The BBC broadcast the first of a two-part documentary programme titled Secret Pakistan, which tracks the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban, as well as al-Qaeda, the US and the ‘West’ over the past decade between the 9/11 attacks and the operation that ended with the death of Osama bin Laden. Central to the programme is the claim that that Pakistan has been double-dealing throughout this period: it has given refuge and succour to Taliban, while at the same time (giving the impression that it was) co-operating with the US and its allies in the conflict in Afghanistan.
The content probably would not have surprised anyone, who has followed the developments over the years. Yet, the picture is probably a lot more complicated than what a two-hour television programme can show, even if it is made extremely well (which I think it is). I’m rather hasty in writing my impressions of that programme based the first part, but it was one of those television programmes that made you think, and I thought I’d better jot my thoughts before I forget them. There is also an article on the BBC website related to this programme, as linked below.
It is probably accepted that Pakistan, a large, diverse, populous country, is not governed properly, and therein lies the biggest problem. There are different elements within the Pakistani state apparatus controlled by different people: in Pakistan, it’s never actually clear who is in actual control over which areas.
Pakistan’s main geopolitical and strategic fear, the programme alluded, is an encirclement by India and a pro-India Afghanistan. Or put it differently, the primary strategic aim for Pakistan is to cover its back while facing India. For Pakistan’s military and the ISI, the Taliban were their creature, and a force to assist them in keeping Afghanistan under Pakistani influence. The Taliban were too good an asset for Pakistan, and could not be discarded. And this is a modus operandi chosen by Pakistan: it has used a number of organizations, including the Taliban and others that operate in Kashmir, to conduct proxy operations and wars, targeted at India.
The exact relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is another fascinating story, which further complicates the picture. They are separate organizations with different sets of aims, albeit with many overlapping aims and goals, yet they have been conflated in many people’s minds, but not in the eyes of Pakistan. For Pakistan, the Taliban are useful, whereas al-Qaeda, uncontrollable and uninfluenceable, represent a certain liability. Hence, it seems, Pakistan was happy to arrest and hand over al-Qaeda members, perhaps with the exception of Osama bin Laden, when the Taliban and al-Qaeda were driven out of Afghanistan in the initial stages of the war. The Taliban remained largely unmolested, and even regrouped and rearmed by the ISI, according to the programme.
Yet, the relationships between the ISI, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are very unclear. Who were involved in the training camps in Pakistan, when the war intensified again in Afghanistan around 2006? The Taliban, or the insurgents, were much better organized, trained and equipped compared to the early stages of the war. Who gave them that capacity: the ISI and / or al-Qaeda? Perhaps there is more on this in the next programme.
Ultimately, what is Pakistan’s grand strategy? There must be a strategical goal, a long-term plan, for the military and the ISI to pursue this double-dealing policy. At least, I wouldn’t think that they are making up policy as they go along. Is it to keep Afghanistan under its area of influence, as mentioned earlier? If not, then what? And what kind of settlement in Afghanistan do the Pakistani military and the ISI want? There are naturally a host of other questions, such as how much control does the ISI have over the Taliban etc, but deciphering the grand strategy should be the priority.
Because the West sees Pakistan mainly through the prism of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s indispensability – which also means money – is tied to the situation in Afghanistan, even though a badly or inadequately governed Pakistan on its own is a huge problem, because of its geopolitical location, and because of its nuclear capabilities. Perhaps Pakistan has been masterly in playing this game: it has made itself indispensable to the West by prolonging the conflict in Afghanistan through its proxy the Taliban. Perhaps what is surprising is that Pakistan has not yet fallen apart. In any case, Pakistan is too important to fail, or be allowed to fail, yet there is no clear path for it to become a stable state.