If Pakistan is not a state sponsor of terrorism, then the phrase has no meaning.
Washington, DC: The landscape of the jihad in South Asia and the fortunes of the states that support terrorist groups have changed dramatically since the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in August of 2021. America and India must seek common ground to combat the growing threats from the region.
The precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the immediate takeover by the Taliban have set the clock back to 10 September 2001, but in many ways, the situation is now much worse. Today, the Taliban is in full control of Afghanistan, and there is no Northern Alliance to oppose the Taliban’s full takeover of the country. After the US withdrawal and the swift collapse of the Afghan government and military, the Taliban took possession of billions of dollars in weapons systems, including armored vehicles and helicopters, heavy weapons and small arms, munitions, an assortment of other military equipment, and the bases to house and train their forces. The Taliban are entrenched and have the means to train their soldiers as well as those of their terrorist allies.
The Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance, which was forged in two decades of blood and fire as the two groups teamed up to battle Western forces in Afghanistan, has deepened. The US killing of Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, who was a guest of the Taliban’s deputy emir in a safe house in Kabul last summer, punctuates this point. The Taliban, which constantly insist they do not permit foreign terrorists to seek safe haven in Afghanistan, sheltered the most wanted terrorist in the world. And Al Qaeda trusted the Taliban to protect Zawahiri. Zawahiri’s likely successor, Saif al Adel, is believed to be operating from Afghanistan, as are other top-level leaders of the global terror group.
As the Taliban consolidate their grip on Afghanistan and deprive the Afghan people of basic rights and care, the United States is limited in its ability to strike at the terror groups operating inside the country. While the strike that killed Zawahiri was masterful, it is the only time America has targeted Al Qaeda or any of the numerous global and regional terror groups operating from Afghanistan since the United States withdrew 16 months ago. The reason for this is simple: Without a foothold in the country and with few if any allies to work with, intelligence gathering capabilities and the capacity to strike are severely limited. Al Qaeda can afford to lose a Zawahiri in Afghanistan once every 16 months.
The Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the constellation of allied terror groups weren’t the only victors in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which backed the Taliban’s two-decade long insurgency, also came out on top.
While Pakistan has helped the United States capture and kill top Al Qaeda leaders and operatives sheltering in the country, it has played a double game by funding, arming, advising, training, and providing safe haven to the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban in turn provided support for Al Qaeda and other allied terror groups, including the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which is responsible for killing tens of thousands of Pakistan civilians, soldiers, policemen, and government officials during its 15-year long war with the Pakistani state. The Pakistani state fully understands that supporting the Afghan Taliban is a direct threat to its people, and yet cynically continues to support the Afghan Taliban in order to maintain Pakistan’s “strategic depth” against what Islamabad perceives to be its real enemy: India. The cycle, which I call the wheel of jihad, continues unabated to this day.
At the same time, the Pakistani state supports a multitude of jihadist groups aimed at India, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, and Hizbul Mujahideen. Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad nearly sparked war between India and Pakistan when they attacked the Indian Parliament in December of 2001, and yet Pakistan continues to support these terror groups. All of them are part of the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance, have fought inside Afghanistan, and continue to support the Movement of the Taliban.
Pakistan’s proxy terror groups are aimed at both its neighbors and the international community, even at the cost of the lives of Pakistani citizens. This reckless disregard makes Pakistan one of the most dangerous states in the world. If Pakistan is not a state sponsor of terrorism, then the phrase has no meaning.
It is in the interests of India and the United States to forge a lasting partnership to contain the threats emanating from Pakistan and its proxy state, Afghanistan. However, India and the United States face multiple obstacles, and both countries must make concessions.
The United States must give up the notion that it can influence Pakistani elites with cash or via interpersonal relationships, particularly via military-to-military leadership engagements. The United States funneled tens of billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan while feting its generals and political leadership. This multi-billion-dollar investment bought America more than 2,400 military deaths and 20,000 wounded personnel in Afghanistan, along with a humiliating defeat. US policymakers are rightfully concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists and a potential nuclear exchange with India, but this should not stop Washington from recognizing Pakistan for what it is, a state sponsor of terrorism, and act on it. Additionally, the United States should end its neutral stance on India’s legitimate claims to Jammu and Kashmir, and cease legitimizing the claims of the terror state of Pakistan.
In return, India must concede on issues important to America, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and US sanctions on Iran. India’s third way on these key issues rankles US policymakers and prevents the establishment of a trusting, long-term relationship. Instead, India should denounce Russian aggression and Iran’s terror regime, and become a reliable part of the Western coalition that opposes aggressive dictators like Putin and Khamenei. India should wean itself from inferior Russian weapons systems and purchase more advanced and reliable US systems. Likewise, India must stop funding the Russian and Iranian regimes by purchasing cheap oil. If they can overcome these obstacles, the two great democracies can lead the charge in isolating Pakistan and Afghanistan from the international community. India and the United States should put in place stringent travel restrictions on Pakistanis and Afghans. They should cease trading with Pakistan, and label both Pakistan and Afghanistan as state sponsors of terrorism. In Afghanistan, legitimate resistance to the Taliban should receive the full backing of the United States and India. All attempts to work through the Taliban government to provide aid or funding to Afghanistan’s central bank should cease.
The two-decade-long US experiment of attempting to defeat the Taliban, install a democracy in Afghanistan, and bribe and cajole the Pakistani elites into supporting the fight against jihadists and becoming a responsible state has failed. Pakistan and its jihadist allies have prevailed, and accompanying threats to the region and the world have increased. The United States and India must accept these harsh realities and unite to meet the growing challenges head-on.
Bill Roggio is a senior fellow at FDD and editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.