Taliban 2.0: Why US Looks The Other Way At Pakistan’s Sponsorship Of Terrorism in Afghanistan and India

Taliban 2.0: Why US Looks The Other Way At Pakistan’s Sponsorship Of Terrorism in Afghanistan and India

by Minhaz Merchant - Tuesday, September 7, 2021 12:27 PM IST
Taliban 2.0: Why US Looks The Other Way At Pakistan’s Sponsorship Of Terrorism in Afghanistan and IndiaFormer US President George W. Bush and former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf
  • All through the Cold War and even beyond, the CIA and ISI worked hand-in-glove, even though there is a wide trust deficit between them today.

    Here's a short history of that alliance.

The veil has been lifted. For years Pakistan pretended the Taliban acted independently and that Islamabad had limited influence over the ragtag terrorist group it created in 1994. That fiction is over.

After the Taliban was ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001 by the United States and NATO, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, continued to give its leaders arms to mount terror attacks on Western troops.

Washington’s geopolitical marriage of convenience with Islamabad goes back to 1947. Pakistan tethered its future to America during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. India chose non-alignment but flew close to the Soviet orbit.

Indian visitors to Pakistan in the 1960s were struck by wealthy Pakistanis cruising in US-made cars in Lahore and Islamabad. The US treated newly independent Pakistan as a client state. It poured in aid, helped build the country’s infrastructure and ran a large Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation to keep a watch on the Soviet Union’s captive satellite states north of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s per capita income was around 40 per cent higher than India’s through the 1960s. Dealing with Pakistan’s military dictators like Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan suited the CIA and the State Department in Washington. They were easy to bribe, had no accountability to their citizens and enjoyed a good drink. The close links between the CIA and ISI, which still endure, were forged in the 1960s.

Washington was prickly about India’s Soviet tilt. America in the 1950s and 1960s was paranoid about the “domino” effect of Communism. It waged costly wars against North Vietnam and Communist regimes in Latin America. The obsession against Communism ran deep.

During the Bangladesh war in 1971, President Richard Nixon sent the US Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India as its army pressed ahead to liberate East Pakistan.

Nixon’s psychotic animus towards India was revealed in declassified papers of recorded taped conversations between Nixon and his National Security Advisor (NSA) Henry Kissinger.

Princeton University Professor Gary J. Bass quoted a conversation between Nixon and Kissinger recorded on 5 November 1971: “The Indians are (expletive) anyway,” Kissinger said. “They are starting a war there. But she (Indira Gandhi) will not be able to go home and say that the United States didn't give her a warm reception and therefore in despair she's got to go to war.” Nixon agreed with Kissinger and said, “We have slobbered over the old (expletive).”

The CIA-ISI nexus

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with 30,000 soldiers in 1979 to install the Communist government of Babrak Karmal, the CIA and ISI worked together to build an Islamic Mujahideen force to fight Soviet soldiers.

After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan redeployed out-of-work mujahideen to do jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. It is no coincidence that terrorism took off in the Valley in 1989, leading to the exodus over the next two years of nearly four lakh Kashmiri Pandits. Islamist terrorists attacked the Pandits, occupied their homes and drove them off the land their ancestors had lived in for centuries

Kashmiri Pandits had made the Valley not only inclusive and tolerant but lent it erudition and culture. Deprived of these, the Valley sank into a quagmire of sectarian violence.

Through these turbulent decades, the CIA and ISI worked hand-in-glove even though the trust deficit had by now widened. For Washington, post-9/11, Pakistan was a problem that had to be managed. Rawalpindi controlled access to routes to landlocked Afghanistan which 1,00,000 US and NATO troops needed to fight the Taliban.

Twenty years later, the US has not solved its dilemma over Pakistan. Washington knows that the Taliban cannot exist without Pakistan’s military and logistical support. Yet the country remains a non-NATO ally. A frustrated US President Joe Biden, in a deliberate snub, has refused to pick up the phone to speak to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan since he took office in January 2021.

Rawalpindi orders, Taliban executes

The new Taliban “government” takes its orders from the Pakistani military, however strenuously its mujahideen leaders deny it.

British and American media have long airbrushed Pakistan’s malignant role as an exporter of terrorism to India and sponsor of the Taliban. In an interview on BBC TV last week, anchor Philippa Thomas shut down scholar C.Christine Fair mid-sentence when Fair said Pakistan was the root cause of terrorism across the region, including in Afghanistan. Pakistan, a global fount of terror, serves the West’s geopolitical self-interest.

With the US and other Western powers having abandoned Afghanistan, Pakistan however can no longer hide behind a veil of deniability. It will have the thankless task of controlling Talban terrorism – which it created and nurtured for decades – if Talibanised Afghanistan is not to become a pariah state.

Taliban representatives are pleading with Western powers to maintain diplomatic relations with it. But even China has warned the Taliban (and in effect Pakistan) to end all links with terror groups. That is akin to asking the Taliban and Pakistan to change their DNA.

Beijing knows that every terror outfit in the Middle East, emboldened by America’s exit, is making a beeline for Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and IS-K are already active. Across the Durand Line, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) are awaiting instructions from Rawalpindi.

The Taliban does not recognise the Durand Line which separates Pakistan and Afghanistan. The border has been fenced by Pakistan to prevent a fresh surge of Afghan refugees. Nearly three million Afghans, mostly Pashtuns, have been living as refugees in Pakistan for several years. Another million could join them.

What next? Terror groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan will fight each other over territory and power. For decades Pakistan exported terrorism to Afghanistan. In a cruel twist of fate, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, along with its free-for-all terror ecosystem, promises to return the favour.

As Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia during 2016-18, said in a recent interview, Pakistan’s support of “jihadi groups has unleashed forces that could eventually go beyond their control and threaten the rule even of the Generals in Rawalpindi.”

That will be the first of a thousand small cuts to bleed Pakistan.

Minhaz Merchant is an author and publisher. 

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