The ISI kept a large chunk of the inflows to itself and channelled the rest to “loyal” Islamist Afghan groups.
Pakistan might be viewed as a failed or failing state but there is one area where it continues to be hugely successful: in using terrorism as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from the rest of the world.
The recent incarceration of terrorist mastermind and mass killer Hafiz Saeed by Islamabad is the latest manifestation of this dynamic.
Saeed, don of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa outfits, is a creation of the Pakistani military establishment, designed to sow misery in India and other parts of the world where Islamabad feels it necessary to wreak havoc. He has served his purpose, at least for the time being, and is being reined in temporarily to reap desperately needed benefits.
Saeed is just one pawn in Islamabad’s inventory of terrorist assets. He like others remains critical to Pakistan’s grand strategy of using terrorism as a bargaining chip.
The late Pakistani dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who deserves to be titled the father of jihadi terrorism in South Asia, was a man of enormous vision, albeit of a jaundiced kind. He envisioned harnessing the power of Islamist extremism to further his country’s larger geopolitical aims.
Although he was killed in an aircrash before he could see the complete efflorescence of his dream, the general had sown the seeds of a virulent dynamic that would haunt South Asia and the rest of the world for decades to come. He successfully bargained with the United States, charging billions of dollars for helping the Afghan Mujahideen.
At the same time, he ensured that the entire Mujahideen opposition fighting during the Eighties to free Afghanistan of Soviet troops was Islamist and loyal to the Pakistan Army.
The Pakistan military’s secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, oversaw the distribution of the flood of arms and money from the US and Arab sheikhs.
The ISI kept a large chunk of the inflows to itself and channelled the rest to “loyal” Islamist Afghan groups. This strategy led to the defeat of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan but also unleashed the Islamist Frankenstein in the region.
It precipitated religious civil war in Afghanistan which continues to this day and which has resulted in the death of millions of Afghans.
The seeds of the Kashmir jihad too were sown by Gen. Zia but it was his successors in the Pakistani establishment who nurtured the anti-India movement in the Valley.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the mentor of militant Islam, mastered the use of terrorism as a bargaining chip.
After the 9/11 terrorist attack in the US, when Washington threatened to bomb Pakistan out of existence, Gen. Musharraf squealed in fright and promised to abandon the Taliban.
The Taliban fled from Afghanistan but Musharraf secretly provided them a safe haven and once things had quietened down began financing and arming them once again.
Over time, the resurgent Taliban became a powerful threat to US forces in Afghanistan, forcing Washington to tacitly accept defeat and pull out most of its troops leaving behind a token military presence.
Today, the Taliban, armed and funded by Pakistan, controls vast swathes of territory in Afghanistan and shows no signs of battle fatigue.
It could well be the long-term victor. Even Washington acknowledges that peace in Afghanistan would be impossible without an accord with Islamabad.
Thus, the strategy of using and manipulating extremist Islamist forces has worked. Why would the generals in Islamabad want to abandon it?
In the Kashmir Valley, rabid Islamists control the forces opposed to New Delhi. These forces have successfully radicalised the majority of the population of the Valley and have emerged as a permanent or long-term threat.
Pakistan’s generals have also widened the scope of terrorist groups originally created for the Kashmir jihad to strike in different parts of India and other selected parts of Asia.
Thus, Saeed was directed to participate in one of the worst terrorist carnages in history, the 26/11 Mumbai attack.
A number of intelligence agencies, including those of the US, picked up and identified the electronic chatter generated by communications between the Mumbai terrorist attackers and their controllers in Pakistan. Saeed’s group was identified and so were serving Pakistan Army officers.
Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, LeT commander and a right-hand man of Saeed, was implicated and later imprisoned (only to be released in time). Everything pointed to the Pakistani establishment and its murdering henchmen.
Yet, Washington sat back and instructed its diplomats in New Delhi to restrain the Indian leadership and to ensure that it did not carry out military strikes against Islamabad.
Pakistan remains a key factor to Washington’s larger West Asian strategy as well as the only physical gateway into Afghanistan. Islamabad also holds the extremist card so crucial for the West.
In 2008, the US was even more dependent on Pakistan than it is today given that over a hundred thousand active combatants and tens of thousands of American civilians, allied soldiers and support personnel in Afghanistan were totally dependent on access routes running through Pakistan.
Washington was busy on several fronts, including in Kosovo where it was pitched against Serbian and Russian interests, in quietly fuelling conflict in Georgia and in shadow fighting with Iran.
The US itself was shaken by a financial crisis and Barack Obama had just been elected President. A crisis in Pakistan was the last thing the Americans wanted. New Delhi therefore had to lump it.
The newly-elected US President, Donald Trump, is viewed as a disruptive force in world politics and a person unlikely to gloss over Islamabad’s continued ambivalence towards Islamist extremism.
Saeed’s arrest has thus been attributed to Mr Trump’s election. The director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, confirmed that the decision to put Saeed under house arrest “is a policy decision that the state took in the national interest”. Much was left unsaid.
New Delhi is not impressed given Islamabad’s track record. The cynical view is that things will return to normal once the desperately required dollars flow into the depleted coffers of the Pakistan Army.
Given the history of Islamabad’s manipulations, can New Delhi’s mandarins be faulted?