There is blame enough to go around for the ongoing debacle in Afghanistan. Bad decisions, weak strategy, and poor leadership have all been on full display in Washington and abroad. But there is one country that has shirked its share of the responsibility, and has done so for decades.
Perhaps more than any other nation, Pakistan has worked to destabilize Afghanistan and deliver it into the hands of Islamist extremists. Pakistan was responsible for the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and it has now engineered the Taliban’s return to power almost 20 years after the American-led intervention in Afghanistan—something Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan last week hailed as “breaking the shackles of slavery.” For the most part, Pakistan has pursued these policies with impunity, all the while receiving massive subsidies from the United States for its supposedly indispensable cooperation in combating terrorism. It’s time to acknowledge this reality and hold Pakistan accountable.
The United States and Pakistan have a long history, much of it rooted in the Cold War. The country was at the heart of U.S. anti-Soviet surveillance and intelligence collection, vital to the CIA’s efforts to keep track of Moscow from the 1950s. And after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, it became the nerve center of support for Afghanistan’s mujahideen, funneling money and arms from the United States to Islamist warriors—often chosen by Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)—who ultimately helped drive the final nails into the coffin of the Soviet empire.
Because of Pakistan’s critical role, Washington spent decades overlooking political and religious tyranny, nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and proliferation, misuse of U.S. weapons exports, illicit weapons cooperation among Islamabad and Moscow and Beijing, and continued support for terrorists and Islamist extremists in both Afghanistan and India. There was always an excuse to explain away Islamabad’s malfeasance: India had its own nuclear weapon. Pakistan lacks “strategic depth.” Without Pakistan we couldn’t fight Soviets, terrorists, fill in the blank.
Historically, Congress always had a more skeptical view of Islamabad’s behavior than the executive branch, passing legislation intended to curb Pakistan’s worst tendencies. But Pakistan for the most part has gotten a pass, despite laws aimed at limiting the nuclear program, repeated warnings about missile acquisitions, and efforts to “roll back” its most advanced weapons—long feared likely to spark another war on the South Asian subcontinent. A brief period of frostiness in the aftermath of the Cold War—including sanctions as Washington was shocked, shocked to discover Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons—was one of the few blips in a half-century love story in the runup to September 11, 2001.
Incredibly, at what should have been the defining moment of the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S., Islamabad again shrugged off the trouble. Pakistan arguably did more for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban than any other nation, including Saudi Arabia (mostly a source of financial support). The ISI continued to pick winners in Afghan politics, and its winners were always the most extreme, the most anti-American, but also the most pliable to friends in Pakistan’s halls of power. Its government anted up cash, intelligence, arms, protection, and brushed off desultory warnings from Washington to ease off. Until 9/11.
As with Afghanistan’s current collapse, there was blame to go around for the worst attack on American soil in history two decades ago. Still, Washington remained minimally focused on Pakistan. An infamous visit from then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in the days after 9/11 briefly set Islamabad on the straight and narrow. Cooperate, he allegedly told them, or be bombed back to the “Stone Age.” Sure, Armitage was told. And Pakistan once again became instrumental in U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Aid programs ramped up, and tens of billions were spent—often fecklessly. Development assistance, so-called “budgetary support” (aka cash), and “coalition support” to the Pakistani military brought with them little change in Islamabad’s policies. There was scant doubt the money was being wasted, and AID and State Department inspectors general found rampant waste and fraud. Meanwhile, despite assurances to Armitage, Pakistan continued to support the Taliban’s operations in Afghanistan, afford safe haven to Taliban forces on Pakistani territory, and provide refuge to Osama bin Laden.
But even the revelation that bin Laden was living his best life in a villa 31 miles from Islamabad, spitting distance from Pakistan’s Military Academy in Abbottabad, wasn’t enough to extinguish the misbegotten affair with Washington. Money began to ramp down from the post-9/11 stratosphere only during the Trump administration. Fast forward to August 2021, and the celebrations in Pakistan over the Taliban victory were unbridled. As a former ISI director had predicted, “The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”
It’s time for that help to end.
Pakistan has long profited by playing both sides, taking arms and dollars from the United States to defeat enemies in turn supported directly by Islamabad. And Pakistan’s American supporters—many in the military who trained with Pakistani officers, others in the intelligence community who have worked with their counterparts for years—have regularly won the day against critics, arguing there is no counterterrorism fight without Pakistan. But the reality is the opposite. It’s time to cut all aid, designate its government a state sponsor of terrorism, strangle its avenues of financial support, and treat Pakistan like what it is—a danger to us all.
Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.