The killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president who led the High Peace Council, illustrates all too well the tremendous obstacles to a meaningful reconciliation among Afghanistan's various factions. Before his death on September 20 at the hands of a man who claimed to be an emissary of the Quetta Shura, Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, had been in charge of reconciliation efforts with Taliban insurgents. His appointment had apparently been meant as a way to pull the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance into the peace process. The jury is still out on exactly who ordered the killing -- the Taliban first claimed and then denied involvement -- but its implications are clear. Rabbani's assassination, the latest in a systematic campaign of targeted killings of high-profile anti-Taliban Afghan leaders, has increased the chance that tensions among the Northern Alliance, the Taliban, and other Islamist Pashtun groups could devolve into all-out war.

The beneficiary of this uncertainty is the region's primary spoiler: the Pakistani military. Although its generals have received billions of dollars in U.S. aid since 9/11 to combat terrorism, they have consistently done everything in their power to bolster it. They selectively cooperate with the United States, apprehending al Qaeda militants and fighting the Pakistani Taliban insurgents -- which also threaten the Pakistani military -- while sheltering and supporting other radical extremists, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, which spearhead the deadly cross-border insurgency in Afghanistan.

The United States has had hard evidence of the Inter-Service Intelligence's double game for some time. For example, the George W. Bush administration reportedly intercepted communications between the ISI and Haqqani operatives who perpetrated the 2006 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. But in this and several other cases, the United States chose to look the other way, because it needed ISI cooperation in the fight against al Qaeda. In addition, the United States continues to rely on Pakistan's land routes to supply its troops in Afghanistan.

It took a direct terrorist hit on the U.S. mission in Kabul for Washington to read the riot act to Pakistan's generals. In the most direct and daring official U.S. indictment of the Pakistani military to date, Admiral Michael Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States had "credible evidence" that the September 10 truck bombing of a U.S. military base in Wardak province and the September 13 terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul were carried out by the Haqqani network with the ISI's active collusion.

If Mullen is right, the ISI is extending its Afghan proxy war against India to target the United States. The reckless escalation is likely intended to demonstrate to Washington that nothing is off-limits to Pakistan's Afghan surrogates, and it may even be designed to push Washington to rethink its involvement in helping India expand its presence in Kabul. Pakistan's military believes, somewhat plausibly, that India has used U.S. military cover to increase its intelligence assets on Pakistan's western border, which would allow New Delhi to foment insurgency in Pakistan's resource-rich province of Baluchistan. The generals are also alarmed by New Delhi's deployment into Afghanistan of its mountain-trained Indo-Tibetan police force, mainly to protect the personnel of the semi-military Border Roads Organization (BRO), which has a role in  developing Afghanistan's infrastructure. One project is a strategic highway linking Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar, which will reduce the landlocked country's dependence on Pakistani land routes.

The ISI-led attack also conveys the agency's intent and capacity to use insurgents to spoil any peace process that excludes Pakistan. The country no doubt has a legitimate stake in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan to its west, and it, along with other regional states, should be part of any reconciliation process. But its military covets a seat at the head table in any peace negotiation so that it can veto any outcome that threatens its expansive national security interests in the region. Ideally, the military would like Afghanistan to become a relatively stable satellite dominated by Islamist Pashtuns, which are much less likely than more secular Pashtuns to make irredentist claims on Pakistan's own Pashtun regions, or bow to Indian influence. The military's worst-case scenario would be an Afghanistan controlled or dominated by groups with ties to India, such as the Northern Alliance, which it fears would permit New Delhi to continue activities that are hostile to Pakistan even after the United States leaves the region.

But in the process of pursuing strategic depth, the military has run Pakistan into the ground. As Mullen rightly noted, exporting violent extremism has eroded the country's external credibility, undermined its internal coherence, and threatened its economic future. But for Pakistan's overfed, unrestrained, and irresponsible generals, it seems that the perceived benefits of nurturing violent extremist groups are still much higher than the costs. And indeed, in real terms, those costs have been much lower than they might have been. The United States has typically appeased the Pakistani military when it should have held it accountable. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, for example, the Obama administration certified to Congress in March that Pakistan's security and intelligence agencies were earnestly combating terrorism and refraining from political meddling -- two key conditions attached to U.S. security aid to Pakistan under the 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act. The administration rewarded bad behavior and got more of the same.

As Obama mulls over future policy options in Pakistan, he will find no easy answers. Still, neither the White House nor Congress should abandon Pakistani and Afghan civilians by letting the Pakistani military (literally) get away with murder. As I argued in "Time to Get Serious with Pakistan," as difficult as it might be to conceive of a long-term U.S. engagement with Pakistan right now, extremists are less likely to find easy refuge in a globally integrated, democratic, and prosperous Pakistan. Moreover, the stronger Pakistan's democratic institutions become, the less room the Pakistani military and the ISI will have to maneuver -- even if that change is slow and incremental. Hence, the United States should provide Pakistanis with more economic and trade-related opportunities and help strengthen Pakistan's civilian political institutions by meaningfully engaging them.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate recently decided to link all aid to Pakistan -- including civilian economic assistance -- to the Pakistani military's cooperation against militant groups. Rather than imposing blanket aid cutoffs, the United States should consistently identify and publicly chastise the Pakistani military for its support of terrorists, routinely enforce security aid conditionality, and credibly threaten the military's high command with targeted sanctions if it continues to pursue reckless policies that undermine U.S. counterterrorism efforts and imperil nuclear-armed Pakistan's own stability. Otherwise, Mullen's recent tough talk is sound and fury, signifying nothing. 

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  • AQIL SHAH is an expert on Pakistan's civil-military relations and regional security dynamics in South Asia based at the Harvard Society of Fellows
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