Sporadic and superficial global support has made Pakistanis feel dangerously betrayed
The world is watching Pakistan, and rightly so. It’s a happening place. Pakistan is at the center of geostrategic revolution and realignments. The economic, social and political aspirations of China, Afghanistan, Iran, and India turn on securing peace, prosperity, and stability in Pakistan. Our country can be an agent of positive change, one that creates unique economic interdependencies between central, west and south Asian countries and the Middle East through trade and energy partnerships. Or there’s the other option: the borderless militancy Pakistan is battling could take down the whole region.
Recently, terrorists on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have plotted, unsuccessfully, to unleash terror as far away as Copenhagen and New York City. Pakistan’s role in a safe, secure world cannot be overemphasized. To appreciate the complex history of Pakistan’s internal and external challenges is to understand how the 21st century could well play out for the world.
Our country was born of violence, in August 1947. Just months after the partition of the subcontinent and the creation of the Dominion of Pakistan, we were at war with India over Kashmir. Pakistan and India’s mutual animosity and history of confrontation remain powerful forces in South Asia to this day. Because of its sense of having been wronged by India—and feeling that it faced an existential threat from that country—Pakistan cast its lot with the West. We became a strategic partner of the U.S. during the Cold War, signing on to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in the 1950s, while India tilted toward the Soviet Union. As part of our inalienable right to self-preservation, we formulated a “minimum defensive deterrence” strategy to maintain Army, Navy and Air Force numbers at levels proportional to India’s.
In 1965 we again went to war over Kashmir, and in 1971 over East Pakistan (I fought in both). Our suspicions about India were proved right when it became clear that the creation of Bangladesh was only made possible through Indian military and intelligence support. Among Pakistanis in general, and the Army in particular, attitudes against India hardened. The adversarial relationship between our Inter Services Intelligence and their Research and Analysis Wing worsened, both exploiting any opportunity to inflict harm on the other.
India’s “Smiling Buddha” nuclear tests in 1974 changed everything. Pakistan was forced to resort to unconventional means to compensate for the new imbalance of power. Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto initiated Pakistan’s atomic program, and thus began the nuclearization of the subcontinent. India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was an effort to project power beyond its borders; Pakistan’s was an existential and defensive imperative.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 presented Pakistan with a security threat from two directions: Soviets to the west, who wanted access to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan, and Indians to the east. Once again Pakistan joined hands with the United States to fight Moscow.
We called it jihad by design, this effort to attract mujahideen from all over the Muslim world. And from Morocco to Indonesia, some 25,000 of them came. We trained and armed Taliban from the madrassahs of the then North West Frontier Province, and pushed them into Afghanistan. By this time, the liberal and intellectual Afghan elite had left for the safer climes of Europe and the U.S., leaving behind a largely poor, religious-minded population to fight the 10-year jihad. We—Pakistan, the U.S., the West, and Saudi Arabia—are equally responsible for nourishing the militancy that defeated the Soviet Union in 1989, and which seeks now to defeat us all.
The Soviets quit Kabul, and the Americans abandoned Islamabad. Washington rewarded its once indispensable ally by invoking the Pressler Amendment and imposing military sanctions, and by choosing to foster a strategic relationship with India. Pakistan was left alone to deal with the nearly 4 million Afghans who had streamed into our country and became the world’s largest refugee population. The people of Pakistan felt betrayed and used. For Pakistan, the decade of disaster had begun. No efforts were made to deprogram, rehabilitate, and resettle the mujahideen or redevelop and build back war-ravaged Afghanistan. This shortsightedness led to ethnic fighting, warlordism, and Afghanistan’s dive into darkness. The mujahideen coagulated into Al Qaeda. The Taliban, who would emerge as a force in 1996, eventually would occupy 90 percent of the country, ramming through their obscurantist medievalism. It was also in 1989 that the freedom struggle reignited in India-administered Kashmir. This started out as a purely indigenous and peaceful uprising against Indian state repression. The people who led this first intifada were radicalized by the Indian Army’s fierce and indiscriminate crackdowns on locals. The Kashmir cause is a rallying cry for Muslims around the world. It is more so for Pakistanis. The plight of Kashmiri Muslims inspired the creation of new mujahideen groups within Pakistan who then sent thousands of volunteer fighters to the troubled territory. In terms of identity politics, the boundaries were clearer: the mujahideen set their sights on India; Al Qaeda and the Taliban were focused largely on Afghanistan. With the Taliban to our west and the mujahideen in the north, this arc of anger rent our social fabric. Pakistan found itself awash in guns and drugs.
Nine years later, there was bad news from Pokhran. In May 1998, India again tested its bomb. Almost two weeks later, Pakistan responded by “turning the mountain white” at Chaghai. For Pakistanis, our own tests became a symbol of our power in the world, a testament to our resolve and innovation in the face of adversity, and a source of unmitigated pride in our streets. We became a nuclear power and an international pariah at the same time, but furthering and harnessing our nuclear potential remains and must remain our singular national interest. Of course, the U.S. views India’s nuclear program differently from Pakistan’s. Even our pursuit of nuclear power for civilian purposes, for electricity generation, is viewed negatively. India’s pursuit is assisted by the U.S. In Pakistan, people see this as yet another instance of American partiality, even hostility. Many even believe that the U.S. wants to denuclearize Pakistan—by force if necessary—because it fears the weapons could come into the hands of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or any of the myriad militant organizations who have loosed mayhem in Pakistan. Our nuclear weapons are secure.
Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government of Afghanistan. We did this because of our ethnic, historical, and geographical affinity with Afghan Pashtuns who comprised the Taliban. In 2000, when I led Pakistan, I had suggested to the U.S. and other countries that they, too, should recognize the Taliban government and collectively engage Kabul in order to achieve moderation there through exposure and exchange. This was shot down. Continued diplomatic isolation of the Taliban regime pushed it into the embrace of the Arab-peopled Al Qaeda. Had the Taliban government been recognized, the world could have saved the Bamiyan Buddhas, and unknotted the Osama bin Laden problem thereby preventing the spate of Al Qaeda-orchestrated attacks around the world including on September 11, 2001, in the U.S.
When America decided to retaliate, we joined the international coalition against Kabul by choice so we could safeguard and promote our own national interests. Nobody in Islamabad was in favor of the religious and governmental philosophy of the Taliban. By joining the coalition, we also prevented India from gaining an upper hand in Afghanistan from where it could then machinate against Pakistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda were defeated in 2001 with the help of the Northern Alliance, which was composed of Uzbeks, Hazarans, and Tajiks—all ethnic minorities. The Pashtuns and Arabs of Afghanistan fled to the mountains and fanned out across Pakistan. This was the serious downside of joining the global coalition: the mujahideen who were fighting for Kashmir formed an unholy nexus with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban—and turned their guns on us. While I was president, they made at least four attempts on my life.
In 2002, the allies installed a largely Pashtun-free government in Afghanistan that lacked legitimacy because it did not represent 50 percent of the Afghan population, Pashtuns. This should not have happened. All Taliban are Pashtun, but not all Pashtuns are Taliban. Pashtuns were thus isolated, blocked from the mainstream, and pushed toward the Taliban, who made a resurgence in 2004.
Today, the Taliban rule the roost in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are ensconced in our tribal agencies, plotting and launching attacks against us and others. The twin scourge of radicalism and militarism has infected settled districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and beyond. Mujahideen groups are operating in India-administered Kashmir and seem to have public support in Pakistan.
After nine long years, and a longer war for the U.S. than Vietnam, the world wants to negotiate with “moderate” elements in the Taliban—and from a position of apparent weakness. Before the coalition abandons Afghanistan again, it must at least ensure the election of a legitimate Pashtun-led government. Pakistan, which has lost at least 30,000 of its citizens in the war on terror, should be forgiven for wondering whether it was all worth it. Pakistanis should not be left to feel that it was not.
The writer is former president and army chief of Pakistan