As the tragedy that is Afghanistan unfolds every day, even those who are politically unaware or invested in the conflict are asking the one obvious question: Why is virtually no one talking seriously of punishing Pakistan? By now everyone, from the student to statesman, knows what is the biggest open secret in the world; that Pakistan armed, supported and sometimes fought alongside the Taliban for 37 years, and before that, it armed another set of actors known as the mujahideen at the behest of the US.
The wise scholar will shake their head and point out that it all started in 1974, when Islamabad sent militants across to unseat President Mohammed Daoud Khan. That’s a matter of detail. The big picture is this: Pakistan has caused havoc inside another state, and backs a 60,000 strong proxy army, with nobody saying a word. These questions are not to be wondered at. It’s something even intelligence and strategic analysts have struggled with for years. What follows is an attempt to answer this question, based on logic and a dose of common sense.
It’s a nuclear state, stupid
The very first possible reason has been suggested by US Senator Lindsey Graham in a recent tweet. Following his meeting with Pakistan Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan, the Senator said that any ‘sustainable solution’ in Afghanistan must include Pakistan, ‘diplospeak’ for saying the Pakistanis are key to the problem. Then he went on to say, “We must all remember Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation. There is a Pakistan version of the Taliban who wishes to topple the Pakistani government and military…”.
Graham is credited with persuading President Donald Trump to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan, and earlier stating that the war in Afghanistan would ‘end in a few weeks’ if Pakistan denied safe haven to the Taliban. Yet, it is this Senator who knows Pakistan well, who seems to be hinting that a nuclear weapon state could ‘fall’ into the hands of Kalashnikov-wielding militants.
This is repetition of a very tired narrative. An account of 2018 describes how President General Pervez Musharraf was able to sell the same story to the US, warning that al-Qaeda fleeing to Pakistan were a threat to Pakistan’s stability. In 2013, national security officials were noting that possible terrorist hijacking of Pakistan nuclear weapons was their ‘worst nightmare’. Experts worried about a terrorist theft of a nuclear weapon, and a resultant nuclear 9/11, transfer of a nuclear weapon to a state like Iran, or weapons takeover by a militant group during a period of instability or splintering of the state.
Go even further back. In 2008, then Vice-President Joe Biden was telling a stunned President Hamid Karzai that “Pakistan is fifty times more important than Afghanistan for the United States’. This was in response to his trying to get the US to stop Taliban safe havens. Much of this was an assiduously built-up Pakistani narrative, with a whole academic industry built on this supposed threat. This raged till about 2010, dying down gradually. Now, it seems, the ‘nightmare’ has restarted. Expect more in this vein as Tehrik-e-Taliban strikes increase in Pakistan. And watch. It will be Pakistani experts who will expound on this the most.
Pakistan as Daddy’s little helper
It takes a thief to catch a thief. Nowhere was this more apparent when Pakistan found catching terrorists extremely lucrative. Whether it was Abu Zubaydah arrested in 2002 in Faisalabad, or Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the ‘architect’ of 9/11 in 2003 in Rawalpindi, it served to convince everyone of Pakistan’s central role in the ‘war on terror’, which elicited some $33 billion in US assistance between 2002 – 2020.
Elsewhere, the story was the same. In 2005, the UK was warming to Pakistan as it provided warning of a possible terrorist attack, just before the London bombings that killed 56, and where the perpetrators were Pakistanis. With a large Mirpuri population going back and forth to Pakistan, the Pakistan motif persisted. After the 2019 London Bridge attack, British intelligence could hardly manage to break free of this dependence.
Then there was China and its obsession with Uyghur extremism. In 2011 Islamabad deported Uyghurs back to China, which continues to date, ensuring Beijing’s loyalty, despite attacks on Chinese citizens in Pakistan. Turkish nationals were sent back to keep Istanbul happy. Uzbekistan began cooperation with Pakistan after it found that its ‘most wanted’ terrorist Tahir Yuldashev was in Pakistan.
The list is endless, and includes Pakistan warning Germany of a terrorist strike, after its drone killed eight Germans in Waziristan. That, in turn, led to the US Department of State upping its security around Ramstein airbase. Russia formed an ‘Anti-Terror Military Commission” in 2018 with Pakistan, to fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan. That cooperation still exists.
There’s more. Before the Paris attacks last year involving a Pakistani terrorist, was the case of a Pakistani imprisoned in France, with connections to the 26/11 Mumbai attack. France has, unlike others, resisted cosying up to Pakistan, but some intelligence cooperation is inevitable.
None of this means that any of these countries are at all enamoured of Pakistan. But it does stop them from going beyond a point in pressurising Pakistan for fear that it will fall apart at the seams and become a maelstrom of extremism that flows back into their own countries.
Easy with the army
Then there is an institutional advantage as compared to India or even China. Everyone knows who controls the Pakistani State, and diplomats make a beeline for Army GHQ, after formal genuflection to the Prime Minister of the time. That’s why Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin chose to call Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, even while President Biden is yet to contact PM Imran Khan. When President Trump had accused Pakistan of ‘lies and deceit’, his military heads were hurrying to assuage Pakistani Army wrath. Pakistan-US relations are, therefore, based primarily on security cooperation, particularly after US entry into Afghanistan, where generals were greeting each other amiably, even as the Pakistani Armed Forces benefitted at personal, institutional, and national levels.
Steve Coll in his book Directorate S describes the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) – essentially reimbursements to Pakistan – as ‘legal bribery’ of the generals. A US Committee heard the story of how Pakistan presented bills for $70 million on road and bunker construction without any evidence that it was ever done, $19,000 for use of each naval vehicle, and $55 million spent for the maintenance of helicopters which remained in total disrepair. A lot of that went into various pockets. At the institutional level, CSF funds were used to buy conventional weapons for use against India, with the State Department classifying even the F-16 as counter-terrorism weaponry. CSF held up the current account and paid back Chinese loans.
Given this largesse, it is entirely possible that Pakistan will again offer quiet cooperation, in the form of drone bases, overflights, and critically, selective intelligence sharing. And this will be accepted because it’s so easy to do business with the Pakistan Army. As the House Committee noted, “It is the military running the show over there.….and they are not really clueing in even their own government, let alone ours…”.
This thing about its neighbours
Pakistan’s importance also arises from its geographical location. From the time Kissinger used the Pakistani ambassador in Washington to reach out to China, Islamabad has been adept at maximising this potential. Iran, for instance, was convinced that the US was using Pakistani soil to back insurgent groups like Jundullah, while Pakistan used the Iranian threat to convince the US to back its policies in Afghanistan.
Then there was the curious case of covert nuclear cooperation with Iran, when Pakistan’s nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan provided uranium centrifuges to Iran, training to its scientists and cooperation in multiple other areas. Pakistanis had access to Teheran where others did not, leading to suspicions that intel was then provided to the US. Then there are reports that Pakistan passed on US tech used, for instance, in the raid on Osama Bin Laden to China, when defence specialists observed strong commonalities between China stealth helicopters and the Black Hawk. That is likely to happen again, as the Taliban grab the billions of dollars’ worth of US weapons left behind. The typical obverse side to this is that Pakistan would equally have passed on information on China to the US. That is how intelligence works. It’s never one way.
In sum, therefore, Pakistan has escaped strong retribution due ironically to its own instability, with terrorists becoming the currency of exchange and barter. Its nuclear weapons have also been turned into a source of currency, while it used all the blackmail and double dealing to back one apparent ally at the expense of another. And all of this for more than 20 years. No country backs Pakistani antics, and yet no one is willing to punish it.
Yet, it’s worth remembering that the shock of 9/11 did lead to US officials threatening to bomb Pakistan back into the ‘‘stone age’ and which led to Pakistani Army ‘advisors’ speedily exiting Afghanistan. That part of the war did actually end in a week. It restarted again, as the US turned to Iraq, and left the war to Pakistan.
The massacre of 13 US servicemen at the Kabul airport is unlikely to generate such a reaction, but there are lessons to be learnt to still win some part of this war in Afghanistan. Billions in bribery haven’t worked. The other option is an internationally mandated use of force, or a punishment strike to keep this particular army in line. It would certainly win Biden support at home and repair a badly damaged international profile. And no, US Senators need to be told that terrorist groups are not taking over Pakistan now or at any time in the future. The bigger terrorist is already in power, and striding across the country in khaki.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)