Code 55108
PublishDate: Monday, December 17, 2012 13:42

If you think Pakistan will abandon the Taliban, think again!

In an unprecedented move, Pakistan released 13 Afghan Taliban prisoners in November 2012 as a gesture of good faith toward supporting the peace process in Afghanistan.

In an unprecedented move, Pakistan released 13 Afghan Taliban prisoners in November 2012 as a gesture of good faith toward supporting the peace process in Afghanistan.[1] Both the Afghan government and the Taliban welcomed this gesture, as the individuals released can potentially play an instrumental role in the peace negotiations. 

Islamabad made this move against the backdrop of its recent vows to support the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, leading some observers to believe that a dramatic shift in Pakistan’s policy toward the Taliban militants might be taking place.[2] Optimists argue that after years of extending sanctuaries and support to the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups, the Pakistani government has finally changed course, and decided to genuinely help bring stability to Afghanistan.[3] The motive behind Islamabad’s change of heart is said to be largely due to the worsening security situation in Pakistan, as deadly attacks by the Pakistani Taliban are increasing in the north, and sectarian violence, terrorism and organized crime have reached extraordinary levels in Karachi and other Pakistani cities.[4]

While Islamabad’s avowed support of the Afghan peace process is praiseworthy, concluding that Pakistan is changing its policy of backing militant groups is premature. Pakistan’s strategy to nurture and use Islamist militancy as an instrument of foreign policy is as old as the country itself. Ever since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has successfully supported and deployed radical militant groups against India and Afghanistan.[5] Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Pakistani government will alter a strategy that has paid off for over six decades in response to some level of domestic insecurity which the Pakistani state has deemed acceptable. As S. Paul Kapur and Sumit Ganguly write, “Pakistan’s use of militancy is not simply the ancillary product of broad social and political changes in the country. Nor is it merely an ill-conceived tactic designed to support the Kashmir insurgency or the Taliban. Rather, it is the centerpiece of a sophisticated warfare campaign, painstakingly developed and prosecuted since Pakistan’s founding.”[6]

This paper puts Pakistan’s use of Islamist militancy as a tool of foreign policy in historical perspective, and argues that given the strategic environment in the region, Pakistani policymakers still see their strategy of supporting Islamist militant groups as a viable course of action. By training and deploying irregular forces against India, Pakistan can keep the far more superior Indian army at bay in Kashmir. By providing the Afghan Taliban with sanctuaries and logistical support, Pakistan can prolong the war in Afghanistan indefinitely. This keeps the Afghans preoccupied with their own ills, giving them no chance to revive the Durand Line territorial dispute. Meanwhile, Pakistan can, in formal terms, remain at the forefront of America’s war on terror, reaping billions of American dollars per year. The remainder of this paper analyzes these issues in more depth, and concludes that as long as the strategic environment in the region remains the same, Pakistan will continue harboring and using Islamist militant groups as a tool of foreign policy in the region and possibly beyond.

Conflict with India: The main source of conflict between India and Pakistan is the dispute over Kashmir. Before the partition of the British Raj in 1947, the state of Jamu and Kashmir was a princely state ruled by Maharaja Hari Singh under the auspices of British India. During the partition and the creation of the modern states of Pakistan and India, Hari Singh was given the option of joining any of the two new dominions. India claims that the Maharaja signed a document called the “Instrument of Accession”, formally joining the state of India.[7] Pakistan, on the other hand, claims that Maharaja Hari Singh was a despotic ruler who suppressed the Kashmiri people, and his signing of the Instrument of Accession did not represent the will of the Kashmiri public.[8] Therefore, Pakistan disputes India’s claims over Kashmir. The two states have fought over Kashmir three times, in 1947, 1965 and 1999, in addition to the 1971 war concerning Bangladesh and numerous border skirmishes.[9] At present, India controls the southern areas of Kashmir, including the Kashmir Valley, Jamu and Ladakh, while Pakistan administers the northern part, which includes Azad Kashmir.[10]

At the outset of the partition, the nascent state of Pakistan realized that India was much too strong for it to match in a conventional war. Therefore, it sought to engage India with a mix of regular and irregular warfare, utilizing guerilla groups as what Stephen Cohen calls a “strategic weapon,” a “slow but sure and relatively inexpensive”[11] strategy to contain the superior Indian army. According to Paul Kapur and Sumit Ganguli, Colonel Mohammed Khan, a famous Pakistani army officer who had designed Pakistan’s strategy of using irregular forces in the 1947 war, “wrote detailed plans for the Pakistani government to arm and train a Kashmiri ‘people’s militia’”[12] in the aftermath of the war.

In the war of 1965, Pakistan considerably stepped up its use of irregular warfare against India. In the initial phase of the war, code-named Operation Gibraltar, Pakistan dispatched a guerilla force of about 30,000 fighters into the Indian-administered Kashmir to carry out attacks against the Indian army, to foment Kashmiri insurrections, and to pave the way for the induction of regular Pakistani troops.[13] Recruited from among the militias raised in Pakistani Kashmir, the fighters received six weeks of training in guerrilla warfare techniques, and were then deployed under the overall command of the Pakistani army’s 12th Division.[14] Pakistan also sought to make use of religious symbolism in that war. The operation’s name commemorated the eight-century Muslim general Tariq bin Ziyad’s conquest of Gibraltar, and many of the attacking units were named after historic Muslim military heroes such as Salahuddin, Khalid, and Babur.[15]

Pakistan was not only militarily weak vis-à-vis India; it also lacked a solid ideological foundation upon which to strengthen its sense of nationhood. To fill this gap, the Pakistani state sought to play the religious card. Indeed, Islam was the only value the various ethnic groups living in the new state of Pakistan – Punjabi, Pashtun, Sindhi, Sariaki, Muhagirs, Balochi, and others – shared. To augment a sense of national identity, the Pakistani government endured and preached Islamic ideology to its population. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, although not known as a devout Muslim, understood the vitality of Islam as a political ideology for the creation of Pakistan prior to the partition. “We need a state in which we could live and breathe as free men,” he remarked, “and which we could develop according to our own lights and culture and where principles of Islamic social justice could find free play.”[16] Based on this premise, Jinnah and his All India Muslim League Party pursued the two-nation policy.

The separation of Pakistan’s eastern wing, Bangladesh, in 1972 further exposed Pakistan’s lack of a solid national identity, pointing to the necessity of even further operationalizing Islamic ideology in Pakistan’s state-building project. In 1978, Pakistan’s military ruler General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq introduced a widespread program of Islamization that “included the creation of sharia courts; the appointment of a Muslim consultative assembly; the implementation of charity taxes; the introduction of punishments based on the [Q]oran and sunnah; and the expansion of the madrassa system of Islamic education.”[17]

Zia’s Islamization program led to the creation and further strengthening of Islamist political and militant groups, and emboldened them in their quest to fight the infidel Hindus. This perfectly conformed to the evolution of the strategic environment between Pakistan and India over the years. With both countries continuing a costly arms race, and eventually becoming nuclear powers, the risks of provoking India in a conventional war were increasing, leading Pakistani strategists to rely more than ever on using militant groups as proxies. In addition to guerrilla attacks in Kashmir, the Pakistanis supported and deployed militants to conduct terrorist attacks in major Indian cities. Some of the notable attacks in more recent years include the 1999 Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) attack on New Delhi’s Red Fort, the 2001 Jaish-e-Mohammad (JM) attack on the Indian Parliament, a number of attacks in Mumbai in 2003, several series of coordinated attacks in 2006, 2008 and 2011in Mumbai, as well as many more in various Indian population centers.[18]

The Pakistani government has denied any link or responsibility for these attacks, at times claiming that the attacks have had nothing to do with Pakistan, while at other times simply blaming non-state actors. According to Bob Woodward, Pakistan’s director general of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Ahmad Shuja Pasha, has even acknowledged that certain rogue elements within the spy agency may have links to Islamist militant groups, and that the Pakistani state does everything it can to locate and arrest them.[19] This state of plausible deniability has allowed the Pakistani government to continue supporting militant groups, and using them against India indefinitely. With the increasingly superior Indian army over the border, Pakistan’s chances of winning a conventional war with India are extremely slim. Further, with the two countries’ nuclear arsenals pointing at each other, conventional provocations could escalate to nuclear exchange, a scenario both countries would like to avoid. Given this strategic environment, Pakistan’s continual support and deployment of irregular warfare in the form of guerrilla attacks in Kashmir and terrorist attacks in India proper seems an operational option. It is a strategy that costs little, inflicts considerable damage, and allows plausible deniability for the Pakistani government. Therefore, as long as the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir remains unresolved, it is hard to see the Pakistani military changing its strategy, and moving against militant groups in Pakistan.

Interests in Afghanistan: Pakistan seeks longstanding strategic interests in Afghanistan, such as thwarting Kabul’s claims to Pashtun areas in Pakistan, extending its strategic depth northward, and minimizing India’s regional influence.[20] The centerpiece of Pakistan’s strategy in pursuing these objectives in Afghanistan has been supporting anti-government militant groups there as early as the 1960s.[21]

The territorial dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan traces its roots to 1893 when the British established an unofficial border, the Durand Line, demarcating the frontier between Afghanistan and the British Raj. An agreement was signed between Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the British colonial government of India, and King Abdul Rahman Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan.[22] The Durand Line divided the Pashtun tribes living in the area, and gave the British control over what would become the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) while formally part of NWFP remained semi-autonomous in which the writ of normal state law did not run.[23]

The Durand Line was accepted as the de facto border by Afghanistan after its formal independence in 1919, but Afghanistan revived its objections when the British Raj was partitioned in 1947 into India, and East and West Pakistan. During the partition, the British offered the Pashtuns only the choice of joining Pakistan or India, while the Afghans argued that the Pashtun tribes should have also been given the choice of joining Afghanistan or forming their own independent state.[24] Kabul also argued that the agreements between Afghanistan and the British India, including that of the Durand Line, became void with the departure of the British from the subcontinent. Even if Pakistan were considered the successor state, the Afghans argued, the Durand Line agreement of 1893 had no legitimacy because the Afghans had been forced by the British into accepting it.[25] Successive regimes of all stripes in Kabul (monarchist, republican, communist, Islamist) have maintained the unanimous policy of refusing to grant official recognition to their border with Pakistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, has always treated the line as its official border with Afghanistan, and refuted any claims put forward by Kabul over the territory.[26] The issue has been the main cause of the soured relations between the two countries over the past six decades.

While Afghanistan and Pakistan have never fought a formal war, Pakistan has housed and supported various anti-government Afghan militias for decades. Although contemporary narratives suggest that Pakistan began using Islamist militants to pursue its policies in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Islamabad’s involvement with Afghan anti-government figures goes back to at least 1968. [27] In that year, a number of Afghan Islamists figures, led by the late Burhanuddeen Rabbani, founded the anti-government Jamiat-e-Islami Party,[28] which received strong support from Pakistan. According to some accounts, Pakistan trained approximately 5,000 Afghan militants between 1973 and 1977, and deployed them to Afghanistan to destabilize the country.[29] In the early to mid-1970s, these militants engaged in three failed coup attempts against President Daoud Khan, and conducted anti-government activities across the country.[30]

Pakistan’s game in Afghanistan dramatically increased after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the subsequent war. Seven Afghan mujahideen factions were established in Pakistan, drawing thousands of fighters from among the millions of displaced Afghans in Pakistan’s refugee camps. The United States and Saudi Arabia poured billions of dollars into the Afghan war in an attempt to draw the Red Army into a war of attrition. All the assistance to the Afghan resistance was channeled through Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI[31], giving the Pakistanis absolute control over the war effort. By the mid-1980s, the ISI trained and deployed approximately 20,000 fighters per year with more trained inside Afghanistan, and shipped tens of thousands of tons of arms and ammunitions to Afghanistan to sustain the war against the Soviets and the Afghan communist regime.[32] For this service, Pakistan received several billions of American dollars and advanced weapons including F-16 fighter jets, as well as the West’s promise to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear program.[33]

While Pakistan supported all of the mujahideen factions, its favorite group was the notorious, radical, Pashtun-dominated Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbuddeen Hekmatyar. Islamabad’s preference of Sunni Pashtuns over other ethnic factions was strategic in nature. As Christine Fair writes, this was “part of a deliberate effort to ensure that any Pashtun political aspirations [in both sides of the Durand Line] would be channeled through religious – rather than ethnic – groups.”[34] Further, Pakistan was establishing close ties with the Hekmatyar group in hopes that in the event of the defeat of the communists in Afghanistan, Hekmatyar would represent Pakistan’s interests in whatever political arrangement the mujahideen would make. The Pakistanis, however, miscalculated Hekmatyar’s capabilities. By the early 1990s, the Soviets were long gone and the Afghan communist government collapsed. In the ensuing political arrangement and subsequent civil war, Hekmatyar proved to be ineffective, and Pakistan would have to look for an alternative proxy in Afghanistan.[35]

In 1994, a small local militia group was shaping up in Kandahar, and Pakistan was quick to establish links with it. This group came to be known as the Taliban, and Pakistan’s hand was instrumental in its emergence and speedy evolution. Kapur and Ganguli summarize Pakistan’s assistance to the Taliban quite nicely:

General [Naseerullah Khan] Babar [Pakistan’s Minister of Internal Security] created an Afghan trade and development cell in the interior ministry to provide the Taliban with logistical support; Pakistan’s Public Works Department and Corps paramilitary forces helped to construct communications networks for Taliban commanders; and Pakistan International Airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority assisted with the repair of Kandahar airport and Taliban military aircraft. Other Pakistani assistance included the recruitment and training of Taliban personnel; intelligence and combat advisory support; and direct military action such as cross-border artillery fire in conjunction with Taliban operations.[36]

In return, the Taliban notoriously pursued Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. They fought and defeated most of the mujahideen factions that were not friendly with Pakistan, i.e. Jamiat-e-Islami party that held power in Kabul, as well as the Hazara and Uzbek groups. With the exception of Ahmad Shah Masood’s group which held its positions in the Panjsher Valley and other small areas in the north, most of the mujahideen fighters were disarmed and their groups liquidated. The Taliban cut all Indian influence in Afghanistan, and while they did not formally recognize the Durand Line, made no attempt at reviving the dispute.

Post 9/11, Pakistan continues its clandestine support of the Taliban and associated Afghan militant groups like the Haqqani Network and the Hekmatyar group by providing them with sanctuaries, financial, logistical and intelligence support.[37] Pakistani strategists calculate that the U.S. will not remain engaged in Afghanistan forever. Once the Americans are out, Pakistan can insert its proxies back into Afghanistan, propping up a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul.

In the meantime, the Pakistani government claims to be at the forefront of America’s war on terror, reaping billions of dollars in military and economic aid from the U.S. Since 2002, Pakistan has received over 25 billion dollars in military and economic assistance from the United States.[38] The war in Afghanistan, therefore, is a highly profitable business for Pakistan. By prolonging the war, Pakistan ensures that Afghanistan remains fragmented and weak, a country that would not dream of reviving in any meaningful way the Durand Line dispute. The continuation of the war also ensures that India’s strategic ambitions in Afghanistan remains checked, that Pakistan continues to remain the most important player in Afghan affairs, and that more American dollars continue to flow into Pakistan. Through a sophisticated strategy, Pakistani leaders have managed to fool the international community over the past decade, while slowly but surely pursuing their strategic interests in the region.

On the domestic front, Pakistan has succeeded in managing the militant groups in ways to prevent a serious threat to the state. The ISI and the military have tried to cultivate disagreements among commanders who seem to pose a challenge to the state. In Christine Fair’s words, “Pakistan cultivated Mullah Bahadur and Mawlvi Nazir to counter the anti-state elements of the TTP [Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan] generally and Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud in particular.”[39] As current head of the TTP, Hakimullah Mehsud, however, seems to be losing his loyalty to ISI, so he is most likely to be replaced by a more devoted ISI crony, Waliur Rehman, who has vowed to stop attacks against the Pakistani government, and focus on fighting NATO and Afghan forces across the border.[40] Army and ISI have also engaged rogue militant groups in peace deals, while at times have sought to defeat them by military force.[41] Overall, the Pakistani government has been successful at containing Islamist militancy at home, while using it as an effective instrument of foreign policy abroad. Over the past four decades, this strategy has ensured the realization of Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan and Indi, and will most likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion: Recent weeks have witnessed numerous signals by the Pakistani government that it might start genuinely supporting the peace process in Afghanistan. These signals include Pakistan’s release of a number of Afghan Taliban prisoners who might be able to play an instrumental role in peace negotiations with the Afghan government, as well as numerous high profile visits between Kabul and Islamabad. In light of these developments, some observers have argued that Pakistan might be dramatically changing its longtime doctrine of supporting and using Islamist militant groups to pursue its foreign policy in the region. The worsening security situation in Pakistan as a result of increased TTP attacks in the north and widespread sectarian violence, terrorism and organized crime in major Pakistani cities are said to be the motivating factors behind Islamabad’s change of heart.

This paper has contested the above viewpoint by arguing that given the strategic environment in the region, the use of Islamist militant groups as proxies against Afghanistan and India is still a viable strategy for Pakistan. Taking an historical detour, the paper showed that Pakistan’s utilization of Islamist militant groups has ensured its strategic interests in Kashmir since 1947 and in Afghanistan since the 1960s. Through the use of irregular warfare, Pakistan has effectively checked the stronger Indian army in Kashmir for over six decades. Similarly, by supporting various anti-government Afghan militant groups, Pakistan has ensured a weak, fragmented Afghanistan, essentially solidifying the disputed Durand Line as its de facto international border. Meanwhile, by formally situating itself on the forefront of America’s war on terror, Pakistan has reaped billions of dollars from the U.S. in military and economic aid. Therefore, as long as Pakistan’s territorial disputes with its two neighbors remain unresolved, Islamabad will most likely continue its cost-effective strategy of nurturing and using Islamist militant groups as a tool of foreign policy. (Pakistan Defense)

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