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As the US Pulls Out of Afghanistan, a New Phase of the 'Double Game' in Pakistan

After visiting the US last week, Pakistan's interior minister mounted a diplomatic offensive in London where he denied allegations of collaboration between the country's security services and Islamist militants.
Image via AP

Pakistan's Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan visited London this week where he denied long-standing allegations that its security services have been playing a double game — a sign that relations between the conflicted Central Asian nation and the West are once again in flux.

Pakistan's relations with the West have been determined for most of the past 30 years by the close relationship of its intelligence services to Islamist militants.


During the first "Afghan jihad" against the Soviets, during the 1980s, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was a key partner of the CIA and Saudi Arabian royalty in training, funding, and arming the anti-Soviet militants. During the 1990s, as Western interest in Afghanistan waned, the ISI gave their backing to the Taliban, and continued to do so openly until September 11, 2001.

It was then that what is known as the "double game" begun.

A 2009 State Department cable released by Wikileaks described the US view.

"Although Pakistani senior officials have publicly disavowed support for these groups, some officials from the Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) continue to maintain ties with a wide array of extremist organizations, in particular the Taliban, [Lashkar-e-Tayyaba] and other extremist organizations. These extremist organizations continue to find refuge in Pakistan and exploit Pakistan's extensive network of charities, NGOs, and madrassas [Islamic schools]," it read.

According to an October 2014 Department of Defense report, "Taliban attacks in Afghanistan launched from sanctuaries in Pakistan remain a serious problem."

Ali Khan, who last week attended the Countering Violent Extremism summit in Washington, spoke to reporters at the Pakistan High commission on Tuesday, seated beneath an oil portrait of the nation's founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah.


Jinnah once said that religion "has nothing to do with the business of the state." But since his time, Pakistan's competing politicians, like its intelligence services, have repeatedly appealed to Muslim identity and Islamist sentiment, increasing the political power of those ideas.

Ali Khan denied that the intelligence services are playing a double game, and specifically that they were aware of Osama Bin Laden's presence in the country, prior to his assassination by US special forces in 2011.

"To be accused of this is unfortunate," he said. "I'm totally focused on the war against militancy and extremism."

He was positive about Pakistan's relations with the United States.

"There was bad blood, but over the last year-and-a-half, relations have improved vastly. We reached a new level of interaction, we reached a new level of cooperation," he said.

"Civil-military relations have never been better," Ali Khan added.

Pakistan-watchers who spoke to VICE News were sceptical about the interior minister's message, arguing that the double game is ongoing, that the US knows this, and that Pakistan's diplomatic offensive, of which Ali Khan's visit is a part, is an attempt to hold on to a fragile relationship.

"For Pakistan it is important to produce the appearance of amity and cooperation between the US and Pakistan," argued Shashank Joshi, a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "But in reality, things are in bad indeed, both at the superficial diplomatic level, and at the level of underlying trust and longterm forecasts."


Key to the two countries' relationship is the declining US military role in the region.

"If you look more broadly at the US draw down in Afghanistan, US dependence on Pakistan over time is declining, and therefore Pakistani leverage over the Americans is also shrinking," Joshi said. "This is weakening or eroding the basis of the relationship, which had already been whittled greatly over the past four years, particularly since the Bin Laden raid and all the associated events of 2011. It's not at rock bottom, it's probably not at the stage of total breakdown as it has been in the past, but it's not very good."

Ali Khan pointed to the ongoing military offensive in North Waziristan, long a militant sanctuary, as evidence of his country's commitment to fighting militants. The operation has been stepped up in the wake of major terrorist attacks in recent months, notably the Taliban attack on a Peshawar army school which killed more than 130 children in December. But Joshi argued that the impression is misleading.

"While Pakistan is going after the Pakistani Tehrik-e-Taliban, there is not much evidence that they are really going after other traditional assets of theirs," he said. "There has been one airstrike against the Haqqani network, as I can see last year, as part of the operation, but nothing else. there is still a broad consensus that the Pakistani relationship with those 'friendly' jihadists, be it the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban, and of course Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, that is all fundamentally unchanged."


Samina Ahmed, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said: "The US's so-called honeymoon is based more on need, particularly the Pakistan military's support for a face-saving exit from Afghanistan, than it is on trust."

"The diplomatic offensive is partly to ward off pressure to "do more" regarding jihadi proxies considered particularly undesirable - the Laskhar-e-Tayyaba in the Indian and the Haqqani network in the Afghanistan contexts. It's partly driven by the need for continued international support, particularly US military assistance but also diplomatic support from countries such as the UK."

Lashkar-e-Tayyaba carried out the 2008 Mumbai attack which killed 164 people. The Haqqani network came into being during the first Afghan jihad, was supported by the ISI, and became one of the most powerful and brutal militias operating in Afghanistan.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a Fellow at St Antony's College Oxford, said she believed that the US prioritises addressing the Afghan-focused militias over the India-focused ones.

Siddiqa, Ahmed, and Joshi all argued that it is the military — which has oversight of the ISI - and not the civilian government which is calling the shots.

Joshi said he believes that another reason for Ali Khan's trip — as well as visits to London and Washington last month by Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff General Rahil Sharif — is the desire to preserve financial assistance from the United States.


Pakistan is a major recipient of US aid, largely under the auspices of counter-terrorism programs. In 2013 the Obama administration handed over $1.2 billion in funding, under a four-year plan authored by Foreign Secretary John Kerry which requires the country to actively counter groups such as the Taliban and al Qaeda.

"There have always been tensions over this assistance," Joshi said. "What is different now is that the amount is shrinking. In the most recent budget request for the next financial year, the US tried to cut this assistance by 10 percent. It has asked for about 800 million dollars, a little bit more for civilian and a little bit less for security assistance. It's a moderate cut, but for now the Americans do not completely want to cut Pakistan adrift. They fear that if they cut it adrift, it will be even more reckless and dangerous than it is now, so they want to preserve some ties and some assistance."

"But the amount is shrinking and US lawmakers are growing more impatient with Pakistan, as are many officials, and therefore Pakistan has more of an imperative to show why it is still deserving of this money against the odds."

Follow Tom Dale on Twitter: tom_d_

Main image: Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan with John Kerry before their meeting at a Countering Violent Extremism summit in Washington on February 19.