But there’s another photo, from Sept. 4, seemingly a less dramatic one, that says a lot about not just what went down in Kabul but also what could lie ahead: Pakistan’s chief spook, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), calmly sipping coffee, dressed nattily in an open-collar pale blue shirt and blazer, smiling as he assured a reporter: “Don’t worry, everything will be okay.”
While Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed was not the first intelligence officer to hotfoot it to Kabul — earlier, the head of the CIA met secretly with Taliban leaders to discuss the evacuation — he was probably the only one having his photo taken in public, his triumphalist gloating on free display.
That’s because the ascent of the Taliban is in fact the march of the Pakistani security state into Kabul, using Afghan fighters as battle camouflage. Pakistan is thrilled, not just because the terrorists it harbored and supported for years in places such as Quetta, when the rest of the world shunned them, are in government today; Islamabad is also celebrating because it has the United States exactly where it wants it.
And this is why the America must fundamentally change its policy toward Pakistan. Failure to do so will continue to compound the fatal clumsiness that led to the hasty Afghanistan withdrawal and endanger global security. But there are no signs of change in the horizon.
“There have been three phases in the history of U.S.-Pakistan when relations ramped up significantly,” Jonah Blank, a former Senate adviser to President Biden who traveled with him to Afghanistan, told me during an interview. “The first was during the Cold War, the second after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, the third after 9/11. I fear this is the fourth such phase and we are going to see a lot of deals between Washington and Islamabad.”
The Biden administration appears to be falling back on Pakistan to play interlocutor with the Taliban, entering yet another phase of toxic dependency. The failure to end this dependency will only embolden the Pakistani security establishment to continue to use terrorism as a weapon of strategic influence. The immediate victim will be India. In the background, China’s hand will be strengthened. As the “Quad” coalition (a group consisting of the United States, Japan, India and Australia that was born from anxiety over what the rise of China could do to the international order) prepares to meet this week, the inevitable consequence of a Pakistan-China nexus upending the balance in Asia should set off alarm bells.
Instead, American officials are delusional, as evidenced by the apparent belief the Taliban and the Haqqani network are different entities — kind of like saying there’s no overlap between the White House and the Pentagon. The Americans seem to have forgotten that the new interior minister of the Taliban government is one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists with a $10 million bounty attached to his name. The Haqqani network has been nurtured for years in Pakistan’s North Waziristan. Biden should remember that Osama bin Laden was taken out, not in a cave in Afghanistan, but in a residential complex two hours from Pakistan’s capital.
The American presence in Afghanistan was often used to explain U.S. softballing of Pakistan. NATO troops used two supply lines through Pakistani territory — across the Khyber Pass into Kabul, and through Balochistan into Kandahar. Between 2002 and 2018, the United States gave Pakistan $33 billion in aid, $14 billion of which was meant to combat terrorism. The goal of administration after administration was to try to cajole Pakistan to do more to shut down havens for militants; needless to say, they all failed.
Leaving Afghanistan could have been used, like Alexander’s sword, to finally cut through the Gordian knot that has kept the United States intertwined with Pakistan for two decades. But if the responses to the oddly predicted Kabul airport attack are anything to go by, a hapless U.S. government has deluded itself into thinking the Taliban — and the Taliban’s patrons in Pakistan — will be “partners” against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
This is pure wishful thinking. Not only has Afghan intelligence raised questions about the links between Pakistan and the Islamic State-Khorasan, but the Haqqanis are al-Qaeda’s biggest supporters within the Taliban.
In 2012, on a trip to India, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told me that Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor, was “somewhere, we believe, in Pakistan.” This year, Zawahiri apparently resurfaced in a video marking the anniversary of 9/11; a UN report in June said he was believed to be hiding “somewhere in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
What more does the United States need to end the self-deceptive partnership with Pakistan’s deep state? The toxic transactionalism is not only having disastrous consequences in an already volatile region, but it will almost certainly come back to hit the United States directly.