Following the massive attack by US Forces on Afghanistan, using the MOAB or the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, US South Asia experts have been falling over themselves to “explain” the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in a bid to claim an influence on President Trump’s somewhat mercurial policy making fits. This included an op-ed by the head of an influential (but now sidelined) think tank, testimonies to House Committees dealing with terrorism, and seminars at various prestigious institutions. While there is general agreement on the difficulties in stabilizing Afghanistan and the dangers arising from the activities of various assorted terrorist groups operating in the area, there are some readily discernible “standardized” views of these experts and of others before them.
One of these is the argument that while Pakistan does continue its patronage of the Taliban and terrorists of all hues, it does so due to its dire need to defend itself against Indian influence in Afghanistan. It is unclear whether this logic arises from a defense of the underdog – where Pakistan is clearly so much smaller than India — , or simply from the acceptance that there is nothing much that the US can do to get Islamabad to stop assisting terrorists. Thus Pakistan is labeled as an “important actor” in the region, with US experts apparently listening unmoved to the repetitive tirade from Pakistani officials that Islamabad has been abandoned to face the repercussions of the war that the US started. This logic, well intentioned or otherwise, has so many holes, its difficult to know where to start.
First, Pakistan began this whole bloody ( pun intended) cycle of war in Afghanistan, well before the US was aware of it as anything more than a largish spot on a map. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto thought it a good idea to support a group of jihadis as early as 1977-78, to send a message to Kabul that it had better recognize the “Durand Line” as a border, or else. As may be recalled, the Durand Line was imposed on Afghanistan by the British, long before Pakistan came into existence. Bhutto apparently thought it a good idea to invoke the “Islam card” to overcome Pashtun nationalism, probably hoping that religious fervor would dampen ethnic loyalties. Therefore the brutal fact is that the US, didn’t start this jihad inspired seemingly endless war. Pakistan did.
Second, as Afghanistan deteriorated into chaos following the exit of the Soviets in 1989, it was the then Interior Minister of Pakistan, Nasirullah Babar who virtually created the Taliban, and provided the wherewithal and military advice to push it quickly into Kabul. Babbar publicly claimed credit for this achievement, leaving no room for any doubt as to who’s was the hand that fuelled the jihadi fire. Islamabad could not possibly have had India in mind when taking this decision. At the time, Indian presence was almost completely absent, as was any interest in Afghanistan’s travails. New Delhi was struggling with a restive Punjab and Kashmir, while Finance Minister Manmohan Singh was crafting ways to pull India out of an economic trough. So the Taliban phenomenon was conceived, aided and abetted by Pakistan for its own reasons, which was to dominate and degrade a neighbouring country.
Third, the present reality is that the whole Afghanistan adventure has become part and parcel of the Pakistani state at various levels. At the lower levels for instance, is the perennial problem of the madrassas. Pakistan now hosts about 35,000 madrassas of various hues. Pakistan’s grandiosely named “ National Action Plan” requires the government to implement reform plans for these madrassas, which critics say, lies at the heart of the counter terrorism policy. However officials are reluctant to do this, partly due to religiosity, and partly due to fears of a backlash from religious leaders. Madrassa networks after all mean money – and lots of it – to religious leaders who are likely to kick at losing this lucrative source of funds. These madrassas therefore continue to churn out ill educated youth by the hundreds. Most of these land up in the arms of the Taliban who need fresh cannon fodder for their regular offensives.
Another instance is the issue of the money that is pumped into the black economy due to the Afghan adventure. Intelligence agencies push in unaccounted money for operations that includes payment to sources on the ground, and for the whole expense of 'launching' fighters into enemy territory. Such expenses are naturally inflated at every level. There have been enough laments by militants that the money meant for them was being siphoned off by the ISI. Intelligence men are growing richer by the day. More or less on the same level, money is going to organisations that are involved in this business. That includes the Frontier Corps, whose role as a rear operational support base has rarely been examined by public sources. There is also the money earned by local business, shops, and vendors from the Taliban movement. Foreigners with riyals/dinars/dollars to spend are always welcome.
Most importantly, the whole enterprise fuels the Pakistan economy. Continuing US involvement in Afghanistan ensures that Washington has to pay various Pakistani institutions, including the Pakistan Army for expenses incurred in support of US operations. Analysts on both sides have long pointed at the double counting and sheer fraud in claims made by the Pakistani forces. At stake is about a yearly $ 1 billion, with the Trump Administration continuing these payments with $550 million paid so far. Pakistan’s State Bank acknowledges that the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) as such funds are called, has been crucial in reducing the current account deficit, which had surged due to a steep rise in imports of capital goods for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC). That the CSF should help pay for CPEC is irony enough, but fact that the funds pay for US operations against a Taliban armed and funded by Pakistan borders on satire. The bottom line is that Pakistan needs to keep the US “engaged” in Afghanistan, for it to sustain its objectives elsewhere.
Finally, terrorism of all kinds sustains Pakistan’s diplomatic objectives. Russia, Uzbekistan, UK, US and others have had to kowtow to Pakistan's intelligence and army circles to get their terrorists back. The UK has long quietly acknowledged that it “owes” Pakistan for its assistance in foiling terrorist plots hatched against the UK. Pakistan’s “all weather” friend China has also had Uighurs sent back to its own prisons, but – being Beijing – mostly on its own terms. Terrorism is part of Pakistan’s diplomatic trade, and countries who are quick to condemn Indian “brutality” in Kashmir, have never seen it fit to not just condemn, but stop Pakistan’s aerial bombing of its own citizens in the name of counter terrorism.
The world therefore continues to buy into the theory that Pakistan supports the Taliban due to fears of Indian domination in Afghanistan, because it is easier to buy Pakistan's line, and hopefully get it to cooperate on the ground. These hopes have been continuously dashed against the reality that the vested interests within Pakistan will never allow a neutral and peaceful Afghanistan. India’s own narrative remain unheard, lost as it is in a mire of bureaucracy, where the Ministry of External Affairs is the lone voice pointing out the fallacies inherent to such arguments. A concerted campaign to disprove these arguments is necessary, especially at a time when it appears that the great powers are increasingly eyeing the Taliban as the lesser evil. For Pakistan, persistence palpably pays.
The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat
Updated Date: May 01, 2017 10:17 AM