Shadow Government

‘A lack of fire in the belly,’ concludes Pakistan on Obama’s war strategy

"Pakistan is said to pursue a foothold in Afghanistan," reads today’s headline. Breaking news? Old news, rather. Nonetheless, the New York Times has done its readers a service by laying out clearly the danger the Pakistani military’s intentions pose to the project of democratic state-building and security in Afghanistan. It has also reminded us, yet ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"Pakistan is said to pursue a foothold in Afghanistan," reads today’s headline. Breaking news? Old news, rather.

Nonetheless, the New York Times has done its readers a service by laying out clearly the danger the Pakistani military’s intentions pose to the project of democratic state-building and security in Afghanistan. It has also reminded us, yet again, how President Obama’s July 2011 date for the start of a U.S. troop drawdown has created a perverse incentive structure that encourages both the Afghan and Pakistani governments to hedge against the United States in this vital region. No matter how talented General David Petraeus proves to be commanding American and NATO forces, it is hard to see how our Afghan strategy can be successful absent a strategic reorientation by the Obama administration that creates a different calculus for leaders in Kabul and Rawalpindi (headquarters of the Pakistani armed forces) with regard to the Afghan endgame.

Pakistan’s military intelligence establishment continues to define national security with reference to the weakness and pliability, rather than the strength, of its Afghan neighbor. There is both an external and an internal logic to this construction of national security.

Externally, Pakistan seeks "strategic depth" against India, whose influence and friendly relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai threaten the Pakistani nightmare of strategic encirclement. Moreover, the Pakistani security establishment’s sponsorship of the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba is today what Pakistan’s sponsorship of Kashmiri militants was in the 1980s and 1990s — a strategic tool to target and weaken India through terrorist attacks while enabling Rawalpindi to claim plausible deniability. At the same time, Pakistan’s close relationship with the forces of Sirajuddin Haqqani (an important al Qaeda ally) and the Afghan Taliban give it critical leverage in its dealings with Washington.  

Despite the billions of dollars of assistance the United States provides its South Asian ally, many members of Pakistan’s strategic elite believe that, as a result of the influence Rawalpindi derives from its friendship with our enemies, the United States needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the United States. In this view, if Pakistan severed its close links to selected militants, closed down their sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal regions, and fully endorsed the Western project in Afghanistan, Pakistani leaders might no longer enjoy the red-carpet treatment from Washington. Pakistan therefore derives strength in its dealings with America by pursuing differentiated strategic objectives rather than similar ones. This is a different conception of the notion of "ally" than applies to American relations with other key partners.

This reality, in turn, leads to the internal logic of Pakistani statecraft in Afghanistan. The military intelligence establishment’s position at the core of Pakistani society and politics has been strengthened, not weakened, by Western intervention in Afghanistan over the past nine years (though the opposite would have been true had the West and our Afghan partners succeeded in building a functioning and accountable Afghan state that highlighted Pakistan’s own political deficiencies). The war against al Qaeda and the Taliban made General Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship appear indispensable to the United States. Following Pakistan’s democratic transition (which Washington supported, though not soon enough) and the subsequent U.S. presidential succession, Obama forged a new Afghan strategy that has increasingly come to rely on Pakistan to deliver the Afghan Taliban (and perhaps also the militant networks run by Siraj Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) for an Afghan political settlement that would give these forces — each currently allied in various ways with al Qaeda — positions of power in a new Afghan constitutional settlement so that Western forces could come home.

This U.S. policy has further elevated the position of the Pakistani armed forces chief of staff and his corps commanders in Pakistani politics, as demonstrated by the way General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani openly coordinated the positions of Pakistan’s civilian ministries before the last U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. Moreover, Obama’s declared exit strategy starting in July 2011 has more widely opened the playing field in Afghanistan to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. They are further empowered internally by the decisive influence they now derive, with Washington’s consent, in determining the Afghan endgame in a way that "defeats" India and America and therefore "strengthens" Pakistan. These developments do not bode well for the future of either Pakistani or Afghan democracy.

Obama’s flawed and halfhearted Afghan strategy has also created incentives for Karzai to look for new friends in a dangerous region — leading to the Faustian bargain he risks making with Pakistan over political reconciliation that brings the Afghan Taliban into government without committing it to uphold the Afghan Constitution, and gives Rawalpindi a guiding hand in determining Afghanistan’s future internal and external orientations. Karzai’s recent firing of his interior minister and intelligence chief, both proponents of "hardening" Afghanistan against Pakistani influence, pleased Rawalpindi and worrisomely revealed a tendency in this direction. If American and allied forces are headed for the exits before Afghan security and political institutions are mature enough to hold the country together and shield it from predation by its powerful neighbors, Karzai justifiably sees cutting a deal with Pakistan as a preferable option to hanging from a lamppost — as did President Najibullah some years after Soviet forces departed (though the parallel is imprecise since the Karzai government enjoys a genuine measure of popular legitimacy its predecessor did not).

The tragedy here is that the United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 to oust a Taliban government with links to al Qaeda and that was sponsored by Pakistan. A decade and thousands of lost allied and Afghan lives later, it is hard to believe that President Obama is really going to preside over a premature military drawdown leading to a political transition that restores a Taliban-dominated government, some of whose constituent parts have ties to al Qaeda, that is sponsored by Pakistan.

Daniel Twining is the president of the International Republican Institute. Prior to joining IRI, Twining was Counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed in his articles for FP are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute.

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