The Pakistani Pivot

November 1, 2001 Tags: Kashmir

The Pakistani Pivot

Mini Teaser: On September 10, 2001, Pakistan was a country of secondaryinterestto the United States.

by Author(s): Dennis Kux

On September 10, 2001, Pakistan was a country of secondaryinterest
to the United States. Although it had been America's "mostallied
ally in Asia" in the 1950s and an indispensable partner inthe
struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the
relationship unraveled after the Soviets pulled out ofAfghanistan.
In October 1990, the United States suspended economic andmilitary
aid under the Pressler amendment because Pakistan haddeveloped
nuclear weapons. Its May 1998 nuclear tests and the army'soverthrow
of the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif in October 1999 ledto
further sanctions against the one-time U.S. ally.

Thus, when President Bill Clinton touched down for five hoursin
Islamabad on March 25, 2000--the first journey to Pakistan by aU.S.
chief executive in more than thirty years--the mood was tense,and
contrasted sharply with his highly successful five-day visitto
India. In their talks, Clinton and General Pervez Musharraf,
Pakistan's military dictator, differed over major issues: how bestto
deal with the fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan and otherIslamic
extremists; how best to deal with the Kashmir dispute; atimetable
for the return of democracy; and nuclear weapons issues.Clinton
outlined his concerns to Musharraf in a frank but conciliatorymanner
and then repeated them in a television address to the peopleof
Pakistan. Out of the public spotlight, the President worriedabout
Pakistan's chronic political instability, the growing threatof
fundamentalism, its mounting economic woes and the continuing
fixation on India. With the country drifting toward nationalfailure,
the worst-case fear was that, like its neighbor Afghanistan,Pakistan
might be engulfed by Islamic fundamentalism. A Pakistan ruledby
religious extremists and armed with nuclear weapons posed anightmare
scenario with ramifications far transcending South Asia. Amidsuch
concerns, Clinton's inability to produce a better U.S.relationship
with Pakistan inevitably left the impression that the UnitedStates
was "tilting" toward India.

The incoming Bush Administration picked up where Clinton leftoff,
this despite the Cold War tradition of Republican warmthtoward
governments in Islamabad. The new leadership in Washington soonmade
clear that its top priority in South Asia was to continue theprocess
of improving relations with India. Pakistan's image remainedlargely
negative both in official Washington and in the prestige press.

The events of September 11 have changed all that. Geographyand
history have once more made Pakistan important to U.S.interests.
Islamabad's support is required in order to deal with Osamabin
Laden, his Arab terrorist colleagues in Al-Qaeda and theirTaliban
hosts. Pakistan's long common frontier with Afghanistan, theintimate
ethnic links between Pashtuns on both sides of the border, andthe
in-depth knowledge that Pakistan's intelligence service has ofits
neighbor make Islamabad a key partner in "bringing the terroriststo
justice or justice to the terrorists", as President Bush put iton
September 20. Pakistan has become pivotal.

Here We Go Again?

To an extent, the post-September 11 situation is a replay ofwhat
happened after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then, asnow,
Pakistan was ruled by a military dictator. Then, as now,
U.S.-Pakistan relations had been in disarray. In 1979, relationswere
at their nadir following a mob attack on the U.S. embassy in
Islamabad that November. The United States had also cut offeconomic
aid because of Pakistan's secret nuclear program, and hadbeen
strongly critical of Pakistan's lack of democracy and poorhuman
rights record.

After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carterquickly
shifted policy gears. Pakistan became a "front-line" state.Carter
revived the 1959 U.S.-Pakistan security agreement and offered
economic and military help. Washington feared that Pakistan mightbe
the Soviets' next victim but, just as important, U.S.officials
realized that without Pakistan's help, it was virtually impossibleto
cause trouble for the Soviets inside Afghanistan. In the midst ofthe
Tehran hostage crisis, no cooperative action was feasible withIran,
the only other country that then bordered on Afghanistan.

Although Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the then-Pakistani dictator,quickly
decided to oppose the Soviets and to provide covert support toa
nascent anti-communist guerilla movement, he rejected Carter'soffer
of $200 million worth of aid as "peanuts." A year later, however,Zia
and the Reagan Administration agreed on a cooperation package
involving $600 million in U.S. aid a year (including the potentF-16
fighter-bomber); an understanding that the nuclear issue would notbe
"the centerpiece" of U.S.-Pakistan relations; an end to U.S.
criticism about Pakistan's internal scene; and channeling allcovert
CIA aid to the Afghan resistance through Pakistan'sInter-Services
Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Zia knew that he had a strong
bargaining position vis-Ã -vis the Americans, hung tough, and inthe
end got what he wanted. So did the United States. Seven yearslater,
in 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev decided to pull the Soviet army outof
Afghanistan after the rag-tag but well-armed Afghan mujaheddinheld
100,000-plus Soviet soldiers at bay.

But there were serious negative consequences as well. Thearms
supplied through the covert U.S. aid program flooded Afghanistanand
became an important cause of the violence and lawlessness thathas
racked that country ever since. The more fundamentalistAfghan
resistance groups, who, in keeping with Zia's instructions,received
the bulk of the weapons, gained strength and politicallegitimacy
during the war, as did their Pakistani counterparts. (These
counterparts became even more important in the 1990s throughtheir
cooperation with the ISI in supporting the insurgency againstIndia
in Kashmir.) Ultimately, the collapse of the state structurein
Afghanistan, the virtual destruction of the economy, the massrefugee
exodus during the anti-Soviet insurgency, and the ensuingcivil
conflict created the political vacuum that spawned the Talibanand
enabled Al-Qaeda to make Afghanistan its base of operations.

To its discredit, the United States simply walked awayfrom
Afghanistan after the Soviets departed, leaving it to thePakistanis
to arrange a political settlement among the fractious Afghan
mujaheddin. The main U.S. aim, as former Undersecretary ofState
Michael Armacost has said, "was getting the Russians out.
Afghanistan, as such, was remote from major U.S. concerns. TheUnited
States was not much interested in the internal Afghan setup anddid
not have much capacity to understand this." Although a moreactive
American role might still have failed to resolve the Afghanproblem,
Washington was remiss in not trying harder.

But there are important differences from 1979. The UnitedStates
today is not totally dependent on Islamabad in dealing with
Afghanistan. Russia and the new Central Asian republics to thenorth,
especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are bitter foes of theTaliban
regime, whom they have blamed for stirring regional instabilityand
Islamic militancy. Iran detests the Taliban, who had executeda
number of Iranian diplomats after they captured the northernAfghan
city of Mazar-e Sharif in 1998, and was already supportingthe
anti-Taliban resistance, the Northern Alliance. Although theirpast
record was unpromising and their most capable leader, theredoubtable
Ahmed Shah Masood, was assassinated just days before theterrorist
attacks on the United States, the Alliance offered a means of
applying military pressure on the Taliban. And, of course, theywere

Probably the most significant difference lay in the factthat
Pakistan in 2001 was not just part of the solution to anAfghan
problem, but also part of the problem. In the wake of theSoviet
departure from Afghanistan and the fall of the communistNajibullah
regime in 1992, Pakistan tried unsuccessfully to cobble togethera
stable arrangement for a mujaheddin coalition. However, the
mujaheddin commanders fell to fighting among themselves,withthe
conflict taking on an ethnic character. Pashtuns, the largestethnic
group in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan's NorthwestFrontier
Province and northern Baluchistan, clashed with Tajiks, thesecond
largest Afghan ethnic group, and the less numerous Uzbeks andShi'a
Hazaras. The capital city of Kabul suffered more damage fromthis
intra-Afghan strife than it had during the eight-yearstruggle
against the Soviets.

Fed up with the chaos and disorder in Afghanistan, Maj.Gen.
Nasrullah Babar, Benazir Bhutto's interior minister, becamethe
godfather of a new Pashtun grouping called the Taliban, or
"students", that sprang up in 1994 in southern Afghanistan nearthe
city of Kandahar. The Taliban were mainly Afghan refugees whohad
studied in madrassas, or religious schools, in Baluchistan thatwere
affiliated with the fundamentalist Deobandi school of SunniIslam.
Their ability to pacify areas around Kandahar by suppressingand
disarming unruly mujaheddin commanders impressed Babar. Theinterior
minister then took the Taliban under his wing, arranging for theISI
to provide communications equipment, transportation, fuel andadvice.

After firming up their base in the south and west during 1995,the
Taliban advanced rapidly northward in the summer of 1996 tocapture
Kabul in late-September. What quickly set the Taliban apart wasthe
puritanical nature of their version of Sunni Islam. They were,as
Barnett Rubin aptly put it, "fire and brimstone, backwoodspreachers
with an ak-47." Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, aone-eyed
Afghan war veteran, proclaimed that Afghanistan would become"a
completely Islamic state." He then proceeded to show what he meantby
enforcing a rigid code of Islamic law: women were to remain athome
and not work; girls were to receive no schooling; men were towear
beards; television and Western music were forbidden; andstrict
Quranic punishment for crimes was to be enforced.

Over the next two years, as the Taliban imposed their controlover
almost all of Afghanistan, driving their Northern Allianceopponents
into the extreme northeast corner, Pakistan's ISI continuedto
provide supplies and advice. Students from Pakistani madrassasalso
fought for the Taliban, as did an Arab brigade composed ofseveral
thou-sand Arab fundamentalists who made Afghanistan their base.Osama
bin Laden was the most prominent of these. The wealthy Saudiexile
and former jihadi against the Soviets developed his Al-Qaeda
terrorist organization to wage holy war against the UnitedStates,
which he had come to regard as the mortal enemy of Islam.

Essay Types: Essay