How Pakistan impedes progress in Afghanistan
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”
The long war in that wondrous land of Afghanistan, where the people have endured more than three decades of war but still embody limitless potential and resilience, is at a strategic stalemate as a result of malice. Pakistan’s perfidy is its source; America’s strategic attention deficit over the decades has indulged this malice.
The combined Afghan and coalition campaign has achieved discernible operational gains against the Taliban in key areas of Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, sanctuary in the Pashtun tribal areas along the border has helped regenerate and sustain the Taliban, al-Qaida and others. More than 11 years into the war’s current phase, there are two principal sets of reasons that generally, but not exclusively, explain this predicament.
The first, and most odious, stem from the various contradictions that frame Pakistan’s no-fault perfidy. Most central among these paradoxes is that for the 6½ decades of that state’s existence, almost every major war or initiative that its security elites have undertaken, ostensibly to improve Pakistan’s security, has in fact undermined its security and helped destabilize the region. This is not the fault of Pakistan, according to its security elites. Although Pakistan started its four wars with India, including the conflict on the Kargil Heights in 1999, and endured thrashings in all of them, this was not the generals’ fault. After its humiliating defeat in the 1971 war with India over Eastern Pakistan, Pakistan’s leaders pressed ahead to acquire nuclear weapons, ultimately alienating the U.S., precipitating the invocation of the Pressler measures and exacerbating Islamabad’s security dilemma with India. More still, under the spurious auspices of strategic depth, the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate have persistently fomented insurgency and terrorism in Afghanistan, generally to the detriment of Pakistani security and regional stability.
The second contradiction is the deadly “friend-foe” game, in which Pakistan pretends to be a steadfast ally of the U.S. coalition while the country’s security elites act in ways that are inimical to the coalition. Pakistan is the leading source for detonators and ammonium nitrate, critical components of the improvised explosive devices that remain the leading killer and crippler of friendly troops. Pakistan provides sanctuary for the Taliban, al-Qaida and other like-minded Islamist militant groups. The ISI continues to collude with a host of such groups — a list that likely includes Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — that support the fight in Afghanistan or support the export of extremist attacks to America, Europe, India, Kashmir and elsewhere. A corollary to this friend-foe contradiction, one that Pakistan’s security apparatus apparently has missed, is that if the Afghan Taliban were to regain control of Afghanistan, it would bode poorly for Pakistan’s security because of the increased potential for sanctuary and collusion by anti-Pakistani militants inside Afghanistan itself.
Experienced diplomats have discerned a third contradiction that afflicts Pakistani-American relations: Pakistan narrates and conducts its affairs with America as though it were patron to the U.S. client. The truth, of course, is that the U.S. has supported Pakistan with more than $22 billion in military and economic support over the last decade-plus. Yet it seems that senior interlocutors tolerate this false narrative, and thus accept it. (It is hardly the only false narrative spun by Pakistan’s security elites. Others include: Pakistan is the tragic and faultless victim of U.S. unreliability and betrayal; Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are at risk of nightmare scenarios; and Pakistan is already doing so much to counter militants that if America were to compel it to do more, the state would collapse.)
The final contradiction, as others have noted, is the Frankenstein’s Monster paradox. First, during the anti-Soviet mujahedeen resistance, the United States and the CIA empowered and funded the government of Pakistan and the ISI, helping to enlarge and empower the ISI monster and its Islamist militant surrogates. Second, Pakistan and the ISI trained, armed and supported the most radical strains of Islamist militants, first directing efforts against the Soviets and India, and then by continuously orchestrating insurgencies in Afghanistan against the Soviet-sponsored Najibullah regime. In 1996, Pakistan helped the Taliban overwhelm the rump Islamic State of Afghanistan. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Pakistan declared what it had to in response to the American ultimatums, but quickly resumed its perfidious game by supporting the revival of the Afghan Taliban, working with the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba to perpetrate terrorism in Afghanistan and India. Today, a significant portion of this monster, in the form of the Pakistani Taliban, has turned inward on Pakistan itself. This is also no fault of Pakistan, according to its generals.
The current bind also stems from America’s strategic attention deficit. The harsh fact is that the U.S. has not been at war in South Asia for just over 11 years; it has been partly responsible for the wars there for the last 33 years. Yet the U.S. has applied an inconsistent, sometimes ill-informed, unimaginative and naïve approach to Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s wars.
For about the first 11 years, beginning just after the Soviet invasion, the U.S. approach might be characterized as strategic epilepsy. It was American policy to fund and support Pakistan’s ISI to support Islamist insurgents to defeat the Soviets.
For roughly the next 11 years, from the fall of 1990 to the fall of 2001, the U.S. fell into strategic narcolepsy, a term coined by political scientist Angel Rabasa and his group. This meant generally ignoring South Asia while Pakistan continued to direct various movements of Islamist fanatics, condoning a malignant symbiosis between the Taliban and al-Qaida. As a consequence, the U.S.-led coalition has since 2001 been fighting some of those very same Islamist diehards that American policy has helped nurture.
The 9/11 attacks returned the U.S. to strategic epilepsy.
With little strategic analysis and no credible long-term plan for peace, the U.S.-led war effort used small numbers of coalition forces and Afghan warlord militias to chase the Taliban and al-Qaida to Pakistan, only to see the latter regenerate and fight another day.
It is difficult to win in counterinsurgency when the insurgents benefit from what is essentially unimpeded sanctuary. What’s more, if the Taliban were to revive an Islamist emirate in Afghanistan, there is every reason to forecast a future with more attacks against the West, ones planned and orchestrated with increasing scope and intensity from Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The only good news is that since 2010, the combined Afghan and coalition campaign against the Taliban inside Afghanistan has been the most effective of the past decade. The combined operations of coalition and Afghan forces have reversed the Taliban’s operational momentum inside Afghanistan and achieved discernible gains, having driven the Taliban out of key areas and safe havens in places like Helmand and Kandahar. The war has a worthy object, but it will be in vain until there is strategic momentum from Pakistan to turn off the sources of support to the insurgents.
Smart people with good knowledge of the region have argued that a viable strategy must first recognize that the U.S. does have considerable leverage over Pakistan. Perhaps there is still time to offset Pakistan’s steady diet of carrots with the addition of some compelling sticks. These might include scaling down largesse and perquisites, while scaling up consequences that strike the fear and perceived interests of the prevaricators who continue to delude. Among the measures that might compel change are the revocation of that state’s Major Non-NATO Ally status, a resolution on Kashmir that makes permanent the Line of Control, a cessation in funding flows and an invitation to other South Asian neighbors to participate in military support against the Taliban.
Army Col. Robert Cassidy is serving in Afghanistan as a special assistant to the operational commander. This perspective draws from his 2012 book, “War, Will, and Warlords.” These views are the author’s and not those of the U.S. government or the Army.