Pakistan’s Alternate Universe
What possible motive does Islamabad have for supporting Afghanistan's bloody insurgency?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is headed to Islamabad this week for what U.S. officials are billing as a last-ditch effort to patch up ties with Pakistan and urge the country’s ruling generals to crack down on the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group based in Pakistan’s tribal areas that Washington is increasingly putting on par with al Qaeda and the Taliban as a threat to the United States.
The recent drumbeat of stories about the Haqqanis began when Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Haqqanis "a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency." Although less frequently mentioned, the Pakistanis are also providing sanctuary to the other main Afghan Taliban group, Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, based in Baluchistan province to the south. But very little has been written about why the Pakistanis support these groups. What possible motive, after all, could they have for supporting forces that are engaged in a nasty guerrilla war against their ostensible American allies in Afghanistan? The reason is simple: The Pakistanis fear that if these Taliban forces are defeated, the United States will abandon the country, leaving behind what they believe will be a hostile Afghan government allied to their mortal enemy, India. And if Clinton fails to understand this dynamic, the latest bid to salvage what’s left of U.S.-Pakistani ties will end in failure.
Although the United States has tried hard to promote friendly relations between Kabul and Islamabad, it has had little success. The two neighbors are natural adversaries whose long history of mutual hostility predates the Taliban era. There is also bad blood between the Pakistanis and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai blames Islamabad for the death of his father, who was assassinated in Pakistan several years before the 9/11 attacks.
India, for its part, has moved into Afghanistan in a big way since 9/11, opening an embassy and four consulates, sending in thousands of aid workers, and providing almost $2 billion in aid. Just last Tuesday, Oct. 4, Kabul and New Delhi signed a strategic partnership agreement in which India agreed to help train and equip Afghan security forces. The Indians, long angered by Pakistani support for jihadi groups in Kashmir, sense a golden opportunity to threaten Pakistan on its western border and are determined to make the most of it.
Observing these developments, the Pakistanis have become increasingly alarmed at the prospect that they may be encircled by their historic foes. Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban needs to be understood in this light. It is not that the Pakistanis like the Taliban, whose support for al Qaeda prior to 9/11 ended up causing them so much grief, or even that they trust them, since they almost certainly do not. But faced with the alternative of a hostile Afghan government allied to India, supporting the Afghan Taliban is a relatively easy choice for Islamabad.
The United States is well aware of Pakistani concerns about the Indian presence in Afghanistan but has done little to address them. The Indians do not like outsiders meddling in their affairs, and Washington has been unwilling to risk alienating a country it seeks as a partner in countering Chinese influence in Asia. Instead of pressuring India, Washington has tried to buy off the Pakistanis with financial and military assistance and even offered them a strategic partnership of their own. Its message to Islamabad has been that it intends to remain engaged in the region and that, despite the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan, there is really nothing to worry about. This has proved to be a hard sell for Pakistanis, who remember all too well that the United States abandoned the region after working together with Islamabad to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan and then imposed sanctions on them only 18 months later in retaliation for their nuclear program.
With little else to offer and facing a self-imposed deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Washington has begun ratcheting up the pressure. Over the past year, it has dramatically stepped up drone attacks against the Haqqani network and sharply increased clandestine CIA operations in Pakistan, one of which went seriously wrong when a CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistani informants who were tailing him. The raid on Osama bin Laden in May made clear that the United States no longer trusts Islamabad to cooperate in apprehending senior al Qaeda operatives. Hardly a day goes by when some U.S. official or other does not demand that the Pakistanis get with the program and go after the Haqqani network, often accompanied by a thinly veiled threat to send ground troops into the tribal areas. These actions have outraged Pakistani public opinion and angered the Pakistani authorities, who say they will resist any efforts by Washington to send combat forces onto their territory.
If U.S. and Pakistani troops ever did come to blows, the consequences could be disastrous for both sides. Like it or not, the Pakistan Army is the only force in Pakistani society capable of preventing a jihadi takeover of the state. For the past six years it has been fighting against a determined insurgency led by the Pakistani version of the Taliban, which it turned into an enemy when it sent forces into the tribal areas looking for al Qaeda in response to U.S. pressure. The Pakistani Taliban have been joined by many of the jihadi groups that the Pakistanis once used against the Indians in Kashmir, but that turned against the Pakistanis when Islamabad decided to support the U.S. war on terror. The Pakistani Army has already moved 150,000 troops into the region to hold back this Pakistani Taliban tide.
But even if the Pakistanis were not supporting the Afghan Taliban, it is doubtful they would drop everything just to help the United States in Afghanistan. Given their belief that an Indian alliance with Kabul would constitute an existential threat, there is every reason to believe they will refuse to go after the Afghan Taliban no matter how much pressure Washington brings to bear.
This does not mean the Pakistanis want to see the Afghan Taliban running the show in Kabul. They do not trust them and have no interest in seeing a return to the status quo that existed before 9/11. As a former senior Army officer told me recently, "A mullah is still a mullah." What the Pakistanis want more than anything else is to keep Taliban forces in the field as a check against Indian ambitions in Afghanistan. Judged from this perspective, the current stalemate in the country suits them just fine. They could probably also live with, and may even prefer, a negotiated settlement that would lock the Afghan Taliban in a coalition government in Kabul. Although the Pakistanis may harbor doubts about their ability to restrain Taliban ambitions over time, such an outcome would offer greater stability and could facilitate the construction of a gas pipeline into Central Asia, a long-standing Pakistani goal. But, ironically, they need American help: Success in sustaining a coalition government in Kabul will probably depend on U.S. success in training an Afghan army capable of keeping Taliban forces in check.
This is an opportunity for Washington. Unless it is prepared to risk the disastrous consequences that could flow from armed confrontation with Pakistan, a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan may be the best outcome it can reasonably hope to achieve. To accomplish this, it will almost certainly need to collaborate with the Pakistanis, who are the only party with any real influence over the Afghan Taliban. But recent U.S. efforts to demonize the Haqqani network work directly against this objective because the Haqqanis are the Afghan Taliban group most favored by Islamabad and over whom it has the most control.
It would be a bitter pill to swallow if the United States were forced to abandon Afghanistan without destroying the group that gave bin Laden sanctuary in the years before 9/11, but there are worse outcomes. Bin Laden is now dead, and even Washington admits that the primary al Qaeda threat to U.S. interests has moved elsewhere. The United States should begin shifting its priorities in the region to promoting a sustainable peace between Pakistan and India. Their decades-old dispute over Kashmir is the reason that the Pakistanis began supporting jihadi groups in the first place, and they are unlikely to sever their final links with them until it is resolved.