Islamabad at the Crossroads

Islamabad at the Crossroads

Pakistan faces difficult choices and an uncertain future in Afghanistan.

Few question the desirability of finding a political resolution to the Afghan conflict or doubt Pakistan’s pivotal role. The growing divide of opinion in this country is over how best to achieve that outcome. One camp led by our military strategists insists that various political agreements are likely to result from accumulated military successes, sustained by Afghan governance reforms and economic improvements. Visible counterinsurgency gains are expected to gradually wean fighters away from the ranks of the insurgency. The other approach, increasingly voiced in the media, the blogosphere and recent think-tank recommendations,envisions a negotiated deal with Taliban interlocutors that results in national reconciliation. It presumes that a grand bargain can be struck which satisfies Afghanistan’s various ethnic and political constituencies and avoids having the country again become a base camp for international terrorists.

Plainly, neither course can succeed without Pakistan’s cooperation. To go well, a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan requires that Pakistan reverse policies offering sanctuary to the Taliban. This would almost certainly necessitate a greater willingness to use military force against Afghan insurgent strongholds in North Waziristan and Baluchistan. Alternatively, to initiate productive talks, Pakistan would be expected to use its leverage over protected insurgent leaders and allay suspicions in Kabul about Islamabad’s aims. Both approaches present challenges for Pakistan’s military and elected officials, but of the two, their preference is clearly for concluding a political agreement that ends the Afghan conflict rather than a prolonged U.S. military campaign.

As Pakistan sees it, neither an Afghan Taliban defeat nor an outright victory may be in its interest. Where Islamabad had once sought to have a subservient neighbor, it has in recent years been forced to settle for a government in Kabul that is at best not unfriendly. But full support from Pakistan that decisively checks the insurgency could result in a strengthened Afghan government. This is especially worrisome for a Pakistan that is, above all, anxious to ensure a diminished Indian footprint across its Afghan border. Greater cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition could force Pakistan to forfeit the Taliban as a reserve Pashtun force in the event of a post-American, destabilized Afghanistan, and disown favored jihadi groups dedicated to the struggles in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Yet the prospect of a Taliban movement wresting full power in Afghanistan also leaves Islamabad uneasy. Its experiences with Taliban leadership have frequently proven frustrating. For all of their dependence on Pakistan, the Taliban, especially Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, remain distrustful of their Pakistani handlers in the intelligence services. In the event that the Taliban consolidate power in Afghanistan, they may well resist serving as pliant clients. Moreover, should they succeed militarily, a civil war with non-Pashtun northern militias is probably inevitable. As the Taliban’s patrons, Pakistan could then confront involvement in a proxy conflict with Iran, Russia and India. The Islamabad regime would also have to contend with the influx of millions of Afghan refugees entering Pakistan’s tribal areas. Furthermore, a triumphant Afghan Taliban could energize Pakistan’s own Taliban insurgency, providing it with strategic depth within Afghanistan. Still worse, a restored Taliban regime’s joining forces with Pakistan’s militant Islamists for jihad in Pakistan cannot be ruled out.

Faced with these unattractive alternatives, it is understandable that Pakistan’s policy makers find the prospect of reconciliation among Afghans so appealing. Pakistan’s mounting domestic radicalism and political turmoil also lend a sense of urgency for a settlement that some believe can also contribute to a compromise with Pakistan’s Taliban.At its best, a power-sharing agreement in Kabul is expected to curb India’s influence in the country and dilute Pashtun nationalism and Islamic radicalism. In pressing for negotiations, Pakistan’s ISI portrays the Taliban as moderates prepared for serious compromise following the withdrawal of foreign troops, and ready to disown al-Qaeda. As of this moment, unconvinced of international staying power and eager to find a path to political survival, Kabul is willing to grasp at Pakistan’s straws.

However, Pakistan’s help in launching a serious political process is problematic. Even ISI’s client, the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, is reluctant to soften its terms for negotiations, at least while the insurgency continues to give signs of succeeding. Most uncompromising is the emergence of a younger, more radical generation of Taliban leaders, resulting from an uptick in U.S. drone strikes and special operations raids that have killed a significant number of mid-level field commanders. And were negotiations to begin, many Taliban leaders would prefer to exclude Pakistan, anyway. Perhaps most daunting is Pakistan’s plans for a political resolution, which are contingent on Afghan ethnic minorities participation in a deal that they are likely to see as leading to a Taliban attempt to take over the entire country.

Thus Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy has reached an impasse. The country’s policy makers are hard pressed by a frustrated Washington to broaden and intensify operations against militant strongholds and confront the prospect of increased U.S. drone strikes and cross-border ground attacks. All the while, Pakistan’s leaders are trying to reconcile these demands for greater efforts to confront the sources of terrorism with a domestic public that views the United States as a greater threat to Pakistan than the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban or al-Qaeda. Pakistan is perhaps even more severely constricted by its inability to perceive its choices except through the prism of an ever-menacing India.

The viability of the U.S.-Pakistan partnership may hinge on Pakistan’s making the difficult choices that better align our policies on Afghanistan. That may not happen while Pakistan’s view of strategic threats from the region is long term, and the United States’ concerns are more immediate. Clearly, a convergence of national interests cannot occur without a narrowing of their wide trust deficit. Among other requirements, it calls for a better appreciation in Washington of the limits imposed by Islamabad’s perceived security imperatives, and a Pakistani leadership with the courage to question many of the country’s foreign-policy shibboleths. But Pakistan’s ability to resolve its Afghan policy dilemma may depend most of all on a greater certainty about America’s commitment to the region.