Biden’s Afghan Pullout Is a Victory for Pakistan. But at What Cost?
By Mujib Mashal, Salman Masood and Zia ur-Rehman (*) – The New York Times
stayed allied to both the Americans and Taliban. But now the country may face
intensified extremism at home as a result of a perceived Taliban victory.
Near the peak of the American war in Afghanistan, a former
chief of neighboring Pakistan’s military intelligence — an institution allied
both to the U.S. military and to its Taliban adversaries — appeared on a talk
show called “Joke Night” in 2014. He put a bold prediction on the record.
“When history is written,” declared Gen. Hamid Gul, who led the feared spy service
known as the I.S.I. during the last stretch of the Cold War in the 1980s, “it
will be stated that the I.S.I. defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with
the help of America.”
“Then there will be another sentence,” General Gul added
after a brief pause, delivering his punchline to loud applause. “The I.S.I.,
with the help of America, defeated America.”
In President Biden’s decision to withdraw all American forces from
Afghanistan by September, Pakistan’s powerful military establishment finally
gets its wish after decades of bloody intrigue: the exit of a disruptive
superpower from a backyard where the I.S.I. had established strong influence
through a friendly Taliban regime before the U.S. invaded in 2001.
A return of the Taliban to some form of power would dial the
clock back to a time when Pakistan’s military played gatekeeper to Afghanistan,
perpetually working to block the influence of its archenemy, India.
But the Pakistani military’s sheltering of the Taliban
insurgency over the past two decades — doggedly pursuing a narrowly defined
geopolitical victory next door — risks another wave of disruption at home.
Pakistan is a fragile, nuclear-armed state already reeling from a crashed
economy, waves of social unrest, agitation by oppressed minorities
and a percolating Islamic militancy of its own that it is struggling to
If Afghanistan descends into chaos, Pakistanis are bound to
feel the burden again just as they did after Afghanistan disintegrated in the
1990s following the Soviet withdrawal. Millions of Afghan refugees crossed the
porous border to seek relative safety in Pakistan’s cities and towns.
And more: A Taliban return to power, either through a civil
war or through a peace deal that gives them a share of power, would embolden
the extremist movements in Pakistan that share the same source of ideological
mentorship in the thousands of religious seminaries spread
across Pakistan. Those groups have shown no hesitation in antagonizing the country’s government.
While Pakistan’s military played a dangerous game of
supporting militants abroad and containing extremists at home, the country’s
Islamist movements found a rallying cause in the presence of an invading
foreign force next door, openly fund-raising for and cheering on their Afghan
classmates. New extremist groups kept shrinking the civil society space in
Pakistan — often targeting intellectuals and professionals for abuse or attack
— and even found sympathizers in the ranks of Pakistan’s security forces.
Pakistani generals have resorted to a mix of force and
appeasement in tackling the country’s own growing militancy problem, said Dr.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African
Studies in London. But a strategy for countering the spread of extremism has
“It scares me, it scares me,” Dr. Siddiqa said. “Once the
Taliban come back, that should trouble the Pakistani government, or any
government. It will be inspiring for all the other groups.”
Said Nazir, a retired brigadier and defense analyst in
Islamabad, said Pakistan had “learned some lessons” from the blowback of past
support to jihadist groups. The country would need to tread more cautiously in
the endgame of the Afghan war.
“Victory will not be claimed by Pakistan, but tacitly the
Taliban will owe it to Pakistan,” Mr. Nazir said. “Pakistan does fear the
replay of past events and fears a bloody civil war and violence if hasty
withdrawal and no political solution occur simultaneously.”
Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington said that although Pakistan’s military and intelligence
establishment are “undoubtedly celebrating” the Biden announcement, greater
control in Afghanistan is far from assured.
“It will be
difficult, if not impossible, for Pakistan to control the Taliban and other
militant groups in Afghanistan as the country spirals into a civil war,” he
said. “Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other groups are already operating in
Afghanistan. There is no way Pakistan can control this hodgepodge of groups,
which have different interests, leaders, and goals.”
moment of its birth as a country in 1947, Pakistan found itself surrounded by
enemies. The new borders drawn up by British officials instantly mired
Pakistan in a host of territorial disputes, including a serious one with
Afghanistan, which still lays claim to what most of the world sees as
Pakistan’s northwestern regions.
It was at the peak of the Cold War in the 1970s, as the
Soviet Union pushed to expand its influence in South and Central Asia, that
Pakistani leaders found a formula of deploying Islamist proxies they have stuck
to ever since. The United States armed and financed the training of the
mujahedeen insurgency that would defeat the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and
topple the government it propped up. Pakistan’s army, particularly its
intelligence wing, would serve as the handler, host, and trainer.
Through the ensuing civil war in the 1990s, Pakistani
generals helped a younger group of fundamentalist Afghan fighters known as the
Taliban sweep the fighting factions and establish a government with control
over more than 90 percent of Afghanistan.
But when the United States invaded in 2001 to chase Osama
bin Laden and Al Qaeda after their terrorist attacks on American soil, the
Americans also turned their sights on Pakistan’s allies in Afghanistan, the
ruling Taliban. Pakistan found itself in a difficult position. In the face of
President George Bush’s “with us or against us” ultimatum, Pakistan’s military
ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, reluctantly went along.
The decision had an immediate blowback: Pakistan began
facing attacks from the Pakistani Taliban for siding with the U.S. military
campaign against their ideological brothers in Afghanistan. It took years of
military operations that cost the lives of thousands of Pakistani forces, and
displaced countless people in Pakistan’s northwest, to quell the group.
Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a movement that
sees itself as protecting Islam against blasphemy, thrashed uniformed members
of Pakistani forces and took dozens hostage for hours. Videos emerged of
Pakistani army officers trying to reason with the violent protesters. Officials
said two policemen had been killed, and 300 wounded. The showdown continues, as
the government moved to ban the group as a terrorist outfit.
“The state was not able to control the stick-wielding and
stone-hurling members of the T.L.P. that paralyzed most parts of the country
for two days,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a former chairman of Pakistan’s human
rights commission. “How will they handle trained, guns-carrying Taliban
Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
(*) Mujib Mashal is The New York Times
correspondent for South Asia. In his role based out of New Delhi,
he covers India and the broad and diverse region around it that includes
Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the island nations of Sri Lanka and Maldives. Previously, he was the paper’s senior correspondent in Afghanistan. – Salman Masood has reported on
Pakistan for The New York Times since 2001 and focuses mainly on politics and
terrorism. – Zia Ur Rehman, journalist and researcher, senior reporter
with The News International, Pakistan. He has also been writing for New York
Will Biden End the
U.S. “Forever War” in Afghanistan?
announced a complete troop withdrawal from what he called the “forever war” in
Afghanistan, by September 11th. President George W. Bush announced the U.S.
invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001. In the two decades since, over
100,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, along with 45,000 members of the
Afghan army and police and at least 3,500 U.S. and coalition troops.