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Pakistan’s Double Game in the War on Terror Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 13th, 2021

America’s ongoing ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan is undergoing a difficult phase. While the ‘surge’ of extra American troops in Iraq seems to be showing some temporary benefits, the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating daily. The overstretched NATO troops and American forces that are spread too few on the ground are coming under increasingly sophisticated and violent attacks from the Taliban-Al Qaeda forces that are nested in the safe sanctuaries along the Afghanistan-Pakistan inside Pakistani territory where the NATO and American forces have no jurisdiction. For Pakistan, the resolution of the Afghan problem and eradication of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda have far wider ramifications impinging on Pakistan’s world view, its Grand strategy and its future than the narrower American goal of destroying the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. This essay aims to explain the complexities of the geo-strategic realities in the Afghanistan theatre and why Pakistan is playing a dangerous double game in the ongoing ‘War on Terror’.

Geographical Orientation

To understand the Afghanistan theatre, it is necessary to first review the geography of the area in relation to the geopolitical history of the region. Afghanistan is situated in the geo-strategic cusp which connects the central Asian republics with the Middle East and South Asia. To the West is Iran, to its North the Central Asian republics and to the East is Pakistan. The entire area of Afghanistan is mountainous with short ranges, valleys and passes which are very difficult to traverse with rudimentary road connectivity. For the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan along with Iran affords access to the Arabian Sea. While the access is direct from Iran, Afghanistan requires the permission of Iran or Pakistan for access to the Arabian Sea being a land-locked country.

Geo-Strategic Relevance

The Russians have always sought Afghanistan as a land route for their quest to reach warm water ports. Therefore, whoever controlled Afghanistan controlled Central Asia. It was this feature of Geo-strategic control that led to the ‘Great game’ of the early 19th century between the colonial powers. Oil is the next factor for Afghanistan’s geostrategic relevance. The Central Asian oil has two possible alignments to reach the Arabian Sea for onward journey to the energy-hungry nations of South East Asia –Through Iran’s North-South Corridor or through Afghanistan to the Pakistani ports. Global Terrorism is the third, albeit, a negative factor for the country’s geostrategic relevance. Destroying the Taliban-Al Qaeda hub in Afghanistan and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, therefore, assumes Geo-strategic relevance as its destruction is likely to significantly reduce the spread and support to terrorist movements elsewhere on the Globe.

Effect of Terrain on Military Operations

The narrow mountain passes and hidden caves of Afghanistan provide excellent ‘hunting grounds’ for conducting irregular warfare. The near absence of any sort of lines of communications within the country makes it difficult for regular troops to be effectively deployed. Throughout history, the narrow defiles and rugged mountain ranges have proved to be the graveyard of all imperial powers who tried to conquer Afghanistan. The British tried in the 19th century and failed. The Russians tried and were grievously defeated, with generous proxy help by the US and Pakistan to the rebels. Thus the terrain has, for centuries enabled Afghanistan to be ruled by provinces under warlords, each as a master in his own right, paying only nominal respect to the ruler in Kabul. This situation has not changed much today. Thus, despite the overpowering availability of air assets, the US could not root out the Taliban forces in Afghanistan who managed to escape into Pakistan’s North West provinces which are equally rugged.

Geo-Strategic Relevance of Afghanistan to Pakistan

Pakistan is a country suffering from an identity crisis because of the nature of its birth. Pakistan was created out of the partition of India on 14 August 1947 on the logic that Muslims needed a separate homeland from a Hindu majority independent India. The leaders of Pakistan believed that all Muslims of undivided India would cross over to Pakistan on achieving independence. When this ‘Two Nation’ theory did not realize as expected, with a vast majority of Muslims opting to stay in their home country, Pakistan had to find other reasons as their raison d etre’. Pakistani strategists have always worried of their country’s lack of ‘strategic depth’ vis-à-vis India. The rationale for this view stems in the Pakistani calculations that any westward Indian armored thrust would quickly overrun the country as the country averages only 250 miles in breadth. Thus, in their view, Afghanistan was the only option available which provided the requisite strategic depth to fall back upon. The essence of ‘strategic Depth’ was not limited to just the military sense. The Pakistani strategists also persevered to create a ‘cultural depth’ based on shared cultural values and religion. A 1.1 billion strong India with a predominantly Hindu population was sought to be balanced by forming an ‘Islamic brotherhood’ extending westward into Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East. As a result, Pakistani strategists always sought to portray themselves as part of West Asia rather than South Asia. Pakistan never accepted the accession of the predominantly Muslim Kashmir by its Hindu ruler to India and had gone to war with India four times over the dispute. The humiliating defeat of Pakistan against India in 1971 which led to the creation of Bangladesh has hardened Pakistani anti-India position for all times to come. The dispute over Kashmir has been one of the chief reasons. Thus, liberation and assimilation of Kashmir is the lynchpin of Pakistani foreign policy which finds a mention in its 1973 constitution which states that “When the people of the State of Jammu and Kashmir decide to accede to Pakistan, the relationship between Pakistan and that State shall be determined in accordance with the wishes of the people of that State”(Constitution of Pakistan, art 257, 100). After the 1971 defeat, the Pakistani military establishment realized the futility of embarking on conventional war against a more powerful India. Tellis succinctly summarizes that “As New Delhi’s strength grew, however, and Islamabad’s traditional strategy for conventional war became less and less viable, the Pakistani army gradually shifted toward terrorism to achieve its goals”(September 2008, 2). This policy was carefully crafted by the Pakistani military dictator Zia ul Haque, of which the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is the main executor. The ISI is analogous to the CIA albeit, with greater discretionary powers. The ISI reports directly to the Army Chief and not to the government. Long before the Taliban came into existence, the ISI with support from the Pakistani government had been running training camps for militants in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. The human fodder for these camps came from the thousands of Madrassas, the religious seminaries which dot Pakistan. Many seminaries are located in the North West provinces, the present stronghold of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan came as a heaven-sent opportunity for the Pakistanis. The Americans, following the dictates of Cold war ideology, approached Pakistan to help raise a rebel force to throw out the Soviets from Afghanistan. The ISI general in the eighties recommended to the Pakistani President Zia ul Haque, cooperation with the Americans stating that “there would be a convergence of religious, political and strategic gains if Pakistan were to assume the role of an Islamic champion against communist aggression”(Rasanayagam, 102). Zia, knowing fully well that the Americans could not achieve their objectives without Pakistan initially rejected the US offer of $400 million assistance as ‘peanuts’. “What he wanted was massive US military assistance to secure his borders with India and to make the armed forces that were his regime’s only prop happy”( Rasanayagam, 105). The Americans then agreed to pay Pakistan $3.2 Billions in military aid which included selling 40 advanced F-16 planes. A large part of that military assistance in cash and weapons was diverted by the Pakistani establishment to fuel the war in Indian occupied Kashmir.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda Connection with Pakistan

Pakistan raised the Taliban from within its own society and from the tribes which populate the North West provinces as also from within Afghanistan. The Taliban had been schooled in the Deobandi faction of extreme orthodox Islamic ideology in the Madrassas of Pakistan who were then trained and armed and sent across to fight the Soviets. Cohen very aptly puts it that “Pakistan’s relations with Afghan-based radical Islamists are complex. At one level there was a strong ethnic affinity between the Afghan Pashtun tribes and their Pakistani counterparts, as well as a long history of Pakistani intelligence and party engagement with them’(190). Flush with money, weapons and spiraling opium trade, the effects on Pakistani society were dramatic. President Zia’s Islamization drive radicalized large sections of the Pakistani Army and the Madrassas mushroomed without check. The Pakistani establishment was content with the manner the Anti-soviet Afghan campaign was being played out as it had rescued Pakistan from an economic crisis, helped modernize their armed forces equipment and most importantly helped finance their proxy war with India in the Kashmir valley. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, America lost interest in the region and with that, the easy American aid to Pakistan started reducing. Pakistan though unhappy with the Clinton administration’s disregard for its ‘frontline ally’ nevertheless, was, in its calculations, in a comfortable geo-strategic situation. The ‘strategic depth’ against India was ensured with a friendly regime in Afghanistan whose reins were actually controlled by Islamabad. However, Pakistan’s economic situation was not stable. When the 9/11 attacks happened, at one stroke the event destroyed Pakistan’s carefully laid out Afghan policy. With a stark ‘either you are with us or against us’ choice, Pakistan chose to abandon its bosom ally, the Taliban, and side with the Americans in the ‘War on Terror. Yet again, Pakistan exacted a stiff financial price for its involvement. “Washington wrote off $ 1 Billion Pakistani debt and offered $ 3.2 Billion economic and military package in 2003 and beginning in 2004”(Cohen, 304). So, it was business as usual for the Pakistani establishment, where on one hand they cooperated with the American forces in routing the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, while on the other hand, they gave covert help to those rebels who escaped into the North West provinces of Pakistan also known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas(FATA).

Part of this double game also stemmed from certain domestic realities. The FATA had always had considerable autonomy since Pakistan’s independence. Even the British during their rule never tried to impose their will on the fierce tribes of the region who prized their independence above anything else. The Pashtun tribes had common cultural ties with the rest of the Pakistani denominations, strengthened by Islam. By siding with the Americans, the Pakistani establishment had earned the ire of its own people who considered this move as a betrayal of the greater Islamic cause. With the American forces stepping up cross-border attacks into Pakistani territory, the establishment’s domestic standing has become even more precarious where in addition to being labeled an ‘American Lackey’ they stand charged with being unable to protect even the nation’s sovereignty. The inevitable collateral damage due to air attacks by drones launched by the American forces has further exacerbated the anti-American feeling in the FATA region and the rest of Pakistan. “More than 85,000 Pakistani troops remain garrisoned along the Afghanistan- Pakistan border”(Tellis, November 2008, 10) chiefly due to American pressure. This has led to pitched battles between the tribes and the Pakistani forces leading to “over 600 soldiers sacrificing their lives in this effort”(Tellis, November 2008,10). The situation is especially piquant for the Pakistani army because a large number of the battalions involved in the fight are actually fighting their own tribal mates. This has led to serious degradation of morale in the Pakistani forces fighting the Tribes. Meanwhile, the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership remain firmly entrenched secure in the ancient creed of ‘Pashtunwali’ wherein an honored guest is never betrayed. It is therefore not surprising that despite a $50 million bounty, Osama bin Laden has never been found.

With American money flowing in, the ISI has gone back to their old game of arming Kashmiri militant groups with arms and ammunition. Adding a new dimension to this unholy nexus has been the tacit Al Qaeda support for the Kashmiri liberation cause. Indian security forces routinely report an increase of foreign militants in the valley. Thus some Al Qaeda or Taliban recruits are also fighting the Indian security forces in Indian occupied Kashmir. This extremely complex double game has had the inevitable fallout on Pakistan. Radicalism and fundamentalism in Pakistan have increased. Pakistan’s sectarian violence, which was never too far below the surface, has erupted with regular intervals in the port city of Karachi and in the province of Sindh. The number of suicide attacks on foreign targets and government institutions has increased. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is attributed to the Al Qaeda-Taliban-tribal combine’s hatred for a leader who openly spoke out against terrorism. Another reason why the Pakistani establishment may not comply with American wishes is the fear that the United States “has deceived Pakistan into conniving with Washington to bring about its own destruction: India and U.S.-supported Afghanistan will form a pincer around Pakistan to dismember the world’s only Muslim nuclear power”(Rubin & Rashid, para 13).

Overall Analysis

Pakistan’s propensity to ‘run with the hares and hunt with hounds’ is not likely to change for the foreseeable future. This is a fact borne out of their geopolitical mindset which posits the centrality of Afghanistan as a state providing ‘Strategic Depth’ against an Indian invasion.

The Pakistani establishment has shrewdly gauged their importance to the US in its ‘War on Terror’. They have realized that as and when a job gets done, America tends to forget its friends and goes elsewhere. Considering the enormous autonomy with which the ISI has operated till now, it is not certain whether any Pakistani leader will have the will or the mandate to rein them in. For the ISI, keeping the Afghan pot boiling is the best course of action as it will ensure American involvement and money for their forces. This in turn would continue to feed their unfinished agenda in Kashmir and fomenting trouble elsewhere in India. Keeping the Americans engaged also helps them garner larger geostrategic goals. Pakistan has always sought a prime position in the leadership of the Islamic World. By engaging itself with America, Pakistan believes it can portray itself as an Islamic country with significant American clout. This belief is, however, misplaced as most of the Arab world fear the message of bin Laden as it directly threatens the survival of Arab monarchies. Therefore, an Islamic Caliphate is a good concept but not in their own backyards. As Gordon quoting Telhami says,

”many people would like bin Laden…to hurt America…but they do not want bin Laden to rule their children”(63). The incoming US President will have his hands full. Barack Obama’s promises of withdrawal from Iraq and focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan may be easier said than done. His recent pronouncements that resolution of the Kashmir problem would also help in the ‘War on Terror has been seen with consternation by New Delhi who views this as a direct intervention in a bilateral dispute, something which the Indians have never agreed to. Reining in the ISI and the rogue elements of the Pakistani armed forces is another option that would require intense American engagement and the will of the Pakistani establishment to change the way they think. In the final analysis, the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue for a long time to come as it is not just the question of a tactical victory of killing Al Qaeda leadership but a war for the hearts, minds, and souls of the people involved. If America has to win this war it would require to “invest in U.S. institutions and personnel in

Pakistan to support long-term engagement in the region” (Armitage & Hamilton 1).


  1. Armitage, Richard L & Hamilton Lee H. 2008. “ The Next Chapter: The United States and Pakistan”. Pakistan Policy Working Group.
  2. Cohen, Stephen Philip. The Idea of Pakistan. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005. “Constitution of Pakistan”.1973.
  3. Gordon, Philip H. 2007. “Can the War on Terror Be Won?” Foreign Affairs. 2007.Vol 86 No.6. 53-66. Rasanayagam, Angelo. 2003. Afghanistan: A Modern History. New York:IB Tauris & Co ltd. 2003.
  4. Rubin, Barnett R & Rashid, Ahmed. 2008. “From Great Game to Grand Bargain”. Foreign Affairs.
  5. Tellis, Ashley J. 2008. “Engaging Pakistan-Getting the Balance Right”. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace.
  6. Tellis, Ashley J. 2008. “Pakistan and the War on Terror; Conflicted Goals, Compromised Performance”. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace.
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