“Do more” is the call resounding today throughout the halls of the White House with regards to Pakistan’s alleged facilitation of the Afghan Taliban. This is by no means a novel American approach to dealing with Pakistan and its complex relationship with some of the groups that both nations had promoted during the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, while both the Soviets and the US had the option to leave the region, other nations, specifically Pakistan, were left to deal with the aftermath. Thus with President’s Trump’s renewed bellicose rhetoric towards Pakistan, it is now more pertinent than ever to take a stroll down the annals of history to effectively make sense of Pakistan’s approach to the Afghan Taliban.
While Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, were a useful tool against the Soviets, their utility has become outdated from the American perspective in the post 9/11 world. With the US aiming their guns at the Taliban after the withdrawal of the Soviets, Pakistan has been forced to deal with the consequences of their ties to militant groups on their own.
The spillover effect of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent War on Terror can be categorized into two sections; indirect and direct consequences.
The direct repercussions can be explained through the uses of Pakistani transit routes, airbases and the purchase of F-16 fighter jets. It is estimated that over 80% of NATO’s supplies arrive to their bases in Afghanistan through the port of Karachi. Asides from a few cool periods of US-Pak relations in former President Obama’s tenure, Pakistan has allowed these supplies to travel through unimpeded. Moreover, with the majority of NATO supplies being transported through Pakistani roads and airbases, the physical wear and tear of said routes are a major component of Pakistan’s costs. Sources in the US claim to have disbursed close to $20 billion to Pakistan since 9/11, with a majority being disbursed through the Coalition Support Fund which are payments meant to repay Pakistan for costs incurred as a direct result of American and NATO military intervention.
Furthermore, the Pakistani government used almost a quarter of said figure to purchase American F-16s to facilitate their own internal military campaigns and strengthen the Durand Line. Pakistani officials argue that these F-16s would not have been needed had the FATA region not been transformed into a hotbed of militancy due to the proxy war between the Soviets and the US.
Secondly, they insist that the cost to Pakistan’s economy, approximately $70 million, far outweighs any reimbursements doled out by the US. However, others argue that the F-16s have been an instrumental tool in providing a strategic counter-balance against Pakistan’s historic rival, India and the additional funds have helped strengthen sectors of the economy such as agriculture, a vital node of the nation’s economic future.
The indirect costs to Pakistan can be described through the large number of Afghan refugees that poured into the nation, the effect of the war to Pakistan’s social structure and the movement of troops from their Eastern to their Western border.
Firstly, the official estimates put the amount of Afghan refugees that flowed in Pakistan at about 3 million while unofficial estimates can go up to 5 million. If looked at in isolation, these figures paint a dire situation since a developing country like Pakistan was made to deal with a refugee crisis unseen since. Today’s Syrian and Myanmar conflicts can put the figures into perspective as those crises evoked a far greater response than the Afghan situation did. While many claim it is the responsibility of Pakistan as a large nation to deal with a regional crisis, others believe the current scapegoating of the country ignores these past endeavours.
Secondly, Pakistan has seen Sunnis and Shias live in relative harmony compared to their Levantine counterparts. However, ever since the advent of the Soviet invasion to Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution of Iran, the relationship between the two sects has reflected a more volatile scenario. While the increase in sectarian violence cannot solely be attributed to the war in Afghanistan, a large part of it can be explained by the influx of Saudi Arabian petrodollars to fuel the “jihad” next door. Around the same time, Iran fast-tracked their promotion of their version of Shia Islam into neighbouring Pakistan thus resulting in a violent clash of ideologies at a time when militancy and extremism were the flavours of the day. While Pakistani leader Zia-ul-Haq is often blamed for the influx of extremist ideologies, many ignore the fact that these conflicts and wars arrived at the doorstep of Pakistan, rather than the other way around.
Lastly, the movement of Pakistani troops from their India-oriented positions on the Eastern border to the border with Afghanistan was considered a great boon for peace and stability in the region by Western and Indian analysts as it upended the historic strategic balance in the region (from the perspective of the Pakistani army vis a vis India). Many analysts viewed the troop movements as a sign that Pakistan was letting go of its distrust of India and focusing more on their internal dilemmas. However today it can be argued that that was not the case since Pakistani and Indian cease-fire violations have not decreased while Afghan-Pakistani relations have soured. Furthermore, Pakistan’s strategy of placing more emphasis on their Eastern border resulted in less military spending since the deployments were mostly for surveillance and maintaining the status quo while the Western border continued to remain an active war-zone till 2014, thus causing a much greater dent to the Pakistan military’s kitty. In this regard, it can be argued that the war in Afghanistan caused the Pakistan military to require more of the federal budget than any historical deployments on the Eastern border did.
Therefore, from being a frontline state against Soviet aggression and a frontline state in the war against terror, to a country that has to “do more or else”, Pakistan’s reputation in the eyes of the US has taken a huge hit. How much of that was self-inflicted and how much was pushed on them can be seen through the former’s efforts to deal with the maelstrom raging next door involving superpowers, regional powers, warring tribes, ideological battles and refugee crises.