The second part of a BBC documentary called Secret Pakistan was broadcast yesterday evening, which dealt with the relationship between Pakistan and the West since 2008. The programme’s conclusion pointed to a sense of profound uncertainty regarding the future of that relationship and to the uncertain future of Pakistan. It was not depressing or unduly pessimistic, but a realistic and sober assessment.
For a long time, the US and its allies suspected that the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, was involved in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan was ascribed to the assistance that the ISI provided. Indeed the US feared that it was about to lose the war in Afghanistan before the surge. What further alarmed the West were the suicide attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and the attacks in Mumbai in 2008, which they suspected Pakistani involvement.
The suspicions that Pakistan was covertly supporting the Taliban led to the US to conduct drone attacks on Pakistani territory, targeting both Taliban and al-Qaeda members. Initially, the US passed on intelligence to Pakistan about the targets, however, the targets continued to disappear before the operations were carried out. The US consequently gave no forewarning to Pakistan about planned operations. The operations that ended with the death of Osama bin Laden epitomized this break-down of the US-Pakistan relationship: there was no warning, and there was no pretence that Pakistan had co-operated in it.
The deterioration of the US-Pakistan relationship has led into tensions within Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban, an entity distinct from the Afghan Taliban, fought against the Pakistani forces within Pakistan, seeing it as unacceptable that the US forces were launching attacks on Pakistani soil. There is a paradox: Pakistan has been helping the Afghan Taliban against the US and its allies in Afghanistan, simultaneously being attacked for being too subservient to the US.
The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not a single war with combatants neatly lined up on one side or the other, but it consists of many different conflicts. The main US objective had always been to attack al-Qaeda and to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. For the US, invading Afghanistan was initially a means to achieve that aim, and the Taliban were the enemy because they did not give up Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. However, there was a mission creep, and creating a stable, democratic state in Afghanistan also became a mission. And for that reason the US and its allies had to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Or put it one way: the US was intent on fighting al-Qaeda, ending up fighting with the Taliban; Pakistan doesn’t care too much about al-Qaeda, but cares deeply about the Taliban and what happens to Afghanistan.
Pakistan, it seems, does not want the Afghan Taliban to do a deal to end the war in Afghanistan: Pakistan needs to retain a strong influence in Afghanistan. The question is whether the US and its allies can accept a deal that would meet Pakistani demands for influence over Afghanistan. Potentially, the most perturbing outcome of this series of wars is for Pakistan to fall apart and be in a state of anarchy. That would be a highly dangerous sequence of events for regional stability, and from the perspective of nuclear proliferation.