Recriminations over the chaos-inducing American exit from Afghanistan and the precipitate Western retreat obscure the veiled grins of the Taliban resurgence’s true architects. No country will take more satisfaction from the U.S. departure than Pakistan. More accurately, its military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) has persevered in a program, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 through America’s 20-year sojourn, to remove great-power boots from the vast, roiling expanse on Pakistan’s western flank.
During the August Taliban blitz, an article in the Wall Street Journal by Sadanand Dhume reported that a former head of the ISI said the following on Pakistani television: “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.” This might be dismissed as braggadocio in hindsight, except the cited interview was broadcast in 2014.
When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spoke to U.S. President Joe Biden in that now well-scrutinized phone call of July 23, the former said, “Mr. President, we are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban, full Pakistani planning and logistical support, and at least 10,000-15,000 international terrorists, predominantly Pakistanis thrown into this, so that dimension needs to be taken account of.” Ghani went on to underscore the Afghan army’s absolute need for U.S. air support and logistical backing. Biden subsequently withdrew this support, and as a result the Afghan Army collapsed and Ghani fled the country.
While American pundits play political football with the “Afghanistan situation” to tackle domestic opponents, Pakistan chalks up another win in its game of three-dimensional chess. As long as Americans focus on Afghanistan through the lens of partisan politics, we miss the broader implications for the region and for U.S. geostrategy. Yes, there is a justifiable concern that the Taliban restoration in Afghanistan will enable Islamist terror groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS to use it as a base to plan attacks on the United States and its allies and interests. However, the success of Pakistan’s play in Afghanistan will have far-reaching effects on global power politics, particularly because of Pakistan’s growing affinity with China.
While it is a cliche to describe two countries as arch-enemies, Pakistan and India exemplify why such cliches come into being. Owing to religious animosity and post-Imperial partition horrors, the two countries have a lot of hatreds, grudges and unfinished business. This dynamic has erupted into several significant wars, numerous clashes and a low simmer of border incidents from 1947 to the present.
It has also resulted in spectacular acts of terrorism, such as the (allegedly) ISI-directed attack on Mumbai in 2008. Pakistan regards India as an existential threat on its eastern border. A lot of that border is contested. Moreover, India is significantly larger, more populous and more prosperous. Both nations have nuclear weapons, which may have deterred open warfare between the two countries in recent years. Past conventional conflicts have not gone Pakistan’s way. Pakistan has no hope of prevailing in a war with India, so terrorism seems like a smart play. Over the years, Pakistan has become more accepting of, or at least resigned to, terrorism. The ISI is the director of all things below board.
This is where the game becomes complicated. Pakistan is not opposed to the United States, per se. It is mostly seeking allies in its forever war with India. While India does not seem to entertain plans of territorial expansion, Pakistan is keen to gain control of the disputed Kashmir region in particular. Since it would likely lose a conventional war, Pakistan pursues this goal through state-sponsored terrorism, generally attributed to the ISI.
On its western front, Pakistan has used the same philosophy to co-opt turbulent and possibly problematic “tribal regions” in the marches with Afghanistan. These are the lands where the ISI incubated the Taliban and sustained them in their fortunes and reverses. Pakistan’s goals for regional security found employment and direction for the unfulfilled Islamist groups that did not necessarily involve turning their ire on the secular elements of the Pakistani state. Establishing a caliphate in the wilds of post-Soviet Afghanistan would be a big project.
During the Cold War, the United States backed Pakistan, almost entirely because the anti-colonialist government in India looked to the Soviet Union to help it emerge from the shadow of British imperialism. From Pakistan’s perspective, this was a good arrangement. American support enabled it to trundle along next to India, which was not exactly prospering with the Soviets as role models. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had other things on their minds—at least until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Now Pakistan, fearing encirclement, had America on speed-dial.
One of the most interesting scenes in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a 2007 movie now topical again with the Afghanistan debacle, is when Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas), played by Tom Hanks, meets with Pakistan’s President Muhammad Zia, played by the late Om Puri, in Islamabad. It’s culture clash and fish out of water and biting humor about deadly important things in a deft five minutes of screen time. It tells you all you need to know about U.S.-Pakistan relations in a cinematic nutshell. Wilson, stumbling in his politeness, has no idea what’s really up. Zia is serious as a heart attack: “I don’t need courtesy. I need airplanes, guns and money!”
But Pakistan wanted airplanes (U.S. F-16s) to deploy against India, not Afghanistan. That’s the problem with Pakistan, or rather U.S. views of Pakistan. We’re not playing the same game. We’re not fighting the same war.
Hollywood’s depiction of Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghanistan situation is simplistic. But it’s not wrong. As long as the United States did not care that much about Pakistan, other than its status as a staging area to “kill Russians,” then it became a welcome platform for us to do so, with the useful assistance of the ISI. After relentless pressure from U.S.- and Pakistani-supported mujahideen, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Achieving that goal was one of the last things the U.S. and Pakistan unambiguously had in common.
Although the ISI fledged and supplied the Taliban in the tribal border regions, when it unleashed the well-equipped, well-supported “religious students” on Afghanistan in the 1990s, the United States didn’t bat an eye. Some contemporary news reports described how the students were bringing their sometimes harsh brand of order to the warlord-driven chaos of Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet departure. Order restored, nobody in the West cared, until they did.
The remnants of the U.S.-Pakistan alignment came into conflict in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It is difficult, 20 years later, for many to appreciate how galvanizing the attacks were. Even Islamabad wilted under the warlike glare of the George W. Bush administration, which was bent on destroying the Taliban and the al-Qaida enemy it sheltered. Pakistan had no choice but to withdraw its support from the Taliban, which quickly melted under U.S.-led military pressure.
If that had been the end of it, all would have been well. But the West decided to stick around in Afghanistan and build a democracy. Pakistan found itself trying to please its erstwhile ally and, at the same time, maintain control of the tiger it had bred and unleashed. Pakistani army troops went into the autonomous tribal regions in search of terrorists, just to please the United States. Nevertheless, every time Taliban forces had to withdraw from U.S. attacks, they withdrew into Pakistan. Taliban founder and leader Mullah Muhammad Omar reportedly died in exile in Pakistan. When the U.S. finally found al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, they killed him in Pakistan in a clandestine operation it didn’t dare share with Islamabad.
As the years passed, America’s diplomatic priorities changed. The passing of the Soviet Union brought new, more economically progressive governments to India that welcomed ties with the West, and with the United States in particular. The rise of China has turned India into a Western strategic partner, perhaps even the cornerstone of a new focus on the Indo-Pacific region. A growing “Quad” alliance among the United States, India, Japan and Australia is producing closer military cooperation.
This, of course, was a terrible development from Pakistan’s perspective. India’s influence in Afghanistan had been growing, with an ostensibly Western-supported government in Kabul. Pakistan once again found itself encircled. Viewed in this light, equipping and supporting the Taliban in its successful offensive against the Ghani regime was an act of self-defense. The new Taliban regime in Afghanistan also has affected the balance of power in the region.
Pakistan’s win in Afghanistan shows its new ally, China, that it is capable and useful over and above simply hosting Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean. It is able to engineer outcomes at America’s expense. China may end up occupying Bagram Air Base. Furthermore, China may make deals to enrich itself and the Taliban without delivering bothersome pointers on diversity or the need to build girls’ schools.
Once back in power again in Kabul, the Taliban wasted no time declaring that China will be its “main partner” and that its regime will cooperate with China’s Belt and Road initiative. Frankly, Pakistan must be relying on Chinese involvement in Afghanistan, if only to help keep the Taliban occupied with new projects and provide some cover for its own involvement.
Pakistan’s win in Afghanistan carries the risk of significant blowback. Foreign policy analysts note that Pakistan has long played a dangerous game with its sponsorship of the Taliban. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, points out that the ascendence of the Afghan Taliban could bolster the status of the Pakistani Taliban, which is the enemy of all things secular, heretical and apostate in Pakistan, including the army. The Pakistani Taliban fight the army and stage attacks on various unbelievers, destabilizing the state. While it’s not clear how much the two branches of the Taliban cooperate, a rising Taliban tide may lift all radical Islamist boats.
A subsequently divided Pakistan would be a real problem. In his Wall Street Journal article cited above, Dhume said nuclear-armed, Taliban-supporting Pakistan may now be “50 times more dangerous to the U.S. and the world as well.” Pakistan has not been what one would call a responsible nuclear power. Its desire to be a leader in the Islamic world is perhaps best exemplified by its clandestine transfer of nuclear technology to other nations, including Iran, through the A. Q. Khan network. This move was designed to establish Pakistan’s bona fides as a member of the nuclear club and its willingness to share its largesse to enhance its standing as a nuclear-armed Islamic power.
The real consequences of the Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan reach much further than how badly managed the U.S. exit was, or indeed, whether we should have been there in the first place. The real dangers are twofold: Islamabad’s victory enhances its status as China’s ally and offers material benefits to Beijing, and the rise of the Taliban as an ideology could destabilize a nuclear-armed power. It would be better if Americans would stop trying to score off one another and pay attention to the larger game.