Why should Washington not trust Islamabad?

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Issues and mistrust in US-Pakistan relations - Atlantic Council

by Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury   1 May 2023

Since Muhammad Ali Jinnah succeeded in creating Pakistan as a land of Muslims in 1947, the country has been suffering from maintaining pace with other economic juggernauts in the South Asian region, namely India. One of the key reasons behind Pakistan’s continuous economic hardship is its exclusive dependence on agriculture, while its directionless and counterintuitive national-defense policies alongside hostile agendas targeting neighboring nations which are being adopted by its ruling elites and military intelligence establishment – Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) have been key factors in downward corkscrew of the country. Meanwhile, Pakistan has attained infame of being a terror-patron nation. With all of these odds, Washington has been giving priority to its relationship with Islamabad, which certainly is a matter of huge surprise.

During the past seventy-five years of its existence, Pakistan has fought four wars with its archrival India along with the 1971 war against Bangladesh, where Pakistani occupation forces were defeated. Pakistan also has been witnessing waves of terrorism mainly from those forces, which were either created or harbored by the country’s spy agency and military establishment. Due to such continuous domestic turmoil, Pakistan’s democratic institutions have been eroding thus paving the path for military dictators to rule the country for over half of its lifespan. Even when civilian governments came to power, it was always under tremendous pressure and dominance from its mighty military establishment that substantially influenced its foreign policy.

For decades, while the United States has been considering Pakistan as its key ally in war on terror and showered billions of dollars – both in military hardware and cash, to the detriment of both Pakistani and American interests, the military establishment and spy agency ISI of Pakistan have consistently maintained its rogue policies of appearing, funding and harboring various terrorist and jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangyi etcetera. It is an essential quest for strategic depth to find the reasons behind Pakistani military establishment’s such a disastrous policy. According to geopolitical strategists, Pakistan is surrounded by India, Pakistan, China and Iran, Islamabad always prefers to maintaining deeper ties with rivals of India while maintaining a puppet regime in Afghanistan and continue its extreme hostility towards India as part of its strategy, which is certainly suicidal and counterproductive. It may be mentioned here that India is four times bigger than Pakistan in land mass and almost seven times bigger in population.

For these factors, Pakistan’s top military brass wants to maintain its influence in Afghanistan and continuously harbor anti-India militancy and terrorist groups to offset India’s growing military and geopolitical height. With such a rogue agenda, Pakistani ISI has been arming, training and logistically supporting certain terrorist and jihadist outfits deemed to be both capable of establishing their rule in Afghanistan and spreading seeds of terror within Jammu & Kashmir as well as other parts of India.

During the Cold War era, for Washington, Islamabad’s expedient relationship with armed jihadist groups was a trump card, when these groups were utilized to defeat the mighty Soviet military following its invasion of Afghanistan that began in 1979. The United States provided massive financial support to the Afghan mujahideen through a CIA-run covert program codenamed Operation Cyclone, where Pakistani ISI maintained training camps for thousands of Islamist Mujahideen fighters and at the same time played double-standard with the US. Although the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) succeeded in defeating Soviet forces by providing assistance to Afghan Taliban via Pakistan, which according to analysts was the main reason behind the collapse of Soviet Union, Pakistani ISI was making fresher grounds for continuing milking the US by turning Afghan Mujahideen into several jihadist outfits such as Al Qaeda.

With American funds, Pakistan succeeded in establishing their huge influence in Afghanistan. The September 11 terrorist attacks targeting American soil was one of the consequences of Pakistan’s role behind the emergence of Al Qaeda, which later did cost thousands of Americans and millions of Afghans being affected as aftermath of this jihadist notoriety. In this case, although Pakistan may not be directly held responsible for 9/11 terrorist attacks, it certainly cannot be ignored that the path to 9/11 was created by Pakistan when Islamabad stood as patron in the formation of Al Qaeda. Some analysts say, former US President George W Bush’s accomplishment of the Operation Cyclone mission may not bear different meaning as this “accomplishment” of defeating Soviet forces actually had put the entire world under direct threats posed by radical Islamic militancy groups. Eventually, this Frankenstein that the United States had created through Pakistani ISI is coming back to haunt both America and the rest of the world. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Washington had repeatedly pressed the Pakistani military establishment, including its spy agency ISI to completely cease relations with radical Islamic terrorist outfits, but Islamabad did not comply with such pressures. Instead, during the subsequent years and decades, Pakistan continued to covertly foster these jihadist groups and been repeatedly using them against India and the Western-backed government in Afghanistan.

Despite Islamabad’s notorious role in favor of terrorism, Washington kept bestowing its former ally with political and financial rewards. Washington even went further by giving the most prestigious friendship bracelet that America issued – being designated a major non-NATO ally, which is currently given to only nineteen countries.

Washington also provided billions of dollars of American taxpayer money in military aid to Pakistan to earn its sincerity and support in the post-September 11 war in Afghanistan. But nothing had any impact in convincing Pakistan to abandon its agenda of patronizing terrorism. Even several analysts are holding Pakistan and ISI responsible for the 2021 fall of Kabul into Taliban hands. This has already made American leaders and policymakers wary of Pakistan’s deceitful practices.

Meanwhile, policymakers and military leadership in Islamabad has adopted a policy of deepening its relations with China – another archrival of Washington and signed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2015, a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project, which is seen as the centerpiece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.