An Assessment of Pakistani Interests and Options After bin Laden’s Death
No study of Afghanistan is complete without a thorough examination of its neighbors. Indeed, Afghanistan’s future is held largely in the hands of its nearest neighbor Pakistan. Pakistan is an American ally in the war against terror, or so it claims. Their alliance began in the aftermath of the Second World War as India moved towards the USSR. Pakistan and America turned towards each other, Pakistan for a strong friend and counterweight and America to keep a regional foothold. But whatever its nominal alliances, Pakistan is ultimately driven by existential realist concerns for its survival as a nation directed primarily at its nearest neighbors India and Afghanistan.. Pakistan is quite understandably afraid of India. Since partition in 1947 Pakistan has fought three wars with India. The feud over Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistani ties to terrorist attacks (notably in Mumbai in 2006) often generate fears of another war. India has had nuclear weapons since 1974 and Pakistan since 1998. This only adds to the existential challenge each country poses.
Afghanistan, too, is a threat to Pakistan. In 1947 Afghanistan declared that it did not recognize the Durand Line, its historic eastern border, and announced its intention to reclaim the Northwest Tribal Territories, supported by the USSR. Nothing came of this challenge, and Afghanistan along with India and the USSR opposed Pakistan’s accession to the United Nations in 1947. Apart from its own challenge to Pakistani territorial integrity, Afghanistan has historically shown its potential as a vector for a hostile imperial power. In the 19th century through the Second World War Britain and Russia vied for control of Afghanistan. In the 1979 war with the Soviet Union Pakistan supplied Afghan mujahideen; cared for 3 million refugees, and put its own territory on the line as the United States challenged the USSR for air control. India, Iran, and since 1979 the United States have also ventured into Afghan policy in direct challenge to Pakistani interests.
Pakistan cannot do much about India, a stronger power. It can much better address the Afghan problem. Pakistan’s response to these challenges is to ensure a weak Afghan state that cannot either independently or as a dependent state present a hostile face to Pakistan.
Pakistan’s strategy historically has been to support Islamist groups a vector for Pakistani and Sunni Islamist preferences in Afghanistan and abroad. Acting through the Taliban and other nonstate organizations creates an “umbrella of plausible deniability,” in one ISI official’s words, for the Pakistani state.
It allows Pakistan to pursue its preferences through pressure, coercion, and even violence while also maintaining the façade of a moderate, accommodating democratic state. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are Pakistan’s Afghan nationalist partner, sharing its interest in maintaining a Sunni-dominant, pro-Pakistani state and in ensuring a weak, unstable state if out of power. In India, Lashkar-e-Taiba is the main militant organization needling the Indian tiger. Abroad, al Qaeda, a partner of the Taliban, pursues those same Sunni Islamist goals.
In Afghanistan, Taliban and Pakistani preferences generally run parallel. The Taliban assassinate enemies of Pakistan, such as Ahmed Shah Massoud, a leader for anti-Pakistani and anti-Taliban Tajik militias from Panjshir, in September 2001.
Massoud’s army had been an extremely effective force against the Russian and Afghan Communist forces in the 1979 war and was the first non-Pashtun leader to take Kabul in 1992, fleeing to Panjshir under intense Taliban pressure in 1996. Massoud’s Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras had been gaining in strength in 2001 as a challenge to Taliban rule and Pakistani influence, and even after Massoud’s assassination the Northern Alliance worked with NATO troops to oust the Taliban.
The Taliban actively promote Pashtun supremacy. Since the 1747 founding of the Afghan monarchy, the national leadership has always been Pashtun, considered superior to the Tajik, Hazara, Turkmen, and Uzbek ethnic minorities, all now strongly anti-Pashtun and anti-Pakistani. Pakistan’s non-Pashtun leadership has cultivated a friendly and suggestible Pashtun constituency on both sides of the border.
Giving aid to Pashtun tribes and Pashtun Taliban heightens the power gap between the pro-Pakistani constituency and the anti-Pakistani and anti-Taliban ethnic minorities. It also heightens the animosity. The Taliban have worked tirelessly to inflame these ethnic tensions; upon taking power in 1996 they expelled all non-Pashtuns from government positions on the grounds of ethnic inferiority or, in the case of the Shiite Hazaras, religious heresy.
The Taliban are a vector for Sunni Islamism in direct opposition to Western supremacy and to Iranian Shii Islamism. Gen. Zia stressed Pakistan’s Sunni identity in order to promote Pakistani nationalism. Pakistan also allied with Sunni Saudi Arabia in 1979, becoming a full member of the contest between Saudi Sunni orthodoxy and Khomeini’s revolutionary appeal to all Muslims. Khomeini’s ideology promotes an Iranian-led (thus Shii-led) pan-Islamic revolution and overthrow of the Saudi state as heretical.
This is a challenge not only to Saudi Arabia but to all governments of Muslim-dominant states, and this contest quickly evolved into a rigid Sunni-Shii sectarian divide. The Pakistani state’s promotion of Sunni identity and of Islamism directly encourages Sunni Islamism and al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan in particular, promoting Sunni Islamism fights the Shii and Marxist constituencies, to this day predominantly ethnic minorities.
Pakistan’s support of Islamists in Afghanistan is clearly evidenced from 1975. Throughout the Soviet era Pakistan supplied Pashtun mujahideen, channeling arms from the US, China, and Pakistan itself mostly through Pashtun General Hekmatyar.
Pakistan also organized refugee camps, taking in three million Afghans. From 1992 it supported a full blockade and carpet-bombing of Massoud’s Kabul, supplying rockets and other arms.
In 1994, out of frustration at Hekmatyar’s ineffectiveness, Pakistani Gen. Nasirullah instead sponsored Mullah Omar’s smaller Afghan Pashtun mujahid group, the Taliban. The Taliban took Herat in 1995 and Kabul in 1996 and immediately instituted their brand of Islamism. The Taliban expelled women from all jobs and instituted creative punishments for women and men who broke their literalist shari’a law. They also expelled all non-Pashtuns from government positions and dissolved political parties. The Taliban redesigned Afghanistan’s historical landscape and education system to reflect only Sunni- and Pashtun-dominant pan-Islamism: exactly as taught in the Pakistani schools in which they had been educated.
Yet Pakistan is also challenged by Islamists. Pakistan’s fragmented government seems to not be operating to its advantage, with the military and ISI supporting the Taliban for Pakistan’s foreign goals but the civilian government struggling against terrorist attacks on its own soil. Attacks within Pakistan have doubled since the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 with 40 attacks and 154 deaths in 2008 and 50 attacks and 180 deaths in 2009. This increase has come in light of Pakistan’s first major movement against an Islamist organization, a Pakistani military attack on Lal Masjid madrasa in Islamabad in 2007.
Lal Masjid’s militants had called for the overthrow of the Pakistani government and imposition of Islamic law, sponsoring violent protests, kidnappings, and arson at the Ministry of the Environment.
While Pakistan finds it beneficial to promote Islamist militants abroad, it must also be willing to deal with the domestic consequences.
After the Al Qaeda- and Taliban-sponsored suicide attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the United States pressed Pakistan to turn against the Taliban. Citing such pressure to cause President Pervez Musharraf to fear for the survival of the Pakistani nation, Musharraf pledged to “fight terrorism in all its forms” and to disband two ISI units closest to the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
At the same time as Musharraf was on the hot seat for support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, he was also holding the very hot potato of Kashmir, inflamed by Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks there and a large military buildup on both sides of the contested province.
Unable to face up to both nations, Musharraf bowed to American pressure on the Taliban – and was “awarded” a concomitant relaxation of American pressure on Kashmir and nuclear nonproliferation. By early 2002 Pakistan had detained 1500 people linked to Islamist groups, and sanctioned American cross-border strikes targeting Taliban and al Qaeda. Islamist attacks continued, of course, throughout the decade, though with a varying level of direct state support. Since the presidency of Musharraf ended, Pakistan has split into a three-headed beast. The civilian government is in favor of modernization, development, and stability, and has led the opposition to domestic terrorists. The ISI, a historically anti-American unit, is concerned with maintaining power, hurting enemies, and supporting its Islamist partners which reach where the ISI cannot. The military seems to be caught between these, nominally controlling the ISI but also carrying out security operations within Pakistan against Islamist groups.
Pakistan has kept investigations into regional Islamist attacks at a snail’s pace, notably the November 2006 attacks in Mumbai by Lashkar-e-Taiba.
In 2006, however, the military was also cracking down on the organization.
In April 2011 Musharraf’s successor as head of the armed forces, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, vehemently demanded that America reduce CIA and Special Forces operations in Pakistan. Echoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s demands, Kayani acknowledged that US strikes eliminated Taliban but condemned the deaths of civilians and Pashtun tribal leaders allied with the Pakistani government.
The ISI has challenged CIA operations by leaking names of chief operatives.
Pakistan’s brazenness in continuing to support Islamist groups and in taking a hard line against its own ally and patron is likely inspired by its confidence that it is an ally too important to lose, based on its status as the sole route to Afghanistan and its nuclear deterrent.
The May 1, 2011 American raid on Osama bin Laden’s safehouse in Abbottabad – minutes away from a Pakistani military base – and death of bin Laden has only inspired greater professions of American outrage and Pakistani blustering. As of this writing American officials yet hesitate to openly accuse Pakistan of officially aiding bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. “We think that there had to be some sort of support network for Bin Laden inside of Pakistan,” President Barack Obama said. “But we don’t know who or what that support network was. We don’t know whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government, and that’s something that we have to investigate, and more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate.”
By not directly accusing the Pakistani government and not forcing its hand (yet), Obama encouraged its willing cooperation and expressed a respect for its sovereignty. Yet essential to the mission, Obama said, was preparedness to fight Pakistani police and military units to complete the mission.
“Some people may have assumed we could talk our way out a jam, but given our difficult relationship with Pakistan right now, the president did not want to leave anything to chance,” an official said.
This indicates a willingness to risk armed conflict with Pakistan and to force a confrontation of governments, although American officials surely breathed a sigh of relief that this has not yet happened. “I don’t want to see us take any steps that jeopardize the progress we’ve made,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters after the operation.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani, however, condemned the US violation of Pakistani sovereignty and the US accusations of the ISI being “in cahoots” with bin Laden. The ISI has also leaked the name of the Islamabad CIA station chief, another blow to American operations and a show of Pakistani leverage.
Americans, too, have tried to express leverage over Pakistan, ominously citing the intelligence they recovered from bin Laden’s safehouse and releasing four videos as evidence.
American pressure on Pakistan to disavow the Taliban; to allow American strikes against the Taliban; and to ensure accountability of these efforts is only increasing in the wake of bin Laden’s death. America has a very strong preference to move strongly against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other Islamist and terrorist networks. At question is whether its interest in keeping Pakistan as an ally is as important. Maintaining an alliance, however tenuous, would allow the United States to keep tabs on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal – an essential policy in light of the Pakistani-Indian contest and in light of Pakistan’s tenuous internal security. It would allow the United States to maintain some level of pressure on Pakistan on its support for Islamist groups, on human rights and democracy, and on compliance with international law. It would also give the United States some cover for its drone strikes in Western Pakistan.
Congressional leaders have indicated that they will give Pakistan the benefit of the doubt, for now at least, and that $3 billion annual Congressional aid will continue through 2012 regardless of White House negotiations.
“We both benefit from having a strong bilateral relationship, and I think we need to use this moment to strengthen the ties between our two countries,” Speaker John Boehner said. “This is not a time to back away from Pakistan.”
Pakistan is now presented with a rather immediate choice: to continue to support the Taliban militarily or to break with the network. Continuing to support the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba in the interest of maintaining its capacities in Afghanistan, India, and abroad would lead to an eventual break with the US, likely within months if the US does not change policy either. Pakistan would then move closer to China, a longtime military and nuclear supplier and regional ally against India and American pressures.
Unlike the US, China supported Pakistan in its three wars against India and is not likely to pressure Pakistan on nuclear nonproliferation, democracy, or human rights. After bin Laden’s death, a Chinese spokeswoman lauded Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts and affirmed their partnership. “China will continuously and firmly support Pakistan to lay out and implement antiterror strategies based on its own domestic situation,”she said.
“We are satisfied with the status quo of our bilateral relations and we are full of confidence in the prospects of China-Pakistan relations.”
China does have reason to be wary of closer ties with Pakistan, especially if Pakistan allies with the Taliban’s cause. A closer alliance would damage China’s detente with the US and with India, a more powerful and reliably stable regional player than Pakistan. It may also, in Chinese eyes, promote the cause of Muslim Uighur separatists – and China has no interest in a volatile al Qaeda either.
Worse, continued Pakistani support of the Taliban will lead to resurgent violence in Afghanistan. The reinvigoration of Pakistani support and of the Taliban caused by a clear break with the US would give the Taliban more power in a push against Karzai’s government – and would also inspire those Afghans already anti-American to support the Taliban against the Americans, as only 10% of the population (25% of Pashtuns) currently does.
While the Taliban are key to Pakistani regional goals, the promotion of chaos in Afghanistan also promotes violence within Pakistan, which the Pakistani government has strongly combated.
Though the US would almost certainly fight harder in Afghanistan and in Pakistan if Pakistan moves closer to the Taliban, the US would be wary if China steps into the picture.
Pakistan has an alternative route to maintaining control over Afghan affairs. Breaking with the Taliban does not imply that Pakistan must abandon its interests in Afghanistan or abroad. Pakistan may continue to pursue its policy of control over a weak Afghan state by supporting the Taliban as a civil and political organization but deterring its violent militant edge. Pakistan could choose to promote reconciliation of the Taliban in Afghanistan and west Pakistan by courting disaffected tribes and promoting peace and economic growth in villages. Anger at the Pakistani and Afghan governments for not providing crucial infrastructure or economic support, coupled with anger at civilian deaths, has been the key factor in villages’ decisions to support the local Taliban. A credible promise of aid and protection from Afghan, Pakistani, and American military units has shown to have a substantial effect in winning over villages.
At the administrative level, too, Pakistan can promote reconciliation of the Taliban into government partnership in Afghanistan. Separating from its most violent elements and allies – first and foremost al Qaeda – and accepting a new role as a sort of warlord coalition representing Pashtunistan, the Taliban can find a more peaceful role in Afghanistan.
Indeed, Pakistan seems to be tending towards this option and has been pushing strongly for talks since March 2011 at least. Pakistan has directly requested that at least one Taliban ally, the Haqqani network, find a share of government power in Afghanistan. It has encouraged the Afghan government to draw closer to China and to the Pakistani government. “There was a mention of China in the meeting, China as a country, as an emerging economic power, and that maybe we should reach out to a new global economic power,” an Afghan official said after an April 2011 meeting between President Karzai and PM Gilani. “They said that the goals of the United States are confusing and uncertain, the American force is not reliable, and their power is not a reliable power.” Pakistan has also offered to train Afghan troops.
This is disturbingly reminiscent of the overtures made by British and Russian “allies” of Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries, persuading the Afghan government that each was respectively a reliable, supportive ally and offering to train and supply the ANA. Evolving into a patron state over a relatively calm Afghanistan just as Britain and Russia did is Pakistan’s best option.
The Taliban and al Qaeda are also likely ready for a shift in strategy. They have been considerably weakened by extreme American military pressure and unreliable support from the Afghan populace and Pakistani government. Additionally, according to American Gen. David Petraeus, bin Laden’s death may make it easier for the Taliban to renounce al-Qaeda, as he argues that the link between the two organizations was primarily between Mullah Omar and bin Laden.
While American force levels remain high in Pakistan, they have an excellent chance to supervise the Taliban and oversee any power changes.
The Afghan and Pakistani governments, also under extreme pressure from the US and now from India to produce change, may be seriously considering a change in their approach towards each other and towards the Taliban.
The Afghan government remains wary of Pakistan’s interest in destabilizing Afghanistan and its support for the Taliban. In the interest of domestic and regional peace, the Afghan government must accept a protectorate status ensured by Pakistan and either the United States or China. Pakistan must reconcile its civilian, military, and ISI actors to a policy of defusing the Taliban. The United States must facilitate this process. In March 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a clear step in that direction, setting aside preconditions and renaming a Taliban truce, embrace of the Afghan Constitution, and disavowal of al Qaeda as goals.
But even these may prove overambitious. The Afghan Constitution will likely change with a Taliban position in power, and laying down arms and disavowing al Qaeda will be a gradual process and hard to verify. The process requires trust and patience on all sides. It is certainly more difficult than simply resorting to missiles as the Americans and Pakistanis have tended to do, but it is the best option to ensure Pakistani preferences and promote regional peace.
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It turns out that Bruce Riedel makes a very similar argument on today’s Daily Beast at http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-05-08/pakistans-army-at-war-with-al-qaeda-and-in-bed-with-it/