Islamabad played a “double game” during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan by helping NATO’s military mission while secretly aiding the Taliban insurgency. American pundits and politicians grew increasingly irate at supposed Pakistani perfidy and called for sanctions to be imposed.
But the West depended heavily on Pakistani assistance to pursue its military campaign and could not afford to alienate a key ally. Afghanistan is landlocked, and Pakistan was one of the only available transit routes for NATO supplies.
If Washington pushed too hard, Pakistan may have stopped playing ball, as it did in 2011 when Islamabad temporarily blocked supplies after a skirmish with NATO forces along the Afghan border at the end of that year.
But now the occupation is over: the West no longer needs Pakistan’s support and can surely apply penalties without significant risk of blowback.
That is what happened after the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The United States had turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear program to secure its help in backing the Afghan resistance. When the Soviets withdrew, Pakistan became dispensable, and sanctions were quickly imposed.
But history will not repeat itself. While the West abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, it will likely stay engaged now. Pakistan is the closest country the United States has to an ally in the region.
Although the American footprint in the region has been reduced, there are various pressing issues that will keep Western countries involved in Afghanistan and dependent on Pakistani assistance.
First, they still need to evacuate some of their citizens and Afghan helpers who were left behind after the troop withdrawal concluded on August 31. Pakistan’s close ties to the Taliban, its open embassy in Kabul, and its long land border with Afghanistan suggest it could be well placed to facilitate evacuations.
Pakistan already evacuated some Afghans on behalf of Germany in August, prompting an appreciatory message from the German ambassador in Islamabad. Since then, Foreign Minister Heiko Mass has visited Pakistan as part of a regional tour, followed by the Dutch and Italian foreign ministers. U.S. deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman is visiting, too.
Former British foreign secretary Dominic Raab traveled there in September, and his successor Liz Truss recently entertained her Pakistani counterpart. Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan facilitated the departure of Americans from the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, prompting a letter of thanks from Glenn Beck, whose organization was overseeing the evacuation.
Second, there is the issue of refugees. Western governments are concerned that they may see a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than a million Syrians, Afghans, and others fled to Europe, fueling support for anti-immigrant populist parties. This was not a concern during and after the Soviet war, when Afghans settled mainly in Iran and Pakistan.
Now, however, regional countries appear reluctant to accept any more refugees to the millions they already host. The European Union is, therefore, planning an aid package to fund neighboring countries’ settlement efforts. The UK is also providing more assistance to Pakistan.
A third factor is narcotics. The Afghan illicit drug economy is far larger than it was before the U.S.-led invasion: in 2018, the area under opium poppy cultivation was three times what it was in 2000, and Afghanistan has in recent years diversified into methamphetamine, which was unheard of in the 1990s.
Western counter-narcotics agencies have now lost their foothold in Kabul and will need to rely more on Pakistan as a regional base and partner in addressing the Afghan drug menace. This is more of a problem for European countries than it is for the United States, given that opiates from Afghanistan do not reach America in large quantities.
The fourth issue is, of course, terrorism. The United States is far more concerned about this than it was before 9/11. Indeed, the Biden administration has been working to develop an “over the horizon” counterterrorism capability that will enable it to monitor and neutralize targets from outside Afghanistan.
But this is easier said than done. The country is flanked by U.S. adversaries like China and Iran. Finding a partner to host a U.S. base or grant access to its airspace for airstrikes or commando raids is not a simple task. The Central Asian states are under heavy Russian influence, and Russian president Vladimir Putin has apparently rejected American facilities there.
That leaves Pakistan as the only real option. The Biden administration has reportedly been negotiating with the Pakistani government for basing rights. But as far as we know, these efforts have not yet borne fruit, and Khan has publicly and forcefully opposed hosting U.S. forces.
Without a base in Pakistan, the United States would have to launch drones from the Gulf and fly into Afghanistan through Pakistani airspace. The only alternative is to send flights from the Caucasus over Turkmenistan, which is not only under Chinese and Russian influence but is farther away from the areas of Afghanistan where terrorist organizations tend to operate.
With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the CIA has also lost much of its intelligence-gathering capability and will need to rely on regional countries to share information. While Pakistan has been a troublesome security partner over the years, the alternatives—China, Russia, and Iran—are even worse.
Pakistan’s importance in this area is reflected in recent high-level visits by Western officials. CIA director William Burns reportedly visited a few months ago and again traveled to Islamabad in September. Richard Moore, head of British intelligence service MI6, also paid a visit in August shortly after the fall of Kabul.
Fifth, the United States will also remain attached to Pakistan due to China, Islamabad’s closest ally. While their relationship goes back decades in the security domain, it has recently expanded significantly with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). At the same time, U.S. strategic competition with Beijing has intensified dramatically.
The rivalry with China will keep the United States engaged in Pakistan; not so Washington can compete with Chinese investments—it can’t—but in order to stop a large country and major military power from falling entirely into Beijing’s orbit. Maintaining a presence in Islamabad also better places the United States to mediate in the next crisis between India and Pakistan.
Last but not least, Pakistan’s close ties to the Taliban positions it as an important diplomatic intermediary for foreign governments. While Islamabad’s influence has waned over the years as the Taliban established a political office in Qatar and developed ties with other regional countries, including Russia and Iran, it remains a key partner. Indeed, the Taliban’s cabinet excludes anti-Pakistan figures and may cement Islamabad’s influence in Kabul. The new regime also appears to be hardline—it has appointed no women and few ethnic minorities, has reportedly detained and beaten journalists, and has effectively banned protests. If the United States decides to not recognize the Taliban government and establish diplomatic relations, the group will only become more reliant on Pakistan as a go-between, making Islamabad even more useful for the United States. Islamabad has played this role many times before, for example during the Trump administration when it facilitated the peace talks in Doha.
While many lawmakers in Washington want to get even with Islamabad for its allegedly nefarious role in the Afghan war, it remains true that the United States and its allies are dependent on Pakistan in significant respects. Advocating for policies like sanctions could backfire by undermining much-needed cooperation.
Rupert Stone is a freelance journalist working on issues related to South Asia and the Middle East. He has written for various publications, including Newsweek, VICE News, Al Jazeera, and The Independent.