The radical threat to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the EU resolution highlighting Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan
Last week’s commentary had urged caution against Pakistan’s all-out efforts to yet again dupe the international community with misleading arguments advocating widespread and wholehearted recognition of the terrorist Taliban regime in Afghanistan. If recent reports of senior Taliban leaders insisting that chopping off of hands and summary executions would return as regular forms of punishment in the Taliban regime are to be believed, the caution that was recommended takes on a whole new meaning and urgency. Coming on the heels of the repression of women that has already become apparent in the early days of the Taliban rule, with the right of women to work and the right of girls to an education both coming under a dark cloud, the Taliban is now revealing its true character and abandoning the refined and obviously insincere talk of the Doha days.
Despite the Taliban showing its true gory colours, it is nothing short of a wonder that Pakistan is still selling the Taliban to the world. Even as the Taliban Foreign Minister from 1996 to 2001, Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, was announcing the chopping of hands and heads of Afghans, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was advocating at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that the international community develop a road map that leads to diplomatic recognition of the Taliban. Pakistan’s Prime Minister was saying the same in interview after interview. China, partly because of its own covetous gaze on Afghanistan’s assets but equally on Pakistan’s urging, was calling for release of frozen Afghan funds to the Taliban. In this backdrop of Pakistan being so deeply invested in a radical ideology, it comes as no surprise that reports reigniting fears of Pakistani nuclear weapons finding their way into the hands of radical Islamists got considerable traction this past week.
The debate was started by a plain talking and hard-hitting opinion piece by former United States (US) National Security Adviser (NSA) John R. Bolton in The Washington Post. Titled ‘The time for equivocating about a nuclear-armed, Taliban-friendly Pakistan is over’, the article described Pakistan as “the only government consisting simultaneously of arsonists and firefighters”. Just as successive EFSAS commentaries have done over the past two months, it underlined that the time for “neglect or equivocation” over Pakistan’s support for Islamist terrorism and its “reckless” pursuit of nuclear weapons was over. Pointing out the disproportionate power that the army wielded in Pakistan, and the insignificance of elected leaders in the country, Bolton described the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as having long been “a hotbed of radicalism, which has spread throughout the military, to higher and higher ranks. Prime Minister Imran Khan, like many prior elected leaders, is essentially just another pretty face”. He also asserted that “When the US coalition overthrew the Taliban in 2001, ISI provided sanctuaries, arms and supplies inside Pakistan”, and that “Pakistan also enabled terrorist groups targeting India, its main regional rival, over Kashmir”.
Bolton was of the view that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan will inspire and encourage radical elements within Pakistan, with whom the ISI has been known to hobnob, to seek a greater role in Pakistan’s polity and governance. He wrote, “The Taliban’s takeover next door immediately poses the sharply higher risk that Pakistani extremists will increase their already sizable influence in Islamabad, threatening at some point to seize full control”. Such an eventuality will not only plunge the region into chaos, but will become a major headache for the entire world. As Bolton put it, “While Iran still aspires only to nuclear weapons, Pakistan already has dozens, perhaps more than 150, according to public sources. Such weapons in the hands of an extremist Pakistan would dramatically imperil India, raising tensions in the region to unprecedented levels, especially given China’s central role in Islamabad’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. Moreover, the prospect that Pakistan could slip individual warheads to terrorist groups to detonate anywhere in the world would make a new 9/11 incomparably more deadly”.
Bolton also drew attention to the opportunities that have opened up as a consequence of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US and its allies are finally in a position to actually take punitive steps to rein in Pakistan and show it its place, a changed reality that has also found reflection in earlier EFSAS commentaries. As Bolton put it, “From Cold War conflict against the Soviets in Afghanistan to our own efforts since 9/11, Pakistani-US cooperation has been essential. It led Washington to temper vigorous criticism of Islamabad’s nuclear and pro-terrorist polices. Now, after Kabul’s surrender, America is less dependent on Pakistan’s good will and logistical support. Acknowledging the enormous uncertainty, given Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, the United States must now come down hard on Islamabad if it continues supporting the Taliban and other terrorists”.
Some of the immediate steps that the US should take, Bolton felt, was to “eliminate its own aid to Islamabad; strike Pakistan from the list of ‘major non-NATO allies’; impose anti-terrorist sanctions; and more”. He added, “Most important, we must devote maximum attention to Pakistan’s nuclear stockpiles and weapons-production facilities. If a future terrorist regime in Islamabad (or even today’s government or like-minded successors) appears ready to transfer nuclear capabilities to terrorists, we should take preventive action. This is highly unpalatable, but the alternative of allowing these weapons’ use is far worse. China must be made very aware of our intentions and seriousness, including that Beijing’s long-standing, vital assistance to Islamabad’s nuclear efforts makes China responsible for any misuse”.
Italian author and journalist Francesca Marino, who specializes on South Asia, took the argument a step further. In an article on 15 September she suggested that Pakistan’s nuclear buttons were “already in a terrorist organization’s hands”. Highlighting Islamabad's role in making the country a major hive of terrorism, she asserted that the magnitude of the problem had reached such heights that the West could no longer afford to ignore it. Hinting that Pakistan’s incessant support for terrorism had rendered it a veritable terrorist State, she suggested that allowing nuclear weapons to continue in the hands of such a State could yield consequences that “will be much worse than any war”.
That the Taliban grabbing power in Kabul will lead to further radicalization in Pakistan is foregone. The last few elections in Pakistan have already witnessed serious attempts by the military establishment to mainstream its terrorist and fundamentalist assets by putting them up as candidates of political parties. Now, sections of the the Urdu media in Pakistan have been full of praise for the Taliban for “defeating superpowers and their forty allies besides compelling them to kneel down and beg for negotiations”. Many have called for Shariat law to be imposed in the country. Social media in Pakistan was awash with euphoria after the Taliban victory, and billboards eulogizing the Taliban leadership have appeared in places like Peshawar. Pakistan’s large religion-based political parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamait-ul-Islam (Fazlur) have sent warm messages of congratulations to the Taliban leadership, while Madrassa networks have been liberal in their praise for the Taliban. Meanwhile, a case has been registered against cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, his collaborators, as well as seminary students under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) and different sections of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) after flags representing the Afghan Taliban were found hoisted on the rooftop of the Jamia Hafsa seminary in Islamabad. Instances of Taliban flags being hoisted by several other religious institutions have also been reported.
The groundswell in favour of the Taliban and a more radically religious Pakistan among sections of the masses is being instigated and complemented by the messaging coming out of the top leadership of the country. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had once earned the nickname ‘Taliban Khan’ for his promotion of the Taliban’s cause, famously argued a few years ago that Osama bin Laden was not a terrorist but a martyr. He has also blamed women’s choice of dress for rapes in Pakistan. His views have been eerily Taliban-like. As Islamabad-based physicist and author Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote in his article ‘A reformed Taliban?’ in the Pakistani daily Dawn, “the ‘Naya (New) Taliban’… feel ideologically comfortable with the leader of Naya Pakistan. The commonality lies in shared opposition to western dress, education, and language. Both place high value on symbols such as shalwar-kameez and turban, and both equate morality with regularity of prayers and fasting. Indeed, unable to contain his joy at the Taliban takeover of Kabul, PM Khan declared that Afghanistan had ‘broken the shackles of slavery’”.
The thought processes and beliefs that drive Imran Khan are reflected aptly in his choice of the word “slavery”. For the past 20 years the people of Afghanistan, men and women alike, had the good fortune of enjoying greater freedoms and opportunities than they had for a long time before. Over these 20 years, the Taliban was being sheltered in Pakistan and in return it was compelled to do the bidding of its ISI masters. The visit of the ISI chief to Kabul to dictate the composition of the new Taliban cabinet would indicate that not much has changed even after the Taliban grabbed power. Thus, after the Taliban takeover, while the Taliban continues to be caged in by Pakistan, it is the common Afghan whose liberties and livelihoods have been snatched away by the terrorists who are now seeking to enslave them in a radical, repressive and regressive regime.
The mistakes made in Afghanistan, the challenges facing Afghans today, and the recommendations for the path forward form the subjects of a refreshingly balanced Resolution that was passed by the European Parliament on 15 September. The resolution underlined that the Taliban had taken power by force and that the caretaker government they had appointed was “neither inclusive, legitimate nor accountable to the Afghan people”, and that “the Taliban’s caretaker government includes persons responsible for acts of terrorism, including former detainees, individuals under UN sanctions and a person on an FBI most wanted list. Many members of the Taliban’s caretaker government are holders of passports issued by Pakistan”. It highlighted the Taliban’s “numerous repressive measures reversing the achievements of the Afghan people of the past 20 years that were supported and facilitated by the EU and the international community”, and added that “Afghan women and girls, and ethnic, religious and other vulnerable groups will suffer the most from the already ongoing suppression of their basic rights”. It noted that “the terrorist threat remains a major challenge”, adding that “jihadists around the world feel emboldened by the Taliban’s takeover”.
The Resolution emphasized that “the conditions have not been met for the political recognition of the de facto Taliban rulers who have assumed power by military means and are currently destroying the achievements of the last 20 years”. It expressed “serious concern” over the appointment of the infamous terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani as the Minister of Interior, and the presence of several individuals under UN sanctions in “the de facto Taliban government”. It concluded that “communication with the Taliban should by no means lead to the removal of the existing sanctions against its members”. Asserting that “European financial support via the authorities is conditional on preserving and building upon the achievements of the past 20 years, especially the rights of women and girls”, the Resolution insisted that “the Taliban must demonstrate respect for and a commitment to safeguarding these achievements, which they have not done so far”. It made the important point that “as regards humanitarian assistance to Afghan civilians in need, the EU should make sure it is channelled through the relevant international organisations and NGOs, and should insist that the Taliban must ensure safe and unhindered access to local and international NGOs”.
The Resolution, quite understandably, had harsh words for Pakistan. It recalled that “for many years Pakistan provided safe havens for Taliban members, as well as assistance to its security forces in taking over Afghanistan”. In a clear signal that the European Parliament was readying itself at last to move beyond mere warnings and proclamations to long overdue concrete punitive actions against Pakistan, the Resolution informed that the European External Action Service (EEAS) had been instructed “to convey to Pakistan’s leadership that it bears responsibility for security and stability in Afghanistan and that Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban will be taken into account when considering the renewal of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) and to weigh up whether there is reason to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of current events and whether there is sufficient reason to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of this status and the benefits that come with it”. Most importantly, the Resolution, without mincing words, threatened Pakistan with sanctions. It said, “in addition to the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime (the EU Magnitsky Act), the EU also has a country-focused sanctions mechanism to address human rights violations and abuses”.
The European Parliament resolution came in the backdrop of a growing recognition worldwide that Pakistan was the crux of the problem in Afghanistan, and that unless decisive and painful action against the irresponsible and unruly nation is taken now, horrors such as those painted by Bolton and Marino may indeed descend upon us sooner than we think.