November 1, 2006  

The Islamabad dilemma

Success in Afghanistan depends on success in Pakistan

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away — that is, the 2000 presidential race — candidate George W. Bush could not recall the name of the president of Pakistan. Since Sept. 11, the name of Pervez Musharraf probably never has been far from President Bush’s mind.

This is especially so as a revived Taliban creates trouble along the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, testing the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the struggling government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the commitment of the U.S. in the original front of "the Long War." Success in Afghanistan is inseparable from success in Pakistan, and it is increasingly obvious that the current American approach to Pakistan is no improvement on past policies. Trusting the military and civil service elites in Islamabad has been the long-standing U.S. strategy, but these elements are part of the problem of Pakistan. To make them part of the solution will require balancing the immediate needs for military access and cooperation on terrorism with pressure for political reform — and most of all, getting the Pakistani army out of politics.

No one denies that Musharraf and Pakistan have been key allies in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and in the terrorism manhunt. As Bush was at pains to point out during Musharraf’s recent visit to Washington, Pakistan was one of the first to "step up" to join the U.S. in the war on terrorism. Musharraf has survived two assassination attempts and has handed over a number of high-level al-Qaida operatives, including Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. U.S. and coalition operations in Afghanistan depend upon logistics and other forms of support by and through Pakistan.

Indeed, the Pentagon has long had an indulgent attitude toward Pakistan and its military. Retired Gen. Tommy Franks, former chief of U.S. Central Command, showers the Pakistanis with praise for their cooperation in the invasion, citing Islamabad’s quick accession to "a detailed list of 74 basing and staging activities to be conducted in Pakistan."

His empathy with Musharraf is deeply revealing: "It struck me as appropriate that we both wore uniforms," Franks wrote. "For years, American officials and diplomatic envoys in business suits had hectored soldier-politicians such as Pervez Musharraf about human rights and representative government."

But Franks was simply reflecting the wisdom of the Washington establishment, for whom "stability" is paramount. As Richard Haass, former policy director for the State Department and now head of the Council on Foreign Relations, once put it, in Pakistan, "democracy is not everything. … The coup that brought Army Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf to power ? should not be condemned out of hand. And it well may bring stability to a country and a region where stability is in short supply."

Yet it’s becoming equally clear that the shift in Pakistani policy since Sept. 11, 2001, has been a tactical shift, not a true strategic reorientation toward the U.S. or away from radical Islamists. Musharraf told his countrymen a week after the Sept. 11 attacks that it would be necessary to tack at least temporarily toward Washington, lest Pakistan’s "critical concerns" — meaning its nuclear program and claims on Kashmir — be at risk. "If these come under threat, it would be a worse situation for us." Indeed, Pakistan’s fundamental worldview, its traditional strategic culture, remains influenced by its fear of India and the instability of its domestic politics.

This strategic culture predates the creation of the state of Pakistan, as British India collapsed.

Pakistani nationalism is premised on the fear of India.

The questions of smaller loyalties — provincial and ethnic — have never been satisfactorily answered within Pakistan. The unwillingness of Bengalis, in part thanks to military support from and the durability of ties with India, to be ruled by Punjabis from Islamabad led to the separation of Bangladesh. In the rump Pakistan, tensions between the government and Baluchis have led to a simmering insurgency in Baluchistan province. And the division of Pashtuns along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, along the infamous Durand Line, remains an unresolved dispute. All in all, as Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution has put it, Pakistan is a paranoid state with many good reasons to be afraid.

Pakistani leaders have long tried to convince Americans of the need for "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. Although this is a weird transposition of British colonial strategy in the defense of India from Russian penetration — one that makes even less sense since the collapse of the Soviet empire — it remains an important belief for the Pakistani elite. And by emphasizing its role in the war against the Soviets, writes Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat now at Boston University, Pakistanis "are able to divert attention away from their ambitions in Afghanistan. The fact remains, however, that Pakistan did not merely oblige the U.S. by launching resistance to the Soviet occupation in 1979 … [it] was able to expand the scope of an operation that had been ongoing since 1973." Since the loss of Bangladesh, the strategic depth Pakistan seeks has been in regard to India and, in particular, Kashmir.

By couching its policies in the form and rhetoric of pan-Islamism, Pakistan has used much of the same approach in securing its interests in Afghanistan as it did domestically. As Frederic Grare observes in a recent study of the troubled state of relations between the two countries, Pakistan backed the Taliban in hopes that its ideology would transcend tribal and ethnic differences in Afghanistan, ending Kabul’s territorial claims and calls for a separate "Pashtunistan." In many ways, the development of a genuinely stable and democratic Afghanistan, closely allied to America — especially in the context of India’s development and alignment with the U.S. — is Pakistan’s strategic nightmare.

The new balance of influence was clear to see during the September meetings in Washington among presidents Bush, Musharraf and Karzai. Since the 2002 invasion, Pakistan has been walking a narrow line, trying to please Washington — and the international community more broadly — without sacrificing its traditional interests and policy. And although its fears of a government in Kabul dominated by the leaders of the Northern Alliance and the prominence of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ministers and officials have diminished somewhat, Pakistan remains dissatisfied with the situation to its north.

The form of Pakistani complaint has largely been to point to rising Indian influence in Afghanistan. Although NATO and the U.S. politely discouraged India from deploying forces as part of the ISAF coalition, the Musharraf government has at least been on the rhetorical attack. Almost from the first, Islamabad has accused Indian consulates of "having less to do with humanitarian aid and more to do with India’s top-secret intelligence agency."

Perhaps even more troubling, Pakistan doubts the staying power of the U.S. in the region. Grare states flatly that, the claims of President Bush notwithstanding, "Pakistan is also preparing options in case the United States departs. … [It is] convinced that history will repeat itself and that the United States will sooner or later leave the region."

The withdrawal of U.S. troops and the increasing role of NATO are interpreted as evidence that the end is coming: and "[o]nce the Americans are gone, NATO determination will fade and Afghanistan will be left to itself."

Pakistan’s toleration of Taliban elements represents, among other things, a strategic hedge against the day that the U.S. again loses interest in Afghanistan. "There is an open campaign by Pakistan against Afghanistan and the presence of coalition troops here," President Karzai claims, a view echoed by British Gen. David Richards, head of the NATO force in southern Afghanistan.

The majority of the attacks into Afghanistan are carried out from what amounts to a Taliban headquarters — what Col. Chris Vernon, the British chief of staff in southern Afghanistan, calls "the thinking piece of the Taliban" — in the city of Quetta in Pakistan, where former Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar operates. Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose ties to Pakistan predate the Soviet war, operates out of Peshawar. But Taliban forces, as well as leadership, are based in Pakistan, escaping there along a number of traditional border routes both after the initial invasion and major subsequent operations. Keeping these routes open, Grare concludes, "was a deliberate policy move on the part of a [Pakistani] military establishment that had been forced to make a U-turn in its Afghan policy" in 2001.

For the U.S. and NATO to achieve their goals in Afghanistan, and for the Karzai administration and its successors to establish a stable, representative and authoritative central government, it will be necessary at the same time to start to solve Pakistan’s eternal "security dilemmas." This means that the U.S. must push Pakistan toward a more normal relationship with India. This requires more than urging the two nations to come to the bargaining table — indeed, it is the internal springs of Pakistan’s discontent that will be hardest to address.

And so the question of political reform in Pakistan becomes a strategic priority for America — and for Europe, as well. Those busybodies in suits hectoring Musharraf were advancing U.S. long-term interests far better than Franks. What annoyed the CentCom commander was, in fact, the soundest kind of strategy; driven by its distorted strategic culture and mistrust of civilian leaders, the army has pushed Pakistan from it beginnings as a religiously Muslim state to the point where it is in danger of becoming an aggressive, ideologically Muslim state, thereby, as exacerbating the original weaknesses in Pakistani political society. To make it plain: In Pakistan, the process of Islamicization has been inseparable from militarization.

It has been the habit of American strategy to serve as an enabler of this dysfunction. The problems are of Pakistan’s own making, but we have made them worse. And we continue to value short-term interests in basing and access, leavened with some level of intelligence cooperation, over our long-term interests in preventing an essentially weak — but well-armed — state from slipping into failure.

Tom Donnelly is an AFJ contributing editor and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.