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Blunders Return to Roost

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo of JuD chief Hafiz Saeed in Balochistan. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Pakistan’s historical policy of utilizing non-state actors merely empowered ‘mercenaries’ who act on their own agenda

On Feb. 6, 2022, the international press carried the following report on cross-border terrorist attacks in Balochistan: “Regrouping of separatist groups, the volatile situation in neighboring Afghanistan and foreign support are key factors behind a new flare-up of violence in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, according to local political and security analysts. Terrorism has reared its head in the mineral-rich province as dozens of security personnel and suspected militants have been killed in ambushes, clashes, and bomb blasts across the region in recent months. Lt. Gen. (retd.) Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst, told Anadolu Agency that the resurgence of terrorism in the province is not unexpected, given the vastness of the region, loose control of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and involvement of foreign elements.

“At least 20 soldiers were killed in attacks on security checkposts and clashes with suspected militants in several parts of the province, a key route of the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the past week alone, in a clear indication of the return of otherwise dwindling violence. The killing of 10 army troops in an attack on a security checkpoint in the Kech area near Iran’s border on Jan. 28 was the deadliest incident in months. The Balochistan Liberation Front, an outlawed militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack. Another seven army troops and 13 suspected militants were killed in two separate security operations in the Panjgur and Noshki districts on Feb. 3. They had come across the Durand Line and represented the alienated Pakistani Taliban sheltering in Afghanistan.”

Nurturing Taliban as ‘non-state actors’

Today, Pakistan is virtually broke—compared to neighboring India holding $640.4 billion as foreign exchange reserves and Bangladesh holding $41.5 billion—with its reserves held up precariously around $20 billion thanks to multiple interventions by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is internally unstable because of its past anti-status quo stance vis-à-vis India and inability to protect its border territories from anti-status quo Afghanistan, where it self-deceptively bragged about “strategic depth” vis-a-vis India. It nurtured non-state-actor terrorist organizations to challenge India but was in the end saddled with the same “non-state actors” who challenged what they termed an illegitimate state “connected with the enemies of Islam.”

On Jan. 13, 2022, an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan sentenced four persons to death for a June 2021 car bombing outside the home of Mumbai-attack mastermind and Jamaatud Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed that killed three people. Soon after the blast, the Punjab government claimed to have unearthed a network of 10 suspects, including women, who were involved in the powerful bomb blast. A senior police official told media after the explosion that “the man who planted explosives in the car and left it outside the house of Hafiz Saeed has been identified as Eid Gul from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.” Gul, it developed, belonged to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), now placed in Afghanistan, in liaison with the other terrorist groups like Daesh Khorasan that the new Taliban government in Kabul is reluctant to act against.

Saeed, a U.N.-designated terrorist on whom the US has placed a $10 million bounty, is currently serving a jail term of 36 years—shortened to 11 co-current years—over his role in five terror-financing cases. He was convicted—in the eyes of the world—for carrying out the 2008 Mumbai attack in India that had killed 166 people, including six Americans.

A home for illegal warriors

Pakistan is home to at least 12 groups designated “foreign terrorist organizations” by the U.S. in September 2021, including five India-centric ones such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). U.S. officials have described Pakistan as a base of operations or target for numerous armed and non-state militant groups, some of which have existed since the 1980s, according to a report published by the independent Congressional Research Service.

In his book Playing to the Edge (2016), former CIA director Michael Hayden linked the Mumbai attack to Pakistan’s covert war strategy against India. He quoted former ISI chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha as admitting to him that “the planners of the Mumbai attacks included some retired Pakistani army officers” and that “the attackers had ISI links, but this had not been an authorized ISI operation.” This remark is significant because it signals splits of strategic ideology within the Army. It also recalls 1996, when Ahmad Shah Massoud, the warlord controlling Kabul, had paraded on TV ISI officers arrested while fighting with the Taliban; Islamabad’s response at the time had been the same, that they were retired officers.

The anti-American complex

Pakistan, as an old U.S. ally, suffers from an anti-American complex. Before coming to power, incumbent Prime Minister Imran Khan recommended a foreign policy defiance that gibed with “the national feeling.” He thought that the Army yielded too readily to the American threat after 9/11—“after one phone-call saying, are you with us or against us?” The media accepted the new catechism: Pakistan should have resisted the American challenge and not moved against Al Qaeda and its affiliated elements, who attacked targets in America and Europe from their safe havens in Pakistan.

The Pakistani Taliban were greatly encouraged by this new political consensus and used it to isolate the Army leadership that still residually believed that the war against terrorism was Pakistan’s war. It is quite possible that then-Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who ended up saying it was indeed Pakistan’s war, had to decide not to take another extension but retire and go home because of this new all-party consensus in favor of non-state actors and terrorism.

Generals as ideologues

Some generals who fought Al Qaeda agents after 9/11 and caught and handed over a large number of such elements to the United States for imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay and sometimes trials in New York—including the likes of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef—went through an inner transformation against America and in favor of “our brothers,” the Taliban. Gen. Shahid Aziz—a relative of military dictator Pervez Musharraf—produced a heavy, badly-written tome on such a transformation after he retired. Another Taliban-admiring officer, Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi, was killed by the Taliban, who obviously didn’t care for his spiritual opportunism.

Musharraf, who joined the global consensus formed after a U.N. Security Council resolution was passed under Chapter VII of its charter, had been accused of caving to Washington to join a war that was not Pakistan’s. Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran who headed President Obama’s review of inter-agency policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, revealed the time and effort it took to bend the Pakistan Army to the global will finally embodied in the UNSC resolution. His book, The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future (2009), summarizes these stages.

The bin Laden issue and India

It was President Clinton who first raised “the bin Laden issue with Nawaz Sharif directly during the prime minister’s visit to Washington on Dec. 3, 1998.” The president asked Sharif to use Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban to help fight Al Qaeda. Sharif suggested that the U.S. help train an ISI commando team to take care of the Osama bin Laden problem. As he explained it, “Pakistan could not be publicly seen to be taking a tough line on the Taliban—that would only help India—so Pakistan would work covertly with the United States on the Al Qaeda issue.”

In 2000, Clinton had the unpleasant task of approaching Musharraf, who had overthrown Nawaz Sharif and taken over, on the subject of bin Laden. Here we see a clear formulation of what is known as “strategic depth” against India, which, after 2001, was to give birth to Pakistan’s two-pronged policy of fighting terrorism and secretly protecting the Afghan Taliban. Riedel writes: “President Clinton traveled to Islamabad in March 2000 to press Musharraf to use Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban to persuade them to stop supporting terrorism … Musharraf was direct and clear: he would do no such thing. Musharraf explained that Afghanistan was of vital interest to Pakistan. It gave Pakistan strategic depth in its struggle with India. With an unfriendly Afghanistan, Pakistan would have been wedged between two hostile neighbors; therefore Pakistan had to maintain close ties with the Taliban and could not try to put pressure on them on America’s behalf.”

The dominance of bin Laden

In 1998, the Security Council had highlighted terrorism, especially the Taliban government’s role in sheltering and training terrorists on its territory, and demanded an end to the Taliban’s practice of providing sanctuary to terrorists. Pakistan chose not to abide by the resolution of the Security Council. Instead, “the Pakistani military assistance to the Taliban intensified.”

In October 1999, the Security Council passed another resolution specifically mentioning Osama bin Laden by name, “noting that he was under indictment in the United States for the African bombings, and asked that he be turned over.” In addition, the council imposed sanctions, including a ban on all flights into and out of Afghanistan, and a freeze on Taliban funds abroad. The Taliban defied the resolutions and “Pakistan stood by for another year without using its leverage.”

Pakistan at the U.N. Security Council

In December 2000, the council adopted UNSCR 1333, targeting Pakistan more directly: it called on all states to cease providing arms and ammunition to the Taliban, prohibit the training of Taliban fighters by their nationals, halt any advisory support to the Taliban military and withdraw any advisers or volunteers fighting with the Taliban. This was an indirect reference to Pakistan. It did not have to be named explicitly: Pakistan was the only country in the world providing military aid to the Taliban.

Pakistan, however, stuck to its guns. The Security Council then passed UNSCR 1363 in July 2001, creating a monitoring team to oversee the implementation of 1333. This made it the last of five U.N. resolutions after the African bombings that called on the Taliban and Pakistan to take action against Al Qaeda. Pakistan’s resolve was broken only after 9/11, when it complied with UNSCR 1373 and began acting against Al Qaeda leaders embedded in the country. Riedel goes on to tell us that the Taliban benefited from a safe haven and help in Pakistan, even when the group’s long and well-established ties with the ISI and the Pakistan Army were cut by Musharraf after 9/11. The earlier state of ties was “most dramatically illustrated during the December 1999 hijacking of Air India’s flight 814 from Kathmandu to Kandahar, perpetrated by Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Kashmiris mixed together.”

Buried-in-the-guts bin Laden

Riedel then writes: “One thing is very clear. The Taliban and Al Qaeda apparatus that operates in Pakistan does so with very close connections to the Pakistani terrorist groups that the ISI helped create in the 1990s. Moreover, the ISI itself continues to have close and intimate ties with these groups. Since early 2002, whenever a raid has been conducted in Pakistan against an Al Qaeda safe house, Al Qaeda members are found being hosted by militant Pakistanis, primarily from Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed, group supporters of the Kashmiri insurgency. The non-state actors have recoiled on Pakistan. To understand its tormentors, Pakistan should read Machiavelli’s book and go to the page where he tells the Florentine prince not to fight wars through non-state actors—he calls them mercenaries—because ‘they have their own agenda.’

“Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous. They are disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined and disloyal … in peacetime you are despoiled by them and in wartime by the enemy. Mercenary commanders cannot be trusted because they are anxious to advance their own greatness, either by coercing you, or by coercing others against your wishes. Experience has shown that only armed princes and republics achieve solid success, and that mercenaries bring nothing but loss.”

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