Pakistan’s Geopolitical Naivety

The angry exchange of negative statements between the USA and Pakistan starting from the end of 2017 have been characterized by rather bland responses from the latter put forth as ‘strong’ and ‘assertive’ by optimists. The ‘condemnations’ of the US seem to all involve lambasting it for ‘abandoning its friend Pakistan’ and leaving it to deal with the blowback of the war in Afghanistan after the USSR defeat in the 1980s. The imperialist strategy Pakistan helped promote during that time period seems lost on popular punditry in the country. While Pakistan’s rapid enhancement of relations with Iran and Russia in recent times may suggest lessons learnt, one cannot ignore the growing impression that nobody in the country seems to truly know why joining the ‘War on Terror’ in 2001 heralded bleak times for Pakistan.Tracing Pakistan’s problems over the last decade and a half, one inevitably ends up at the war against the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s. Evaluating how the country remembers that tumultuous period and thus how it introspects on the vastly significant role it found itself playing holds key to diagnosing the apparent geopolitical naivety in the country regarding imperialist designs and conflicts.

As regurgitated by the country’s National Security Advisor (NSA), retired Lieutenant General Nasir Janjua, at a speech in a seminar on 18 December 2017 organized by the Centre of Global and Strategic Studies in Islamabad, the USA was ‘failing to achieve peace’. It was not ‘recognizing Pakistan’s contribution to its war against the USSR’ and had created problems for Pakistan by ‘abandoning’ Pakistan at the end of the USSR war. It had callously ignored Pakistan’s ‘services in triggering the end of the bipolar world and the fall of the Berlin Wall’.[1] The rest contained the usual and unfortunate ‘we are peaceful mantra’ and a view of the bonuses of ‘regional cooperation’ and Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a conduit to peace, although with the added mention of ‘grand hostile designs’ against it.

Given the current political climate, one might wonder why nobody in the Pakistani camps seems willing to abandon the country’s tragically misplaced views on the USSR war and the American role in it. It has been traditional among Pakistani circles, especially the nationalist crowd, to celebrate Pakistan’s contribution toward bringing down the USSR via its defeat in Afghanistan as a victory for not just the US but Pakistan as well. The Soviet Union had, as President Zia ul Haq put it at the time, attacked their ‘Muslim brothers’ in Afghanistan and the multinational ‘Jihad’ that followed was a glorious victory against ‘atheist communism’. It is hard to find mention of the fact that the US and its strategic minds had triggered the Soviet entry into Afghanistan, a country torn by political in-fighting to add on to growing ethno-religious strife. As the brains behind the Afghanistan campaign against the USSR, former US NSA (1977-81) Zbigniew Brzezinski revealed in an interactive interview in 1998 covert support to anti Soviet rebels predating the mass entry of Soviet troops into the country (as per the treaty in 1978[2] with its government that the US opportunistically availed of, something Pakistani proponents of the ‘noble Jihad to save Afghans’ seem to leave out of their narrative):

“Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”[3]

Considering the experiences that befell Pakistan after the defeat of the USSR, one would be surprised at the lack of mention of Brzezinski’s strategy by both proponents of the ‘Jihad’ narrative and those unilaterally considering the war a folly in understanding the blowback and its strategic usefulness to the US? ‘Creative chaos’ is a term that would be better used to describe the explosion of extremisn in the region in the 1990s and onwards. How can a narrative be constructed with the purpose of cutting the brash US down to size with regard to who supports terrorism and who actively fights it, if old US propaganda myths around the event that introduced radical terrorism to Pakistan and which were debunked long ago are still entertained by the country that should have been the first to discard of them?

The late Colonel Imam, one of the prominent Pakistani figures hailed by the nationalist crowd, served as a fine example of everything wrong with the introspective process in Pakistan regarding the anti-USSR campaign. The famous Pakistani guerrilla warfare specialist (who had trained with US special forces in 1974) with extensive and personal ties to prominent Afghan rebel figures since the early 1970s would often hail the war effort and its Islamic credentials. Speaking positively of the US-Pakistan ‘alliance’ in countering the USSR in a 2009 interview one moment and condemning the USA as an enemy of Muslims without mention of the pre-war Brzezinskian machinations the next, Imam’s seeming refusal to acknowledge the reality of the war is tragic.[4]  Undoubtedly a patriot and a brave man, he nonetheless demonstrated how the pan Islamic component of Pakistani nationalism has tragically ridden off the coat tails of imperialism – something irreconcilable with it in truth. His views that a ‘unity government of Mujahideen’ would have been preferable to the (failed) political arrangements clumsily dumped on Afghanistan post-1988 was a naive belief sadly shared by the Zia ul Haq himself.

Answering the question of why this proposal for a ‘unity government of Mujahideen’ – put forth often as a better alternative to the rebel infighting and squabbling that resulted after the 1988 Geneva Accord – was such an outrageous idea can lay bare more criminal negligence on the part of Pakistan during the war. True to Western tradition of utilizing the religious right wing in Muslim countries as strategic assets to destabilize opponents, the US and Pakistan facilitated the entry of massive numbers of foreign fighters into Afghanistan from around the world. Notwithstanding that willingly encouraging such demographic disaster in itself was foolhardy, the intentional introduction of radical Salafist fighters to Afghanistan added extremism right on top of pre-existing ethnic and tribal fault lines. The poisoning of the well was very much intentional, with supplies of not only huge amounts of weapons and aid but also textbooks with violent versions of ‘Jihad’ circulating throughout Saudi Arabia-funded madrassahs in Pakistan.[5]

The dysfunctional radical elements among the rebels, apparently the people Zia wanted to see in charge of Afghanistan post-USSR withdrawal, acted as the human resource pool for the creation of massive numbers of terrorists. Pakistan played along with the strategy, caught up in romantic notions of Jihad whilst thousands of radicals from around the Arab and Muslim world were dumped in the country with which it shared a porous border. The extent to which Pakistan sabotaged itself whilst assisting in the US’ destabilization strategy for the region – visible, too, in the Iran-Iraq War raging at about the same time as the USSR war in Afghanistan – can be summarized by the alarming conclusion that it basically helped create Al Qaeda. As revealed by former French military intelligence officer Pierre-Henry Bunel in 2004, Al Qaeda began as a database for coordinating the flow of fighters into Afghanistan in a modern, efficient manner:

“In the mid-1980s, Al Qaida was a database located in computer and dedicated to the communications of the Islamic Conference’s secretariat. In the early 1990s, I was a military intelligence officer in the Headquarters of the French Rapid Action Force. Because of my skills in Arabic my job was also to translate a lot of faxes and letters seized or intercepted by our intelligence services . . . We often got intercepted material sent by Islamic networks operating from the UK or from Belgium. These documents contained directions sent to Islamic armed groups in Algeria or in France. The messages quoted the sources of statements to be exploited in the redaction of the tracts or leaflets, or to be introduced in video or tapes to be sent to the media. The most commonly quoted sources were the United Nations, the non-aligned countries, the UNHCR and… Al Qaeda. Al Qaida remained the data base of the Islamic Conference. Not all member countries of the Islamic Conference are ‘rogue states’ and many Islamic groups could pick up information from the databases. It was but natural for Osama Bin Laden to be connected to this network. He is a member of an important family in the banking and business world.”[6]

The anti Pakistan terrorist groups such as the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) (although wrongly stated by the US to be a part of the Afghan Taliban) who prioritized murdering the country’s innocent civilians in marketplaces, schools, hospitals and mosques over the last decade and a half could not have existed without the events of the 1980s. Pakistan demonstrated remarkable ignorance in its policymaking during its first major exposure to broader geopolitical scheming via war and conflict. For the sake of perceived short term benefits and national interests, Pakistan committed a great deal of self sabotage. Finding itself on the ‘Geopolitical Chessboard’ of strategists of mass chaos such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Pakistan failed to exhibit wisdom in its foreign policy in the 1980s and incurred the losses heavily. Pakistan, without a doubt, still occupies an extremely significant position with regard to geopolitics for a number of reasons and introspecting properly on the failings of the past will help strengthen the rusty national narrative on terrorism, war and grand regional designs.


[1]; NSA Janjua speech, 18 Dec 2017

[2]; Soviet-Afghan Treaty 1978

[3]; The Brzezinski Interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (1998)

[4]; Colonel Imam on Jawab Deyh, 2009

[5]; radicalization of the youth in Afghanistan and Pakistan

[6]; revelations on Al Qaeda as a database by Pierre-Henry Bunel

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