The revolving door
Carlotta Gall and David Rohde of the International Herald Tribune describe in a four page article how Pakistan's Interservices-Intelligence (ISI) gradually lost control of the Islamic militants they fostered as tools. Now those tools have turned against them. "The growing strength of the militants, many of whom now express support for Al Qaeda's global jihad, presents a grave threat to Pakistan's security, as well as NATO efforts to push back the Taliban in Afghanistan. American officials have begun to weigh more robust covert operations to go after Al Qaeda in the lawless border areas because they are so concerned that the Pakistani government is unable to do so."
The degree to which the Pakistan has been patched together is expressed in its very name. "The name was coined by Cambridge student and Muslim nationalist Choudhary Rahmat Ali ... he saw it as an acronym formed from the names of the 'homelands' of Muslims in northwest India — P for Punjab, A for the Afghan areas of the region, K for Kashmir, S for Sindh and tan for Balochistan, thus forming "Pakstan". An 'i' was later added to the English rendition of the name to ease pronunciation, producing 'Pakistan'" To this hodge-podge was added East Pakistan, later to become Bangladesh, separated by great bulk of India itself from the rest of the nation and connected only by sea. One of Pakistan's challenges from the very beginning was to keep from falling apart, a task that fell largely to the military. When East Pakistan finally made a play for independence, India intervened to prevent West Pakistan from crushing the rebellion with superior force.
Unable to compete in conventional war with India, even with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, Islamabad began to use proxies to advance its foreign policy objectives. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan engaged in two conflicts with nuclear armed powers largely using proxy terrorist organizations and infantry under the cover of plausible deniability. The first was its war against India in the Kargil district, fought at a time when both nations already had nukes. The second of course, was the ISI's participation in ousting the Soviet bear from Afghanistan. Pakistan suffered a disastrous defeat at India's hands in the Kargil but had better luck supporting the Taliban against the Soviets. However, the proxies it created as tools took on a life of their own. The International Herald Tribune article continues:
In the 1990s, the ISI supported the militants as a proxy force to contest Indian-controlled Kashmir, the border territory that India and Pakistan both claim, and to gain a controlling influence in neighboring Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the United States supported militants, too, funneling billions of dollars to Islamic fighters battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan through the ISI, vastly increasing the agency's size and power. ... After the agency unleashed hard-line Islamist beliefs, the officials said, it struggled to stop the ideology from spreading. ... The threat from the militants, the former intelligence officials warned, is one that Pakistan is unable to contain. "We could not control them," said one former senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We indoctrinated them and told them, 'You will go to heaven.' You cannot turn it around so suddenly."
The conflict between the ISI and its proxies was brought to a head by September 11. The IHT article says, "after 9/11, the Bush administration pressed Musharraf to choose a side in fighting Islamist extremism and to abandon Pakistan's longtime support for the Taliban and other Islamist militants." The very success of the US campaign in Afghanistan in 2002 against the Taliban created an immense strategic problem for Islamabad. Pakistan had never fully controlled its mountainous Northwest Frontier Provinces. The availability of Afghanistan as an arena in which Islamic militancy could turn its energies provided Islamabad with an outlet in which the monsters it had created could safely exercise its murderous passions. Just as Saudi Arabia found it expedient to export its virulence the better to keep it from rampaging at home, Pakistan was safe from the Islamic terrorist groups it hatched only for as long as their attention was directed outwards. When US troops drove the Taliban out of Kabul they turned those explosive forces back upon Pakistan. Ending the rule of al Qaeda and Taliban in Kabul was purchased at the cost of turning Pakistan itself into the main battleground.
Just how radically the Taliban's defeat in Afghanistan affected Pakistan can be gathered from the fact that when in July, 2002 "Pakistani troops entered the Tirah Valley in the Khyber Agency" it was the first deployment into the area since independence in 1947. The Pakistani troop movement was in some respects like the invasion of a foreign country. To smooth the way Islamabad attempted to mollify the tribal powers. "This was made possible after long negotiations with various tribes, who reluctantly agreed to allow the military's presence on the assurance that it would bring in funds and development work."
But instead it turned the Northwest Frontier Provinces into a battlefield. Efforts by the Pakistani army to hunt down the fleeing al-Qaeda complemented by US airstrikes were met by resistance from the Taliban and the tribes, who had long enjoyed autonomy from Islamabad. The military weakness of the Pakistani army, for which the Islamic proxies were recompense, was evident in the face of their own self-created monsters. Unable to impose a military solution, even with the very limited assistance of US air strikes, the Pakistani government attempted to buy off the tribes and the suborn the Taliban. But these attempts failed. Bill Roggio documented what he called the "Fall of Waziristan" after several peace deals and ceasefires with the Taliban had failed. Pakistani attempts to subjugate or buy off the militants had failed. At this point their proxies were seriously straining at the leash. Now the leash may have broken altogether.
In 2007 three ominous developments took place. The first was the open clash between the political representatives of the Islamic militants in the capital and President Musharraf as represented by the siege of the Lal Masjid or "Red" mosque. The mosque was the spiritual center of the Jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. " The mosque is located near the headquarters of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service, which helped train and fund the holy warriors (in collaboration with the US Military), and a number of ISI staff are said to go there for prayers. After the Soviet war in Afghanistan ended in 1989, the mosque continued to function as a center for radical Islamic learning and housed several thousand male and female students in adjacent seminaries." The Red Mosque incident was an overt political challenge to Musharraf.
The second event was the Islamic militant offensive in the Swat Valley. "The fighting in Swat is the first serious insurgent threat from pro-Taliban forces in what is known as a settled area of Pakistan. Forces loyal to Maulana Fazlullah, including some foreign fighters, after taking control of a series of small towns and villages, tried to implement strict Islamic law in November 2007. In mid-November the regular army was deployed with the help of helicopter gunships to crush the uprising. The Pakistan Army deployed over 2,500 men. By the beginning of December the fighting had ended and the Army recaptured Swat." But the Swat incident was the first offensive operation of the Islamic militants into Pakistani government territory proper.
The third and most serious development was the emergence of a campaign of suicide bombings and attacks in the cities of Pakistan itself, the most famous being the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Scotland Yard has blamed her death on a militant associated with al-Qaeda. "The gun fired at Bhutto has been checked for fingerprints by the Scotland Yard detectives. A government minister told The Sunday Times that these have been traced through identity cards to a man in Swat, an area where Mehsud’s men have been fighting."
From the viewpoint of the Western public, Pakistan is seen as a "safe haven" for Taliban threatening to take back Afghanistan. In the Western view, Afghanistan is being invaded by al-Qaeda stationed in Pakistan. But from the Pakistani point of view, as shown in al-Jazeera video below, it is the reverse: Pakistan is now being "invaded" from Afghanistan. Both assertions are true. The trouble is, Pakistan is being invaded by the very forces it itself had created in its recent past, some of it with CIA assistance. The Pakistani viewpoint, while redolent with irony, is not wholly unjustified from a military point of view. With the Islamic militants now "out of control" as described by the International Herald Tribune, a NATO withdrawal or defeat in Afghanistan would create a vast strategic rear from which the militants could base their campaign against Pakistan itself. The fates of the two countries have become intertwined. The loss of the Northwest Frontier Provinces constitutes a clear and present danger to Afghanistan; and the loss of Afghanistan would probably result in their loss to Islamabad in the same way that East Pakistan eventually broke away.
The International Herald Tribune story makes the reform of the Interservices-Intelligence (ISI) the focus of regaining control over events. While true, this conceals the fact that the problem is in fact larger. The ISI created and nurtured these Islamic terrorist groups not as an end in themselves but in order to hold the fractious Pakistani state and its threatened borders togethers. The ISI resorted to asymmetrical warfare to redress its conventional weakness. It used Islamic militant groups because the other methods it tried had failed. It is a cure that has worsened the disease. To some extent the existence of Islamic terrorist groups is rooted in the weakness of Pakistani institutions themselves. The country's democratic institutions are weak and while most Pakistanis are Sunni Muslims it also contains the second largest Shi'a population in the world after Iran. Therefore the task of bringing the Islamic terrorist groups to heel must go beyond merely purging the ISI of bad eggs. It will require a prolonged effort to foster and strengthen the institutions of civil society in Pakistan; dry up the sources of support for al-Qaeda in the Middle East; and keep Iran from exploiting the unrest. That's an agenda which will take decades.
What others have said
The Sepia Mutiny looked at the way forward for Pakistan, which may not resemble the path Americans might choose. Max Boot recalls the initial campaign against the Taliban. From Westhawk, the saga of how the Marines plan to go from Anbar to Afghanistan. Bill Roggio says the Haqqani Taliban network from northwestern Pakistan attacked the Serena Hotel in Kabul.
(From today I will try to add the section "What others have said" to the end of major posts. Commenters are welcome to email links to related articles or suggest them in comments.)