Pakistan’s Competing Interests

Pakistan’s Competing Interests

This paper addresses the goals of Pakistan’s foreign policy with regard to the US and India and argues that Pakistan is caught between incompatible goals. This results in growing tensions with the West and now poses a danger to the Pakistani state itself.

1. Introduction

When the United States had surrounded about 1.500 Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Tora Bora in late 2001, the capture of Osama Bin Laden and most of his followers seemed imminent. Only 24 hours later, most of the higher leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban had escaped across the border to Pakistan. The conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, after a strategic success in 2001, quickly turned into a protracted war with the US preoccupied in Iraq. This allowed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to reorganize themselves, and establish a safe haven and organizational structure on the Pakistani side of the border. Central to the question how this development was possible – how the Taliban in 2006 could be able to trap NATO forces in sophisticated 400 men ambushes, how and why suicide attacks in Afghanistan could rise from three in 2004 to 150 in 2006 and 239 in 2008 –is the need for a better understanding of US–Pakistani relations and Pakistan’s political priorities. Only by devoting considerable time and effort, the Pakistani behavior can be understood and the question whether Pakistan betrayed its Western allies can be addressed adequately.

2. Contradicting ambitions

The tribal area between Pakistan and Afghanistan constitute a good starting point for this investigation. Although officially separated by a border, Pashtuns on both sides constitute one ethnic group who share a similar language and culture, as well as intense cross-border links dating back to the 1980s. In Pakistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have never really been under central rule of Islamabad. During the 1980s, many Pashtuns joined the Mujahideen opposition against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This fight already involved now prominent figures such as Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. In the mid to late 1990s these men formed the core of the emerging Taliban in Afghanistan. Since independence India and Pakistan were engaged in open warfare for four times and the unstable situation in Kashmir always has the potential for further escalation. Fear of an Indian attack and the conventional superiority of India shed light on Pakistan’s politics – Pakistan is obsessed with India. The tribal areas and Afghanistan are essential for Pakistan in order to have an increased strategic depth and above all, to prevent India from encircling Pakistan by building up a strategic alliance with Afghanistan. The support for the Taliban in the 1990s becomes logical from a Pakistani perspective, as India supported their rivals for power in Afghanistan.

Another important factor regarding Pakistani politics is related to American military and economic aid. Following its nuclear test in 1998, Pakistan was put under virtually all types of sanctions available to the US government. Following the 9/11 attacks and the recognition of Pakistan’s importance as a military ally as well as a route for supplies to Afghanistan, a deal was struck, sanctions were lifted and US aid to Pakistan rose rapidly.

Combining the two elements above, Pakistan attempted to achieve two competing goals during the recent decade. First, increased Indian influence in Afghanistan should be prevented, which led to the ongoing support of Taliban groups by the Pakistani intelligence organization ISI. Second, the ISI conducted operations against these groups in order to remain a recipient of US aid and avoid isolation. Although Musharraf apparently acknowledged the need to cooperate with the US, this was done only halfheartedly. On the one hand – according to Pakistani sources – the ISI had helped arresting 670 Al Qaeda operatives by 2006 (CNN 2009). On the other hand, the Pakistani forces rarely attempted to hunt down the Taliban in their safe haven in Waziristan and other tribal provinces.

The need for strategic depth constitutes the key element of motivation for Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban. When Afghanistan was descending into anarchy in the 1990s, this did not resemble the Pakistani vision of an ally providing strategic depth. Pakistan acted quickly and gave support to its major clients – Pashtun groups in Afghanistan. This support made Taliban victory in 1996 possible, and also laid the basis for Taliban leaders to seek refuge in Pakistan together with their Al-Qaeda colleagues after 2001. Having arrived in Pakistan in 2001, the Taliban as well as Al-Qaeda built up links with other Pakistani militant groups, most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). LeT was founded in 1990 in Afghanistan, but quickly moved its headquarters to Lahore in Pakistan. LeT constitutes a radical Islamist group, focusing on both civilian and military targets in India, most notably the Indian parliament in 2001 and Mumbai in 2008. The key objective of LeT is to liberate Muslims in Indian Kashmir and to establish an Islamist state in the territory of the former Moghul Empire (Bajoria 2008). Although many links remain uncertain, some scholars point at close links between LeT and high-ranking ISI agents. LeT has its recruitment base furthermore not within the Pashtun population, but the Punjabi population of Pakistan. It therefore recruits from the same families and villages as the ISI and the Pakistani army, which makes it almost impossible to distinguish between formal support and informal ties between ISI and LeT members.

Taken together, this provides the ingredients for a dangerous situation in Pakistan, a complex network of terror has been established in Pakistan. Neither Al-Qaeda nor the Taliban are in control of this network, and its members committed to different visions of a global jihadist struggle. However, on an operational level, these groups increase their cooperation more and more, while at the same time establishing new links between the various groups, and also sympathetic members of Pakistan’s military and ISI. “All share the same target list – Crusaders, Jews, and Hindus – which is also the same target list as that of the global Islamic Jihad.” (Riedel 2011, p. 82)

3. Consequences and Implications

Pakistan possibly opened a Pandora’s Box by its support for terrorist groups. Given the current strength of the terrorist networks in Pakistan, we have to consider the possibility of an Islamist takeover in Pakistan, although this does not seem to be imminent. Although this is entirely speculative, Bruce Riedel provides a comprehensive summary of possible consequences of such a development (Riedel 2011). Given Pakistan’s history of coups and the cooperation between ISI and terrorist groups the possibility remains real and the consequences could be devastating. Educated and westernized Pakistanis and the Shia minority in Pakistan would most likely oppose such a development, thereby also drawing Iran into the conflict. India and Israel would have to deal with a new and more than ever threatening situation, and radical Muslims outside of Pakistan – most notably in India and Bangladesh – would also be affected. Above all, Pakistan would provide an extended safe haven for terrorists. The war in Afghanistan could not be won under these circumstances and ways of constraining or controlling Pakistan would be very limited. Pakistan owns a considerable nuclear arsenal and nobody knows where all these bombs really are. This makes it almost impossible to secure these weapons and/or attack Pakistan. In particular in regard to India and Iran, the motivation to build new or more nuclear weapons could lead into a vicious arms race, eventually also affecting Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

As said, the collapse of Pakistan’s state is not imminent, but Pakistan’s support of terrorist groups is no doubt backfiring with anti-government attacks increasing drastically – according to the attackers mainly in response to Pakistan’s cooperation with the US. The annual death toll from terrorist attacks has risen from 164 in 2003 to 3318 in 2009, with a total of 35,000 Pakistanis killed as of 2010. The uprising of radical Muslims in the Red Mosque in the Pakistani capital Islamabad and the subsequent storming by police and military which left more than 1.000 people dead, stands as an impressive warning regarding the dangers for the Pakistani state itself. Government officials have admitted that terrorist outfits were “deliberately created and nurtured” by past governments “as a policy to achieve some short-term tactical objectives” (CNN 2009) .

The tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the Pakistani relationship to India and the US offer deep insights into the complexities and contradictions of Pakistani politics. Above all, Pakistan is an indispensable actor in the war on terror and cooperation has to be improved. It took the West some time but eventually it realized that Pakistan was not playing according to the rules, but had double-crossed them. Obama therefore decreased US reliance on Pakistan and launched a massive on the ground and drone based CIA operation in Pakistan. Although successes like the killing of Osama Bin Laden and other high-ranking members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda shed a positive light on the new strategy, it is not free of risks. In particular, the danger of further antagonizing the Pakistani population and thereby increasing support for radicals is severe for the US, but also for the whole Pakistani state. Furthermore the real efficiency of drone attacks is still difficult to evaluate, and certainly they are tackling symptoms of terrorism, but not root causes of this problem.

It is therefore necessary to establish relations to trustworthy members of the ISI and the Pakistani government. A better understanding of the complicated links between the various militant groups and the ISI is essential. Given the unsatisfying history of US love for Pakistanis in uniform, the US should also consider a more fundamental change in their strategy by relying more on civilian actors, instead of the military and the ISI. This way, the US could not only help Pakistan’s society to decrease the power of the military and ISI as a state within the state, but  also help to address the problem of US double standards regarding dictators in the Islamic world.

The insight of Pakistan’s obsession with India should lead to at least some form of restructuring of Western institutions dealing with the area. Only few ministries of foreign affairs for example deal with Pakistan and India in one department (same goes for example for IFAIR). This increases the difficulties to obtain a comprehensive picture of the situation and develop promising strategies. Western actors, in particular the US, should also draw certain red lines. An effective dismantling of LeT for example, combined with Western diplomatic efforts behind the curtains could significantly improve Pakistan’s relation to India and thereby create new room of movement.


Although the Pakistani double cross has allowed the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to reemerge and at the same time seriously undermined Pakistan’s relationship to the West, the need for better cooperation has even increased. The risk of an Islamist nuclear Pakistan is simply too high. The recent killing of Osama Bin Laden in this regard offers tremendous opportunities, as the number one US demand, and at the same time prime Taliban objection, has been taken off the table. If the Pakistani society and its democratic and non-radical elements take up the struggle against those in the state apparatus working for the purpose of a more radical Islam, there are reasonable chances to significantly improve the situation in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan.  Renewed efforts in order to stabilize the situation by diplomatic means – including outreaching to the Taliban – have to be undertaken.

Matthias Scholz

Matthias Schloz studies International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Leiden as well as at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael in Den Haag. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Freiburg (New and Contemporary History and Islamic Studies).

Notice: Some of the information used for this article have been gathered by discussing with Pakistanis in Egypt and Iran and do not claim generality or scientific preciseness in the strict sense.

Relevant Literature and References:

Azam, M.: Radicalization in Pakistan: Sociocultural Realities, 2009.

Bahadur, K.: Regional Implications of the Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in Pakistan, 2006.

Bajoria, J.: Profile: Lashkar-e-Taiba, Council on Foreign Relations, 2008.

Graham, F.: Islamic Fundamentalism in Pakistan. Its Characters and Prospects, 1998.

Ignatius, David: Bloodmondy, 2011.

Riedel, B: Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of Global Jihad, 2011.

BBC Documentary: Secret Pakistan Part Two, 2011.

CNN: Pakistan created and nurtured militants, 2009.