Pakistan’s double game
Most Americans do not understand why Pakistan behaves the way it does, but they do understand that it has come to seem more enemy than ally. This shift in American perception began even before the discovery that Osama bin Laden had been leading a discreet suburban existence in Abbottabad under the noses of Pakistan’s military.
It is widely believed by U.S. and NATO forces that Pakistan is actively sponsoring the Taliban in Afghanistan, even as it provides the coalition with its supply routes into that landlocked country. The extent of this support is much greater than has been generally appreciated, going far beyond the active or passive provision of a critical sanctuary.
After a whisky or three, you are quite likely to get senior Pakistani officers to admit with some pride that Pakistan’s intrepid special-operations soldiers are leading the effort to rid Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO forces. In order to restore Afghanistan to its previous state — as quasi-colony of Pakistan offering “strategic depth” in the struggle against India — they are coordinating the strategy, the logistics, and even the tactics of the Afghan Taliban. (They could be even more effective, the boast goes, but are holding back until the time is right.)
This kind of covert warfare has long been a Pakistani specialty. As many a whisky-drinking officer (who has no personal sympathy for Islamism, only a devotion to his notion of Pakistan’s strategic interests) will tell you, it was actually Pakistan that drove the Soviets from Afghanistan. Hundreds if not thousands of Pakistani officers in civilian disguise led the Afghan mujahideen to victory. That is a claim that rings true, given the history of the Pakistani army. The Pathan tribal invasion of Kashmir in 1947, which provoked the first Indo–Pakistani war, was largely led by Pakistani regular officers who had taken off their uniforms. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wages war in Kashmir and sponsors terror attacks in India proper.
The Pakistani military is not especially good at fighting conventional wars, nor is it good at running the country, though the army arguably has been less corrupt and more effective than civilian governments. On the other hand, no other country’s military is as skilled at using deniable proxies to bleed its enemies while manipulating its allies. The use of such proxy forces both at home and abroad has notoriously led to deadly blowback, including successful terrorist attacks by Islamist groups against military personnel and even against the ISI itself. Nevertheless, the military remains unshakeable in its conviction that it can control the monsters it has created, and that they are useful.
Occasionally, the mask slips during proxy operations against the coalition in Afghanistan. There was an incident a couple of years ago in which U.S. Army troops in an Afghan border outpost were fired on by Taliban operating from a Pakistani military position just across the border. The U.S. troops retaliated, killing not only the Taliban attackers but also the well-connected Pakistani army major from Punjab who had been directing their fire. This led to fierce private complaints from Islamabad about the violation of Pakistani sovereignty. It was one of many moments when you might have expected U.S. authorities finally to go public about the Pakistani military’s assistance to the Taliban. But the Americans were either stunned by the disingenuousness of the Pakistani government or mollified by Pakistani cooperation in the discovery and capture of al-Qaeda suspects.
The complicated truth is that Pakistan is genuinely both enemy and ally: Its strategic interests, as understood by its senior military leadership, require a complicated playing off of forces that from the outside looks schizophrenic. The only consistency is an equal willingness to sell out any and all of its mutually hostile allies. When the moment demands it, Pakistan’s wonderfully clever and able agents betray their Taliban and al-Qaeda assets just as remorselessly as they betray us.
You can see this skillful two-facedness in Pakistan’s relations with its other key partners. China is Pakistan’s chief arms supplier, builder of its Himalayan highways, collaborator in its jet-fighter program, and architect of its new deepwater port at Gwadar. But Pakistan plays host to Islamist Uighur guerrillas from China. The Chinese are not happy about this, but they need Pakistani cooperation for their long-term goal of encircling India.
Then there is Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Since the Soviet–Afghan war, Saudi Arabia has been second only to the United States as a financial sponsor of Pakistan and its military. The price of Saudi support apparently includes the welcoming of Wahhabi missionaries and the hosting of Saudi-sponsored al-Qaeda terrorists. But much to the irritation of those within the Saudi elite involved in exporting violent Wahhabism, the ISI has also captured and handed over to the United States some of the worst Saudi-backed terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Pakistan’s military elite plays these baffling games on its allies in the service of long-term strategic goals. They have a coherent logic, but they are based on delusions about an existential threat posed by India. (It is, after all, Pakistan that started all three hot wars with its giant neighbor.) It was our failure to understand that the Pakistani military sees everything in terms of its conflict with India that led us to underestimate its hostility to the Western project in Afghanistan and its willingness to harbor Islamist terrorists.
The discovery of bin Laden in Abbottabad highlights a set of additional tactical American errors. If Pakistani military intelligence had indeed been aware of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, it is hard to believe that it would have tolerated that presence if the more independent and radical sections of the ISI had not already gotten away with so much, and if the United States had not so often turned a blind eye to its extraordinary provocations.
It is an open secret that Mullah Omar and much of the Afghan Taliban’s leadership are sitting comfortably in or near the Pakistani city of Quetta, which also happens to be the home of Pakistan’s Command and Staff College. Unlike Taliban units farther north in Waziristan and other parts of the tribal belt, Omar and other Quetta-based leaders have never been targeted by drone strikes. Pakistanis say that the CIA knows of Omar’s presence but has its reasons for pretending otherwise. What these reasons are is unclear, but they may have to do with the CIA’s historical dependence on, and deference to, the ISI.
In any case, America’s apparently pusillanimous response to one outrageous piece of double-dealing after another seems only to have encouraged more of the same. After all, as far back as 2001, a declassified Defense Intelligence Agency analysis confirmed bin Laden’s relationship with the ISI. Bin Laden’s base at Zahawa (an Afghan site hit by cruise missiles after he abandoned it) was built by Pakistani contractors with Pakistani funds, in conjunction with the Haqqani network — the ISI’s favorite mujahideen group.
The killing of bin Laden seems to signal that the United States has reached the end of its tolerance for the Pakistani con game. It may be that the fragility card so often played by the Pakistani military no longer trumps treachery, that Washington no longer believes that this nuclear-armed state will collapse if the United States fails to give the generals everything they ask for. (Many of us who have spent time on the ground in Pakistan in recent years are more impressed by the resilience of the Pakistani state than by reports of an imminent collapse.)
And it may also be that Washington has finally realized that Pakistan’s military needs more stick and less carrot. The Pakistani military is predictably and bitterly complaining about the violation of its sovereignty, and loudly proclaiming that it might be better off without billions in aid from a bullying, faithless superpower. But the possibility that the United States will react to what are arguably Pakistani acts of war — and not just with aid cuts, but with acts of war of its own — may well prompt a salutary shift in behavior.
The important thing is that the United States stay the course, and that the influential but aging cadre of U.S. intelligence officers and diplomats who fell so deeply in love with Pakistan during the Soviet–Afghan war not be allowed to dilute the new firmness. It is true that as long we have forces in Afghanistan that require a main supply route through Pakistan we will be vulnerable to blackmail by Islamabad. But we have leverage too.
It might be wise for the United States to make clear that any evidence of further Pakistani duplicity will lead not only to the suspension of military aid (as mandated by U.S. law) but also to U.S. actions that would radically change the strategic balance between Pakistan and India. The generals and the spymasters are nothing if not realists, and, in order to stop India from getting advanced technologies that could enable a successful first strike against Pakistan, they would certainly sell out their Taliban and terrorist friends, more or less the same way they have sold out their American allies.
– Mr. Foreman writes frequently on South Asia and security issues.