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Asymmetric Actors

Why Pakistan will never break with its Islamist allies.

Pakistan’s long conflict with India shapes its national security worldview. Far smaller and weaker than its neighbor, Pakistan compensates with far higher military spending and a larger Army than it can afford, creating a national security state. India is never far from the minds of Pakistan’s national leaders, but the differential in size is such that Pakistan has had to develop a strategic triad of national security tools in order to counter it.

First, Pakistan has a large and tactically proficient conventional Army, but of the four wars it has fought with India, it happens to have lost all of them. Second, it has an arsenal of perhaps 100 nuclear weapons, but these too are hardly useful because India is an immediate neighbor and many of its key military installations and formations are so close to the border that it would not be able to hit the Indian army without hitting itself. The shortcomings of these first two aforementioned tools have led Pakistan to rely heavily on a third one, of which the United States generally disapproves: an arsenal of asymmetric actors, variously known as irregulars, guerrillas, and/or terrorists. In the last decade, the United States has persuaded Pakistan to turn on some of these groups, but Pakistan’s perceived security needs have ensured that it still tolerates or actively cultivates the existence of others. And while the successful U.S. operation against bin Laden might provide Pakistan with the cover it needs to break decisively with al Qaeda, it will also likely lead the country to rely on its other militant groups even more.

Unlike its unsuccessful army or its unusable nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s irregulars have been used early, often, and successfully throughout the country’s history. Since creating an Islamic homeland for South Asia’s Muslims was the founding idea of Pakistan, some variant of Islamic ideology has frequently been the motivational principle for these irregulars. Initially, the Islamic ideology centered on the split between India and Pakistan, especially in the Kashmir region, but over time it has taken on additional dimensions. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 deepened the sectarian divide within Pakistan and led to the creation of both Sunni and Shia militant groups within Pakistani society. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, also in 1979, combined with Pakistan’s simultaneous internal process of Islamization to beget the Afghan mujahideen and, eventually, the Taliban, which Pakistan supported as an instrument of its foreign policy right up to (and even a little beyond) September 11. 

Operation Enduring Freedom, which began with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, complicated issues for Pakistan. After years of developing, supporting, and using Islamist irregulars as a foreign policy tool, Pakistan had to choose whether to abandon those irregulars and side with the United States, which intended to attack the Islamists, or stay with the Islamists and be attacked by the United States. The second choice was unthinkable, given the worldwide condemnation of al Qaeda in the wake of the September 11 attacks, but giving up its most effective national security tool was also deeply unappealing. As a result, Pakistan made the obvious choice to modulate its efforts against Islamist irregulars, going after some while cultivating others, based on a firmly established and highly justified belief that Americans do not really understand Pakistan and will not stay in the region for the long haul anyway.

Here is how it works. Pakistan’s Islamist universe contains five major types of groups. (Of course, it’s not really that simple, as there is substantial cross-pollination and overlap among them all, but as rough categories the distinctions are still useful). The first groups are Kashmiri in orientation, or anti-Indian, and they are primarily motivated by a desire to free the area of Kashmir that is occupied by India. The most well-known of these groups are Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. The second groups are sectarian, like the Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Shia Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan and Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan. Third are the Afghan Taliban, who crossed into Pakistan in the face of American military pressure in late 2001 and 2002, just as their forebears did in the 1980s. Today, the remnants of the original Taliban leadership are based in and around Quetta and are known as the Quetta Shura Taliban, while the Haqqani Network operates out of North Waziristan, and the Hezb-i-Islami faction headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is based in Bajaur. The fourth group is comprised of international jihadis like al Qaeda, who also fled into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002. Finally, a fifth and extremely problematic group for Pakistan are the Pakistani Taliban, like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Tehrik-Nafaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi, which have emerged since September 11 to challenge the legitimacy of the Pakistani state.

This last category of groups is the problem, in the eyes of Pakistan, as they have declared war on the state itself. Thus, although these groups are descended from the other organizations, share some similar ideological views, and frequently cross membership and otherwise cooperate, the Pakistani government has attempted to fight the Pakistani Taliban, at times sharing intelligence about them with the United States, which has attacked these groups from across the border in Afghanistan. Likewise, the sectarian militants are problematic for Pakistan since most of their attacks happen in metropolitan areas and always produce tit-for-tat responses, but government efforts to crack down on these groups are thwarted by sectarian and communitarian loyalties within the police forces and local communities, not by a malign effort on the part of federal government officials to allow those groups to continue to murder.

On the other hand, the anti-Indian groups and the Afghan Taliban are important instruments of state policy, and Pakistan’s national government has every desire to maintain and utilize them in order to project force and counter Indian influence on both its Afghan and Indian borders. Al Qaeda and the international jihadis, for their part, have been the most troublesome group for Pakistan to categorize, since they often serve as the ideological inspiration for the other groups, but the most important targets for the Americans. That is, they could not be easily attacked, but they also could not be easily left alone. The solution Pakistan arrived at was to attempt to disconnect al Qaeda from the other groups, defang their operational capability, and occasionally cooperate (albeit very quietly) in the capture or killing of some al Qaeda operatives.


The killing of bin Laden has the potential to change Pakistan’s strategy, but not the fundamental national security reality that has underpinned it. Pakistan still needs its favored Islamist irregulars, while it will still fight, sideline, or actively ignore its less-favored militant Islamic groups. Bin Laden’s death weakens al Qaeda tremendously, as Ayman Al-Zawahiri and the rest of the second level of leadership are undoubtedly scrambling to stay alive and cannot concentrate on operational matters or inspirational leadership. The factors that, prior to bin Laden’s death, constrained Pakistan from attacking al Qaeda more seriously probably still exist, but greater American success in going after the group can be expected and explained away by virtue of the large intelligence cache recovered by the Americans in Abbottabad. It might be possible, therefore, for Pakistan to make a cleaner break with al Qaeda as a byproduct of the bin Laden killing.

But here’s the catch: If bin Laden’s death means Pakistan can perhaps better turn the screws on al Qaeda, it will also likely cause it to rely on its other Islamist irregulars even more. The reason for this is that bin Laden being alive and on the loose meant the United States still had unfinished business in the region, but his death—when combined with American war-weariness—is already emboldening proponents of the “counterterrorism is enough” strategy, who argue the U.S. has no reason to continue a full-fledged occupation of Afghanistan. An American withdrawal from the region—something that is already very much anticipated by Pakistan—has now become more likely, with an accelerated timetable for that withdrawal also possible. As a result, Pakistan will feel even more need to cultivate its Afghan Taliban and Kashmiri groups in order to thwart the possibility of a pro-Indian government in Afghanistan, as well as continue to pursue its interests in Kashmir. The Americans, meanwhile, might rely on Pakistan as an essential conduit in supplying its war effort in Afghanistan—some 75 percent of U.S. supplies destined for Afghanistan cross Pakistani territory—but to Pakistan, the United States remains a far-away, fair-weather friend. In the wake of bin Laden, in other words, expect Pakistan to stand by the third leg of its national security triad—the one that has worked for it in the past and promises to still be there in the future.

Larry P. Goodson is a Professor of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College and author of the forthcoming book, Pakistan: Understanding the Dark Side of the Moon, to be published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2012. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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