mud has started to stick.

The latest charge now comes from Kabul: on Friday, the Afghan government declared that the suicide bomber who assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former President and the chief peace negotiator with the Taliban, was a Pakistani, and presented evidence to Islamabad of purported ISI connivance. The Pakistanis dismissed the allegations, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai pressed forward, suggesting publicly what many have known for a long time — that any peace settlement with the Afghan Taliban must involve direct talks with their handlers and supporters among the Pakistani military. The Guardian reports:

“I cannot find Mullah Mohammad Omar,” Karzai said, referring to the Taliban’s one-eyed leader. “Where is he? I cannot find the Taliban council. Where is it? I don’t have any other answer except to say that the other side for this negotiation is Pakistan.”

(READ: The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani — an end to reconciliation?)

Predictably, the Pakistanis have yet again rebuffed the claims, describing them as “baseless” and “irresponsible.” Whatever the case, it still’s clear — as we’ve written here, seemingly ad nauseum — that the Pakistanis continue to maintain links with a host of militant factions based on Pakistani soil in order to preserve their “strategic depth” in the region. For almost two decades, the Taliban have served as Islamabad’s proxy in Afghanistan in a geo-political chess match with competing U.S., Iranian and Indian agendas. Though diplomats and observers have known for many years the fundamental differences between U.S. and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan, these obvious divisions only started to become genuinely public following the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s conspicuous hideout under the nose of some of Pakistan’s top generals.

Writing in the World Policy Journal, retired U.S. diplomat Peter Tomsen offers a pretty brutal take on Pakistan’s role in abetting the Afghan Taliban. As a special envoy first to Afghanistan’s mujahidin fighting the Soviets, and then the rebel Northern alliance warring against an ascendant Taliban in the 1990s, Tomsen witnessed the perpetual presence of the Pakistani military, operating in tandem with the Taliban. During one Taliban offensive in 2001, not long before 9/11, a Northern Alliance commander told Tomsen that his forces were up against some “25,000 Pakistani army soldiers and Pakistani religious students… alongside a horde of Taliban fighters, Osama bin Laden’s two Arab brigades, and 300 Uzbek militants.”

Sure, in years since, Islamabad has made a real effort toward combatting the jihadists in its midst — many of whom wreak more havoc within Pakistan’s borders than beyond them. But there’s a growing consensus that only direct confrontation with Pakistan can alter the perilous course currently being furrowed in Afghanistan. Tomsen says the Taliban’s recent advances “look distressingly like the 1990s,” when ISI-backed forces swept from Afghanistan’s southern Pashtun belt to seize hold of the country. He offers this bullish advice:

For its part, the United States should not be timid about publicly discussing the ISI’s record of sponsoring terrorist networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani and Afghan networks that the ISI created in the late 1980s and the 1990s and have fostered inside Pakistan are the main source of the Islamist terrorism ripping apart Afghanistan and threatening the United States and its allies. Three ISI connected Pakistani religio-terrorist organizations—Lashkar-i Taiba, Jaish-i Mohammad and Harakat ul Mujahidin—are on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The three ISI-supported Afghan terrorist groups keeping Afghanistan in a state of continuous war are the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar plus the Haqqani and Hekmatyar fronts. They are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on the Afghan-Pakistani border with the Afghan Taliban in northwest Pakistan, the Haqqani network in the central sector, and the Hekmatyar group in far northeastern Pakistan. Despite the killing of thousands of U.S.-led coalition troops, foreign aid workers attempting to reconstruct Afghanistan, as well as Afghan security personnel and civilians, Washington has still not designated these three Afghan terrorist groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Long overdue and mandated by U.S. law, this action should be taken immediately.

Tomsen goes on to stress that the same tired approach of mixed messaging and high-profile summitry with counterparts in Pakistan has got U.S. officials nowhere and that Washington should not underestimate the leverage it has over the Pakistanis. Pakistan may invoke the China card, but the Sino-Pakistani relationship is bound by thin thread and the U.S., Tomsen suggests, should call their bluff. He suggests severing aid to Pakistan and even presenting Islamabad in the U.N. Security Council as a regime that sponsors terrorism. From Tomsen’s perspective, nobody from the Taliban, including those in the notorious Haqqani network, should be allowed a place at the table in any future Afghan coalition government. “They are poison pills that have destroyed past Afghan peace efforts,” he says.

And therein lies the rub, for it’s impossible to imagine peace in Afghanistan — especially as the U.S. prepares to withdraw by 2014 — without some negotiated accommodation with the Taliban. Nor is it possible to imagine the U.S. right now risking such diplomatic brinkmanship with the Pakistanis. But, as the steady drumbeat of attacks continues with little real cooperation from the Pakistanis in sight, something will have to give.

MORE: Does Pakistan really want a stable Afghanistan? 

Ishaan Tharoor is a writer for TIME and editor of Global Spin. You can find him on Twitter at ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.