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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A network of militant Islamist groups stretches from India to the Iranian border, from the Hindu Kush to the Indian Ocean. These groups include Pashtuns and Punjabis, Arabs and Uzbeks and more. They have no common leader, vision, hierarchy, or goal. But they do agree on a few key points: Any government not based on their interpretation of Islam is illegitimate and apostate; anyone who participates in or obeys such a government is not a Muslim and is therefore liable to be killed; Muslims must be "liberated" from oppressive regimes such as Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan; and the United States and its allies are the principal sources of support for these unjust and apostate regimes and must be defeated or destroyed. Al Qaeda is the most infamous of these groups because it alone succeeded in attacking the American Satan on its own soil, but all of the Taliban groups and various other Pakistani organizations, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, support each other morally, financially, ideologically, tactically, and strategically. They see an attack on any one of them as an attack on all.

The West benefits from no such clarity. We are constantly bemused by the constellation of names and initials by which these groups designate themselves. Is the Afghan Taliban related to the Pakistani Taliban? Is al Qaeda related to either? What is anyone to make of a group that calls itself "Tehreek-e Nafaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi" (TNSM--Movement for the Enforcement of Sharia)? This confusion has bedeviled our discussions about strategy for the war in Afghanistan. It has distorted our relationship with Pakistan as well. In particular, resentment over the fact that elements of the Pakistani security services continue to shelter and support some of the Taliban groups fighting the United States in Afghanistan is blinding us to the importance of the current Pakistani offensive against internal enemies in Waziristan. That operation--Rah-e Nijat or "Path to Deliverance"--is striking a blow against one of the most important militant Islamist sanctuaries in the world. The reactions of the other members of the Islamist network to this operation show clearly the relationships among them and the real stakes of the American effort in Afghanistan.


Pakistani governments and the Pakistani military have been supporting Islamism in one form or another since the days of President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s. The Pakistani state defines itself as the haven for India's Muslims, a notion that lends itself to sympathy with Islamism. The main drivers of Pakistani support for Islamism, however, have been pragmatic (as Shuja Nawaz has shown in Crossed Swords and Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani in Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military). Bhutto supported Islamism for domestic political reasons. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, his successors supported the Islamist groups that took the lead in fighting the Red Army. U.S. assistance to the mujahedeen was funneled through Pakistan, inadvertently strengthening the ties between Pakistan and the Islamists. Two mujahedeen who received much Pakistani assistance were Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar--both now prominent leaders of insurgent forces operating against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan (although Jalaluddin has largely handed over control of his group to his son, Sirajuddin).

The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in humiliation in 1989, and the United States lost interest. Pakistan did not. As a new government of sorts coalesced in Kabul around Tajik and Uzbek leaders of the mujahedeen in the early 1990s, Islamabad became concerned that it might face a hostile Afghan state, compounding its traditional tensions with India by threatening to open a new front in the event of renewed conflict. At first the Pakistani security services supported Hekmatyar, but he proved ineffective. When a small band of Pashtuns under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar emerged to fight against the depredations of the "warlord government" of Kabul in 1994, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) seized the opportunity. The ISI provided organization, training, equipment, and advisers to the fledgling movement, which rapidly overran the fractious warlord state, rising to power as the Taliban regime in 1996.