The Afghan Transition Challenge: Where is the US Pakistan Strategy?


2012-10-10 by Richard Weitz

After almost a decade of fighting, American politicians are eager to reduce their military, financial, and other costly support for the Kabul government.

Relations between the Barack Obama administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai remain strained, as confirmed most recently in the testy remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about Karzai’s displaying insufficient gratitude for the 2,000 American soldiers who have died defending Karzai’s government.

Karzai had complained that the United States was playing a double game by refusing to fight the source of the Taliban insurgency, which he linked to Pakistan.

Pakistan is becoming a significant strategic challenge for the US and its policies in the region for 2012. Credit Image: Bigstock 

Pakistani forces have been shelling the Afghan side of their border, where anti-Islamabad insurgents sometimes operate. Afghan forces lacked means to retaliate, and resented that Washington had failed to intervene on Kabul’s behalf.

These clashes with Karzai have been frequent since the Obama administration entered office and adopted a much more critical tone toward the Afghan President than the George W. Bush White House, which had championed Karzai as a suave cosmopolitan leader capable of moving Afghanistan into the 21st century.

Obama officials had been attacking Karzai for his ineffective leadership of the war and for his inability to curb the widespread corruption that is undermining support for his government.

Karzai in turn has attacked U.S. forces for causing excessive civilian casualties, for disrespecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty, and for intervening in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

That said, Karzai’s complaints regarding Pakistan are on target. But Pakistani leaders are playing their own version of a double game, aligning with the Afghan and U.S. governments in public while cultivating terrorist ties in private.

Following the U.S. military intervention in the fall of 2001, the Afghan Taliban, along with some members of al-Qaeda and other foreign Islamist fighters, established sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan, specifically in the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA).

Afghan Taliban insurgents often fire on coalition forces from the Pakistani side of the border. The Pakistani military, claiming limited capabilities, has failed to occupy the entire FATA and eliminate the militants there. Furthermore, Taliban and Haqqani guerrillas are sallying forth from their border sanctuaries in Pakistan and attacking Afghan government and NATO targets in Afghanistan. Then they flee back across the border. Evidence persists that some members of the Pakistani security establishment are supporting these attacks.

Afghan and NATO forces constantly complain about the Pakistani forces’ seeming reluctance to suppress this activity.

Many Afghans believe Karzai’s accusation that the Pakistani military is actually sheltering the Taliban guerrillas and aiding their operations. Pakistan’s security establishment has never truly embraced Karzai’s government, which it sees as dominated by the ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara forces of the India-backed Northern Alliance. The parties’ clashing perceptions have been manifest in their firefights along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, which involves their border troops alternately cooperating and combating one another.

American diplomats launched some high-level initiatives to reconcile Afghan and Pakistani leaders during the early years of the Obama administration, but such efforts seemed to lose momentum with the death of Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke in December 2010.

Since then, relations between Washington and Islamabad have deteriorated even further.

The United States and its NATO allies have, like their Afghan colleagues, become increasingly irritated at the presence of Afghan guerrilla sanctuaries on Pakistani territory. Growing budgetary stringency and war wariness in the United States and other Western countries make them less tolerant about incurring heavy human and financial costs in Afghanistan due to perceived Pakistani duplicity.

In May 2011, President Barack Obama ordered U.S. Special Forces to attack Osama bin Laden’s compound in central Pakistan without seeking Islamabad’s permission or notifying Pakistani authorities in advance. U.S. officials rightly feared that some Pakistani officials would warn bin Laden of the impending attack, but the strike embarrassed the Pakistani military.

In November, U.S. attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship attacked two Pakistani border outposts near Afghanistan in the Mohmand tribal area shortly after midnight, killing 24 soldiers and wounding 13 others. The Pakistani government accused NATO of having conducted an unprovoked, deliberate attack on Pakistani troops.

In retaliation, Islamabad suspended NATO’s use of Pakistani territory to supply Western troops in Afghanistan for almost a year.

The Pakistani authorities also suspended certain joint activities, ended U.S. use of an air base in Baluchistan, withdrew Pakistani liaison officers from the border coordination centers and NATO headquarters in Kabul, boycotted the December 5 Bonn conference convened to support the Afghan government, reinforced their Afghan border defenses, and adopted more aggressive rules of engagement. We now have a situation where both NATO coalition forces and Pakistani troops can engage targets across the border without seeking advanced permission in cases of self-defense, creating new escalatory dynamics in any direct confrontation.

Both the incumbent administrations in Pakistan and the United States have incentives to act tough to boost their support in upcoming national elections.

President Obama found it difficult to apologize for the November 2011 border incident knowing that his Republican critics would attack him for doing so. Members of Congress have called for imposing more stringent conditions on Pakistan over the bin Laden and Haqqani affairs.

Pakistani politicians, who need to win elections, also have readily resorted to anti-American rhetoric. Imran Khan, a cricket star turned politician, has exploited anti-American sentiment in Pakistan to challenge the political establishment. Once seen as a fringe candidate, Khan has attracted increasing attention by calling on Pakistan to renounce U.S. aid and end its alliance with the United States. Most recently, Khan exploited the unpopularity of U.S. drone strikes by holding a massive two-day “peace march” in South Waziristan that attracted widespread media attention. Other Pakistani politicians have responded by adopting an elevated anti-American tone in public.

Pakistani public opinion is clearly hostile to the United States in general and U.S. military operations within their country in particular.

Pakistanis widely blame the U.S. war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda for bringing terrorism to Pakistan, which has suffered from suicide bombings and other civil strife in recent years. They see the stepped up drone and border attacks of recent years as a form of coercive pressure to induce them to crack down on the Taliban insurgents and terrorists operating in its tribal areas.

Many Pakistanis erroneously believe that the United States favors India over Pakistan and is seeking to work with New Delhi and Israel to constrain Pakistan’s regional influence and hobble Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. They also mistakenly argue that the rise of suicide terrorism within Pakistan is due to Islamabad’s support for U.S. counterterrorism policies, such as sending in the army to fight Islamists in the FATA, and not to their own sponsorship and mistaken belief that they can separate “good” from “bad” terrorists.

In this regard, both Americans and Pakistanis have a perception that the other is ungrateful.

Americans resent the fact that Pakistanis hate them despite the billions in aid they have provided. Pakistanis gripe that Americans fail to appreciate all the sacrifices they have incurred in fighting terrorism. Pakistanis blame their financial losses and other costs on Islamabad’s decisions to join Washington’s war on terror after 9/11.

Misperceptions regarding each other’s capabilities and intentions are also an enduring problem in the relationship. U.S. officials and their NATO and Afghan allies believe that the Pakistani military could suppress the Afghan Taliban insurgents in the border areas if they made a sincere effort to do so. Meanwhile, Pakistani officials think that if the coalition really got its act together, it could easily employ its overwhelming capabilities to crush the Taliban guerrillas and secure the Afghan-Pakistan border. The failure to do so gives rise to all sorts of suspicions that the United States is secretly sustaining the insurgency in order to justify its continued military presence in the region. Pakistanis also believe that ineffective Afghan and NATO policies have contributed to the rise of the Afghan Taliban.

Afghan-Pakistan border tensions are likely to recur—and worsen—as NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

Western governments will increase their pressure on Pakistani authorities to prevent the Taliban from exploiting the vacuum, while the drone strikes and other measures against the Haqqani network could escalate, despite Pakistani objections. Pakistani leaders will continue to hedge against the Taliban’s regaining control of some if not all their border regions. They will seek at a minimum to avoid antagonizing it—and at least certain Pakistani national security managers will invariably be tempted to revise old ties and use the Afghan Taliban as an instrument for asserting Pakistani influence in this important neighboring country while also countering Indian influence there.

But here is where Pakistani duplicity actually works in the U.S. favor.

There is no evidence that the Pakistani authorities have banned the use of the Predator surveillance and strike operations over their territory or stopped providing targeting data and other counterterrorist intelligence to the United States. The government has never ordered the Pakistani Air Force to shoot down the drones, which it could easily do. Pakistan has benefited from the strikes against the militants because some of them wage terrorism against the Islamabad government.

Geography and other factors will force Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States to collaborate despite their differences over the border region.

Pakistan needs financial and diplomatic support from Washington to complement that provided by China, which has placed firm limits on its annual aid levels. The United States gives Pakistan billions of dollars in direct assistance to Islamabad, as well as considerable revenue to Pakistanis involved in the shipping of U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan. U.S. diplomats have also helped dampen Indian desires to retaliate militarily against Pakistan for earlier terrorist attacks.

The United States in turn needs Pakistani support to transit military supplies to its troops in Afghanistan. Efforts to develop an alternative supply route through Russia and other former Soviet bloc states have made considerable progress, but these shipments are more expensive and make the NATO war effort excessively dependent on Moscow. Washington must have some Pakistani support to achieve a favorable regional environment for an eventual peace settlement in Afghanistan. The United States is also very eager to collaborate with the Pakistani military to secure the country’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal.

The next U.S. administration needs to develop and execute a strategy for Pakistan.

Although the Obama administration has defined detailed goals for what they would like to achieve in Afghanistan, as well as developed strategies and programs for attaining them, they have yet to do so in the case of Pakistan, despite that country’s being more important in terms of population, geography, and military potential.

Establishing clear objectives is important for ranking priorities among such goals as supporting peace and security in Afghanistan through reducing Pakistani support for the insurgents, curbing vertical or horizontal nuclear proliferation, strengthening civilian authority in Pakistan, reducing tensions between India and Pakistan, and so forth. To take one example, U.S. officials need to decide if it is worth confronting Islamabad over its support for terrorists in Afghanistan if that decreases Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate with Washington in securing its nuclear materials.

One urgent task is to clarify the rules of engagement under the new conditions of a departing Western military presence, a resurgent Taliban, and a Pakistani government and military frustrated with the United States and Afghanistan but yet still open to some cooperation.

American diplomats should also make a greater effort to reconcile Pakistan with India. The dispute between the two countries adversely affects Islamabad’s cooperation with Washington and Kabul because Pakistani policies are often directed primarily at countering New Delhi’s influence in Afghanistan, including through the use of independent armed groups, rather than countering the Muslim extremists who have conducted terrorist operations in both India and Pakistan. The Pakistani military tolerates terrorists because they are seen as asymmetric tools for negating India’s conventional military superiority.

The current budgetary climate limits the amount the financial aid the United States is willing to provide the Pakistani government, but the huge losses the Pakistanis have suffered during the past decade in fighting terrorism can be acknowledged with no financial cost. Toward this end, whether Barack Obama wins reelection or is replaced by Mitt Romney, the next American president should make the long-delayed state visit to Pakistan to affirm the country’s global importance.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to reconcile to these differing priorities.

But then again, operating within conflicting choices is the norm in global operations, not an aberration.

Afghan-Pakistan border tensions are likely to recur—and worsen—as NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan. The U.S. government will increase pressure on Pakistani authorities to prevent the Taliban from exploiting the vacuum, but Pakistani leaders will want to hedge their bets against the Taliban’s regaining control of some, if not all, of Afghanistan.

They will seek at minimum to avoid antagonizing the Taliban, and at least certain Pakistani national security managers will invariably be tempted to rely on old ties and use the Afghan Taliban as an instrument for asserting Pakistani influence in this important neighboring country while also countering Indian influence there.

Rebuilding trust between the two nations will require many years, and possibly multiple generations, to achieve. In the meantime, the current status quo of wary cooperation and mutual mistrust is likely to continue.

But without a clear-cut Pakistan strategy from an American Administration, it will be difficult to navigate within the dynamics of change in regional security.