February 09 , 2018
Pakistan Should Not Fear
A few weeks ago President Trump unleashed some twitter messages directed at Pakistan accusing it of supporting the Taliban and working against the US policy in Afghanistan. Besides the tweeting, Trump announced the suspension of military aid to Pakistan, which is worth a few hundred million dollars per year. Many Pakistani observers worried that a full rupture of relations with the US might occur, and that the consequences for Pakistan on this count could be rather negative.
Pakistan’s involvement with the Taliban goes back to their very founding in 1994. At that time, various Mujahedeen factions that had deposed the Soviet-backed communist government in Kabul were fighting among themselves, and Afghanistan had descended into a state of anarchy. The Northern Alliance forces were being supported by Iran and India, while Pakistan was backing the Hezb-e-Islami, a Pashtun-based hardline Islamist group run by Gulbuddin Hekmetyar. It was he who had destroyed Kabul with a rocket barrage when he was shut out of power (rockets supplied by Pakistan). Meanwhile in southern Afghanistan, particularly around Kandahar, a Pashtun-based movement was coalescing called the Taliban.
Their name came from “Talib” meaning student, and referred to Pashtun students recruited to join the group from madrassahs run in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. The Taliban got a big boost when Fazlur Rahman, the head of the Islamist JUI party in Pakistan and a coalition partner of Benazir Bhutto’s government, convinced her to back them. With Pakistani support, especially fuel and Toyota pickup trucks giving them mobility, the Taliban rapidly advanced across Afghanistan, seizing Kabul and most of the other major cities. The rest of the world refused to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, but Pakistan, along with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, did give them recognition. The Northern Alliance was beaten back into a small enclave and was hanging by a thread.
It was then that 9/11 happened, and the US called General Musharraf and wanted to know if he was going to stand with the US or with the Taliban; Musharraf wisely chose to abandon the Taliban, a decision that was not pleasing to many in the military or among the Islamist parties.
The Taliban were quickly routed by the Northern Alliance with the help of US special forces and airstrikes, and their remnants retreated to Pakistan to lick their wounds.
Over the next several years Afghanistan was relatively quiet, but the Taliban slowly rebuilt themselves within Pakistan and by 2007 were starting to mount a serious military campaign in Afghanistan. The US and the Afghan government felt that this was the fault of Pakistan for giving the Taliban the chance to regroup and reform within Pakistan, and likely with the assistance of at least some elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services. The US carried out a campaign of drone strikes against Taliban targets in the Pakistan tribal areas along the border, but never sent in ground forces.
Obama in 2009 to 2011 surged US forces in Afghanistan to beat back the Taliban, which was successful in the short run, but after drawing down the US presence to just a few thousand trainers, the Taliban recovered to some extent. They are now carrying out soft-target attacks in Kabul like the raid on the Intercontinental Hotel recently, or the suicide car bombing using an ambulance to get past checkpoints that killed about 100 civilians.
The American frustration with Pakistan is quite obvious. But Pakistan’s military has a different calculation. They believe that the US will eventually tire and leave Afghanistan entirely, and they need the Taliban so they can have control over who governs Afghanistan in the future. The military sees Afghanistan’s status critical to Pakistani security, and are quite concerned by the obvious attempts by India to ramp up their presence and influence in Afghanistan. As such, the army wishes to exert “Pakistani imperialism” over Afghanistan.
The US administration’s attempt to change Pakistani policy is flawed on several levels. First, the US presence in Afghanistan is totally dependent on Pakistani cooperation. All US flights and ground shipment of supplies must pass through Pakistan. They can’t go through Iran, and although one can get to Afghanistan from the north, that requires going through Putin’s Russia, a non-starter since the US sanctioned Russia over their seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Secondly, Pakistan does not need the US security aid. It is currently benefiting from a 60 billion dollar Chinese investment program, and receives over 20 billion dollars per year in remittances from its overseas workers. The few hundred million in US aid is trivial and makes no real difference.
Third, because the army sees the Taliban as critical to Pakistani security interests in Afghanistan, it will not give it up just to please the US.
Finally, Pakistan is a nuclear power. The last thing the US wants is to destabilize Pakistan and have Pakistani nuclear weapons possibly come loose and end up who knows where. Trying to crack Pakistan is incredibly dangerous, and no US government would actually try to do that.
There are some paranoid Pakistanis who think the US might try to “seize” Pakistan’s nuclear weapons (all 150 of them) in a raid like they got Bin Laden. That is total nonsense. The US has only a small military presence in Afghanistan now and does not have the forces or helicopters to carry out such a raid. But even if it did, such an act would be a folly. In the Bin Laden raid one helicopter failed and was left behind. In a massive US raid there would be many choppers that would go down. What would happen to their captured crews? How would the US get them back? How would the US know for sure where all of the weapons are (they are certainly spread around)? How to get past the heavy guards and steel and concrete barriers behind which they rest? How can you conduct all the raids on the same day?
And after such a raid, how does the US prevent Pakistan from building more bombs? What does that mean for terrorism around the world? What would that mean for nuclear and missile non-proliferation? Why wouldn’t Pakistan share its missile and bomb-making technology with Iran? There are a host of other problems that would come from a US attack on Pakistan, and therefore there is no chance of such a thing happening.
But just because Pakistan can continue to support the Taliban doesn’t mean it should. The Afghan Taliban gave rise to the Pakistani Taliban which has caused tremendous mayhem in Pakistan these last several years, including the vicious massacre at a school of a hundred children. There is a different road that Pakistan should have taken back in 2001. Give up on the Taliban and the scheme of controlling Afghanistan through militant proxies.
Instead, pursue extremely close economic and social ties with Afghanistan. Because of geography, Afghanistan will always be linked to, and dependent on, Pakistan. Using soft power to influence Afghanistan would have been a far more successful long-term approach. Instead, most Afghans blame Pakistan for the continued war, and hate the Pakistanis.