by Ehsan Azari Stanizai
A seven-month deadlock between the US and Pakistan ended last week when the hard word “sorry” over the November killing of 24 Pakistani troops in an errand American air strike was uttered and $1.2 billion in cash was coughed up in exchange for re-opening of the NATO supplies routes into Afghanistan. For the US, it is certainly beneficial in terms of logistics and saving, but it would be naïve if we think the deal would be an open sesame to close safe terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan.
The Western and Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan are not on the same page. Pakistani army which is the real power base in Pakistan has one obsession, and that is to have a week and chaotic Afghanistan once the NATO troops leave the war-torn country at the end of 2014. The only weapon that Pakistan has in order to ensure its control of Afghanistan is a covert support for the violent religious extremist groupsin Pakistan such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Lashkar-e-Jangvi, Punjabi Taliban and others.
It is an undeniable fact that the al-Qaida-linked armed networks of terrorists are headquartered in Pakistan where it runs several training camps as well as squads of suicide bombers. The networks regularly targets Afghan and coalition forces within the Afghan capital and the surrounding areas. The Pakistani military and its infamous Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) continue to provide clandestine support to the network.
For many years, the US has tried a carrot and stick approach vis-à-vis Pakistan in order to dissociate the ISI from the terrorist network, but to no avail. All its unrelenting requests and pleas to close the headquarters and camps in Pakistan have fallen on deaf ears.
The truth is that Pakistan will never go after the terrorist safe havens. The US lackluster reaction to Osama bin Laden’s capture and killing in May 2011 gave Pakistan further reassurance that it is unaccountable and can get away easily with anything. No one ever has seriously asked Pakistan so far, as to how the world’s most wanted terrorist responsible for mass murders and devastation, was found hiding in a mansion in a Pakistani garrison town with his wives and eighteen family members and also with satellite dishes and computers. Pakistani generals want to fool the entire world by hiding their own man in a mansion which looked much like a Western embassy in Islamabad.
“Despite many billions of dollars, international assistance to Pakistan, particularly from the U.S., its largest donor, is neither improving the government’s performance against jihad groups nor stabilizing its nascent democracy,” wrote the Brussels-based international Crisis Group in its latest report on 27 June.
So, what lies behind the Pakistani proverbial intransigence? Islamabad’s inherent existential fear over the survival of the country is the rationale behind Pakistan’s symbiotic link with the terrorist network. Both the military and civilian governing elites in Pakistan define alliance with the extremists as part of this country’s domestic compulsion for multiple national interests. Pakistan regards terrorists as a strategic asset which would be used as a proxy in Kabul once the West leaves Afghanistan. The terrorist networks would also be used to fight those Pakistani Taliban and Beluchi separatists who are currently in battle with the Pakistan’s army.
Separation of the Pashtuns (about 50-million people straddled on both sides of the Afghan Pakistan border) from Islamic extremism is the real Pakistani reckoning day, for, it would stir a separatist movement among the Pakistani Pushtuns like the separatist movement in Baluchistan. For that reason, Islamic extremism is maintained for uniting the Pashtuns, Baluchis, Sindis and Punjabis of the jigsaw puzzle country. This is just the way former Yugoslavia used communism in order to glue together Kosovo, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
There has been bad blood between Afghanistan and Pakistan for years. In the eyes of Afghans, Pakistan has been a state with illegitimate borders and its very formation in 1947 merely a colonial project. Afghanistan was the only country to refuse to recognize Pakistan in the United Nations.
The imaginary border that divides the two countries was drawn by the Foreign Secretary of British India, Sir Mortimer Durand in 1893. The border was never intended to be a frontier between two states; it was rather a military line of control establishing how far British Eastern Indian Company needed to push a buffer zone west of the Indus River. The Indus River was the real border between British India and Afghanistan. In Afghan psyche there will be never peace in the region until Pakistan recognize Pashtun self-determination.
To tackle all these internal problems and to draw the most incompatible ethnic groups together, the power equilibrium in Pakistan has veered from a secular military rule to a military rule using armed Islamic extremist groups since the early 1970s.
The Pakistani military and ISI continued to hoodwink both the Americans and the Taliban by walking on both sides of the street. The Koran on the one hand and a bottle of wine on the other; they have tried to be friends of the Americans and “Muslim brothers” to the Taliban.
However, Pakistani double game has begun unfoldingon both sides. As the Americans seem to stop being milked by Pakistani generals, the Taliban also look upon them with increasing suspicions. The Newsweek Magazine has published interviews with the Taliban commanders who were scolding ISI and Punjabi generals with nicknames such as “black legs” and “black snakes”.
Losing religious extremism, in Pakistani thinking is thus tantamount to losing influence in Afghanistan, even worse, losing its own Pashtun tribal belt. This is the reason why Pakistan keeps a virulent jihadi ideology among the Pashtuns inside Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to deny them their nationalism.
Pakistan’s using religious extremism as a policy tool is the Gordian knot that the West needs to cut if it really wants to succeed in Afghanistan before it is too late. The past roller coaster experience with Pakistan's reluctance to go against the extremists groups on its soilis a warning sign of this gospel truth.
Dr. Ehsan Azari Stanizai is an Adjunct Fellow with Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney
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