Pakistan: Hotbed of Global Jihad

The topic of terrorism has been discussed ad nauseam and yet we remain distant from finding enduring solutions. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is no stranger to terrorism and has been inflicted untold suffering over the last four decades. In this paper, I will focus on our complex region. I was in the 7th grade when the then Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the country has been witnessed to many cycles of instability since then. To put it in perspective, 6% of the entire Afghan population has been killed, 10% suffer from physical disabilities, 20% fled the country, and 35 % of our population were direct subjects of four decades long conflict.
Today, Afghanistan and its region face many security challenges. I will focus on one key external factor and one key internal factor for the region. The key external factor remains Pakistan, which is a major source of instability for Afghanistan and the wider region. Internal factor is the alarming internal instability in Afghanistan.
The United States and the international community declared a Global War on Terror (GWOT) after the 9/11 attacks. Many countries and nations from around the world joined the US to fight terror and bring the al-Qaeda leadership to justice. Today, nearly 17 years have passed since the start of the war in Afghanistan. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have lost their lives and billions of dollars have been spent. Unfortunately, terrorism is not only far from being eliminated, it has instead further strengthened, and flourished into new complex shapes and forms in our societies as well as across the world. Pakistan played an important role in this catastrophic failure simply by using religious extremism and terrorism as a foreign policy tool.
Pakistan has not been a reliable ally of the international community. Its army and intelligence continue to play a double game with the international community on fighting terrorism and extremism. Their primary goal in any efforts related to terrorist networks with the international community and, in particular with the US, is manipulating the cooperation to its own regional geostrategic interests.
In terms of limiting the US presence and influence in the region, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan gains at least two major strategic objectives. First, through secretly supporting terrorist networks such as the Taliban and their Pakistani based extremist allies, it restrains the consolidation of a strong Afghan state, one that can effectively ally with the US and other regional forces. The US war in Afghanistan has been a source of revenue for Pakistan and it will remain so as long as the US remains dependent on Pakistan in the absence of a strong Afghan government. This is only possible if the conflict in Afghanistan continues endlessly.
Pakistan is not only one of nine countries with nuclear weapons. It is also a hotbed of global jihad, where the military and the intelligence services use terrorist networks to advance their regional goals. Those Pakistanis with the most knowledge of the country’s nuclear program are among the most worried. Imagine, for a moment, a nightmare scenario: a nuclear warhead explodes in New York City or Paris; a dirty bomb goes off in Washington or London. The most likely source for the deadly material that makes these attacks possible is a supposed American ally.
Pakistan also believes that if their relations with the US deteriorate to a level whereby Pakistan will have to become an open enemy, the only other alternative ally in the region will be Afghanistan from where the US can stage operations to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, the same as the Osama bin Laden raid that the US carried out from Afghanistan.
In addition, Pakistan enjoys a geographic leverage over the land locked territory of Afghanistan that depends on its sea access on either Pakistan or Iran. While knowing that Iran will also not genuinely open its sea ports to Afghanistan as long as the American’s are present in Afghanistan, Pakistan will continue to use its geographic containment of Afghanistan as a tool to influence the course of events in Afghanistan to its own regional strategic interests.
All of these factors also benefit Pakistan in terms of curbing Indian influence in Afghanistan and the region. India is keen on using Afghanistan as a route to gain access to Central Asia’s natural energy resources, something that both China and Russia have concerns about. Both countries have vested interest in aligning with Pakistan to continue doing whatever they can to minimise the US and Indian influence in Afghanistan and the wider region.
The Pakistani intermingled military and intelligence institutions, fearing a strategic encirclement by India, have been utilizing religious extremism and terrorism to fight India in Kashmir and to use the same tool to keep Afghanistan unstable or dependent on Pakistan’s political support. According to the ISI, the nightmare for any strategist is to fight an enemy on two fronts. This is the dilemma Pakistan faces on their border with India along the Kashmir region, and the other in Afghanistan.
This very shortsighted and closed belief by the Pakistani Military and ISI seeing Afghanistan only as a second Indian front against Pakistan combined with the exaggerated fear of India has been one major factor on which Pakistan has based its strategy that uses religious extremism, militancy, and terrorism as a tool to fight India. They have ignored that this could one day turn against them making Pakistan, the region and the entire world far more unstable than the pre 9/11 era.
The last 17 years, during which Afghanistan established multilateral relations with the rest of the world, has irritated the Pakistani army and intelligence. They have been trying and will continue to try hard to restore that past status-quo over Afghanistan, oblivious of the fact that those days are gone and will never return again. The strategies that they used to achieve this objective have already backfired. Instead of establishing control over Afghanistan, they are about to lose control of their own affairs and territory to rogue jihadists, extremist and separatist groups that they have created or provoked themselves.
Pakistan wants to be treated as a sovereign state, and while sovereignty confers certain privileges on states, it also confers responsibilities. Pakistan wants the world to allow it to deal with the extremists group as it sees fit, and continue with their double game. When Osama bin Laden resides in one country for years, in a military garrison town a few miles from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, when many extremists and terror groups establish bases and operate with complete freedom of movement and have sanctuaries, and when there is ample evidence that the state, one with over a hundred nuclear weapons, is not sincere about dismantling the terror groups, then what is the US prepared to do to meet its own national security interests? If the US acts, would US allies follow if the US were to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terror?
A test of Pakistani sincerity in the War on Terror is not whether they arrest a senior member of the Afghan Taliban that they have lost control over or one that is in the of process of reaching out to the Afghan government, but instead sincerity is reflected when Pakistan reacts and acts towards individuals such as Hafiz Saeed, with a $10 million US bounty on his head, or to groups such as LeT which boasts many members who have close family members in the Pakistan army.
The recent resurrection of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of Pakistani religious oriented groups created by the Pakistani military that assisted the Taliban in early 2002 as they retreated from Afghanistan, and the attempt to mainstream Hafez Saeed by the Pakistani military shows their true intentions of deliberate support to radical and extremist groups. Yes, on occasion they may turn over a terror suspect to the US, but it is done in a retail fashion, not wholesale. They may seek to obtain recognition as a fireman with some well-timed gestures and conduct, though more often, Pakistan is the arsonist. The level of support that the many extremist groups in the Af/Pak theatre receive from the formal and informal sector in Pakistan, clearly proves the point.
An internal factor or a trend that is a cause of concern on the security front is that Afghanistan is a diverse country ethnically, geographically, and linguistically. In recent years, the adhesion throughout the country has been the commitment to inclusivity rather than exclusivity, the commitment to reaching out to other groups and segments of Afghan society and reaching a consensus on key issues, mainly social, political and security. Since 2015, however, there has been an erosion of the consensus concept, and many segments of Afghan society feel alienated by the polarising politics and policies of the Presidential Palace.
The Presidential Palace frequently pushes a platform of “reform,” yet in reality the Palace day to day actions appear more akin to purges. These actions have caused damage to the fragile consensus, painstakingly built by the Afghans and its international partners since fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. In Afghanistan, national unity via consensus is an essential, stabilising element in order for us to effectively combat terrorism and extremism in the region for the foreseeable future. A break down in the internal Afghan consensus can have a devastating effect for Afghanistan, the immediate region and its international partners.
Thus, Afghanistan’s friends in the International Community should not give the current government a free pass on policies and politics that seek to alienate many segments of Afghan society. The Palace politics must be national and inclusive instead of an exclusive approach which seeks to favor one group over other ethnic or geographic groups for shortsighted and shallow political gains that endangers national unity, stability and inclusivity; achievements that cost Afghans blood and treasure for the past several decades.
In order to have an enduring solution to the regions challenges on the security front, dismantling the infrastructures for terrorism and extremism that receive material support from the formal and informal sector in Pakistan, should be the key focus. That is the generational game changer not some type of peace deal with the Taliban. Even if somehow a peace deal is reached with the Taliban, unfortunately that will not deliver stability in Afghanistan, as other Islamist extremists groups will continue to be a proxy for Pakistan.
(This article is a summary of the remarks made by Mr. Rehmatullah Nabil, former Director,
National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan at the Counter Terrorism Conference 2018
on 14th March, 2018 at Gurugram, Haryana.)
(This article is carried in the print edition of May-June 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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