Pakistan: Friend or Foe in the Fight Against Terrorism?

On July 12, 2016, a joint subcommittee of the House of Representatives held a hearing to consider whether the Pakistani government might be supporting terrorism. Since the US government provides the Pakistani government with economic and military assistance, the joint subcommittee wanted to know whether the US has been supporting a state sponsor of terrorism.

Typically, officials in the Obama administration have made their position quite clear on the matter. Whenever they have addressed the issue, administration officials have identified the Pakistani government as a close friend of the United States in the fight against terrorism.

Earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry provided the standard view when he welcomed a number of high-level Pakistani officials to Washington. “As we will discuss today, our nations are committed to combatting terrorism wherever it is and whenever it endangers the lives of innocent families and communities,” Kerry stated.

On the same day that the joint committee held its hearing, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made a similar statement. After noting that the United States and Pakistan shared “a strong relationship,” Carter asserted that “we work with Pakistan wherever we can together against terrorism of all kinds.”

Despite the fact that administration officials have portrayed the Pakistani government as an ally in the fight against terrorism, the joint subcommittee heard from a number of experts who suggested otherwise. During their appearance before the joint subcommittee, the experts insisted that the Pakistani government supported terrorist groups.

The star witness, the former US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, made some of the most serious charges. In the first place, Khalilzad accused the Pakistani government of supporting the kinds of terrorist groups that fueled Islamic fundamentalism around the world. “Pakistan’s use of extremist and terrorist proxies — including to threaten India — is a significant contributor to the global menace of Islamic extremism,” Khalilzad stated.

In addition, Khalilzad accused the Pakistani government of misleading US officials about the extent of its support for extremist groups in Afghanistan. “Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime after 9/11, Pakistan has been playing a perfidious and dangerous double game,” Khalilzad charged. “It has portrayed itself as a US partner, yet supports the Taliban and the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network.”

To conclude his statement, Khalilzad then issued his most serious charge. After noting that the US government formally classifies the Pakistani government as a major non-NATO ally, Khalilzad argued that it would make more sense for the US government to designate the Pakistani government as a state sponsor of terrorism. “Pakistan’s current policy and conduct would better merit its inclusion on the State Department’s list of state-sponsors of terrorism,” he asserted.

Indeed, Khalilzad presented a very critical view of the Pakistani government. In contrast to the Obama administration, which typically identified the Pakistani government as an important ally in the fight against terrorism, Khalilzad asserted that the Pakistani government supported terrorism.

In fact, US officials have known for some time that the Pakistani government supported terrorism. While they may have publicly praised the Pakistani government as one of their closest partners on counterterrorism issues, they have remained well aware of the fact that the Pakistani government functioned as the central node of a regional terrorist network.

In July 2008, career CIA official Bruce Riedel brought the issue to light when he identified the Pakistani government as one of the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism. The Pakistani government “has been one of the most prolific state sponsors of terror aimed at advancing its national security interests,” Riedel asserted.

Moreover, Riedel disclosed that the Pakistani government played a central role in empowering many of the terrorist groups that operated in the region. “The Pakistani army and its intelligence service, the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (known as ISI), created many of the terrorist groups that today flourish in the country and assisted in the growth of terrorist groups founded by others,” Riedel explained. “Despite promises to cut off ties to these groups, Pakistan continues to provide them safe haven, and in some cases, direct support.”

In the following years, the US diplomats who worked in Pakistan made similar observations. In a number of their internal reports, the diplomats explained that the Pakistani government extended its support to numerous terrorist groups in the area.

Shortly after the Obama administration entered office, the diplomats explained in one of their reports that both the Pakistani Army and the ISI supported terrorist organizations as a matter of national policy. “They continue to provide overt or tacit support for proxy forces (including the Haqqani group, Commander Nazir, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, and Lashkar-e-Taiba) as a foreign policy tool,” the diplomats reported.

In a subsequent report, the diplomats made a similar point. The “Pakistani establishment” provides “support to terrorist and extremist groups, some Afghan-focused and some India-focused,” the diplomats acknowledged. It views the groups “as an important part of its national security apparatus against India.”

When Khalilzad identified the Pakistani government as a state sponsor of terrorism before the joint subcommittee in July 2016, he merely confirmed what officials in Washington have always known: that the Pakistani government functioned as the heart of a regional terrorist network.

In the end, the joint subcommittee heard credible testimony that a close US ally continues to support terrorism. “Pakistan is now a state-sponsor of terror,” Khalilzad insisted.