As Taliban conquer Afghanistan, time to sanction Pakistan

If robustly applied, the pain caused by sanctions could push the Pakistanis into curbing the worst tendencies of the Taliban.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, in 2016. Credit: Awais khan/Shutterstock.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, in 2016. Credit: Awais khan/Shutterstock.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

As Taliban insurgents swept through Afghanistan this month on their brutal quest to return that country to the seventh century, ceremonies were held in neighboring Pakistan to commemorate the 6th anniversary of the death of a man dubbed “the father of the Taliban.”

Gen. Hamid Gul, who died in 2015, was the former head of Pakistan’s terror-soaked spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Much of his career was spent fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s when the ISI worked closely with the American CIA. With the collapse of the Soviet occupation, swiftly followed by the collapse of the actual Soviet Union, the ISI began backing Islamist groups across the region, from Kashmir to Afghanistan, where the Taliban first came to power in 1996, about two years after they were fostered by the ISI’s secret Directorate “S” with funding, weapons and military training.

The tributes to Gul in Pakistan last week centered on a television interview he gave just more than a year before he died, in which he predicted the humiliation of the U.S. military and its Afghan government allies at the hands of the ISI’s Taliban proxies. “When history will be written, it will be said that ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with America’s help,” remarked Gul. “But it will also be added that ISI defeated America (in Afghanistan) with America’s help.”

Gul’s devotion to the Taliban exemplified the divide within Pakistan’s intelligence establishment over its relationship with U.S. agencies. “Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. against the Taliban irked many former army generals who had supported the Islamists,” Farooq Sulehria, a Pakistani expert on the Taliban, explained to the German broadcaster DW shortly after Gul’s death from a brain hemorrhage. “These divisions within the army still persist. While some military generals think that a ‘double game’ with the West—kill some Taliban and save some—is a good strategy, people like Gul wanted Islamabad to support Islamists wholeheartedly.”

By 2021, it was clear that Gul’s position had won out, as evidenced by the horror of the revived Taliban conquering cities like Faizabad, Kandahar, Mazar e Sharif and finally Kabul, 20 years after they were banished from the Afghan capital. That fact should stick in the craw of most Americans, because we’ve been pouring aid money into Pakistan year upon year, despite the nefarious role played in Afghanistan by its military and espionage services. In 2020, the U.S. was once again the top donor country to Pakistan of financial assistance that always takes the form of a grant, so as not to add to Pakistan’s debt burden or balance of payments struggles. Yet from our point of view, this was hardly money well-spent.

According to Chris Alexander, who spent six years as Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan followed by a stint as a U.N. envoy, the Taliban’s return represents a Pakistani invasion. “Apart from being Pakistan’s mercenaries, the Taliban are U.N.-listed terrorists,” Alexander recently told an Indian newspaper. “Anyone cozying up to them is playing a dangerous game.”

Thanks largely to Alexander’s efforts, the hashtag #SanctionPakistan has gone viral over the last fortnight as the Taliban has tightened its grip, and growing segments of public opinion have grasped this reality. In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Asad Majeed Khan flatly denied that Islamabad was still supporting the Taliban, going on to make the laughable claim that Pakistan is “a free and democratic country, and there are a whole range of views for and against the policies of the government.” But when asked what exactly Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had meant when gushed that the Taliban had “broken the shackles of slavery,” the good ambassador answered only that it was “really hard to keep track” of what gets reported on social media, before offering the reassurance that Pakistan wants “inclusive” government in Afghanistan.

Nobody should be fooled by these rather amateur attempts to prettify the historically destructive role played by Pakistan in Afghanistan. To many Americans, the events of the last month suggest that we sacrificed troops and spent billions of dollars on a country that is no more united in purpose now than it was 20 years ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda, the Taliban’s partner in crime. But from the perspective of ordinary Afghans, that is a harsh judgment on the quiet progress they have made.

Life expectancy has risen by 10 years, to the age of 65—still woeful, by international standards. When the United States invaded, little more than 20 percent of Afghan children were enrolled in primary school, a figure that now stands at 100 percent. Literacy among female adults has risen from 17 percent to 30 percent and will likely recede once again as soon as the Taliban reimposes gender apartheid by excluding girls from school.

Most of all, Afghans overwhelmingly reject the regime that has effectively been imposed upon them by the U.S. withdrawal on the one hand, and Pakistani support for the Taliban, backed politically by Russia and China, on the other. “While generally conservative in their Muslim faith, Afghans have consistently demonstrated in poll after poll that they want nothing to do with the pathological pseudo-theology the Taliban continue to enforce wherever they gain ground,” the Canadian commentator Terry Glavin, a frequent visitor to Afghanistan, observed in the National Post. “The latest Asia Foundation polling shows that 82 percent of Afghans say they have ‘no sympathy’ whatsoever for the Taliban.”

Sanctions against Pakistan’s ruling elite would provide the west with some leverage in pushing back against the Taliban on two fronts: its never-ending reign of terror, currently being expressed in house-to-house searches for thousands of beleaguered Afghans who worked for the U.S. or other foreign governments during the occupation, and its revival of the country as a base for Islamist terrorist groups.

If robustly applied, the pain caused by sanctions could push the Pakistanis into curbing the worst tendencies of the Taliban. Pakistani Ambassador Khan pithily explained why: “The United States is still the largest export destination for Pakistan. … It is the third-largest remittance sender to Pakistan. … The United States has also been one of the top five investor countries in Pakistan.”

Anyone tempted to think that a more enlightened Taliban is in the offing regardless of what the outside world does might reflect that the man slated to become Afghanistan’s next president, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is more commonly known as “Butcher Baradar.” It was Baradar who directed Taliban operations against the international force in Afghanistan from his base in Pakistan’s Quetta Province in the late 2000s. Captured by the reluctant Pakistanis at the CIA’s behest in 2010, Baradar was released from prison in 2018 at the request of Zalmay Khalilzad, the former Trump administration’s Afghan envoy, in order to participate in what was creepily described as “peace negotiations.” Three years on from those shameful talks in Doha, Qatar, the appropriate term is “capitulation.”

For those who argue that foreign interventions are the height of irresponsibility and naivete, there remains the knotty question of what to do in the event that a terrorist like Baradar becomes the leader of a sovereign state like Afghanistan.

Invariably, the answer of these isolationists is this: We shouldn’t concern ourselves overly, all is under the control, “they” don’t want us over there anyway, and a hundred other platitudes, all of which collapse when an atrocity like 9/11 occurs, and Western publics are reminded of Soviet Red Army founder Leon Trotsky’s dictum: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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