Home / Politics / News /  What’s 50 times more dangerous than Afghanistan?

Since Kabul fell to the Taliban Sunday, critics have flayed President Biden for diminishing America’s global standing, empowering the Taliban and their al Qaeda partners, cold-shouldering U.S. allies, and abandoning Afghans who risked their lives to work with Americans. Add one more likely consequence of the cack-handed U.S. withdrawal: an emboldened Pakistan, whose Taliban-friendly generals and plethora of jihadist groups feel the wind in their sails.

In official statements, Pakistan says it backs a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan. But if there is one global capital where the Taliban victory was greeted with barely disguised glee, it was in Islamabad. On Monday, Prime Minister Imran Khan praised Afghans for “breaking the shackles of slavery." On social media, retired generals and other Taliban boosters hailed the triumph of Islam, never mind that the defeated Afghan government too called itself an Islamic republic.

Exultant Pakistanis shared a video clip from 2014 featuring Hamid Gul, a former head of the army’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America," Gul says to a fawning TV studio audience. “Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America."

You can understand why Taliban fans want to gloat. Between 2002 and 2018, the U.S. government gave Pakistan more than $33 billion in assistance, including about $14.6 billion in so-called Coalition Support Funds paid by the Pentagon to the Pakistani military. (Donald Trump ended nearly all military assistance and also slashed nonmilitary aid from its peak in the Obama years.) During the same period, Pakistan ensured the failure of America’s Afghanistan project by surreptitiously sheltering, arming and training the Taliban.

“We found ourselves in an incredibly bizarre situation, where you are paying the country that created your enemy so that it will let you keep fighting that enemy," says Sarah Chayes, a former adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a phone interview. “If you wanted to win the war, you had to crack down on Pakistan. If you wanted to conduct operations [in Afghanistan] you had to mollify Pakistan."

For Pakistan’s generals, winning the “double game"—ostensibly aiding America while simultaneously abetting its enemies—required finesse. At times, it appeared as though the jig was up, especially in 2011 when U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a safe house next to Pakistan’s premier military academy. But successive administrations—Republican and Democratic—refused to take measures that could have forced Pakistan to rethink its support for the Taliban.

Ideas such as forcibly denuclearizing Pakistan, imposing sanctions on army officers, curbing the travel and education in the West of ISI operatives and their families, scrapping Pakistan’s farcical designation as a “major non-NATO ally," and declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism never made it beyond think tank reports and newspaper punditry. Washington always blinked, fearing instability in a nuclear-armed nation of more than 200 million people.

“Pakistan is a country-sized suicide bomber," Ms. Chayes says. “The message Islamabad sends is that if you get too close to us we’re going to blow ourselves up."

The world will likely get that instability anyway. At least for now, the Taliban’s victory fulfills the Pakistani army’s decades-old quest to gain “strategic depth" by controlling Afghanistan. But this will not sate the generals; it will whet their appetite.

Before the 9/11 attacks, they used Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a training ground for anti-India jihadist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. Afghanistan also gave the ISI a way to deflect responsibility from itself for terrorist attacks traced back to territory controlled by its protégés. Given the Taliban’s close links with groups like al Qaeda and the LeT, only the willfully naive would take at face value assurances by the jihadist group that they won’t allow Afghan territory to be used to target other countries.

The symbolic significance of an army of zealots humbling the world’s sole superpower is hard to exaggerate. In the Pakistani army it will strengthen the hand of those who view Afghanistan not merely in geopolitical terms, but as the fulfillment of a religious project rooted in an extreme interpretation of Islam that shuns all Western influence.

The same holds true in Pakistani society at large. If music-hating, anti-Western, anti-Shiite misogynists can seize power in Kabul, why can’t they do the same in Islamabad? At least one homegrown Pakistani jihadist group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban, is comprised of fighters already at odds with the Pakistani government.

In a phone interview from Islamabad, Afrasiab Khattak, a former Pakistani senator and Pashtun-rights activist, points out that Pakistan houses some 36,000 madrassas, or religious seminaries, some of which are militant. “The same places producing the Taliban are producing similar people in Pakistan," he says. “They will contest for power in Pakistan too."

In early 2009, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai pressed Vice President-elect Joe Biden to crack down on Taliban safe havens across the border, Mr. Biden reportedly rebuffed him by pointing out that “Pakistan is 50 times more important than Afghanistan for the United States." As president, Mr. Biden may have ensured that Pakistan is 50 times more dangerous to the U.S. and the world as well.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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