How Pakistan Warped into a Geopolitical Monster

How Pakistan Warped into a Geopolitical Monster

How long will America continue to allow Pakistan to undermine its overseas antiterrorism efforts? 

The Frankenstein monster contradiction is the last pathology, one that others have observed. During the Soviet-Afghan War, the United States and particularly the CIA empowered and funded the government of Pakistan and the ISI, markedly empowering and enlarging the ISI monster and its Islamist zealot proxies. Indeed, Pakistan and its ISI armed and supported the most virulent strains of Islamist insurgents and terrorists during that war, directing efforts against the Soviets while siphoning and diverting funds toward their proxy militants in Kashmir and India. Once the Soviet forces departed in February 1989, the ISI continued to support its preferred, and the most nasty, jihadists in Afghanistan against the Soviet-sponsored Najibullah regime. In 1994, the ISI began to shift support to the newly emergent Taliban movement and then, in 1996, the ISI helped the Taliban overwhelm the rump Islamic State of Afghanistan, helped them take Kabul, and were directly involved in the brutal murder of Najibullah and his brother. Medieval, dystopian and draconian Taliban rule in most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 was the apex of the Pakistani security establishment’s Afghan strategic depth idea. The ISI was also witting of the Al Qaeda leadership’s presence and of Osama bin Laden’s return. The 9/11 Commission Report offered this observation of the Taliban regime during that period: “Under the Taliban, Afghanistan is not so much a state sponsor of terrorism as it is a state sponsored by terrorists.” Pakistan was the most significant sponsor of a terrorist-sponsored state.

Before and after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Pakistan declared what it had to in response to American ultimatums, but quickly resumed its duplicitous and deadly games by supporting regeneration of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan also worked with and through the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others of similar fanatical cloth, directing armed propaganda and terrorism in Afghanistan, India and Kashmir. Recent violent attacks inside Pakistan, conducted by offshoots of the monsters the ISI helped cultivate in the form of the Pakistani Taliban, Islamic State Khorasan Province and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, are all evidence that Frankenstein’s monsters have turned inward on Pakistan. Again, according to its security establishment, Pakistan’s self-perpetuated pathologies are not to blame. Afghanistan and its American and Indian friends are at fault. The delusions and illusions continue.

The current predicament and stalemate also derive in some part from America’s strategic attention deficit. The harsh reality is that the United States has not been at war in South Asia for just over fifteen years; it has been indirectly or directly involved in the wars there for the last thirty-eight years. Yet the United States has applied an inconsistent, sometimes maladroit, unimaginative and naïve approach to Pakistan and to Pakistan’s involvement with the wars in Afghanistan.

For about the first eleven years, beginning just after the 1979 Soviet invasion, the U.S. approach might be characterized as strategic epilepsy, all on support for the Mujahideen factions. It was American policy to fund Pakistan’s ISI to support Islamist insurgents fighting the Soviets. Guns and money went to the most odious strains of Islamist proxies, to bleed the Soviets and erode their will, without thinking through the long-term implications.

For the next eleven years, from about the fall of 1990 to the fall of 2001, the United States exhibited strategic narcolepsy, a term coined by a political scientist at RAND Corporation. This meant generally ignoring South Asia while Pakistan continued to direct various Islamist fanatics and condoned, if not colluded in, a malignant symbiosis between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Since 2001, the U.S.-led coalition has been fighting some of the same Islamist head loppers that American policy helped nurture.

The 9/11 attacks returned the United States to strategic epilepsy. With little strategic analysis and no credible long-term plan for peace, the U.S.-led war effort used small numbers of coalition forces and Afghan warlord militias to chase the Taliban and Al Qaeda into Pakistan, only to see the former regenerate and fight another day.

Missteps early in the war by the coalition and its Afghan partners—for example, the absence of a strategy, the reliance on warlords, the use of indiscriminate air power, an initial unwillingness to help rebuild and a toleration of venal Afghan leadership—all helped create grievances among the Afghans. These grievances catalyzed support to regenerate the Taliban in the Pashtun belt during the critical first five years of the war effort. But without the full support of Pakistan and its sanctuaries, the Taliban would have been marginalized.

The U.S. relationship with Pakistan since at least the 1950s has accommodated Pakistan’s narrative and the myth that Pakistan was either a steadfast anticommunist bastion during the Cold War, or a serious ally in the war against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their ilk. In fact, Pakistani and American interests genuinely aligned only during the Soviet-Afghan War, and even then Pakistan’s behavior revealed machinations and mendacity regarding the generous U.S. funding to defeat the Soviets through jihadi proxies. The ISI used some U.S. funds and opium money to support proxies elsewhere and purportedly even to fund aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.


Pakistani strategic culture stems from pathological geopolitics infused with a Salafi jihadist ideology, suffused by paranoia and neurosis. The principal but not exclusive reason that Afghanistan has seen discernibly improved quality and quantity in its forces as well as fighting capacity, yet continues to face a strategic stalemate, is the Pakistani security elites’ malign strategic calculus. The Taliban would have been a marginal nuisance without the full support that Pakistan’s security establishment bestowed to pursue Pakistan’s imaginary notion of strategic depth on its western flank by asserting control over Afghanistan through its zealous proxies.

Pakistan has nurtured and relied on a host of Islamist insurgents and terrorists. It is home to the world’s highest concentration of terrorist groups. Of the ninety-eight U.S.-designated terrorist groups around the world, twenty operate in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The ISI has maintained links with Al Qaeda, its longtime Taliban allies and a host of other extremist groups inside Pakistan. It is possible for Pakistan to become a genuine U.S. strategic partner only if it ceases its support of proxy terrorists and insurgents. The fact that America has paid Pakistan in excess of $33 billion for Pakistan’s malice and treachery since 9/11 is repugnant and ridiculous.

The United States and the coalition must desist in the illusion that Pakistan, one of the foremost ideological and physical breeders of Islamist terrorists, is an ally or a friend. It is neither. Pretending that Pakistan is an ally in the war against Islamist militants, one that would act in ways to help defeat Islamist networks in the border tribal areas, has made the West complicit in and partly responsible for Pakistan’s machinations.

Since this war began, the United States has on a number of occasions stipulated that Pakistan must curb all domestic expression of support for terrorism against the United States and its allies; demonstrate a sustained commitment to, and make significant efforts towards, combating terrorist groups; cease support, including support by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, for extremist and terrorist groups; and dismantle terrorist bases of operations in other parts of the country. Clearly, Pakistan has not complied with these stipulations and continues to do the converse, serving as the most significant supporter and employer of Islamist insurgents and terrorists.

The United States and its coalition allies have not crafted a Pakistan strategy that uses their substantial resources to modify Pakistan’s strategic calculus. An effective Pakistan strategy must use the full weight of the United States and other regional actors to compel Pakistan to alter its strategic conduct and to stop supporting terrorists.

Investing in and increasing the Afghan Special Security Forces and the Afghan Air Force to create overmatching offensive capacity, to then build tactical and operational momentum, will help assert influence over key population areas and take away Taliban capacity, but this will be ephemeral if not coupled with strategic momentum. To break the strategic stalemate, the coalition should cast off its illusions about Pakistan. For far too long, Pakistan has been viewed and treated as an important non-NATO ally in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but it is essentially an abysmal ally, a veritable foe, because it acts in ways inimical to coalition troops, our and the aims of the Afghan state. After fifteen-plus years of Pakistan’s perfidy, it is essential to go heavy on sticks and light on carrots to break Pakistan of its pathologies and their pernicious effects in Afghanistan. Sticks and fear will work where carrots, cash and cajoling have not. The United States and the coalition must consider tapping into the Pakistan establishment’s fear, honor and interests. The United States fears that the Pakistani state will collapse, implode or fracture are overstated. Pakistan is hard and resilient in deep and broad ways.

The following stipulations, steps and ultimatums, in order of escalation, are the way to break Pakistan of its pathologies and break the stalemate: 1) stop paying for malice; 2) end major non-NATO ally status; 3) state intention to make the line of control in Kashmir permanent; 4) shut down ground lines of communications via Pakistan; 5) declare Pakistan the state sponsor of terrorism that it is; 6) issue one last ultimatum to Pakistan to end sanctuary for insurgents and not impede success; 7) invite the Indian Armed Forces into Afghanistan for security operations in the Pashtun eastern and southern regions; and 8) as a last resort, reciprocate Pakistan’s malice and perfidy. Uncontested sanctuary contributed to the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan, and it continues be the single biggest obstacle to defeating the Taliban and the most significant cause of the stalemate.