There is a gigantic elephant in the room that not many people seem to want to talk about. In fact, it’s a herd of elephants. The Biden Administration, many media and American allies are doing a really good job of ignoring these elephants. How everyone is gracefully dancing around the large quantities of elephant droppings is also no small feat. The fact that no one is calling out Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan over the years — and the last few months — is alarming and appalling.
Even as Pakistan has adamantly denied it, it has been no secret that it has been playing both sides in Afghanistan. Each administration across three presidencies has ignored that so Pakistan keeps getting away with it. As the Pakistani public relations machine continues its flimsy attempt at self-defense, it has become even more clear that Pakistan is no longer fooling anyone. Nevertheless, the issue at the heart of all this is that even now, no one is doing anything about it.
Pakistan Is a Perpetrator Not an Innocent Bystander
Throughout the many years of conflict in Afghanistan, just about everyone in the military knew that Pakistan was the issue. What that means is that even considering the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Pakistan always was the key and the solution to the issue. It was never going to be possible to control an insurgency and a terrorist group if the insurgents and terrorists could always slip away across the Pakistani border beyond the reach of the U.S. military.
This always offered a significant strategic advantage to Anti-Coalition Forces (ACF). In spite of the significant casualties and losses sustained by the Taliban and other ACF, they played the long game. They simply had to wait. Taliban fighters did not have to win. They only had to not lose. This is a well-known fact. However, in addition to any inherent challenge in fighting an insurgency, the U.S. government made it worse by allowing Pakistan to provide safe havens for these extremist forces giving them the perfect place to sit and wait.
For years, Pakistan has had its own share of struggles with terrorist groups and an extremist jihad. The major problem arises from Pakistan wanting to pick and choose which extremist organization it aligns with. It wants it both to support extremist groups that further its causes, but also wants to stop those that do not. Regular citizens in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan all suffer from Pakistan’s regional game. As Hillary Clinton stated when she was secretary of state in 2011, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.”
Pakistan Is a Direct Supporter of Terrorist Groups
It’s far worse than that. The common thread between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS-K is Pakistan. Any argument made that the Taliban had cut ties with al-Qaeda is wrong. While the common bond between these groups is Pakistan, the lynchpin holding them together is the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani Network has long been funded and supported by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The Haqqanis have found refuge in Pakistan over the years. They are connected to and form part of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS-K. In fact, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani terrorist group, is part of the Taliban core leadership; some intelligence suggests that he is even the Taliban’s number two leader. He has also been appointed by the Taliban as Afghanistan’s minister of the interior. This is very troubling given the importance and role of this post, and the oversight it maintains.
While the U.S. government relied on the Taliban to provide security at Kabul Airport during the withdrawal, the Taliban, in turn, had given control of the city’s security to the Haqqanis. Therefore, it could be very likely that it was members of the Haqqani Network within the Taliban, who allowed the ISIS-K suicide bomber to slip through Taliban security and attack U.S. troops at the airport. This could show that while ISIS-K and the Taliban are at odds, their interests often overlap and their relationship should not be discounted.
In addition to these groups, Pakistan will likely use Afghanistan once again as a haven for anti-India terrorist groups, just as it did when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The U.S. government should take steps to officially label Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, just like Iran.
Pakistan Has Benefitted Financially From Being a Terrorist Facilitator
In the years between the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks and 2018, the U.S. government gave Pakistan over $33 billion in financial aid. Around $14 billion was military aid to help combat terrorism and insurgents in the region. Further, the United States relied heavily on Pakistani ports and roads to send supplies into Afghanistan. This logistical reliance combined with the aid money made Pakistan a necessary partner. Yet, in addition to the aid money, the U.S. government paid Pakistan for shipping and transporting supplies to and through its territory.
To put those financial figures in perspective, the 2019 Pakistani GDP was $253.183 billion. Its annual defense budget in 2019 was four percent of its GDP. That equates to around $10.88 billion. An additional $33 billion in financial aid, with at least $14 billion going directly to military efforts, is a significant boost.
This is all heavily concerning, given that Pakistan was not only helping terrorist organizations but was also profiting financially from playing both sides; the U.S. government has been directly and indirectly funding that.
The Pakistani Strategy Will Backfire
For years, Pakistan has been claiming that it wants stability in Afghanistan. However, all of its actions say otherwise. Once the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, it’s almost as if Pakistan has stopped hiding it. Within weeks of the Taliban seizing power, the director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was in Kabul negotiating and working with the Taliban leadership. At the same time, Pakistan was conducting airstrikes and sending troops to aid the Taliban in their fight against the Northern Resistance in the Panjshir Valley. It was Pakistan who dislodged the Resistance from its stronghold, not the Taliban.
Another important reason why Pakistan supported the Taliban’s efforts to retake Afghanistan was that India was very close to the former Afghan government.
It is as if Pakistan wants a vassal state and multiple groups to do its dirty work for them.
While Pakistan might think it has achieved a strategic and sophisticated victory in Afghanistan, this will backfire.
Neither Pakistan nor the Afghan Taliban will be able to contain or control al-Qaeda, ISIS-K, or Pakistani terrorist groups who will now certainly become emboldened after seeing the Taliban rise to power. All of these groups want Islamic caliphates or strict Sharia law in the region. Pakistan is essentially creating one huge terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. However, these groups will not only attack India, or, those that Pakistan authorizes. Instead, Pakistan will not be able to control them and other attacks will happen — perhaps even within Pakistan itself.
Furthermore, as instability increases, China will also become impatient and intolerant. The alliance and strategic pact Pakistan has with China will thus suffer, as the Chinese government has little patience for Muslim extremism and any threat to its significant economic interests in the region.
Pakistan Is a Regional Security Threat and Must Be Held Accountable
Without a doubt, the security situation in Afghanistan and the entire region is worse than before. While a “forever war” in Afghanistan was not desirable or tenable, the U.S. government has allowed the situation to spiral out of control. In playing both sides, Pakistan capitalized on this fatal mistake for its own interests. Through its strategic chess game with India, it has made everyone in the world less safe and secure.
It should not be discounted that a nuclear power is playing games with terrorists and factions it simply cannot control.
The latest U.S. intelligence estimate is that al-Qaeda will have the capability to threaten the United States again by 2023. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) calls that estimate conservative. Other groups in the region will certainly be working towards striking the U.S., its allies, and other countries. For example, ISIS-K has now also added the U.S. to its target list.
The U.S. and every other country which conducts business with Pakistan should make its position clear: Pakistan needs to stop supporting terrorist groups and take responsibility for the quickly growing regional instability.
All military aid from any country towards Pakistan should end, as this money helps support terrorist groups. It’s time to take the fox out of the hen house.
Yet, through all its machinations, it’s possible that Pakistan has created the very thing that will threaten its own safety, security, and future.