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Why Pakistan deserves sanctions now

opinionWhy Pakistan deserves sanctions now

Today’s Taliban offensive is in fact a Pakistani invasion—the culmination of a forever war that has been underway since the mid-1970s.


On August 1, I tweeted the following image and text:

Thanks to the engagement of tens of thousands of Afghans fearing for their futures, within days #SanctionPakistan had become the top social media trend in Afghan history. By now, the #SanctionPakistan hashtag has been tweeted and re-tweeted over a million times.

Remember Afghans are now again in fear for their lives. As provincial cities have fallen, the ragtag Taliban army, often without shoes but with guns blazing, has wreaked havoc.

There are multiple, confirmed reports of summary executions of police, soldiers and civilians. Women and girls are being forcibly married to fighters. Torture, rape and pillaging are widespread. Afghanistan seems to be on the precipice of a new abyss.

After twenty years of heavy engagement and investment by the international community, including India, acting under an unambiguous mandate, how could this happen?

The short answer is that the Taliban have never been the often-romanticized, semi-autonomous country bumpkin insurgents first described for the world in Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, which appeared in 2000.

Since the mid-1970s—under the guise of strategic concepts such as “Core of Islam” or “Strategic Depth”—Pakistan’s military leaders have been striving to compensate for their loss of “East Pakistan” and defeat in conventional war at the hands of India by pursuing a policy of escalating military intervention in Afghanistan via proxy or mercenary armies armed, fielded, funded, mentored, supplied and trained by ISI.

This has been the real “forever war”—one of the longest still-unresolved conflicts on the planet.

The first proxies were Jamiat-i-Islami and (soon after) Hezb-i-Islami.

Then came the seven Mujahideen parties of anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s.

When the US exited in 1988-89, Al Qaeda was formed as a way to attract Arab donors to make up for lost US largesse.

When none of these seven parties was able to impose its will in the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, the ISI reorganized its jihadi networks in Afghanistan in 1993-94 as the Taliban, or Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which took Kandahar in 1994 and Kabul in 1996.

After the fall of the Taliban regime after 9/11, ISI consolidated surviving Taliban leaders in shuras (councils) in Quetta, Peshawar and elsewhere, while giving operational priority to the Haqqani network—one of whose leaders is the top de facto Taliban commander today.

From 2001 until now, Pakistan’s GHQ has kept the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network skirmishing with US, NATO and Afghan forces across the country, waiting for their opening to mount a full-frontal assault on Kabul’s authority.

With President Joe Biden’s intemperate and unwise decision to withdraw the last US forces from Afghanistan, they have pounced.

Today’s Taliban offensive is in fact a Pakistani invasion—the culmination of a forever war that has been underway since the mid-1970s.

Of course, many parts of the world have suffered at the hands of ISI’s irregular warfare—India of course, but also Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Al Qaeda has mounted major attacks on at least three continents.

But over nearly five decades of forever war, Afghanistan has endured at least a half dozen coups d’etat; massive refugee flows; and the deaths of at least two million people.

Saudi Arabia and the United States were partners in this enterprise for only one decade.

Tragically, in departing the region after a decade of fighting the Soviet Union, the United States bequeathed to Pakistan the concept of “positive symmetry” by which outside powers would continue to support their armed proxies in Afghanistan.

Since 1989, Pakistan has written its own ticket for this war in Afghanistan, which has resulted, successively, in a protracted civil war, five years of obscurantism under the Taliban regime and an escalating effort after 2001 to break the institutions built up by democratic Afghan government in partnership with over seventy donor states.

Why have Pakistan’s leading generals—Musharraf, Kayani, Raheel Sharif and now Bajwa, all ideological children to some extent of Mirza Aslam Beg, the godfather of “strategic depth”—taken Pakistan down this path?

The “core of Islam” dream is to restore a kind of Caliphate embracing Iran, Central and Pakistan, with Afghanistan at its centre.

But the realpolitik bottom line is that they see influence in Kabul as their only play to counter India’s vaulting successes, especially after two decades of relative economic decline which has seen per capita nominal GDP in Pakistan fall far behind India and even behind Bangladesh.

Stunningly, Pakistan has pursued this policy without enduring any serious penalties.

Apart from a few years when the US turned a cold shoulder after the 1998 nuclear tests, the 9/11 attacks and the death of Bin Laden in 2011, Pakistan has continued to pursue strategic ties with both the US and China.

It’s now time to be consistent and principled.

The first sanctions were slapped on Vladimir Putin’s regime within weeks of his invasion of Ukraine in 2014. They have isolated Russia and stopped his invasion forces in their tracks.

Iran and Syria have faced a wide variety of sanctions for proxy wars and genocide.

China is under increasing pressure through sanctions and other forms of political disapproval for genocide against Uyghurs; repression in Tibet; dismantlement of democracy in Hong King; self-defeating “wolf warrior” diplomacy; and daily cyberattacks against almost every democracy.

Given this track record of responding to genocide, invasion and proxy war, how can we possibly justify failing to sanction Pakistan for its forever war in Afghanistan which has endured longer than any of these conflicts, incurring a far greater human cost?

In fact, it is very clear that Pakistan’s proxy war in Afghanistan has lasted so long precisely because the world has failed to act.

Any responsible observer must concede that the “heart of Asia”—as Iqbal famously dubbed Afghanistan—deserves concerted action to secure just as much as the “heart of Europe”, a term that can be accurately used to describe Ukraine.

In March of this year, I published a paper on “Ending Pakistan’s Proxy War in Afghanistan” for the Macdonald Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank.

The paper made ten recommendations to bring peace to Afghanistan:

  1. publicly call on Pakistan to end its covert proxy war;
  2. ensure that states enact wide-ranging sanctions against Pakistani officials supporting the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and revise the United Nations Consolidated List (of entities subject to measures imposed by the Security Council) accordingly (United Nations Undated);
  3. list Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and add it to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklist until it ends its covert proxy war in Afghanistan;
  4. suspend further talks with the Taliban pending an unconditional ceasefire;
  5. suspend further US or NATO force reductions in the region pending an unconditional ceasefire and an end to Pakistan’s covert proxy war;
  6. debate the “situation in Pakistan” at the United Nations Security Council to make it clear that ISI support for the Taliban and other terrorist groups is a threat to international peace and security;
  7. expand the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to include civilian and military monitoring of cross-border security threats, including the entry of Taliban and other fighters from Pakistan;
  8. convene genuine peace negotiations between Kabul and Islamabad on non-interference; ending sponsorship of armed proxies; and demarcation, delimitation, and full recognition of the common border between the two countries;
  9. replace the principle of “positive symmetry” with new, verifiable commitments by the Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US), NATO members states, and all six of Afghanistan’s neighbours to end assistance to illegal armed groups; and
  10. document the crimes of the past; identify and support victims of terrorism and other atrocities; disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate former combatants; destroy ammunition and explosives; and engage Afghans in a broad-based effort to bring about reconciliation and transitional justice.

As chair of the United Nations Security Council this month, India is in the best possible position to lead an open and frank discussion of these issues.

Interference and invasion on this scale would be unacceptable to any sovereign state.

The principle of “positive symmetry”—which has no standing in international law and needs to be permanently discarded—has also never been allowed to stand for any other country.

Successive UN Security Council resolutions concerning the “situation in Afghanistan” have side-stepped the fact that the principal threat to Afghanistan’s security, which also constitutes a threat to international peace and security, emanates from Pakistan.

Given the gravity of the situation around Kabul today, with Pakistan’s invasion force threatening to impose a murderous fait accompli on Afghans, it is absolutely essential for the international community to take action now.

At stake is not only the fate of nearly forty million Afghans, but also the authority and prestige of the whole international community which cooperated for two decades to release Afghanistan from the bondage of war.

Pakistan’s invasion constitutes an act of aggression as described in Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. This chapter provides for political and military remedies under Articles 41 and 42: all should be considered, starting with sanctions against those in Pakistan’s civilian and military chain of command now responsible for this invasion force, which is already reported to have committed war crimes on a large scale.

There is growing support for such a firm response. Sanctions are being called for by members of the US Congress; British MPs have urged the UN Security Council to act.

Beyond sanctions, the UN Security Council should also call on member states to provide military support to keep the Taliban out of Kabul and prevent the fall of the legitimate government.

The Council should also consider empowering international prosecutors to document war crimes and other atrocities now underway. We have a duty to the women and girls of Afghanistan—as well as to an entire generation raised in relative freedom—to stop the thuggish brutality of the Taliban in its tracks.

Impunity is a fragile quality, usually a product of neglect and ugly ambition.

In this case, it is the product of inaction, naivete and wilful ignorance on the part of a community of nations that chose for far too long to let Pakistan off the hook for proxy war, state sponsorship of terrorism and warfare without borders.

Just as sunlight is the best detergent for corruption, so accountability is the best antidote to impunity.

Once impunity is broken, it vanishes quickly.

In other words, a little concerted action on behalf of Afghans today would go a long way towards curbing the appetite for war Pakistan’s military masters have developed over decades.

Musharraf, Imran Khan and Sheikh Rasheed have all in their separate ways admitted Pakistan’s intimate complicity with the Taliban.

They are proceeding merrily down the path of invasion because they do not expect ever to foot any bill of account for these awful deeds.

But this half-century-long account is now coming due.

A reckoning lies ahead—one that would accord well with India’s commitment to democratic strength in Asia and globally, as well as with Joe Biden’s larger vision of a world where democracies thrive, compete and multiply, while authoritarian regimes are confronted—and indeed held to account for serious violations of international law, and particularly for acts of aggression beyond their own borders.

After a half century of “forever war” and an even larger legacy of unjustified imperial meddling, we owe it to the Afghans to start getting the formula right for peace in their country.

The path to peace in Afghanistan begins with ending Pakistan’s invasion—a gross derogation from the rules that benefit every state which can only be answered with sanctions.


Chris Alexander was Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, the UN Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and is the author of “The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace”.

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