Pakistan and the “War on Terror”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

Pakistan’s relationship to the “War on Terror” has been highly ambivalent. On the one hand, Pakistan played a key role in facilitating the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan from shortly after 9/11 up to the present. It has permitted the transit of matériel across Pakistani territory to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan has also tolerated American missile attacks launched from Afghanistan against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s lawless border region with that country.

On the other hand, Pakistan has provided safe haven not just for radical Islamist movements targeting its rival India, but also for the Afghan Taliban. Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, among others, are also believed to be hiding in Pakistan. Whether, to what extent and by whom within the Pakistani government they are being protected is unclear, but Pakistan certainly has not helped the United States to locate and capture them. There have also been press reports that Pakistan has blocked the efforts of some Taliban leaders to seek peace with the U.S.-backed Karzai government in Kabul. U.S.-Pakistani relations have become increasingly strained over how to prosecute the “War on Terror,” yet cooperation between them also continues.

The explanation for this ambivalence is that while the United States and Pakistan have some common goals, their priorities differ markedly. The U.S. was concerned primarily with the Soviet threat during the Cold War, and has been focused on the threat from al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies since 9/11. Pakistan, by contrast, has been primarily concerned with its struggle with India ever since the two became independent from Britain in 1947. The fate of Kashmir, the Muslim-majority region that was divided between India and Pakistan during the first war between them, has been Pakistan’s principal concern. It also has many others, including which of the two rivals will have predominant influence in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has also been vitally concerned with the preservation of its territorial integrity. The country is an agglomeration of ethnicities with little in common except an adherence to Islam. In the early 1970s, the conflict between what were then the two parts of the country — West and East Pakistan — was essentially over which ethnicity would predominate. Indian intervention in that war allowed East Pakistan to secede and become Bangladesh. Since then, the Pakistani military and security services have increasingly emphasized Pakistan’s Islamic identity to keep its remaining disparate ethnic groups together. But one group has been predominant in the Pakistani military and security services, and hence in the government, ever since independence: the Punjabis.

Kashmir provides a rallying point for all Pakistanis, who believe that the Muslims there should also be able to live in overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. Kashmir, however, has also posed a problem for the Pakistani government and military. Pakistan has neither been able to seize it from India nor to persuade India to give it up. But, while it has no real hope of acquiring Indian-held Kashmir, no Pakistani government can afford to acknowledge this or relinquish Pakistan’s claim. Doing so would not only be hugely unpopular inside Pakistan; it might also encourage other ethnicities (Pushtuns, Sindis and Balochis) to push for secession from the Punjabi-dominated state.

During the period of their Cold War alliance, the differing American and Pakistani priorities were evident: the United States sought Pakistan as an ally against the USSR, while Pakistan sought the United States as an ally against India. The height of Pakistani-American cooperation occurred during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when the United States, Pakistan and many others backed the Afghan mujahideen, who were resisting the Soviets. Even then, however, Pakistan favored the Islamist Afghan mujahideen groups over the more nationalist ones. Islamabad seemed to think that it would have more influence over the former.

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89, American concern about that country and South Asia in general diminished. Pakistan, however, remained focused on its rivalry with India. During the 1990s, then, Pakistan supported the rise of the Taliban, for several reasons: to restore order in what had become a chaotic country, to promote an Islamist ally that would sympathize with Pakistan over Kashmir and thus resist Indian influence, to establish a secure road network across Afghanistan to link Pakistan with newly independent Central Asia (thus benefiting the politically powerful Pakistani trucking industry), and even to extend Pakistani influence across Afghanistan into Central Asia. The Pakistani military and security services also believed that having an ally in Afghanistan would give Pakistan “strategic depth” in any future confrontation with India (though precisely what this meant and how it would work were ill-defined and poorly thought out).

With Pakistani help, the Taliban was able to seize control of most of Afghanistan in 1996. The Taliban, though, proved to be an extremely difficult ally for Pakistan, providing safe-haven to several radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. After al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks and it became clear that the United States would intervene militarily in Afghanistan in retaliation, the Bush administration forced Pakistan to choose between siding with the United States or with the Taliban. Pakistan formally chose to side with the United States, not due to a genuine change of heart regarding the Taliban, but due to the fear that Washington would side with India against Pakistan if it did not, and in the hope that siding with (or appearing to side with) the United States against the Taliban would strengthen Pakistan vis-à-vis India. Anticipating that the United States would not remain in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban and perhaps even al-Qaeda might prove useful to Pakistan vis-à-vis India later, Pakistan tolerated and even supported their presence on its territory in the region bordering Afghanistan.

It would have been difficult for Pakistan to do otherwise. Pakistan has long supported radical Islamist groups that are primarily concerned with Kashmir and India. How could it draw a distinction between these “good” Muslim radicals, on the one hand, and “bad” Taliban ones, on the other — especially when Pakistani public opinion views both favorably? But at the same time, the Pakistani government has not wanted to alienate the United States either (at least not too much). So Pakistani policy since 9/11 has been a confusing mixture of supporting, sheltering and tolerating the Taliban and al-Qaeda to some extent, but also supporting U.S. actions against them at the same time.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. government has grown increasingly frustrated with Pakistan; its support for the Taliban has frustrated American military efforts in Afghanistan. But many Pakistani Islamists, especially the Pushtun, condemn the Pakistani government for cooperating with the United States at all. A Pakistani Taliban has arisen, mainly among Pakistan’s Pushtun population, which has fought against Pakistani government forces.

Pakistan’s too-clever-by-half policy of supporting the United States against the Taliban and supporting the Taliban against the United States has not only frustrated American efforts in Afghanistan; it has contributed to the rise of a radical Islamist threat inside Pakistan itself. At this point, a Pakistani government decision to turn against these radical Islamist forces — or just end its support for them — might result in accelerating the threat that they pose to the Pakistani government.

Despite this, the Pakistani leadership has, characteristically, remained focused on its rivalry with India. With the United States and NATO having announced that they will withdraw from Afghanistan between mid-2011 and the end of 2014, Pakistan seems more worried than ever that the Karzai government will ally itself with India to the detriment of Pakistan. And so, Pakistan has continued to support the hard-line Afghan Taliban. The irony, of course, is that if the Taliban returns to power in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s help, the Taliban is hardly likely to be more amenable to Pakistani influence after it has less need of it — just as occurred during the 1990s. Indeed, if the Afghan Taliban decides to help its Pushtun bretheren across the border in Pakistan, the Pakistani government may find itself faced with its own very serious Islamist insurgency — along with an unsympathetic international community as a result of the policies Pakistan is pursuing at present.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

To read more articles in this series, click here.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top