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
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.