Regional politics

31 Mar 2020


The writer is a British journalist. His book The Bhutto Dynasty will be published later this year.
The writer is a British journalist. His book The Bhutto Dynasty will be published later this year.

FOR decades, the Pakistan state has been criticised for its alleged links with militant groups. The Taliban and Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, Jaish-e-Mohammad in Kashmir and Lashkar-e-Taiba in India have all been the subject of consistent and widespread international complaint. If it wasn’t for the nuclear bomb and the unfailing ability of deft Pakistani officials to confuse their foreign counterparts, the country might well have been designated a state sponsor of terrorism.

The critics of the alleged proxy forces fall into two groups. First there are Pakistani liberals who have long worried about the impact of the militants on Pakistan itself. And the fact the army lost so many men suppressing the TTP shows that the liberals were entirely correct — just as they predicted, the deep state’s asset turned into a heavy liability.

The second group of critics are concerned about something else. The US, India, Iran and many in Afghanistan complain that the proxy forces are sources of regional instability that exacerbate Pakistan-India tensions and destabilise Afghanistan.

Pakistan generally responds to these complaints with denials, which are from time to time undermined by people such as Imran Khan, Asif Zardari and Gen Musharraf admitting that the state had backed militants. It has reached the point that Pakistan no longer has plausible deniability so much as implausible deniability. Military strategists in Rawalpindi might think this is no bad thing: owning militants shows that the land of the pure is also a land capable of projecting power. But it has also led to difficulties, not least in the on-off supply of American military supplies.

What have proxy forces ever achieved?

And yet the question arises — why shouldn’t Pakistan have proxy forces? After all, with the exception of Greenland and a few other defenceless minnows, it’s common practice for states to finance and equip militant groups that fight abroad.

Take, for example, Iran. It’s a country that for years has been under severe sanctions designed to make the country weaker. And yet in terms of regional power politics, Iran is currently in the strongest position it has enjoyed for decades. Hezbollah in Iran, the Shia militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen have enabled Iran not only to defend itself from attack but also put its rivals on the back foot. While the clerics in Tehran may face international opprobrium for these tactics, no one can deny they are effective.

In using proxy forces, Iran is only copying the behaviour of the superpowers. Throughout the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union avoided direct confrontation by getting proxy rebel movements to overthrow what were effectively proxy governments. And today’s conflict in Syria shows that the Russians and Americans remain wedded to the use of proxy forces.

Given all this, you might think Pakistan has nothing to apologise for. Maybe. But there is another, perhaps more important question. It’s not so much a matter of does Pakistan have the right to support militants, but does doing so actually achieve anything?

In Afghanistan, maybe, it has. True, the Pakistan nation recoiled at the prospect of having to live under the Taliban and yet seems quite happy to inflict a similar fate on Afghans. But that glaring inconsistency notwithstanding, the Afghan Taliban have enabled Pakistan to ensure that the successive Kabul governments have either been friendly or weak, meaning the claim for a greater Afghanistan has not been advanced with any serious intent for decades. And being seen to have influence over the Afghan Taliban has also helped Pakistan in its relationship with the US.

But elsewhere it’s far from clear that proxy forces have achieved much. The armed struggle in Kashmir began in 1989 and has continued on and off ever since. And yet Kashmir is now more firmly in India’s grip than ever. It’s much the same story regarding attacks on India itself: the parliament attack and Mumbai may have been audacious and well executed but what came of them? What was the point?

Pakistanis often throw around accusations of hypocrisy. How can the US claim to support democracy but do nothing about Kashmir? How dare the Afghans complain about Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban when Kabul itself hosts the Pakistani Taliban? And what about India always going on about Mumbai when it has fostered Baloch separatists and sustained a relationship with its proxy force in Karachi, the MQM?

It’s an impressive list of grievances. But it is perhaps not unreasonable to point out that Pakistan itself may have double standards in these matters. Whilst it is adept at highlighting the links others have with proxy forces, it’s not so keen on admitting it may have done just the same thing as everyone else. But the arguments about that are a distraction from the real issue — do the proxy for­ces actually make Pakistan weaker because most of them don’t achieve much?

The writer is a British journalist. His book The Bhutto Dynasty will be published later this year.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2020