Explaining Pakistan’s Confidence

December 10, 2014

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When Lt-Gen Asad Durrani, a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, delivered a speech on Afghanistan in London last month, it was hard to miss the note of triumph. Afghanistan, he said, had already seen off two major world powers – the British Empire in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th. Now a third, the United States, was heading for the exit. For anyone who believes Pakistan’s aim in Afghanistan all along has been to turn the clock back to Sept 10, 2001 – when it exercised its influence over the country through its Taliban allies – it could almost have been a victory speech.

Durrani, who remains close to the Pakistani security establishment, was quick to blame the United States for the many mistakes it made in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. He also found a cause in Afghanistan itself by declaring it “the graveyard of empires” – a worn Anglo-centric trope which says far more about politics than history. (The British Empire not only won its Afghan wars after initial setbacks, but it also flourished after its first invasion of Afghanistan in 1839-42; the Soviet Union was rotting economically from within long before it sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979.) There was no mention of Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban; only of the other side of that coin: that Pakistan alone could help provide peace. It was Pakistan, he said, which had delivered a safe retreat to the Soviet Union by ensuring the mujahideen did not shoot Soviet troops in the back as they left in 1989. By implication, it was Pakistan alone which could help the Americans manage their own retreat.

What was striking was not so much the comments, some of which have been made before by Pakistani officials, but the confidence – all the more so since it came in a speech delivered not to a domestic Pakistani audience in need of reassurance and bluster but in a western capital whose troops had also fought the Afghan war. When Durrani said the Taliban had “weathered the onslaught of the world’s mightiest allies,” was he really talking about the Taliban, or about Pakistan?

Losing Ground to India

Pakistan’s geopolitical successes and failures cannot easily be measured without reference to India, its own Islamist insurgency, and the events of 2001. By most objective measures in that context, Pakistan has fared badly. More than 55,000 Pakistanis have been killed since 2001, including nearly 30,000 alleged militants, nearly 20,000 civilians and 6,000 members of its security forces, according to figures collated by the South Asian Terrorism Portal. Pakistan lost a friendly Taliban regime in Afghanistan to one which was sympathetic to India. Its influence in Kashmir has waned as a separatist revolt against India ebbed and Pakistan’s own problems made it seem far less appealing to Kashmiris. After Pakistan re-established strategic parity and blunted India’s conventional military superiority by testing nuclear weapons in 1998 – in response to Indian tests – Pakistan has steadily lost influence to its much bigger neighbor. Not since 1971, when East Pakistan broke away with Indian help to form Bangladesh, has Pakistan lost so much ground to India. Indeed, the rise of India’s economic and political clout globally probably means its dominant position vis-à-vis Pakistan is irreversible. A nuclear deal agreed with the United States in 2005 effectively recognized India as a nuclear-armed power and firmed up the – albeit bumpy – process of turning India into Washington’s favored strategic partner in the region. This shift will be graphically illustrated when President Barack Obama visits New Delhi as the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day ceremonies on January 26, the first American president to do so.

Under such circumstances you might expect Pakistan’s security establishment to be chastened. Instead, we are seeing evidence of confidence. This was not only reflected in Durrani’s speech. This month, Hafez Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group and one of the more loyal of the Pakistan Army’s proxies, held a public rally in the city of Lahore calling for militants to fight in Kashmir. India, which along with the United States holds the Lashkar-e-Taiba responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, denounced his rally as the “mainstreaming of terrorism.” That a man with a $10 million U.S. terrorism bounty on his head could hold a huge rally in the center of Lahore is not evidence of a chastened security establishment. It is a sign of one flexing its muscles.

Washington’s Default Position

The question of Pakistan’s attitude to Afghanistan, and indeed to the use of Islamist militant proxies, is one which defines how you assess the likelihood of a peaceful end to the Afghan war. Given the opacity of the Pakistani system, it has been possible over the years since 2001 to assemble any collection of events and read into them reasons for optimism or pessimism. Thus, nowadays, you can support the official Pakistani line that – battered by the blowback from the Afghan war – Pakistan has had a change of heart and is now ready to fight terrorism “in all its forms.” You can even try to argue that Pakistan and Afghanistan are willing to work together, with U.S. help. Or you can assert the opposite view, seeing in the recent string of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan evidence of Pakistan increasing the pressure on new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Since violence inside Afghanistan also has domestic causes, it is difficult to tell exactly where Pakistani influence begins and ends.) A third possibility is that Pakistan will work with the United States to bring peace to Afghanistan in order to focus on ramping up the fight against India in Kashmir – the “good Taliban” like Hafez Saeed will remain in play, while the “bad Taliban” are eliminated.

As ever, any assessment will come down to how you frame your questions, and it is here that signs of renewed confidence in the Pakistani security establishment provide important clues. Of course, the Pakistani military is doing well domestically, having seen off any attempt by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to assert civilian influence over foreign and security policy. Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif has also just completed a successful tour of the United States which included a high-profile meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But that would not alone explain quite so much confidence at a time when India is doing so well.

It is worth considering another possibility. What if the United States is wrong in its assumption that Pakistan’s reliance on Islamist militant proxies is primarily a reflection of its insecurity about India? Since 2001, U.S. policies have been driven by the idea that Pakistan nurtured Islamist militants in response to the insecurity it felt after its defeat by India in the 1971 war, which turned then East Pakistan into Bangladesh. Washington’s objective, therefore, has been to convince Pakistan to turn its back on Islamist militants while fretting about Pakistani domestic stability were it to force Islamabad/Rawalpindi to go after them too abruptly. In other words, it has focused on Pakistan’s insecurity. Thus as early as November 2001, just two months after the September 11 attacks, the United States allowed Pakistan to fly out an unknown number of Taliban fighters, along with Pakistani officers and intelligence operatives, from the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in order to bolster the position of then military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Later, it assumed that Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban was at least partly in response to rising Indian influence in Afghanistan. Thus in his 2008 election campaign, then candidate Barack Obama suggested the United States should try to help resolve the Kashmir dispute in order to let Pakistan focus on tackling militants; thereby helping to end the Afghan war. Those hopes – which had aggravated India which resents outside interference in Kashmir – disappeared with the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008.

What if it were the other way around – that the Islamist project came first and insecurity about India either provided the excuse and/or was the result? After all, if you are primarily driven by insecurity about a larger neighbor, you don’t send 10 gunmen to attack its financial capital and then allow the presumed mastermind to hold rallies publicly in one of your biggest and most accessible cities.

That would explain the confidence: in spite of the battering Pakistan has taken since 2001, in spite of the decline of its position relative to India, neither of these were quite as important to the Pakistani security establishment than the idea that the Taliban have “weathered the onslaught of the world’s mightiest allies.”

The implications for the region are grave. For a start, it would mean Pakistan would welcome an Afghan Taliban victory after western troops withdraw – albeit with some carefully controlled strings that it might hope to manage rather better than its previous attempts to manage outcomes in Afghanistan. It would also suggest that rather than dealing with normal state-to-state relations – whereby issues like the contested Durand Line border between Afghanistan and Pakistan might be resolved through diplomacy – the Afghan war continues to be driven by two competing ideologies. The ideology which boasts of seeing off three major powers – the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States – is one which, given the historical context, is tinged with Islamist militant supremacism. It is not the same one which would have an interest in establishing healthy state-to-state relations and trade with a stable democratic Afghanistan. Worryingly, it would suggest that the Pakistani security establishment is not too worried about the radicalization inside Pakistan of its civil society, where religious militant groups are increasingly used to suppress dissent. Globally, the Islamist militant project is doing well; that in itself would give enough grounds for confidence provided Pakistan still believes it can control militancy inside.

Like other suggestions about Pakistani policy, the idea that the Pakistani security establishment is emerging from the Afghan war more confident than ever is only one possibility. It does however raise a fundamental question about U.S. policy. The default position in Washington has been to see Pakistan as insecure, a notion made all the more convincing by the prickliness of its security and intelligence officials. What if the opposite were true – that a nuclear-armed Pakistan whose Taliban allies survived the war is coming out of the Afghan war feeling very secure?

As Durrani quipped – using a Winston Churchill quote which seems to be rather popular with the ISI – you can count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else. But the United States has always seen Pakistan as insecure and open to manipulation; it has never tried to imagine it as secure.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has reported on Pakistan and India since 2000. She is the author of “Heights of Madness”, a book on the Siachen war fought in the mountains beyond Kashmir on the world’s highest battlefield. She is now working on a book about the relationship between India and Pakistan following their nuclear tests in 1998. She lives in Scotland and can be found on Twitter @myraemacdonald.

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27 thoughts on “Explaining Pakistan’s Confidence

  1. Excellent article and so seasonal too – what else can Christmas bring along – after a Pakistani victory in Afghanistan soon, as the USA and allies reduce their “footprint”.

    Not convinced it is a victory for Pakistan or its people. It is likely to be a victory for the military and ISI.

  2. Whenever Pakistan gets a positive support from US, it beings to push its proxy in Kashmir.

    Pakistan is very pathetic in strategy and it still believes that US and other world powers will support Pakistan mainstreaming of terrorism for long.
    US and other world powers should not fund Pakistan army and its ailing economy if Pakistan dont follow international convention of terrorism.

    1. Your deduction are way off, Kashmir is a disputed territory, India has killed 80,000 kashmiris and is maintaining 500,000 soldier raping Muslim amen randomly, in that state, why?

      Let us tell India to allow Amnesty international to verify all this, but than India has been refusing to allow Amnesty access to Kashmir, can you figure it out why?

  3. War is hell, according to rough estimates, 100,000 Afghans have been killed, 6 million came to Pakistan as refugees, for 20 years no schooling, no jobs and no promised developments, so let us talk about those who suffered and how they can be helped and not the claims by every one with their agendas.

  4. Gen. Durrani has been given far too much credence by Ms. Macdonald. Gen. Durrani’s views are not necessarily the views of another Gen. Durrani or the views of the slightly unhinged Gen. Gul. All heads of the ISI. However all of these individuals are irrelevant to the ISI of today or the Government of Pakistan’s policy vis a vis Afghanistan or India.

    Ms. Macdonald would do well to consider that a lot of the violence seen in India such as the Mumbai tragedy like the Samjhota Express massacre was Indian inspired. However that would require Ms. Macdonald to have researched the counterpoint.

    In the end Gen. Durrani is absolutely at liberty to state what he did, however that triumphalism or gloating does not reflect the official view of the Government, the Pakistan Army or the ISI. Afghanistan is a neighbour that needs to be treated with respect as should they treat Pakistan with equal respect. With ruler’s (Like King Zahid Shah in 1947) who stood in the way of Pakistan’s admission to the UN, non recognition of the Durand Line (King Zahir Shah and the kleptomaniacal President Karzai) , Indian aggression in Kashmir, Junagadh, Hyderabad Deccan, cutting of Pakistan’s water and the ultimate dismemberment of its eastern wing is conveniently forgotten by Ms.Macdonald as possible reasons for Pakistan’s suspicion of the regional hegemon.

    While Pakistan has many flaws,it does not have a ruler who was tried and convicted for religious killings? Pakistan is yet to elect a religious fundamentalist as it’s ruler. India has had two Nehru and Modi ….. need I say more.

    1. Mr. Bilgrami:

      I figure that nobody in Pakistan ever gets convicted of a religious killing so long as the victim is a Christian, Shia, Ahmadi or others on the not approved list. With that in mind your last paragraph is not germane.

      1. Mr. Carl:
        I figure nobody in NATO ever gets convicted (slap on the wrists does not count) of torturing helpless and defeated men. Abu gharib and the recent reports are evidence. With that in mind all your points are not germane.

        1. Mr. pac:

          Ah. There you are again. And your same response again.

          There is perhaps one tiny, mote of a good thing about the Pak Army/ISI encouragement and toleration of killing innocent people inside Pakistan solely for their religions beliefs. People of those groups may flee Pakistan if they can so proportionately fewer of them will die when Pak Army/ISI machinations bring about the physical destruction of Pakistan and the people who live there.

          1. Physical destruction of Pakistan?…Keep dreamin.
            People in west asia region, can be argued, kill for religion, which they believe give them a higher purpose of living.
            You guys (US,britain etc) kill for money/oil. Please say it isnt so?…I dare ya

      2. Actually they do regularly. At least 18 have been hanged recently for the killing of Shia’s hindu’s and Christians.

        Yes there is much to be sad and critical about Pakistan but I don’t buy your views. You seem to enjoy being provocative about Pakistan and all things Pakistani.

        May I invite you to visit the country and see for yourself rather than making judgements without knowing all the facts.

        Please feel free to take me up on this invitation at a suitable time. Visit Pakistan. Live on the wild side. You might just be surprised.

  5. Myra macdonald – sitting in scotland and writing an article on a country thousand miles need little bit more research. . .US came to afghanistan on its own agenda and so as every country involved in afghanistan including india. Then why not pakistan who has long border with afghanistan and suffered thousands of causalties during this war since 2011 which was not even pakistan war. . .why world want pakistan to pay the price for everything , why should pakistan not protect thr own people by negotiating with talibans rather than continuing a never ending war which US has lost.

  6. Pakistani establishment should stop killing Afghans also Pashtoon and Baluch Pakistanis to peruse its own policies. Policy of killing can be very dangerous for Pakistan in the long term. How much more blood Pakistani authorities will shed for money?

  7. The Pak Army/ISI is probably among the top three most stupid groups in the world (the other two being the Israelis and the Palistinians) and they by far pose the gravest danger to the people and country of Pakistan. The only chance that poor country had was the defeat of the Pak Army/ISI proxy war against the US and Afghanistan in Afghanistan thereby discrediting their grand Islamist strategy a primary component of which is constantly provoking India, a country of vastly greater military, political and economic power. Us Americans couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t do it because we are the fourth stupidest group in the world so now the general sahib’s in ‘Pindi are more confident than ever and will continue on their mad path. And they will continue on that path until India is pushed into a corner and then-poof!-no more Pakistan. No more hundreds of millions of innocent people on both sides of the border either.

    History will not judge us kindly in that we wouldn’t win in Afghanistan thereby muffing the last chance to perhaps ruin the devil’s spawn that is the Pak Army/ISI. Now we can only pray.

    1. With the recent revlations of torture and the previous history of deviant sexual torture, you are judging Pak Army/ISI?….I am not even going to mention agent orange and the more past history.
      Yes, you guys do need to pray, pray for your souls, if they are still relevant.

      1. pac:

        That is a fine, and predictable, example of the “Oh yeah!? Well what about you?” response. (You can’t really call it an argument.) It addresses not at all the point made.

        Mr. S. Shahzad was perhaps familiar with it.

        1. It’s a fine and a predictable example of the saying “people living in glass houses should not throw stones at others”. Plus can you quote an example of moral degenerate behaviour other than the US against their enemies in modern history. Nazi germany comes to mind.

          1. pac:

            Points off for you, parroting is finable offence.

            I am interested in your opinion of my primary point, that is that Pak Army/ISI through its actions constitutes a mortal danger to the people and country of Pakistan. I have explained why I think so above. To expand upon that, I think the primary motivation of Pak Army/ISI is venal. They are mainly interested in power and privilege. They are mainly interested in themselves. To further that primary interest their prime strategy is constant provocation of India. That is not wise in the long run.

            Also, they created a Jihadi monster to go after India that they have lost control of. That monster now poses a threat to Pakistan itself. Ironically, the monster the Pak Army/ISI created seems to be swaying the Pak Army/ISI to its ideological position, further endangering Pakistan.

            So, tell me what you think. I am interested.

  8. Lets not forget that Afghanistan is not only quagmire for superpowers alone. The Afghanistanis even hate more the Pakistani government and its ISI. Pakistan has paid its price in killing innocent people in Afghanistan and it will continually do so in the future, if it does not supporting the subhuman of Taliban. Pakistan has not won it yet and it will never do so.

  9. The so called Primary point you made, is here nor there. Where to begin, nothing in your “Primary point” is touching facts by even a 10 foot pole. Where do you get this idea i.e. your “Primary point”?
    >>carl said>> I think the primary motivation of Pak Army/ISI is venal. They are mainly interested in power and privilege.

    The short answer is no. Long answer,Pak army and ISI has never been more popular in history of the country, check the interwebs for that. They are popular for a reason, and Pak society with its overly exuberant media, doesnt let things slide, at least in these times. You should travel more outside your country, so your fast food addled mind can get a chance to get some perspective. I can go into specifics into your “Primary point”,but your point is kind of like a titanic ship, it is huge and un-salvageable.

  10. pac:

    The popularity of Pak Army/ISI inside the country has nothing at all to do with my primary point, that is Pak Army/ISI’s primary strategic thrust is suicidal for the people and country of Pakistan. Germany committed strategic suicide twice in the last century and and the German military was popular at the start of both of those adventures. In fact I think popularity can be a disadvantage to a military when it comes to exercising good judgment.

    So, I am still interested in if you think the primary component of Pak Army/ISI’s strategic stand, antipathy to India and constant provocation thereof, is ultimately suicidal as I think it is.

    And, this is just a comment, I think that motivated by venality on the part of Pak Army/ISI, ie they would not have their power and privilege if India is not viewed as an enemy therefore they must keep provoking that country.

    1. Carl, you havent read my full comment, anywho, I’ll repeat it again, PA/ISI are popular for a REASON. And since this is not American Idol, the reason is not their good vocals and or face. On your last three lines, this assertion that Pak public views india as an enemy so that’s why PA/ISI is important and given priviliges in the eyes of people and etc etc, is again wrong. Indian public is obsessed with Pak and not the other way round. Just see the controversy in the 2014 hockey champions trophy. Yes, Pak Public considers india as an enemy (a lot of reasons can be quoted), but doesnt think much more about them. Since you didnot check the interwebs why PA/ISI is popular nowadays, I would like to tell you but, that would be me spoon feeding you fast food which I am totally against. Travel the world Mr.Carl, and talk to them. The views you harbour are obsolete if not completely wrong.
      I also suggest you talk to germans in germany. There are an introvert lot when it comes to the war, but if you can get under their skin, you’ll find things are not what hollywood has made you think.

      1. One more thing, there wasnt any military led govt. in germany in WWI, wasnt there a king, Kaiser wilhem?…And in second world far, there was a Nazi regime, like there was communism in russia and not military dictatorship?
        People around the world like their armed forces, the exception being US armed forces. And if you like the deviants, there is more a problem with you than the US armed forces

  11. Asad Durrani does not represent the view of the government of Pakistan or the armed forces of Pakistan. He is a wonk, a dinosaur living in some screwed up alternative universe! No one should take anything he says seriously… he thinks it’s still the 1970s and we’re fighting communist Russia.