Pakistan retains more levers in Afghanistan than any other single country, and with Saudi money and American might it is maneuvering to be the pivotal player in a powerful coalition with abundant resources. But Pakistan will continue to face challenges as it tries to distinguish between and divide the Taliban phenomena in Afghanistan and within its own borders.

The Pakistani strategy of securing influence in Afghanistan as pointed out before, is partly dictated by the reality of its geography. With a long common border, a strong Pashtun population on both sides and active militant groups interconnected with each other across the border, Pakistan is forced to take an active role in Afghanistan. It’s the same sort of geopolitical imperative that bound the colonial British to the region, and before them the Muslim emperors, and before the Muslim emperors the Hindu rulers.

Pakistan’s core is comprised of the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, which encompass the country’s demographic, industrial, commercial and agricultural base. From Punjab in the north, this heartland extends southward through Sindh province, flowing seamlessly along the Indus River valley into the Thar Desert. This means Pakistan’s core is hard by the Indian border, leaving no meaningful terrain barriers to invasion. (Indeed, the Punjabi population straddles the Indian-Pakistani border much as the Pashtun population straddles the Pakistani-Afghan border). This narrow strip of flat land is inherently vulnerable to India, Pakistan’s arch-rival to the east, a geographic arrangement that was no accident of the British partition.

Hence, suffering from both geographic and demographic disadvantages vis-a-vis India — and with no strategic depth to speak of — Pakistan is extremely anxious about its security in the east and is forced to look in the opposite direction both out of concern for its depth and in search of opportunity.

West of the Punjabi-Sindhi core lay the peripheral territories of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan province. Though the Pakistani buffer territories of the NWFP and FATA are far more interlinked with Afghanistan than with Pakistan by virtue of the common Pashtun populations, they do provide Pakistan with some of the depth it lacks to the east and also protect against encroachment from the northwest. Having firm control of its own heartland and secure access to the sea through the port of Karachi, Islamabad must also control these buffer territories as a means of further consolidating security in the Punjabi-Sindhi core.

In this effort, Afghanistan is both part of the problem and part of the solution. It is part of the problem because the Islamist insurgency that Islamabad once supported in Afghanistan has now spilled backwards onto Pakistani soil; it is part of the solution because Afghanistan remains a critical geopolitical arena for Islamabad. By securing itself as the single most dominant player in Afghanistan, Pakistan strengthens its hand in its own peripheral territories and ensures that no other foreign power — India is the immediate concern here — ever gains a foothold in Kabul. If India did, it would have Pakistan more or less surrounded. Indeed, the need to assert influence in Afghanistan is hardwired into Pakistan’s geopolitical makeup.

The Cross-border Taliban

 Afghanistan already was an issue for Pakistan when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the final days of 1979. A secular Marxist government was in Kabul supported by arch-rival India and bent on eradicating the influence of religion (a powerful and important aspect of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan). When the Soviets invaded, Pakistan used Saudi money and U.S. arms to back a seven-party Islamist alliance. In the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan threw its support behind the much more hard-line Islamist Taliban and gave it the training and tools it needed to rise up and eventually take control of most of the country. Though Afghanistan was still chaotic, it was the kind of Islamist chaos that the Pakistanis could manage — that is, until Sept. 11, 2001, and the American invasion to topple the Taliban regime for providing sanctuary to al Qaeda.

Thus ensued an almost impossible tightrope walk by the government of then-President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan was forced to abruptly end support for the Taliban regime it had helped put into power and around which its strategy for retaining influence in Afghanistan revolved. Islamabad tried to play both sides, retaining contact with the Taliban but also providing the United States with intelligence that helped U.S. forces hunt the Taliban. This engendered distrust on both sides in the process. The Taliban realized that they could not depend on or trust Pakistan as they once did, and from 2003 to 2006, American pressure on Islamabad to crack down on al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas directly contributed to the rise of the Pakistani Taliban.

So as the Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan spilled backwards into Pakistan, the cross-border Taliban phenomenon began to include groups focused on the destruction of the Pakistani state. To this day, however, despite the inextricably linked nature of these Pashtun Islamists, there is still an inclination within many quarters in Islamabad to distinguish between the “good” Taliban, who have their sights set on Afghanistan and ultimately Kabul (and with whom Pakistan retains significant, if reduced, influence), and the “bad” Taliban, who have become fixated on the regime in Islamabad and have perpetrated attacks against Pakistani targets. There also are other, non-Pashtun renegade Islamist elements that have carried out major attacks beyond Pakistani borders that have risked provoking Indian aggression, such as the militant attack in Mumbai in 2008.

Nevertheless, Pakistan has realized that the militant problem in Afghanistan has endangered the weak control it does have over the buffer territories of the FATA and NWFP and is applying military force to the problem on its side of the border. It also appears to be working closer with the United States in terms of sharing intelligence. Across the border in Afghanistan, Pakistan does not want to see the Taliban stage too strong a comeback because of the offshoots of the movement that are becoming problematic on Pakistan’s own turf.

Future Strategy

But the Afghan Taliban can neither be ignored nor destroyed. They still have utility for Islamabad and must be dealt with. This will require skillful handling on the part of the Pakistanis, who have lost a lot of leverage over the group. Islamabad’s strategy is to try and balance a domestic policy that seeks to militarily neutralize Taliban rebels on the Pakistani side of the border while working with the Taliban on the Afghan side to achieve its foreign policy aims. Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, can provide devastating intelligence on the Taliban movement to the Americans, giving Islamabad leverage over Washington. And its long-standing connections to the group put Islamabad in a unique position to facilitate and oversee any negotiated settlement.

So Pakistan is seeking to maximize its influence within the Afghan Taliban movement, gain control and ownership over any negotiation efforts and establish international recognition as the single most important player in Afghanistan. The West’s interest in withdrawing from Afghanistan puts Pakistan in a good position to succeed here. The Americans know Pakistan must be part of the solution and are anxious for Islamabad to provide that solution.

But to succeed, Pakistan must again walk the middle ground between the United States and the Taliban. And once it is at the center of the negotiations, it must not only push both parties toward each other, it must also pull them in a third direction in order to satisfy its own aims — namely, to establish long-term conditions for Pakistani domination over Afghanistan.

And to succeed in this effort, Pakistan will need more than just the Taliban. It must establish influence with the other key players in Afghanistan — particularly the government of President Hamid Karzai, who recently acknowledged that Islamabad will have a great deal of influence in the country but that he wishes to place limits on it as much as possible. And this is where things get tricky. The United States may ultimately have no choice but to work with Pakistan in attempting to secure a negotiated settlement with reconcilable elements of the Taliban. But Karzai is also seeking a deal with the Taliban, and if he can achieve one outside of Pakistan’s influence, he can try and minimize Pakistani influence in the negotiations (though Pakistan can no more be cut out of the negotiations than could the Taliban).

At the same time, Islamabad must find common ground with other regional players — Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — in order to roll back Indian influence in Afghanistan (there even appears to be an emerging axis of sorts consisting of the Americans, the Saudis and the Turks).

Meanwhile the military progress in Afghanistan will be difficult this year. Afghan security officials recently have issued warnings  that the number of violent assaults is likely to increase with the spring thaws. Some 15 provinces in the north, east and west face a serious threat from insurgents, and the situation is declining in provinces bordering Pakistan and Iran. Current flashpoints include Marjah and Kandahar, where a fresh NATO offensive is being prepared.

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