The Magazine

The Two-Front War

Pakistan is finally doing its part. Now we need to do ours.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The withdrawal of American interest from Afghanistan coincided with a series of somewhat-related crises that turned Pakistan sharply away from the United States and much more toward the Islamist camp. Long-simmering discontent in Indian-controlled Kashmir erupted into open violence in 1989. Pakistan's support for the Kashmiri militants led to U.S. condemnation of Islamabad's support for terrorism. The Kashmir crisis, among many other things, led to the deposition of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (Zulfiqar's daughter) in August 1990, further fracturing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. In October 1990, finally, President George H. W. Bush refused to make the annual certification that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon required by the Pressler Amendment of 1985. As a result, all U.S. aid to Pakistan--including military exchange programs--was cut off.

One important figure among the mujahedeen was a Palestinian Islamist named Abdullah Azzam. His fiery sermons to raise money and support in Saudi Arabia found an eager follower in Osama bin Laden, who migrated to the Afghan fight in the mid 1980s and continued to work with Azzam in Peshawar. In 1987, Azzam founded an organization in Pakistan called Markaz Dawat-ul Irshad (Center for Religious Learning and Propagation, also known as Jamaat ut-Dawa), together with Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. Azzam was assassinated in 1989, but his protégés did him proud--bin Laden by founding al Qaeda, Saeed by founding the Lashkar-e-Taiba, "Army of the Pure," to serve as the militant wing of the Markaz Dawat-ul Irshad.

The purpose of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was to inspire jihadism among the world's Muslims. Saeed once said, "We believe in [Samuel P.] Huntington's clash of civilizations, and our jihad will continue until Islam becomes the dominant religion." Saeed established the movement's base at Muridke, a town near Lahore in the heart of Punjab, where he aimed to develop a model city to serve as an exemplar of the sort of Islamist government for which he was fighting. The outbreak of conflict in Kashmir led Saeed to focus his nascent organization on that conflict--thereby earning the support of the ISI in addition to the continued support of the Saudi backers who had helped him establish the group in the first place.

Pakistan drifted generally away from the United States and toward the Islamists in the 1990s. Army chief of staff Mirza Aslam Beg called the 1991 Gulf war "a Western-Zionist game plan to neutralize the Muslim World," as Shuja Nawaz writes, adding that Beg also initiated negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran to ensure Pakistan's "strategic depth" in the event of a war with India. Pakistan recognized the Taliban government in Kabul in 1996 (virtually the only government to do so other than Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). The revelation of a missile deal between North Korea and Pakistan led to further U.S. sanctions in 1998. Pakistan then tested six nuclear weapons in May 1998 following the testing of an Indian weapon, straining relations with Washington even more. Tensions rose still further when Pakistani forces entered Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1999. General Pervez Musharraf finally seized power in a military coup in 1999 and suspended the constitution.

The 9/11 attacks thus found Pakistan locked in a close embrace with the Taliban in Afghanistan and with Islamist groups such as the LeT within Pakistan itself. That was the context in which Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered an ultimatum to Musharraf: Pakistan must be either with the United States or against it in the coming war on terror.

Musharraf did not demur. He supported the U.S. military operation against the Afghan Taliban government he had helped bring to power, announced his opposition to al Qaeda, and outlawed the LeT. But the change was too sudden for members of the security services who had long-established relationships with the groups against which Musharraf had suddenly turned. With or without Musharraf's orders, the ISI helped resettle Mullah Omar and the Haqqanis in Pakistan and continued to support them. Failings in the American military strategy in 2001--notably the refusal by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to deploy ground forces to cut off the retreat of al Qaeda fighters from northern Afghanistan--allowed both Taliban and al Qaeda leaders and troops to escape.