Pakistan is on a roll. Over a span of 10 days, terrorists trained on its soil have managed to attack and kill India’s hardened counter-terrorism soldiers in Kashmir at Handwara. The country has also managed to cause the assassination of Sardar Muhammed Arif Wazir, leader of an entirely peaceful group demanding Pashtun rights. Even more recently, its murderous protèges were accused of a heinous attack at a maternity ward in Afghanistan, killing newborns. Few other countries can aspire to touch such heights of brazen sub-conventional war, without having a tonne of sanctions thrust on them.
Iran, North Korea are lesser mortals
Now, consider this. Iran has been described as the “world’s worst sponsor of terrorism”, with US President Donald Trump designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity in April 2019. That’s the first time that a government body has been designated a terrorist entity. Yet, as analysts point out, Shia terrorism has never found a place in the Annual Reports on Terrorism issued by the State Department in the last 20 years. Iran is certainly prone to go out and kill its adversaries, but its operations are a pale shadow of what Islamabad can achieve on a reasonable day.
Then there is the perpetual bad boy, North Korea, which was re-designated as a terrorist sponsor in 2017. That was more to do with the politics of the Trump administration. Though the North Korean regime does prefer to wipe out dissidents, it is incapable of sustaining a virtual army in one country and 20 years of terrorist activities in another, the way Pakistan has.
The Taliban is an army that depends on Pakistan for shelter, banking, medical care and money, among other things. In the Afghan conflict, 20,260 civilians have been killed or injured between 2009 and March 2020, according to UNAMA‘s conservative estimates. That doesn’t take into account the preceding ten years of war, which may be assumed to have killed a similar number of civilians. Total casualties (both civilian and military) in Kashmir have been estimated to be around 41,000 till 2017. Add to that about another 855 killed since then. In total, Pakistan has been directly or indirectly responsible for more than one lakh deaths since 1990. Yet, Iran remains at the top of the charts for spreading terror.
How Pakistan has gotten away with this for decades is a question that has puzzled even the best of security experts. Barring the single threat post 9/11 to ‘bomb Pakistan back into the stone age’ the US seems to have shied away from even limited air attacks on Taliban camps in Pakistan. When questioned on this diffidence, many in Washington scornfully dismissed the possibility of attacking a nuclear weapon state, forgetting that Pakistan was already a nuclear state when Richard Armitage, then US assistant secretary of state, made his historic threat.
However, the US has arm-twisted Pakistan on other occasions: when it used drones to attack deep into Pakistani territory, when US Aircraft crossed Pakistani air space to bomb Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan, and when it went into Pakistan itself to get Bin Laden. So, whether Pakistani nuclear weapons deter the US or not seems to depend heavily on its own interests, political context and the extent of punishment that it calculates Pakistan can bear.
The second view is that the US is much too dependent on Pakistan for anything operational in Afghanistan. That this is true is apparent from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s counsel following the most recent attacks in Afghanistan, when he recommended that Kabul “cooperate” with the Taliban to bring peace to the country.
It is also true that Islamabad is adept at turning bad cards into a winning hand. So, it milked US operations for all it was worth, moving from $177 million before 9/11 to reach $2.7 billion in 2010.
Pakistan’s intelligence trade
Pakistan managed to cash in other ways as well. As analysis notes, 3 out of 4 terrorist attacks in the UK, for instance, had Pakistani roots. An earlier paper by the Heritage Foundation warns of a UK-Pakistan “terror connection” that poses a serious threat. The paper recommends a “coordinated” UK-US policy on Pakistan. Clearly, the UK follows its own path in ‘assisting’ Pakistan in return for intelligence about terrorist movement. So do other countries, including Russia, Uzbekistan and China.
Cooperation with the Pakistani army and its intelligence services arehighly prized by governments as well as academics looking for sources. Few are deceived by Pakistan’s duplicity, but go along for the sake of a good paper and contacts they can tout back home. Hence, the criticism is subdued in international journals. In other words, terrorism keeps Pakistan in business and also lets it influence the narrative.
There is a third view. Diplomats quietly admit that as an Islamic state, Pakistan has an ‘in’ to troublesome countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, and uses its access to assist Western friends. Then, there are suspicions that the US operates into Iran through Pakistani groups to access intelligence from a country it cannot hope to access itself. In 2008, then Pakistan President Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf was flown to China’s restive Xinjiang region to preach peace to Chinese Muslims. Pakistan is no leader of the Islamic world, but it certainly is a useful pawn.
Pakistan has staved-off the threat of being tagged as a terrorist state primarily by a careful calculation of the threshold that is tolerated by the US, India and others. This was upset by the Balakot strikes, leading it to rely on other levers, including a dire American need to end a debilitating war in Afghanistan and offering information on terrorists it spawns.
Meanwhile, Chinese aircraft carrying medicines and military doctors are being welcomed in Pakistan, at a time when Beijing faces opprobrium everywhere else due to its failure to handle the coronavirus spread. For Rawalpindi, Chinese physical presence is additional insurance.
None of this has hindered India in the past, and it should not now. As India considers an appropriate response to the Handwara attack, there will be consideration of another air strike, despite the fact that Beijing has chosen to heat up the border in Ladakh rather conveniently for Islamabad.
While the air option must be kept open, an aggressive call for sanctions on Pakistan as a terrorist state must be considered, rather than the tedious demand for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. This may receive support at a time when there is global tiredness of Pakistan’s endless wars, and more importantly, the costs it imposes on budgets stressed by a pandemic far more deadly than anything Pakistan can come up with. This time round, Islamabad’s levers may lose their edge.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.