In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius writes that Pakistan is reaping the whirlwind of homegrown terrorism by having “squandered the opportunity presented” with a large‐scale U.S. troop presence next door and for refusing to work with Washington to stabilize its mountainous tribal region. Recent history suggests a more complex reality.
Mr. Ignatius is correct when he writes that Pakistan has pursued self‐defeating policies, as I have written about extensively and at length. In the seven‐year period leading up to 9/11, Islamabad directly armed, funded, and advised the Taliban regime that provided sanctuary to al Qaeda. As former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice explained in April 2004:
Al‐Qaida was both client of and patron to the Taliban, which in turn was supported by Pakistan. Those relationships provided al‐Qaida with a powerful umbrella of protection, and we had to sever them. This was not easy.
Indeed, it was not. Years of assistance to select militant groups cemented ideological sympathies for radicalism among elements of that country’s armed forces and civilian political elite. Such sympathies cannot be turned off overnight. After former President‐General Pervez Musharraf deployed 70,000 troops to the fractious tribal areas in early March 2004, and ordered the ham‐fisted raid on Lal Masjid in July 2007, Pakistan and its porous border with Afghanistan became even more inflamed. Over the past couple of years, this author has become far more pessimistic about Pakistan’s viability as a functioning state, given the continuing devolution of power to incompetent local bodies and the disturbing increase of Punjabi militants.
Given all of this, it is mistaken for Mr. Ignatius to leap to the assumption that by deploying over 100,000 foreign troops to Afghanistan nearly a decade after 9/11, the U.S. and its allies could have miraculously stabilized the region. If anything, right after 9/11, Islamabad and Washington had dropped the ball. Back in 2008 when I was in Lahore, I bumped into a former head of Pakistan’s military‐dominated spy agency, the Directorate for Inter‐Services Intelligence. We had very brief and candid discussion about the forgotten war raging next door. He said quite explicitly that Pakistan was willing to relinquish support for the Taliban, but that after President George W. Bush lost Osama bin Laden and turned his sights on Iraq, the Pakistanis believed (and understandably so) that the United States didn’t care about the region. Pakistan continued to pursue its own objectives since the United States was focused elsewhere. In essence, he said, Washington had one year after the initial invasion to leverage Islamabad and persuade it to alter its strategic policies.
Of course, who knows for sure? Alas, we will never know, but it was immediately after the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and sadly, it seems, we may never recoup the goodwill we reaped and eventually — and gratuitously — squandered.