For decades, Pakistan’s quest to shape neighboring Afghanistan by supporting hard-line Islamist militants has faced feeble but noisy opposition from the country’s politicians and intellectuals.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s new Afghanistan policy, which centers on persuading Pakistan to abandon its backing of the Afghan Taliban and other extremist groups, now has an underestimated side effect.
The policy has revived domestic critique of Islamabad’s Afghanistan approach, with many renewing their calls for reviewing policies that have brought death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis and Afghans.
“We need to look at Trump’s policy as an opportunity,” Senator Farhatullah Babar, an outspoken leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, told Radio Mashaal. “This is not a moment of danger or threat. Pakistani national security [concerns] requires us to reflect on this issue [of terrorist sanctuaries] and not let any terrorist group operate in our country who are responsible for terrorism in other countries.”
Trump’s speech about a strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia on August 21 singled out Pakistan for “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” He warned Islamabad that Washington “can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”
Islamabad, however, rejected Trump’s assertions and complained of being scapegoated by Washington for failing to win the Afghan war.
“Pakistan had to manage the blowback of a protracted conflict in Afghanistan that resulted in [a] deluge of refugees, flow of drugs and arms, and more recently in the shape of terrorist safe havens in eastern Afghanistan from where anti-Pakistan terrorist groups continue to operate and launch attacks inside Pakistan,” read a statement by Pakistan’s National Security Committee on August 24. “The fact remains that the complex issues and internal dynamics inside Afghanistan pose a grave challenge not only to Pakistan but to the broader region and the international community.”
The hard-liners who openly support Afghan militants delivered an even stronger message. “We are fighting the Americans in Afghanistan, and those who cannot fight are waging jihad with their words and pens; the whole nation needs to rise up to defeat the West,” Maulana Samiul Haq, a senior leader of the Defense of Pakistan Council, told journalists on August 24.
The cleric said the Pakistani military will not move against the Haqqani network -- a deadly Taliban wing responsible for devastating attacks in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
The council is a coalition of numerous hard-line organizations and political parties that mobilizes whenever Islamabad is pressured to turn its back on Afghan militant groups.
Author Ayesha Siddiqa says mobilizing the Defense of Pakistan Council and expressing the country’s foreign policy choices through militant organizations would be short-sighted.
“The American president's seeming policy shift does not bode a doomsday scenario for Pakistan,” she wrote. “This is the time to hear voices rather than curb dialogue. Pakistan needs alternative voices to the security and foreign policy debate.”
Writing in Pakistan’s daily Express Tribune, veteran journalist Muhammad Ziauddin advised Islamabad to adopt a new approach to Kabul after Trump ruled out a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal.
“With the U.S staying put in Afghanistan ostensibly until the full obliteration of the Taliban, [Pakistan should start] redesigning a new Afghan policy based on the premise that we do not need the Afghan Taliban anymore,” he wrote. “At the same time, we need a brand-new policy to win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan so that they would also feel that it was time for them to decide that they do not need the Pakistani Taliban anymore.”
As Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor, Pakistan shares deep ethnic, linguistic, and historic ties with the country. But the two countries have never managed to establish a stable, cooperative relationship. Kabul has never formally recognized the 19th-century Durand Line as its international border with Pakistan to keep its irredentist claims alive.
It was, however, Islamabad that practically eliminated the border by hosting millions of Afghan refugees and a number anti-Soviet Afghan Islamist factions during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The collapse of a central government in Afghanistan during the civil war following the demise of the socialist regime gave Pakistan the opportunity to mold Afghan politics by backing a hard-line student militia -- the Taliban -- which emerged in southern Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and swept most of the country by the end of the century.
Afghan and Western officials accuse Islamabad of continuing to bankroll the Taliban even while ostensibly helping Washington topple their regime in late 2001. For years, Islamabad denied a Taliban presence in Pakistan.
But aided by Islamabad’s covert support for the Afghan Taliban, a Pakistani Taliban movement eventually emerged. Since 2003, this duplicitous approach to violence in Afghanistan has threatened Islamabad’s authority in parts of the country. In a remarkable blowback of nurturing jihadists, more than 60,000 Pakistani civilians and soldiers have died in attacks by the Pakistani Taliban and allied groups.
Islamabad’s support for the Taliban was showcased by the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan in May 2016. His predecessor, Mullah Muhammad Omar, also reportedly died in the country in 2013. Even a former senior Taliban leader accused his successor, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, of being camped in Pakistan.
“Pakistan has failed to bring any longer-term coherence to its Afghan policy,” noted former Pakistani diplomat Ashraf Jehangir Qazi. “[Islamabad] has extended a range of ‘deniable’ support to extremist organizations operating in Afghanistan.”
Qazi says Islamabad even squandered an opportunity to cultivate a cooperative relationship with Kabul after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani invested his political capital into reaching out to the country’s powerful military generals after assuming office in 2014. The outreach, however, failed as Taliban violence skyrocketed, prompting Ghani to declare that his country is in a state of “undeclared hostilities” with Pakistan.
The failure pushed Ghani to embrace Pakistan’s archrival, India, as his main ally. For decades, Pakistani military strategists have argued that an influence over Afghanistan would prevent it from falling into New Delhi’s pincers.
Lawmaker Babar, a member of the upper house of the Pakistani Parliament, says Islamabad can still extricate itself from the emerging quagmire.
“Nations sometimes face movements when they need to reflect on their weakness and failures to mitigate them,” he noted.