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Double Games Nations Play: US Backing of the ISIS Draws Upon Strategies Once Deployed By Pakistan

By Khaled Ahmed

October 21, 2017

Across two administrations, America accused Pakistan of playing a double game while acting as an ally in the coalition of states fighting international terrorism. It was only after 2011 when American forces entered Abbottabad and killed Osama bin Laden did Pakistan rethink its strategy of keeping its real Afghan policy under wraps. At times this game got blatant and generals like Hamid Gul openly talked about going against America while posturing as an ally. This may be changing now that America has finally shown intent to reboot its Pakistan policy and call the country’s bluff.

Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif has stated: “We have offered the US time and again to provide us evidence against the Haqqani network and initiate a joint operation against the group.” The message is: We have cleaned up our act and are willing to inspect, jointly with you, the areas where you think the Haqqani Network is ensconced inside Pakistan. This means Pakistan has dumped the Haqqanis, once close to the ISI’s late general Hamid Gul. It’s a moot point if the volte-face is an answer to Trump’s ultimatum or whether it is a reaction to the more worrisome China-India joint declaration about terrorist groups in Pakistan?

But in 2017, as the world tilts dangerously from a unipolar to a multipolar power map, strategies have become complex, flexible and inchoate, giving the impression of nations playing double games with each other. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had once again claimed that the US has links with the Islamic State (IS). On October 10, he said: “The US Army helicopters are used to provide assistance to IS terrorists”. He had “revealed” this US-IS link in April this year as well, calling the terrorist outfit a tool of America. This has had the media abuzz in Pakistan which has been accused by Washington of a double game, that is, pretending to fight terrorism but sheltering elements that terrorise populations across the Durand Line.

The IS has attacked inside Pakistan through Pakistani youth converted to its code of savagery. Boys and girls have gone to Syria to train for this “jihad”. IS appears to be better funded than the al Qaeda. Funds have flowed from the oil wells it controls, and the outfit is being helped by dubious middlemen in the global oil market. America has been double-minded about the IS because of its conflict with Russia which targets the IS and defends Syria’s Hafez al-Assad regime. This conflict has also played out in Afghanistan in recent times with the news of Russia backing the Afghan Taliban being confirmed in several quarters.

America’s backing of the IS kills many birds with one stone. This double game opposes Russia and Iran in Iraq-Syria, and opposes Russia and Pakistan in Afghanistan. When America, together with Turkey began ignoring the rise of IS in Syria, Henry Kissinger, the strategist of our age, got upset and said that defeating IS should take precedence over engineering a regime-change in Syria. He foresaw what the IS would start doing in Europe and the US through expat Muslims. His advice was: “The destruction of ISIS is more urgent than the overthrow of Bashar Assad. The current inconclusive US military effort risks serving as a recruitment vehicle for IS as having stood up to American might.”

Pakistan’s brother country Turkey is also pursuing a double course. It is more interested in striking the Kurds of Syria-Iraq instead of the IS as Russia bombs the Syrian Sunni rebels on the advice of President Assad. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likewise more bothered about the Iranian militias in Iraq-Syria fighting the IS and wouldn’t mind funding the latter. President Trump has compounded the confusion by turning against Iran. The means indirectly helping the IS, which, in turn, threatens America and its NATO allies with “conversion” of their Muslim citizens to terrorism.

There are other double games in the region: President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has welcomed General Hamid Gul’s favoured warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Kabul, aping Iran’s earlier double game of keeping Hekmatyar in Tehran and allowing safe passage to the greatest Shia-killer of all, Al Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, from Pakistan to Iraq. These double games, however, have rebounded on the players so far. The only exception is Hekmatyar who has played more double games than one can count on one’s fingers.

Pakistan has changed tack on the safe havens found mainly in North Waziristan in the past. Two big military operations in the tribal region have flushed the “networks” out and Pakistan is now inviting international observers to the area. Who has learned a lesson: Pakistan or the US under Trump? Pakistan’s disenchantment with its double game appears genuine, and it also appears that it is willing to correct its earlier hubris. But America’s IS strategy appears imitative — if imitation is a response to Pakistan’s error.

Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’