Pakistan wants to be treated like an ally, not a scapegoat
As the world begins to process the implications of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, lots of people in Washington are pointing fingers at Pakistan, a major non-NATO ally that hasn’t been seen as an ally for a long time. But the world is changing fast, and the United States and Pakistan each have a clear interest in moving past their problems and working together, the country’s national security adviser told me in an interview.
To the extent that Pakistan is mentioned in U.S. media coverage of the Afghanistan crisis, it is mostly indicted for its alleged support of the Taliban over the years. Now that the Taliban has taken power, Washington experts are once again accusing Pakistan of complicity with the jihadists and calling for punishments, such as cutting off assistance or imposing sanctions on the government. But in Islamabad, the civilian leadership is not celebrating the Taliban victory. Instead it is trying to manage the coming fallout.
Afghan instability could lead to more terrorism, refugees and economic hardship for Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf, said in a phone interview. The United States and Pakistan have a shared interest in working together in Afghanistan, he said, but that will require fixing the bilateral relationship.
“Right now, in the situation we are in, how are U.S. and Pakistan’s interests not aligned?” he said. “I’m not asking for any sympathy for Pakistan. I’m thinking in terms of pure U.S. selfish national interests. How does it help to push away a country of this size, stature and power?”
U.S. intelligence agencies believe that elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence system have supported the Taliban for years, a charge the civilian leadership denies. According to Human Rights Watch, this support has included funding, diplomatic support, recruiting and training of Taliban fighters, providing the Taliban arms and even direct combat support.
Pakistan perennially stands accused of providing havens for the Taliban on its side of the border. Pakistani officials point out that tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers have died fighting extremists in their own country since 9/11.
“Pakistan is the victim. We had nothing to do with 9/11. … We teamed up with the U.S. to fight back … and after that there is a major backlash on Pakistan,” Yusuf said. “But let’s let all that pass. We need to work out how to move forward as partners, because neither side can do without the other in terms of stability in the region.”
The U.S.-supported government in Kabul used Pakistan as a scapegoat to excuse its own ineptitude, corruptions and unpopularity, Yusuf said. Pakistan helped bring the Taliban to the negotiating table at Washington’s request, got cut out of the negotiations and is now being blamed for the outcome.
“Did Pakistan tell the Afghan National Army not to fight? Did Pakistan tell Ashraf Ghani to run away?” he said. “The entire state collapsed in a week. So somebody was lying, somebody was misreporting, or somebody was mistaken about the reality and when it came to informing the taxpayers of the Western world.”
From the statement Khan’s government put out last week about the Taliban takeover it becomes apparent there is actually significant overlap with the Biden administration’s policy goals. Pakistan is calling for the Taliban to work with other ethnic groups toward a political settlement to establish an inclusive government in Kabul. Pakistan has urged the Taliban to respect international law and human rights. Islamabad agrees with Biden that withdrawing all U.S. troops was the right decision.
“Continuation of foreign military presence for a longer duration now would not have yielded a different outcome," the statement said.
Pakistan also wants the United States to increase its diplomatic and economic involvement in Afghanistan and to find a way forward to engage diplomatically with the Taliban. The United States should not isolate Afghanistan to punish its new rulers, Yusuf said.
“Now that the Taliban has the whole country, they don’t really need Islamabad as much anymore,” he said. “Assistance and recognition is the leverage. Who has that? It’s the Western countries that have much more leverage in Afghanistan than Pakistan.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan Ryan Crocker wrote last week in the New York Times that the United States made a mistake by disengaging with Pakistan in the 1990s and would be repeating that mistake by turning away from Islamabad now.
“We need to be engaged with Pakistan on ways to assess and deal with this enhanced threat,” wrote Crocker. “The prospect of violent destabilization of a country with about 210 million people and nuclear weapons is not a pretty one.”
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship can’t be just about Afghanistan, Yusuf told me; the two countries share a much broader range of interests. But first, the United States must learn the lessons of the 1990s, when it abandoned Afghanistan. Otherwise it can expect a similar outcome.
“If a security vacuum is left in Afghanistan by abandoning it, you will see that these terrorist organizations take root again. Let’s not kid ourselves,” Yusuf said.
Given Biden’s haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover, the United States has little alternative but to seriously consider Pakistan’s offer of cooperation. Sure, it might not work, but it’s worth a shot. Meanwhile, Washington and Islamabad might find a path back to being true allies. That still makes strategic sense for both countries, perhaps now more than ever.
Courtesy Washington Post