To Break the Stalemate in Afghanistan, America Must Break Pakistan’s Pathologies

To Break the Stalemate in Afghanistan, America Must Break Pakistan’s Pathologies

The war in Afghanistan remains a strategic stalemate because defeating an enemy requires taking away its capacity and will.  

“Twenty U.S.-designated terrorist organizations operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan sub-region; seven of the 20 organizations are in Pakistan. So long as these groups maintain safe haven inside of Pakistan they will threaten long-term stability in Afghanistan. Of particular concern to us is the Haqqani Network (HQN) which poses the greatest threat to coalition forces operating in Afghanistan.”  General Joseph Votel, Posture Statement Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 2017.

“The Taliban and the Haqqani network are the greatest threats to security in Afghanistan. Their senior leaders remain insulated from pressure and enjoy freedom of action within Pakistan safe havens.  As long as they enjoy external enablement, they have no incentive to reconcile.  The primary factor that will enable our success is the elimination of external sanctuary and support to the insurgents.”  General John Nicholson, Statement Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Situation in Afghanistan, February 2017.

After 15-plus years, the war in Afghanistan remains a strategic stalemate because defeating an enemy requires taking away its capacity and will.  The Coalition and Afghan forces have hit the enemy’s capacity year after year but the Taliban’s will—their senior leaders, support, resources, rest, regeneration, and arms—continue to benefit from sanctuary and support from Pakistan’s security establishment.  In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in February of this year, the theater commander, General John Nicholson, stated that he believed the war in Afghanistan was a stalemate.  It has been a strategic stalemate for at least the last ten years and arguably for the last 15 years.  As early as 2003 the then-top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General John Vines, stated publicly that the Taliban were benefiting from Pakistan’s sanctuaries to regroup.  So despite suffering many losses in leaders and capacity inside Afghanistan year after year, the Taliban have not quit, and are resilient in regenerative capacity.  Tactical and operational momentum have ebbed and flowed throughout the war.  The Coalition and its Afghan partners have made some errors, but they have improved and adapted during the course of the war.  The Afghan security forces have grown in quantity and improved in quality, and have led the fight for several years.  During the peak numbers of exogenous forces for the war in 2010-2011, the Coalition forces, along with their Afghan partners, achieved marked tactical gains and operational momentum.  To be sure, Coalition and Afghan forces have undertaken many counterterrorism and counterinsurgency actions that have punished, disrupted, and displaced the Taliban and the Haqqani leadership and infrastructure, year after year.  

Yet these gains at the tactical and operational levels have been short-lived and have generally lacked meaning in the face of the most conspicuous impediment to strategic success: Pakistan’s sanctuary and support for the enemy.  Killing, capturing, disrupting, and displacing insurgent and terrorist enemies, fighting season after fighting season, absent genuine strategic momentum, have made this a perpetual war.  It is beginning to seem like a Groundhog-Day war where fulfilling the purpose remains elusive.  In theory, the purpose of war is to serve policy; in practice, if war is not linked to strategic rationale and momentum, the nature of war is to serve itself.  Fighting year after year within the context of a strategic stalemate is essentially violence and war serving themselves and not policy.  

General Nicholson has conceived a laudable idea for an operational method to help break the stalemate by about 2020.  His idea is to invest in those forces that have demonstrated the best capacity to outfight the Taliban in most engagements: the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) and the Afghan Air Force (AAF).  In his recent SASC testimony, he explained his operational idea to grow the ASSF and AAF to build an overmatch in offensive capacity vis-à-vis the Taliban, to ultimately achieve tactical and operational momentum.  The idea is to create an offensive punch that will outmatch the Taliban and break the stalemate.  An offensive overmatch in the best Afghan security forces will create a tactical and operational capacity to hit the Taliban hard, disrupting, capturing, and displacing their leaders and infrastructure.  This concept will create operational momentum by taking away Taliban capacity and by increasing the Afghan government’s control over more key population areas.  But tactical gains and operational momentum alone will not break the stalemate.  Offensive punch and tactical overmatch will set the enemy back, but without strategic change in reducing the enemy’s external sanctuary, these gains will be impermanent.  There were marked tactical gains and discernible operational momentum during the uplift of forces period in 2010-2011, but they did not break the strategic stalemate because Pakistan continued to provide sanctuary and support.  

Pakistan’s pathological strategic culture, which routinely provides succor and sanctuary to the Taliban, the Haqqanis and others, is the most significant impediment to strategic momentum and success in Afghanistan.  Pakistan’s strategic pathologies and contradictions also present the gravest threats to security and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Most official U.S. reports and testimonies on the situation in Afghanistan explicitly state, for the public record, that Pakistan’s sanctuary and support prevent the defeat of the Taliban.  A reduction of this sanctuary and cessation of the sources of support for the Taliban in Pakistan is the strategic sine qua non for ending the war in Afghanistan with modest success.  General Nicholson’s statement for the SASC record this past February included, “multiple witnesses have appeared before this body and testified that insurgents cannot be defeated while they enjoy external sanctuary and support from outside of the national boundaries of the conflict area.”  Pakistan’s failure to alter its strategic calculus, its sponsorship, its provision of physical and ideological support, and its regeneration of murderous Islamist armed groups, continues to pose a grave strategic risk for the war in Afghanistan.  This war will not end, or it will end badly, unless the West and its regional partners bring the full weight of their collective national powers to break Pakistan of its pathological strategic behavior.  Pakistan’s actions have been harmful to itself, to its purported friends, and to peace and stability in South Asia.

Pakistan’s pathologies are rooted in the burdens of Pakistan’s history, geography, and no-fault perfidy.  In simplified form, these manifest themselves in four contradictions that have framed Pakistan’s strategic malfeasance and ineptitude.  The first is the security-insecurity contradiction where for the seven decades of Pakistan’s existence, almost every major war or initiative that its security establishment started, arguably to improve Pakistan’s security, essentially ended up undermining its security and destabilizing the region.  Although Pakistan started its four wars with India, including the 1999 Kargil conflict, and generally got crushed in all of them, this was not the generals’ fault.  After Pakistan’s humiliating defeat in the 1971 war with India over East Pakistan, Pakistan’s leaders pressed ahead to acquire nuclear weapons, ultimately alienating the U.S. and compounding Islamabad’s security predicament with India.  Worse still, in pursuit of the mythical notion of strategic depth, the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate have persistently promoted insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan, Kashmir and India, to the ultimate harm of Pakistani security and regional stability.

The second contradiction is the friend-enemy delusion, whereby Pakistan pretends to be a friend and ally of the Coalition while the country’s security establishment consistently behaves in a manner that is lethally inimical to the Coalition and its Afghan partners.  Pakistan remains the leading source for the key components of improvised explosive devices that continue to kill and maim friendly forces and civilians. Pakistan has provided and continues to provide sanctuary and support for the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other like-minded Islamist militant groups.  The ISI continues to collude with a host of such groups—a list that likely includes the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba—that support the fight in Afghanistan or the export of extremist attacks to America, Europe, India, Kashmir and elsewhere.  A corollary to this friend-enemy delusion is that in the unlikely chance that the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan, it would augur badly for Pakistan’s security because of the increased potential for sanctuary and collusion by anti-Pakistan militants inside Afghanistan itself.

Experienced South Asia hands have also noted a patron-client contradiction that characterizes American relations with Pakistan.  Pakistan narrates and carries out its relations with America as though it were a patron to the U.S. client.  The truth, of course, is that the U.S. has supported Pakistan with more than $33 billion in economic and military support over the last 15-plus years, notwithstanding the U.S. funding that Pakistan benefited from in the decades before 9/11.  However, many a senior U.S. interlocutor has tolerated and accepted this false narrative, thus perpetuating it.  As an example, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, visited and interacted with his Pakistani counterparts 26 times before recognizing the duplicity for what it was.  The patron-client illusion is just one of a number of false narratives that Pakistan’s security elites weave with sublime eloquence.  Among other mendacious talking points are that Pakistan is the tragic and faultless victim of U.S. betrayal and unreliability; that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are at risk of nightmare scenarios; and that Pakistan has already done so much to counter the Islamist militants (its creations) that if we were to compel it to do more, Pakistan would be at risk of implosion.

The Frankenstein monster contradiction is the last pathology, one that others have observed.  During the Soviet-Afghan War, the United States and particularly the CIA empowered and funded the government of Pakistan and the ISI, markedly empowering and enlarging the ISI monster and its Islamist zealot proxies.  Indeed, Pakistan and its ISI armed and supported the most virulent strains of Islamist insurgents and terrorists during that war, directing efforts against the Soviets while siphoning and diverting funds toward their proxy militants in Kashmir and India.  Once the Soviet forces departed in February 1989, the ISI continued to support its preferred, and the most nasty, jihadists in Afghanistan against the Soviet-sponsored Najibullah regime.  In 1994, the ISI began to shift support to the newly emergent Taliban movement and then, in 1996, the ISI helped the Taliban overwhelm the rump Islamic State of Afghanistan, helped them take Kabul, and were directly involved in the brutal murder of Najibullah and his brother.  Medieval, dystopian, and draconian Taliban rule in most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 was the apex of the Pakistani security establishment’s Afghan strategic depth idea.  The ISI was also witting of the al Qaeda leadership’s presence and of Osama bin Laden’s return.  The 9/11 Commission Report offered this observation of the Taliban regime during that period: “Under the Taliban, Afghanistan is not so much a state sponsor of terrorism as it is a state sponsored by terrorists.”  Pakistan was the most significant sponsor of a terrorist-sponsored state.

Before and after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Pakistan declared what it had to in response to American ultimatums, but quickly resumed its duplicitous and deadly games by supporting regeneration of the Afghan Taliban and, working with and through the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others of similarly fanatical cloth, directing armed propaganda and terrorism in Afghanistan, India, and Kashmir.  Recent violent attacks inside Pakistan, conducted by offshoots of the monsters the ISI helped cultivate in the form of the Pakistani Taliban, Islamic State Khorasan Province, and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, are all evidence that Frankenstein’s monsters have turned inward on Pakistan.  Again, according to its security establishment, Pakistan’s self-perpetuated pathologies are not to blame.  Afghanistan and its American and Indian friends are at fault.  The delusions and illusions continue.

The current predicament and stalemate also derive in some part from America’s strategic attention deficit.  The harsh reality is that the U.S. has not been at war in South Asia for just over 15 years; it has been indirectly or directly involved in the wars there for the last 38 years.  Yet the U.S. has applied an inconsistent, sometimes maladroit, unimaginative, and naïve approach to Pakistan and to Pakistan’s involvement with the wars in Afghanistan.

For about the first 11 years, beginning just after the 1979 Soviet invasion, the U.S. approach might be characterized as strategic epilepsy, all on support for the Mujahideen factions.  It was American policy to fund Pakistan’s ISI to support Islamist insurgents fighting the Soviets.  Guns and money went to the most odious strains of Islamist proxies, to bleed the Soviets and erode their will, without thinking through the long-term implications.

For the next 11 years, from about the fall of 1990 to the fall of 2001, the U.S. exhibited strategic narcolepsy, a term coined by a political scientist at RAND Corporation.  This meant generally ignoring South Asia while Pakistan continued to direct various Islamist fanatics and condoned, if not colluded in, a malignant symbiosis between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  Since 2001, the U.S.-led Coalition has been fighting some of the same Islamist head loppers that American policy 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 into Pakistan, only to see the former regenerate and fight another day.

Missteps early in the war by the Coalition and its Afghan partners—for example, the absence of a strategy, the reliance on warlords, the use of indiscriminate air power, an initial unwillingness to help rebuild, and a toleration of venal Afghan leadership—all helped create grievances among the Afghans.  These grievances catalyzed support to regenerate the Taliban in the Pashtun belt during the critical first five years of the war effort.  But without the full support of Pakistan and its sanctuaries, the Taliban would have been marginalized.

The U.S. relationship with Pakistan since at least the 1950s has accommodated Pakistan’s narrative and the myth that Pakistan was either a steadfast anticommunist bastion during the Cold War, or a serious ally in the war against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their ilk.  In fact, Pakistani and American interests genuinely aligned only during the Soviet-Afghan War, and even then Pakistan’s behavior revealed machinations and mendacity regarding the generous U.S. funding to defeat the Soviets through jihadi proxies.  The ISI used some U.S. funds and opium money to support proxies elsewhere and purportedly even to fund aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.


Pakistani strategic culture stems from pathological geopolitics infused with a Salafi-Deobandi jihadist ideology, suffused by paranoia and neurosis.  The principal but not exclusive reason that Afghanistan has seen discernibly improved quality and quantity in its forces as well as fighting capacity, yet continues to face a strategic stalemate, is the Pakistani security elites’ malign strategic calculus.  The Taliban would have been a marginal nuisance, without the full support that Pakistan’s security establishment bestowed to pursue Pakistan’s imaginary notion of strategic depth on its western flank by asserting control over Afghanistan through its zealous proxies.    

Pakistan has nurtured and relied on a host of Islamist insurgents and terrorists.  It is home to the world’s highest concentration of terrorist groups.  Of the 98 U.S.-designated terrorist groups around the world, 20 operate in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The ISI has maintained links with Al Qaeda, its longtime Taliban allies, and a host of other extremist groups inside Pakistan. It is possible for Pakistan to become a genuine U.S. strategic partner only if it ceases its support of proxy terrorists and insurgents.  The fact that America has paid Pakistan in excess of $33 billion for Pakistan’s malice and treachery since 9/11 is repugnant and ridiculous.

The U.S and the Coalition must desist in the illusion that Pakistan, one of the foremost ideological and physical breeders of Islamist terrorists, is an ally or a friend.  It is neither.  Pretending that Pakistan is an ally in the war against Islamist militants, one that would act in ways to help defeat Islamist networks in the border tribal areas, has made the West complicit in and partly responsible for Pakistan’s machinations.          

Since this war began, the U.S. has on a number of occasions stipulated that Pakistan must curb all domestic expression of support for terrorism against the U.S. and its allies; demonstrate a sustained commitment to, and make significant efforts towards, combating terrorist groups; cease support, including support by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, for extremist and terrorist groups; and dismantle terrorist bases of operations in other parts of the country.  Clearly, Pakistan has not complied with these stipulations and continues to do the converse, serving as the most significant supporter and employer of Islamist insurgents and terrorists. 

The United States and its Coalition allies have not crafted a Pakistan strategy that uses their substantial resources to modify Pakistan’s strategic calculus.  An effective Pakistan strategy must use the full weight of the U.S. and other regional actors to compel Pakistan to alter its strategic conduct and to stop supporting terrorists. 

Investing in and increasing the Afghan Special Security Forces and the Afghan Air Force to create overmatching offensive capacity, to then build tactical and operational momentum, will help assert influence over key population areas and take away Taliban capacity, but this will be ephemeral if not coupled with strategic momentum.  To break the strategic stalemate, the Coalition should cast off its illusions about Pakistan.  For far too long, Pakistan has been viewed and treated as an important non-NATO ally in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, but it is essentially an abysmal ally, a veritable foe, because it acts in ways inimical to Coalition troops, our and the aims of the Afghan state.  After 15-plus years of Pakistan’s perfidy, it is essential to go heavy on sticks and light on carrots to break Pakistan of its pathologies and their pernicious effects in Afghanistan.  Sticks and fear will work where carrots, cash, and cajoling have not.  The U.S. and the Coalition must consider tapping into the Pakistan establishment’s fear, honor, and interests.  U.S. fears that the Pakistani state will collapse, implode or fracture are overstated.  Pakistan is hard and resilient in deep and broad ways.

The following stipulations, steps, and ultimatums, in order of escalation, are the way to break Pakistan of its pathologies and break the stalemate: 1) stop paying for malice; 2) end major non-NATO ally status; 3) state intention to make the line of control in Kashmir permanent; 4) shut down ground lines of communications via Pakistan; 5) declare Pakistan the state sponsor of terrorism that it is; 6) issue one last ultimatum to Pakistan to end sanctuary for insurgents and not impede success; 7) invite the Indian Armed Forces into Afghanistan for security operations in the Pashtun eastern and southern regions; and 8) as a last resort, reciprocate Pakistan’s malice and perfidy.  Uncontested sanctuary contributed to the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan, and it continues be the single biggest obstacle to defeating the Taliban and the most significant cause of the stalemate.   

It is difficult, if not impossible 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, planned and orchestrated with increasing scope and intensity from Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Colonel Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., U.S. Army, is the author of three books and a host of articles about irregular warfare and Afghanistan.  He has served in Afghanistan four times.  The works of practitioners-scholars Fair, Gregory, Husain Haqqani, Zalmay Khalilzad, Ahmed Rashid, Rubin, and the Schaffers informed this article.  These views are from the author’s studies and service in the region and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Naval War College, or the U.S. Department of Defense.

 Image: U.S. Army