The Taliban appear on the verge of capturing Lashkar Gah. If they succeed, it will mark the fall of the first provincial capital to the group since they last controlled the country in the pre-September 11-era. Nor is Lashkar Gah the only city under siege. Three hundred miles away, the Taliban also threaten Herat; they approached the gates of the airport and, in a move reminiscent of their capture of Kabul in 1996, attacked the UN compound in the western province, although local forces appear to have fought them off.
Any Taliban victory will be calamitous for the region both because of the destabilizing refugee flow it would spark and because, as Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistan ambassador to the United States, points out, because it could embolden both Pakistan’s homegrown extremist and lead to a resurgent al Qaeda.
Pakistani authorities and the Pakistani public appear almost gleeful at the speed of the Taliban advance. Pakistan, however, may rue its support for the Islamist group. Without Pakistani support, the Taliban would be nothing. Afghanistan, no matter what the dysfunction of its current government, could thrive with better neighbors. The vast majority of the precursors for Taliban explosives come from two factories inside Pakistan. Pakistan also supplies weapons, safe-haven, and logistical support. Because Afghanistan is landlocked and U.S. policy largely prevented cooperating with the alternate route through the Iranian port of Chahbahar, Pakistan also became the logistical gatekeeper and charged a hefty price. When I sat down with a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) leader a decade ago, he openly bragged that Pakistan was playing it both ways and, even if Washington recognized that, there was nothing they could do.
Pakistani decision-makers have long lived in a bubble. Pakistani military and political elite go to the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods, and move about the same social circles. When in 1971, Pakistan lost East Pakistan (Bangladesh today) after locals rebelled against the ethnic chauvinism of the Punjabis who dominated West Pakistan, the Pakistani military and intelligence services decided to encourage more extreme versions of Islamism in order to get a new generation of Pakistanis to place religion above ethnic identity and prevent any new separatist movements. Radicals who the security forces might once have targeted found themselves with a free pass so long as they did not promote violence inside Pakistan. Pakistani authorities welcomed millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to build and staff religious seminaries to promote a much more extremist line. Pakistani authorities also used the Kashmir dispute as fuel for radicalization and, in recent decades, terrorist violence.
Many Pakistani liberals laughed this off. In their clubs and well-heeled compounds, they imagined themselves in control; they could not imagine that the radical generation they had raised could threaten them or penetrate the halls of power.
They were wrong. Fifteen years ago, Pakistani authorities sought to cut a deal with the Pakistani Taliban. It backfired tremendously as they moved to within 60 miles of the capital. Today, Pakistani officials often dismiss Western accusations about their complicity in extremism or terrorism by pointing to the casualties they themselves suffered in the war against their own internal radicals. Pakistani rank-and-file soldiers might suffer but, for the ISI leaders, the price is worth it.
The simple fact is that every regime that seeks to cultivate domestic Islamists in order to leverage them to influence events abroad suffers blowback. It happened in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, and Turkey. Pakistan will not be immune.
Even if a future Pakistani government cracks down on domestic religious radicalism, the Taliban regime next door will provide the Pakistani Taliban the same safe haven that they once enjoyed inside Pakistan. Meanwhile, the coming Taliban insurgency in Pakistan will undo any rewards Pakistan expected to get from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or tourism.
Pakistani leaders live as if the year is 1971 rather than 2021. They do not realize how tenuous their position really is and how outnumbered they really are. Pakistan may not be a failed state yet, but it is a dead one walking, and it will have no one to blame but itself.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a 1945 Contributing Editor.