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The Collapse of Pakistan’s Afghan Policy

It is a risky and strangely unsettling task to write about strategic perspectives in a region of turmoil at a time of war, of extreme instability and political transformation, and of widespread uncertainty. Many cherished strategic myths and half-truths have come unraveled in Afghanistan and neighbouring South Asia over the past months, and many more will be discredited in the near future. Among these, the most significant has been Pakistan’s theory and quest for the ‘strategic depth’ that its Generals sought to secure by propping up the Taliban at Kabul, a policy that they believed would provide them with a multiplicity of secondary benefits as well. The most significant of these was the relative safety of a historically volatile western border. This strategy also raised exaggerated visions of secure and lucrative trade routes to the land-locked Central Asian republics, and networks of pipelines to transport oil and natural gas to Pakistani ports.

The rout of the Taliban has brought this dream to an end, and with it, a complete collapse of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Despite Pakistan’s reluctant commitment to the global coalition against terrorism, there were continuous efforts to salvage at least some limited area of influence in Afghanistan, initially through covert supplies and support to the Taliban, and subsequently through a succession of desperate diplomatic maneuvers that sought to secure some role for a fictional "moderate Taliban" in Afghanistan’s post-war dispensation. The last vestiges of hope for this salvage operation, however, vanished with the unexpected measure of success that the Bonn Conference secured in cobbling together an interim administration under Hamid Karzai, and the current absence of violent dissidence among the many warlords competing for a role in Afghanistan’s emerging power structure.

Pakistan has, over the past two decades, been the most active and aggressive player in the South Asian region, defining for itself a role that has substantially shaped the foreign policy priorities and security concerns of all its neighbours to an extent far in excess of what could be thought of as ‘natural’ in terms of its size and strategic strengths. Islamist extremism and terror have been the primary instruments of motivation, mobilisation and execution of its policies, and its ends have been realised through a strategy and "overriding interest… to achieve internal security by provoking instability among its neighbours.1 Afghanistan and Kashmir have been the cornerstones of this politics of violent disruption, and it is clear that, though the strategies of the past have been entirely discredited and reluctantly relinquished in the former, the covert terrorist war in the latter remains central to the Pakistani vision. Indeed, when he was coerced and cajoled into joining up the US-led coalition against terrorism, Pakistan’s military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, had clearly stated that Pakistan’s Afghan policy was being ‘sacrificed’ in order to protect four of the country’s "critical concerns" – including the "cause of Kashmir."2

Despite the continuing turmoil and violence it is still capable of instigating, and the absence of any evidence of sagacity provoked by its abject and humiliating failures in Afghanistan, however, it does appear that Pakistan’s phase of military and strategic adventurism is approaching its endgame. There are several grounds for such an assessment, but the first that demands attention is structural: the failure to met the requirements of "the age-old task of relating national means to national ends."3 There is today, little by way of existing wealth, or structures and processes for the generation of new wealth, or social, political and institutional strengths to underpin Pakistan’s overweening delusions of military grandeur and strategic over-extension. Indeed, its mischief in the neighbourhood has already inflicted an enormous economic, social and political cost on Pakistan itself. Some years ago, Olivier Roy had succinctly described the Frankenstienian dilemma that confronted Pakistan as a result of its Afghan policy:

The apparent victor, Pakistan, could pay dearly for its success. The triumph of the Taliban has virtually eliminated the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. On both sides, Pashtun tribes are slipping towards fundamentalism and becoming increasingly implicated in drug trafficking. They are gaining autonomy, already small fundamentalist tribal emirates are appearing on Pakistani soil. The de facto absorption of Afghanistan will accentuate centrifugal tendencies within Pakistan.4

These were the costs to the "apparent victor." The costs of the recent and comprehensive defeat in Afghanistan are yet to be calculated, but according to one assessment, the current war in Afghanistan is expected to inflict a direct cost on the Pakistan economy of some US $ 3 billion.5

Pakistan’s ‘Kashmir policy’, it would appear, is following the same trajectory, and one Pakistani commentator’s recent pronouncements echoed Roy:

Pakistan’s jehad in Kashmir has created an alternative state apparatus in the outfits that fight there as surrogate warriors. The price that civil society pays for this deniable covert war has been climbing over the years and has now become almost intolerable.6

Indeed, the delusional character of the extremist Pan-Islamist ideology and enterprise that underpins Pakistan’s strategic perspective has been conceded even by some of those – like General Musharraf himself – who have closely allied themselves with, or exploited, this ‘cause’ over extended periods of time – as has a succession of Pakistani governments. In a rare moment of insight in June 2001, President Musharraf – whose own government even now remains inexorably linked to Islamist extremist elements – ranted against the Islamists in a speech that is certainly historical and merits an extended citation:

"Islam is vibrant and forward-looking. But more than that we claim it is the most tolerant of faiths. How does the world judge our claim? It looks upon us as terrorists. We have been killing each other and now we want to spread that violence and terror abroad. Naturally the world regards us as terrorists. Our claim of tolerance is phoney in its eyes...... It is time we took stock of our position.

"Seventy per cent of the world's energy resources are in Muslim countries. But our GDP, of the entire Muslim Ummah, comes to barely 1,200 to 1,300 billion dollars. On the other hand, Japan's GDP stands at 5,500 billion and Germany's at 2,500 billion dollars. In other words, Germany's GDP is twice that of the entire Ummah and Japan's four and a half times, though we are one-fourth of the world's population sitting on 70 per cent of its energy resources.

"Why is this so? An analysis tells us that it is all because of a difference in the advancement of human quality, of environmental development. Other countries have swept forward. Just take education. In the entire Muslim world there are some 380 universities of which only 25 are of a world ranking. In Japan 1000 universities award PhD degrees. The entire Muslim Ummah can boast of a total of 500 PhDs. In England, each year 3000 PhDs are awarded and in India 5000. It is this that should engage our attention. When we make an assertion we must have strength to back it up. Wisdom dictates that we should first acquire strength, come out on top, and then talk."7

Much of this rhetoric was, of course, intended for an increasingly critical western audience even in the pre-9/11 period, and was meant to serve as an alibi for the Pakistan state’s own innocence in the rising tide of chaos and violence in the region, and its random, though increasing, reflection in terrorist violence elsewhere. This was an alibi that Musharraf found conveninet to repeat more recently, well after the events in Afghanistan had established the complicity of the Pakistani state beyond reasonable doubt, when he argued that "The Afghan situation has presented a unique opportunity to draw a line in the sand against a tiny minority of unenlightened, obscurantist and backward-looking religious extremists who hold the majority of moderate, dyanamic and futuristic-looking Pakistanis hostage."8

These arguments are given some credence because there has, over the past years, been a general tendency to blame Islamist fundamentalists and the various madrassas (seminaries) and marakiz (religious centres), with their elaborate infrastructure for the mobilisation and training of terrorists, for much that has gone wrong within and around Pakistan.9 This, indeed, is the essence of the ‘Frankenstien’ symbolism, suggesting that the monster has somehow, unintentionally, been set loose. The reality, however, is far more complex and the role of the Pakistan Army and its covert wing, the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), pivotal. Ayaz Amir notes,

"How strange then that today they (the Islamist fundamentalists) should be demonised as the source of all our problems. Who held whom hostage? It was not the madrassas which forced any government to support the Taliban. This was a decision taken by the national security establishment in pursuit of ‘strategic depth’ and similar notions which have characterised our Afghan policy. The madrassas had it not in their power to hold the nation hostage. It was the army and the intelligence services which brooked no assault on the ‘obscurantist elements’ because they were seen as serving the ‘national interest’ – a bogey in whose name every last lunacy can be justified."10

The fundamentalists are now in disarray. In Afghanistan, they offered weak, almost token resistance to the US-backed juggernaut, first of the Northern and later of the Eastern Alliance. Within Pakistan, there were only a handful of orchestrated protests by the ‘powerful’ fundamentalist groups against the ‘US Aggression’ in Afghanistan, with crowds at any of these seldom exceeding a few score, or perhaps a few hundred – numbers that are simply beneath contempt in the context of protest in overpopulated and volatile South Asia.

Nevertheless, the tide of violence in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) – and its widening scope into other parts of India, as most dramatically manifested in the fidayeen attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001 – continues because the Pakistani agenda remains unchanged, and there is still a degree of ambivalence in the world’s responses to Pakistan-sponsored terrorist violence in this theatre. This continues to afford the Pak state the cover of a measure of ‘deniability’ that now eludes its actions in Afghanistan. Thus, US Secretary of State Colin Powell saw fit to appreciate General Pervez Musharraf’s efforts to ‘take action’ against terrorist groups accused of the attack on India’s Parliament11, and while freezing the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s accounts, President George Bush spoke of it as a "Kashmir-based" and "stateless sponsor of terrorism".12 In J&K, consequently, things remain relatively simple for the General. As long as he denies all knowledge of the terrorist organisations operating from Pakistan and condemns major incidents of terrorist violence in India, there is little to constrain him from continuing, perhaps a little more secretly, with the covert war that has been the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy for a decade-and-a-half.

Despite continuous casualties – with fatalities as a result of the ‘proxy war’ in J&K between January 1988 and December 19, 2001 mounting to 30,51713 – the Indian response has vacillated between alternating phases of military and police action interrupted by ill-conceived and counterproductive ‘peace initiatives’ and efforts to secure a ‘negotiated solution’ with the terrorists and with their sponsors across the border.14

The Indian reaction to the attack on Parliament has, however, been qualitatively different from anything in the past. Even the October 1, 2001, fidayeen attack on the J&K Assembly, which left 39 dead, did not significantly alter perceptions. This is unsurprising. As K.P.S. Gill, who as the director general of police led the successful war against terrorism in Indian Punjab, remarked, "It is amazing that it takes an attack on India’s Parliament for our leadership to understand that the terrorists are enemies of democracy. For decades terrorists have been murdering our people with impunity, but the unfortunate truth is that, when people die in distant provinces, Delhi remains unmoved. The Members of our Parliament failed to understand the reality of terror and its paralysing, corrosive, impact on the psyche of the people."15 Such an understanding has, however, now abruptly emerged, and the purely partisan squabbling over a counter-terrorism law and over the government’s responses to terrorism in the past has yielded to a consensual support for an effective response to the challenge, and a crystallising inflexibility towards Pakistan. This response is currently taking shape, and the Indian government has already announced the recall of its High Commissioner – something that has only happened twice before, during the 1965 and 1971 wars – and some symbolic measures including the cancellation of the Delhi-Lahore Bus and the Samjhauta Express Train.16 There are indications that this would be followed by withdrawal of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status, a permanent downscale of its diplomatic mission and a review of River Water Treaties.17

These are the first direct penalties that India has imposed in over a decade and a half of Pakistan’s covert intervention in India, and major shifts are now visible in the dominant Indian perspective. The orthodoxy in India’s strategic community has long held that a strong, stable and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s best interests. This position is now undergoing a radical review, and, though advocates persist, the reality of Pakistan’s unrelenting campaign of hatred and terror is forcing a gradual but progressive shift to the position that an unstable, weak and eventually collapsed Pakistan is an objective that India could pursue over time. This implies the construction of India’s long-term policies around the objective of terminating or dismantling the Pakistani state as it is presently structured. This does not, of course, mean that the objective is the end of Pakistan, just as bringing the Talibanised Afghan state to an end did not imply the end of Afghanistan. It implies, instead, consistent catalytic action to dismantle the structure of the currently criminalised state apparatus in Pakistan, and its replacement with others that are more consistent with the values of the modern and emerging global order.

Whether or not this conviction is translated into national policy will depend on events of the near future, but fundamental commitments are now being made. Despite its aversion to war, India will prepare for a definitive confrontation with Pakistan – even with the attendant risks of nuclear escalation. Such preparation makes strategic sense on several grounds. First, such a confrontation may be forced by Pakistan’s continued and escalating support to terrorism, or by another military misadventure. Total preparedness is, consequently, an imperative and would also significantly increase India’s negotiating strengths. Such preparation would, moreover, imply increased defence spending. An increase by India of even, say, one per cent of its GDP (current levels of defence expenditure are at a low 2.6 per cent of GDP) on defence would push Pakistan into an unaffordable arms race. Pakistan would need to increase defence spending by nearly 8 per cent of its GDP to match a single percentage point increase in India’s outlays.18 Given India’s greater economic depth and stability, Pakistan’s military and strategic over-extension would impose utterly ruinous economic and social costs. This is the explicit goal that is increasingly being built into India’s strategic calculations in the face of Pakistan’s intransigent support to terrorism in the region.

Despite the rising rhetoric, however, there is little scope of the options of ‘hot pursuit’ or any other cross-border engagement by India in the foreseeable future. Delhi is by and large preparing for a ‘diplomatic winter’ during which it will campaign internationally to expose terrorist networks and secure a greater delegitimisation of Pakistan-based terrorism.

There is, moreover, a growing confidence and determination in India to defeat terror on its soil. The fruitlessness of the flip-flop policies of the past is increasingly acknowledged. There is a realisation that India has defeated terrorism before, and the experience and responses of other nations – most recently the United States – are also in evidence. The one principal that stands out clearly is that there can be no compromise with terrorists; all such compromises reward terrorism. Fitful policies seeking negotiations with terrorists and with their front organisations have only helped entrench these groups, creating an alternative sphere of a violent, murderous politics that is fundamentally a negation of democracy. Political solutions may, of course, still be pursued. But only those political actors who are untainted by associations with terrorism can be party to such political solutions. As for those who practice or support terrorism – the response can only be that of confrontation with the fullest might of the state. As Fareed Zakaria has noted in another context, "Military victory is indeed essential. Radical political Islam is an "armed doctrine," in Edmund Burke’s phrase. Like other armed doctrines before it – fascism, for example – it can be discredited only by first being defeated."

It is difficult to see the world after Afghanistan as a place safe for terror, but dangers still persist. The fact is that the entire frontline leadership of both the Taliban and the Al Qaeda appear to have survived the US campaign, and there are indications that a substantial proportion of these have moved into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. There are also apprehensions that some of the terrorists ‘squeezed out’ of Afghanistan could be moved into India. Essentially, the question now reduces to the international commitment to the ‘global war against terrorism’. If the world – and particularly the US – even marginally dilutes this commitment, re-establishing once again the "terror tolerating systems" that have allowed enclaves and state or non-state sponsors of terrorism to act with impunity, the gains of the past months would be lost. If this happens, the recurrence of the unprecedented tragedies such as 9/11, and the unending ‘bleeding wars’ in other parts of the world, would once again become the reality of an unequal and uncertain world order.


  1. Mark Husband, Warriors of the Prophet: The Struggle for Islam, Colorado & Oxford: Westview Press, 1999, p. 9.
  2. Text of speech of President General Pervez Musharraf broadcast on Radio and Television on September 19, 2001,
  3. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, New York: Vintage Books, 1987, p. xxi.
  4. Olivier Roy, Middle East Report, Winter 1997, cited in Ahmed Rashid, op. cit., p. 187.
  5. Rauf Klasra, "War to cost Pakistan $ 2 billion till December 31," The News, November 23, 2001,
  6. Khaled Ahmed, "The Challenge Within," The Friday Times, November 16-22, 2001.
  7. Ardeshir Cowasjee, quoting Gen. Pervez Musharraf addressing a gathering of Muslim Ulema, "Give him a fighting chance," Dawn, June 17, 2001,
  8. General Musharraf at New York, cited in Ayaz Amir, "The fantasies of Pakistani liberalism," The Dawn Internet Edition, November 23, 2001,
  9. See, for instance, Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, London & New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2001; Jessica Stern "Pakistan’s Jihad Culture," Foreign Affairs, November-December, 2000 at; Mark Huband, Warriors of the Prophet: The Struggle for Islam, Colorado & Oxford: Westview Press, 1999; etc.
  10. Ayaz Amir, "The Fantasies of Pakistani liberalism," op.cit.
  11. "Musharraf acting against terrorist groups: Colin Powell," The Indian Express, December 22, 2001,
  12. "First light as darkness deepens: Pak says it has frozen Lashkar’s assets," The Indian Express, December 22, 2001.
  13. Data source: The South Asia Terrorism Portal,
  14. See, K.P.S. Gill & Ajai Sahni, "The J&K ‘Peace Process’: Chasing the Chimera," Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, Volume 8, April 2001, New Delhi: ICM-Bulwark Books, pp. 1-40.
  15. K.P.S. Gill, "Confront terrorism with full might of the state", The Times of India, December 16, 2001. See also
  16. "Angry India recalls High Commissioner to Pakistan", The Times of India, December 22, 2001,
  17. "Season’s greetings: cold Christmas, nervous New Year," The Indian Express, December 22, 2001.
  18. In the year 2000, Pakistan’s GDP stood at $ 62 billion as against India’s $ 479 billion. See,

(Edited version published in Asian Affairs No. 16, 2001.)





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