Getting Tough With Pakistan Will Help Salvage Afghanistan
I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog about Afghanistan and Pakistan…so much time, in fact, that I sometimes think I’ve exhausted everything I have to say about the subject. But my focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan has always remained consistent over the past year, the main one being that both nations are crucial to America’s counterterrorism efforts. And both countries, by the way, have taken on such an importance to U.S. foreign policy that the last two administrations have spent enormous amounts of presidential resources on Afghan and Pakistani relations.
But my lack of clarity and my writer’s block on “AfPak” quickly disappears when I hear the same old questions being asked in the press. Why is the U.S. in Afghanistan? Why is NATO struggling to defeat the Taliban? Why is the insurgency spreading despite thousands of American troops on the ground? And why is Osama bin-Laden still at large, sitting in a cave somewhere after close to a decade of being America’s number one enemy?
All the questions may be different in some capacity, and some are actually reminiscent of doubts Americans had before September 11. But even with these supposed differences, the answer comes back to a single country that has yet to show its full capacity, but could improve the situation remarkably if they decided to cooperate in a wholehearted way. That nation is Pakistan.
The United States and NATO will be hard-pressed to achieve anything in Afghanistan if Pakistan’s security services refuses to get on board with what Washington is trying to accomplish. In fact, Pakistan’s unhelpful behavior over the last nine years is the major reason why the U.S. and its allies are fairing badly in southern Afghanistan today. Of course, this is not the only reason; a faulty war plan and an artificial timetable for withdrawal also make the job of securing Afghanistan that much more difficult (the Taliban can basically pack it in and lay low until July of next year, when the coalition pulls out).
Yet even with these mistakes (which are of America’s doing), you have to wonder if the war would be going as badly today if the Pakistanis were embracing the same strategy as the Americans.
But the causes behind Pakistan’s floundering are well known. Like the Taliban, the Pakistani Government is planning for an Afghanistan that is largely free of American (and western) influence, and the best way to do that is by solidifying a partnership with a group that has the strength and appeal to help them achieve their objectives. Islamabad is looking towards the future and trying to determine what the best course of action in order to suit their own security interests in a post-American Afghanistan. Virtually everyone in the region, from the mullahs of Tehran to the Chinese, is expecting the United States to leave the region next summer, consistent with Obama’s stated timeline. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that Pakistan is trying to get a head start over other powers in South Asia, even if this means pursuing a policy that is contradictory to America’s current position.
Today, the Taliban Movement is Pakistan’s number-one partner in Afghanistan, and historically, it has been Pakistan’s most reliable partner for the last decade and a half. Speculation aside, chances are that the Taliban would have probably died out by now if it wasn’t for the billions of dollars in military assistance that Pakistan’s gave them over the last 15-odd years. Taliban fighters have always been perceived by the Pakistani Military as a proxy force against foreign entities inside Afghanistan, as well as a hedge against an expanding Indian presence.
The sad part is that everyone pretty much knows this already, yet are still scared to admit that the situation in Afghanistan will stay the same unless Pakistan’s grievances are met.
So what can the U.S. do to reverse the tide and possibly gain Pakistan’s valuable support? Given Pakistan’s paranoia over anything Indian, the logical answer would be an American led initiative to roll back Indian influence inside Afghanistan. But it’s quite obvious that India wouldn’t accept such a proposal (would you!). Plus, India is one of America’s closest allies in South Asia, so the idea that the United States would jeopardize this relationship by asking the Indians to limit their freedom of movement is probably far-fetched anyway.
The only answer I see that could convince the Pakistanis to cooperate in Afghanistan (and against terrorism in general) is by threatening to sever (or actually severing) American military support to the regime. Islamabad is dependent on Washington for billions in military and civilian aid, the latest being a $7.5 billion American-led initiative to strengthen Pakistan’s educational system and basic infrastructure. Some see this money as a waste, but it could be turned into an opportunity for the U.S. if utilized correctly. Nothing exerts pressure over an ally than the diversion of money. Maybe its time to give the Pakistanis an ultimatum; help us achieve a somewhat stable, Al’Qaeda-free buffer zone in Afghanistan or risk losing American protection.
Is this a politically viable proposal? Considering the current atmosphere on Capital Hill, probably not. I’m guessing that no representative or senator wants to endorse a major reversal in policy ahead of the midterm elections. But what other solution is there? I’m open for suggestions, and so is the White House.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Peter Feaver at FP.com**