Going Machiavelli on Islamabad

Going Machiavelli on Islamabad

Want to end the War on Terror? Contain Pakistan.


Despite the advice of some military commanders and intelligence officials, the Obama administration has decided to increase U.S. aid to Pakistan due to the conviction that Washington cannot afford to alienate a country whose assistance is “essential” for the achievement of American goals in the region. This, however, is a mistake. Pakistan has already done much to undermine American actions in Afghanistan. Nor is it likely to change course as the Obama administration prepares to withdraw U.S. forces from there. What is needed instead now is for the United States to work with other countries—especially India and Russia—to contain Pakistan’s efforts to expand its influence by supporting jihadists in Afghanistan, India and elsewhere.

Although Pakistan has provided vital support for the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, allowing matériel to transit from its Indian Ocean ports across Pakistani territory into Afghanistan, Islamabad remains primarily focused on its decades-old rivalry with India. Thus, Pakistan has continued to support not only jihadist groups primarily concerned with “liberating” Indian-controlled Kashmir, but also to tolerate and even support the Taliban and its allies in order to prevent the growth of Indian influence in Afghanistan. Washington has tried long and hard to persuade Islamabad to abandon this policy of supporting jihadist groups (particularly the Taliban), but has only met with limited success—partly because what military efforts Pakistan has made to crack down on jihadists in the region bordering Afghanistan have encountered fierce resistance and have been highly unpopular with the Pakistani public. Indeed, the American military’s strong logistics dependence on Pakistan provides Islamabad with sufficient leverage to not cooperate with Washington on this matter. Further, the Obama administration’s announcement that American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan between mid-2011 and the end of 2014 has only increased Islamabad’s ability to ignore American demands and to instead work with the Taliban in order to prevent New Delhi from gaining influence in Afghanistan.


Clearly, the United States has failed to persuade Pakistan to fully cooperate in the “War on Terror.” Nor does Pakistan appear likely to become a reliable ally in the near future, either. Possessing a population larger than that of Russia, as well as an arsenal of nuclear weapons, Pakistan is an aspiring great power. Indeed, many Pakistanis consider their country to already be one. Islamabad’s strategy of protecting or even supporting jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba is part and parcel of its ambitions to spread its own influence and limit that of its rival, India. It should not be surprising, then, that American efforts to persuade Pakistan to jettison this policy have failed—and that they are likely to continue to fail.

For Pakistan to continue aiding and abetting these jihadist organizations, however, is highly detrimental to the interests of America and the American-sponsored government in Afghanistan, as well as India and many other countries. So if the United States cannot persuade Pakistan from doing this, perhaps it needs to adopt a policy of imposing costs on Islamabad until it abandons its policy which harms others. Washington, of course, is unlikely to adopt this approach so long as it remains dependent on supply lines through Pakistan in support of the large American troop presence in Afghanistan. However, once the American foot print in Afghanistan has been greatly reduced or even eliminated, this U.S. dependence on Pakistan will cease—thus allowing the United States far greater freedom to pursue a strategy of containment vis-à-vis Pakistan as punishment for supporting jihadists.

What would a containment strategy directed at Islamabad look like? At minimum, America could supply arms to Afghan forces willing to resist the return to power of the Pakistani-backed Taliban. This could be done via the recently established Northern Distribution Network (both air and land routes to Afghanistan that run through Russia and Central Asia). Since the governments of Russia and some of the Central Asian republics very much fear that the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan will have a highly adverse impact on them, they could well be expected to contribute to such an effort. India might well contribute to it, too. Fearing that both Pakistan and a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan might support radical Sunni opposition forces inside Iran, even Tehran might contribute to this containment effort—similar to how it and Russia aided the Northern Alliance resisting the Taliban between the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996 and 9/11. Just as the United States and its international—as well as non-Pushtun—partners have encountered fierce resistance in the Pushtun-dominated regions of southern Afghanistan, the Taliban may well encounter stiff resistance from non-Pushtun forces in northern Afghanistan backed by Washington and others in resisting the return of the Taliban’s misrule which they well remember.

A more Machiavellian American foreign policy would seek to undercut the relationship between the Pakistani security forces, on the one hand, and the Pushtuns, on the other, through taking up the Pushtun nationalist cause. Arguing that the division of the Pushtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan was the artificial creation of nineteenth-century British imperialism, Washington might propose that the Pushtuns of both southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan be allowed to vote in referendums on whether they wished to secede from the state they are now in and become part of an independent Pushtunistan. Pakistan would, of course, virulently oppose any such initiative. American support for it, then, could be expected to result in Pushtun nationalists (including many in the Taliban) seeing Islamabad as their primary opponent, and not the United States. And just as Moscow’s enormous nuclear arsenal did not serve to protect the USSR from the rising tide of non-Russian nationalism in the Gorbachev era, Islamabad’s much smaller nuclear arsenal will not protect it against Pushtun (and perhaps other non-Punjabi) nationalism. (The non-Pushtuns of northern Afghanistan, of course, might not like this initiative at first, either. They might be open to persuasion, though, that they would be better off if the Pushtuns did secede, since they are highly likely to perpetually try to regain dominance over an Afghanistan retaining its present borders.)

This may seem like a harsh policy. But because engaging Pakistan for many years has only helped it to aid jihadist forces targeting other countries, containment would at least force Islamabad to understand that it faces serious costs for continuing this policy. And unlike what engaging it has so far failed to accomplish, containing Pakistan might hasten the day when Islamabad finally acknowledges that, since it can neither force nor persuade India to give up Kashmir, its only hope for a prosperous, stable future is to end all efforts to regain the territory (even if it does not give up its claim), pursue friendly relations with its increasingly richer and more powerful southern neighbor in order to advance its own economic development, build a strong democracy at home, and limit its concern about Muslims in India (whether in Kashmir or elsewhere) to urging New Delhi to live up to its own democratic ideals by protecting their rights and assuring them equal opportunity. If Pakistan did this, it would not only de-link itself from the “War on Terror,” but might make an important contribution to ending it.