Sustaining a Pariah State: Pakistan’s Ignominious Alliance in Afghanistan

Commentary, Government, Anil Anand

The United Nations (UN) was born out of an idea for creating a society of nations, a global community, a brotherhood of nations built on a set of higher ideals. These ideals would give rise to a global village with accountability to each other, including social responsibility for the collective good of all and sanctions for those who would not live up to this contract. The notion of integrity implies a commitment to consistency, to ethical conformity, to reliability.  

The contract has been breached hundreds, if not thousands, of times since the UN’s inception. Countries have fractured, failed, and even ceased to exist. Conflict among nations has not diminished; the frequency of conflict following the UN’s founding is similar to the trend in conflict during the 70 years preceding the UN.

Among the greatest failures contributing to this unfortunate record has been the inability of the Security Council, and by default the UN, to contain seemingly unending foreign intervention in Afghanistan. By any standards, Afghanistan has been the realm of a series of proxy wars—British imperialism and Soviet intervention followed by the United States. 

We are witnessing another failure—the Taliban have re-emerged in the void created by the U.S. and its allies, a void that will evoke the horrors of an extremist ideology. Despite political spin, this ideology outlasted our own fractured and misaligned occupation. The popular justification is that Osama bin Laden was found and eliminated and Afghanistan is no longer at risk of being a base for terrorist acts against the U.S. or its allies. If these were the war’s sole goals, it should have ended decades ago, so why the continued presence that has cost allied forces thousands of lives and billions of dollars?

It is simply disingenuous to suggest that the U.S. is withdrawing now because it has accomplished its two primary goals. In fact, it has also given up on the task of shoring up Afghanistan against the medieval horrors of the Taliban’s Islamic ideology. The U.S. has given up on instilling any lasting foundations for human rights, the protection of women and children, mitigating an Afghanistan macro-economy that has been a source of funding for the Taliban, or bringing Afghanistan into the international community.

The U.S. has remained in Afghanistan for far broader and complex reasons. The Soviet Union spent 10 years in Afghanistan because of its strategic location—as the corridor to Iran, Pakistan, and India, and to counter Russian influence in the region. The U.S. openly backed the Taliban against the Soviet Union and then spent the next 20 years fighting the Taliban in favour of a more moderate, democratic government. Pakistan has been an instrument of American policy for containing and removing the Soviets from Afghanistan and now for containing the Chinese.

China has not been idle in the conflict. It too has been adeptly positioning agreements with the Afghan government and the Taliban for future influence and access to the bounty of mineral resources, and the same strategic interests valued by Britain, the Soviet Union, and the U.S. Afghanistan is also a pathway for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its String of Pearls policy.

Two other players with strategic interests have entered the scene—India and Pakistan. For India, despite becoming increasingly Islamophobic, Afghanistan is a counter-force on Pakistan’s eastern flank. Pakistan’s continued engagement along its eastern flank detracts from India’s ability to concentrate on issues in Jammu and Kashmir. The two have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947, and have been engaged in an arms race with the greatest danger of leading to a nuclear confrontation. Pakistan has also allied with China—both China and Pakistan share border disputes that have become increasingly confrontational with India. 

Pakistan has allied itself, at least rhetorically, with the U.S. in its war in Afghanistan and on terrorism. The alliance is obviously duplicitous—the Pakistani military intelligence service (ISI) has been the Taliban’s strongest and most valued ally. While Pakistan was allegedly cooperating with U.S. forces, providing forward access to Afghanistan, the U.S. was also conducting covert targeted killing operations against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other associated forces located in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Taliban’s attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan and its links to global terrorist networks based in Pakistan lead many in the U.S. to question Islamabad’s commitment to fighting the global war on terrorism. 

Pakistan has relied on violent extremists to accomplish its strategic objectives in both Afghanistan and India. Although Pakistan’s elected leaders convey a desire to turn Pakistan into a moderate and modern Islamic state, its military has not only suppressed democratization, it also has done little to make the country unwelcoming for individuals and groups suspected or known to have engaged in international acts of terrorism.

In 2021, Pakistan’s supreme court released Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man responsible for the kidnapping and gruesome murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, a decision the White House called an “affront to terrorism victims everywhere.” This was not Sheikh’s first involvement with terrorism. Educated in the U.K. and a graduate of the London School of Economics, he was imprisoned in India in 1994 for his involvement in the kidnapping of Western tourists. Indian authorities freed Sheikh in 1999 in exchange for the release of 150 passengers after Pakistani militants hijacked Indian Airlines flight 814 in Kathmandu and diverted it to Kandahar.  

In 2011, Adm. Mike Mullen, America’s most senior military officer at the time, testified before U.S. senators that the jihadist militant Haqqani network had planned and conducted the recent assault on the U.S. embassy in Kabul with ISI’s help. That was the same year bin Laden was found hiding at his compound near Islamabad, not far from a Pakistani military base.

On February 12, 2020, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the founder of the jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba and mastermind of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai that killed 166 people, was arrested on charges of financing terrorist activities. This, after he had been released in 2015 for his involvement in the Mumbai attacks. The re-arrest came just days before the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) was set to determine whether Pakistan should be sanctioned for its lax control over terrorist activities. Pakistan remains on FATF’s “grey list” for its lack of co-operation in the global fight against terrorism. Lakhvi’s arrest, release, re-arrest, intermittent charges, and acquittals have been part of Pakistan’s dance with jihadism. 

The Pakistani-American, David Coleman Headley, who helped plan the Mumbai attack, has testified in court about the Pakistani spy agency’s involvement in planning, preparing, and executing the attacks, and its sponsorship and support of Lashkar-e-Taiba.

A 2021 report by Michael Rubin in The National Interest sums up Pakistan’s duplicitous alliance succinctly:

The real problem, however, is not Afghanistan but rather its neighbour, Pakistan. Simply put, if Pakistan had not taken the decision to support, co-opt, and control the Taliban, Afghanistan would never be in such a dire situation. The majority of Taliban car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) use precursor chemicals that come from two fertilizer plants in Pakistan. While conducting research for a history of US diplomacy with rogue regimes and terror groups, I interviewed a number of Pakistani officials about the Taliban. One former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency acknowledged to me over tea in the Islamabad Club that Pakistan was playing both sides of the issue—supporting the Taliban insurgency while then charging the United States extortionate fees so that the Pentagon could resupply its forces. From the ISI’s standpoint, it was like hitting the jackpot. Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has given Pakistan almost $23 billion in security assistance and Coalition Support Funds.

Former Canadian politician and diplomat Chris Alexander has been vocal in accusing Pakistan of being complicit in “proxy war and war crimes” and engaging in an “act of aggression” against neighbouring Afghanistan. Alexander went further than anyone when he tweeted a message including a photograph of Taliban fighters on the Pakistan side of the border: “Taliban fighters waiting to cross the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan…anyone still denying that Pakistan is engaged in an ‘act of aggression’ against Afghanistan is complicit in proxy war and war crimes.”

Alexander is absolutely right that our ignoring Pakistan’s duplicitous proxy war makes us complicit—the evidence and track record are so overwhelming that complicity is an appropriate term. The rise of radical extremism to prominence under the protection or willful blindness of the Pakistani military is now a matter of record. Many more terrorist incidents and groups can be linked to the patronage they have received from the Pakistan army and the use of these groups as instruments of Pakistan’s domestic as well as foreign policy. 

Pakistan has nurtured growing social extremism, sustained radical Islamist groups, used terror as an instrument of state policy in Kashmir, continued meddling in Afghanistan and even provided nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea—each action in conflict with international norms and in opposition to Western interests. Pakistan is one of the world’s most anti-American countries, and by extension anti-West; a 2012 Pew survey found that as many as three in four Pakistanis (74 percent) consider the U.S. an enemy.

Even within Pakistan various factions of the Taliban have instigated massacres in schools, mosques, and churches. In March 2016, the Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb at an Easter celebration in Lahore that killed 60 and injured 300. 

Alexander’s courage is unique, transparent, and genuine—his is the only honest voice among the cacophony attempting to deflect blame, retro-justify, and obfuscate why thousands of Afghans are being flung back into the Dark Ages.   

The Economic Times notes that the new Taliban regime will depend quite heavily on neighbouring Pakistan. It will count on Pakistan to do the diplomatic heavy lifting to gain international legitimacy, to keep the borders open for goods and essentials to pass, and to get access to Pakistani port cities where feasible, besides all the other help that a pariah regime needs to build its acceptance. 

Any response to the Taliban takeover of Kabul, and the atrocities and human rights violations that will soon follow must include Pakistan’s unopposed state sponsorship of terrorism. Pakistan is now confirmed as the world’s foremost exporter of jihadism. There is clear, undeniable, and substantial evidence that the Pakistani government is involved in sponsoring terrorism. It is time for the UN to sanction Pakistan for what it is—a state sponsor of terrorism. Pakistan must be held to account for undermining democracy in Afghanistan.

 

Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by Farid Ershad on Unsplash .