war on the rocks

Explaining Pakistan’s Confidence

December 10, 2014

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.