Pakistan and America: costs of militarism

Pakistan’s immense problems can begin to be solved only when powerful interests in Islamabad and Washington end their commitment to armed solutions, says Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed.
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
8 September 2010

Pakistan is in the eye of many storms. It lies at the heart of the United States’s almost decade-long “war on terror”, with an ever-ambiguous position (in Washington’s view) as an unreliable and perhaps even renegade ally. It is a society riven by enormous social inequalities and deep political, religious and ethnic divisions. It is frequently hit by acts of pitiless violence, from the targeting by religious extremists of members of rival faiths to “drone attacks” by US forces which kill innocent civilians.

Now, it is now battered by catastrophic floods which have destroyed the livelihoods of millions of the country’s people, threatening even greater humanitarian disasters to come. The United Nations reported on 7 September 2010 that as many as 10 million people have been living entirely without shelter for six weeks. And even in sport there is no release, for players in the national cricket team are charged with taking money in return for aiding a betting-scam by altering their on-field behaviour.

This mix of political crisis, natural tragedy and everyday corruption is itself an indication of how intractable Pakistan’s problems are. What is also clear is that the most serious of these problems go to the very top, and relate to the nature of the state and its institutions (not least its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] agency). If there is a way forward for Pakistan, a path beyond violence and extremism, it surely lies in addressing how these institutions operate - in particular, how the years of war in Afghanistan and its spillover effects in Pakistan have entrenched militarism and strengthened those forces in Pakistan most beyond democratic control.

The real policy

The role of Inter-Services Intelligence was highlighted once more with the disclosure by the WikiLeaks project on 25 July 2010 of a vast trove of classified United States military documents on its operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The approximately 90,000 pages of Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010 are the latest evidence from a series of reports that the ISI has given ongoing support to Islamist militant networks operating in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.

The WikiLeaks “revelations” provoked a great outpouring of publicity, which in great part is owed to the nature of the project and the way it cooperated with established newspapers (such as the New York Times and Der Spiegel) to maximise impact. So it is important to stress that where the ISI is concerned the documents offer nothing new. US military intelligence has known for several decades that Pakistan’s state sponsors Islamist networks (see Paul Rogers, "The Afghan war via WikiLeaks", 29 July 2010).

There are many examples to confirm this in existing official records. For example, two declassified reports of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Washington - dated two weeks after 9/11, and released in September 2003 - observe that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network was “able to expand under the safe sanctuary extended by Taliban following Pakistan directives” and funded by the ISI.

In addition, confidential Nato reports and US intelligence assessments circulated to White House officials in 2008 confirm consistent ISI support for Taliban insurgents. They indicate that Pakistan’s current chief-of-staff, General Ashfaq Kayani - who served as head of the ISI from 2004-07 - presided over Taliban training-camps in Pakistan’s western province of Balochistan and provided militants with over 2,000 rocket-propelled grenades and 400,000 rounds of ammunition. In the same year, US intelligence intercepted Kayani’s description of the senior insurgent leader Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani as a “strategic asset” in the insurgency around Kabul and eastern Afghanistan.

Britain, another key ally of both Pakistan and the United States, has also long been aware of this involvement. A leaked report in 2006 by the ministry of defence-run think-tank, the Defence Academy, spelled out the ISI’s “dual role in combating terrorism” while simultaneously “supporting the Taliban [and] supporting terrorism and extremism”.

A practice of successive British governments has been to overlook such evidence while trumpeting Pakistan’s brilliance at fighting the “war on terror”. In late June 2010, the new foreign secretary William Hague praised General Kayani’s efforts to combat extremism, emphasising the significance of Britain’s long-term strategic and economic relationship with Pakistan. This made the new prime minister David Cameron’s condemnation of Pakistan’s “export of terror” all the more was unexpected and wounding to Islamabad - especially as it was uttered during a visit to India.

The logic of war

The WikiLeaks documents may not have provided anything really new, but they did present Washington with a problem in that they again exposed the mismatch between its public support for Pakistan and its awareness of Pakistan’s extensive links with the Taliban. However, the United States’s official response - beyond condemning WikiLeaks for putting the lives of some of the people named in the documents at risk - showed no sign of acknowledging this contradiction.

The US vice-president Joe Biden insisted that the leaks predate the Barack Obama administration’s policy. He and other spokespeople argued that any ISI support for the Taliban is a rogue operation by isolated “elements” in the organisation.

This stance is consistent with Washington’s longer-term rhetorical, military and political support of Pakistan. The chairman of the US joint chiefs-of-staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has argued that General Kayani was committed to purging the ISI in order to end its support for militant networks. He and other officials persuaded the US Congress in October 2009 to commit to an unconditional five-year package of $6 billion in military and economic assistance to Pakistan.

Such positions are contradicted by US officials interviewed (under cover of anonymity) by the New York Times who confirmed that the portrayal of the ISI’s “collaboration with the Afghan insurgency was broadly consistent with other classified intelligence.” The documents, the paper concluded, show that the ISI has “acted as both ally and enemy”, appeasing certain American demands for cooperation while exerting influence in Afghanistan.

The inconsistency between the documentary record and the assertions of figures such as Biden and Mullen could not be clearer. This itself raises two serious questions about the nature of the regional and indeed global war being waged by the United States and its allies. 

The first is whether Washington and London’s unconditional military support for Pakistan has served to fuel the 90% increase in violence in Afghanistan over the past year. Indeed, Ola Tunander of Oslo’s Peace Research Institute even argues in a confidential report to Norway’s foreign-affairs ministry that the US strategy in Afghanistan is deliberately to “support both sides” in order to “calibrate the level of violence”.

The result of the Taliban advance over 2009-10 - anticipated by senior Nato official Thomas Brouns’s warning in Military Review (summer 2009) of “the possibility of strategic defeat” - has now led Obama’s team to reconsider an option suggested under the George W Bush administration: a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, in part to create enough stability to enable a trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline to go ahead.

The second question is about the relation between Washington’s regional war aims and the wider geopolitical objectives of its “war on terror”. Ola Tunander sees its broader agenda as being to mobilise other governments to support US global policy, thus legitimising the effort to sustain a US-dominated unipolar order. The logic of this approach is that the US seeks to perpetuate global warfare not merely to target local insurgents or anti-American regimes but effectively to stall the emergence of an “economic-political multipolar power-structure”, which would give states and regions such as China and Europe a more significant world standing.

The need for change

The hardest effect of the policies of Pakistan’s state and its foreign allies falls on the people of the region - millions of Pakistanis and Afghans living in poverty, under intense pressures of insecurity, and now (in the case of Pakistan) suffering enormous hardship and danger from weeks of unprecedented flooding. The inability or unwillingness of their political masters to deliver proper aid and support to desperate people both encourages further support for insurgents and creates space for militants and their networks to extend their influence: by (for example) establishing free madrasas, setting up relief-camps, and providing medicine and even generators.

There is no easy way to untangle the contradictions and hypocrisies in which the actions of Pakistan and its allies are enmeshed. But the process could begin if the United States and Britain were to make military and economic aid to Pakistan conditional on Islamabad ceasing support to Islamist insurgent networks, which would undercut these networks’ principal source of financial and logistical support; reduce Nato forces in order to reverse the direct correlation between the Afghan surge and the escalation of insurgent violence; and divert aid from military to humanitarian, development and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such serious joint action would signal to the ISI that the game has changed.

As long as Pakistan’s security mandarins believe that Nato is dependent on them to win the war in Afghanistan, they will feel free to expand their regional strategic influence by military means. And as long as western backers of Pakistan continue to fuel violence through a military-dominated strategy underpinned by cold geopolitical calculations, they will aid Taliban recruitment efforts and prolong conflict indefinitely. The storms that assail Pakistan will only be relieved if the interests of Pakistani citizens are put at the centre of policy.

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