Who’s to blame for America’s humiliating surrender in Afghanistan, the dishonorable abandonment of American citizens along with Afghans who sided with us against the Taliban and al Qaeda, the disgraceful treatment of NATO allies, and the lethal incompetence with which the retreat was carried out? The buck stops on the desk behind which Joe Biden sits. But we would be remiss to ignore the contributions of others to this historic fiasco. Prominent among them: Pakistan’s leaders.
I take no pleasure in saying this. I first visited Pakistan 38 years ago. Most of the people I encountered were gracious, hospitable, and tolerant. They were open to talking about anything – in English!
Of course, four years prior to my visit, angry mobs had stormed the American embassy in Islamabad, incensed over reports – entirely erroneous – that the U.S. had been involved in the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. But after that crisis passed, Muhamad Zia-ul-Haq – a four-star general who became the country’s president after deposing Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – was eager to improve relations with the U.S.
I attended a small dinner he hosted. His eyes were as dark and predatory as a shark’s. But he didn’t seem like a bad guy – as dictators go.
He was then providing a haven for a flood of refugees from Afghanistan where Soviet forces were supporting a communist government at war with Muslim guerrillas. Both Washington and Islamabad favored the guerrillas who, most Americans believed, were throwing off a foreign occupation, not launching a new global jihad against infidels and heretics.
Nevertheless, over the five years that followed, President Zia would establish Sharia laws and courts, appoint Islamists to senior government posts, restrict the rights of women and religious minorities, criminalize “blasphemy,” and add whipping, stoning, and amputation to the list of punishments meted out to those deemed miscreants.
My last visit to Pakistan was in 2009. During the less than two weeks I was there, four terrorist attacks were carried out inside the country. One, attributed to the Pakistani Taliban, targeted the equivalent of the Pentagon. Armed with automatic weapons, grenades, and rocket launchers, the terrorists fought for 22 hours. Hostages were taken, and a brigadier, a colonel, and three commandos were reportedly killed.
The reaction of many Pakistanis struck me as shockingly blasé. And even some of those who condemned attacks by the Pakistani Taliban against Pakistanis condoned attacks by the Afghan Taliban against Americans.
Suspicion was already growing that al Qaeda’s central leadership, possibly including Osama bin Laden, was hiding out in Pakistan. I had noted that in a column and, on a television program, was scolded by the host for having done so.
Those suspicions were borne out, of course. And we now know for sure that powerful elements within Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment helped create the Afghan Taliban in the early 1990s and continued to fund and train its fighters even after the U.S. intervention in 2001. The Taliban’s close alliance with al Qaeda troubled them not at all.
Author Elliot Ackerman, who served as a Marine in Afghanistan, is hardly alone in believing that had Pakistani leaders ended that support and shut the border to the Taliban – whose leaders retreated to Pakistani bases every winter – the organization would have “collapsed” rather than soldiering on until American leaders grew tired and quit – the outcome the jihadis both expected and predicted.
Pakistani leaders continue to support Islamic supremacists and jihadis of various stripes. Former Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani, now a scholar at the Hudson Institute, has written: “While Pakistan’s establishment has alternated between various Islamist factions, mainstreaming one while suppressing another, it has never thought about mainstreaming secularists who have been dubbed as traitors or unfaithful to the ideology of Pakistan.”
The “international community,” rhetorically committed to nuclear non-proliferation, failed to prevent Pakistan from detonating a nuclear weapon in 1998, the same year al Qaeda bombed two American embassies in Africa, and bin Laden issued his infamous fatwa: “The rule to kill Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is a sacred duty for any Muslim.” Pakistani physicist A. Q. Khan, the father of Islamabad’s illicit nuclear arsenal, illicitly transferred nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Many Pakistanis regard him as a hero.
Following President Biden’s “unconditional surrender to an amorphous armed rabble” – as Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta aptly phrased it – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan declared “the shackles of slavery” broken. The head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, was welcomed by the Taliban in Kabul. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Qureshi paid a call on Ebrahim Raisi, the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Though designated a “major non-NATO ally,” Pakistan maintains a close alliance with Beijing, and its military has links with the People’s Liberation Army. Nevertheless, between 2002 and 2018, the U.S. government gave Pakistan more than $33 billion in assistance.
The Trump administration cut aid to Pakistan, but a broader reconsideration of this disappointing relationship is long overdue. I know it’s tricky: We don’t want to push Islamabad closer to America’s sworn enemies. But if Pakistan’s leaders have decided that their interests are best served as clients of China (ignoring Beijing’s persecution of the Muslims of Xinjiang), allies of Tehran’s imperialist jihadis, and supporters of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other Islamist terrorists, this marriage cannot be saved.
President Biden inherited a long list of mistakes, misjudgments, and unfinished business from his predecessors. But, as noted, he currently occupies an office that contains a desk from which bucks can be passed no further.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.