September 1, 2009  

Transition Strategy: Pakistan in Wonderland

Can this troubled ally become the enemy of our enemies?

Pakistan is a troubled ally. Its biggest trouble, however, is that Pakistan does not see itself as the root cause of much of its own troubles. Indeed, the Pakistani political elite are expert in finding fault with others, especially their inconstant and at times clumsy ally, the U.S. Without internal reform and redirection of its own national security policy, however, Pakistan will remain problematic, regardless of how many billions the U.S. pours into it. Unless Pakistan confronts some basic facts, it also risks losing our support in the future, an event which many Pakistani cynics see as inevitable.

For one example of the Wonderland version of Pakistani “reality,” consider the recent opinion piece by President Asif Ali Zardari in The Washington Post. In that piece, the embattled president wrote eloquently and convincingly about the global imperative to defeat extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. For Zardari, however, the core Pakistani problem has been the U.S. proclivity to “dance with dictators” such as generals Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, all the while ignoring the democrats, such as Zardari’s martyred wife, Benazir Bhutto. Compounding our shortsightedness has been our inconstancy, which caused us, after the Soviet departure from Afghanistan, to take “the next bus out of town, leaving behind a political vacuum that ultimately led to the Talibanization and radicalization of Afghanistan.”

There are more than a few grains of truth in his critique of past U.S. policy. What we do not hear about from Zardari, however, is the Pakistani responsibility for creating the time of troubles that it finds itself in. For example, the democratic governments in Pakistan have been characterized by corruption, infighting and inefficiency. The long periods where the military ruled were as bad, if not worse. To top it off, the Pakistani military controls many civilian parts of the government and much of the commanding heights of the economy. Moreover, Pakistani civilian leaders tolerated the military-inspired ills of nuclear proliferation, the machinations of A.Q. Khan, and support for terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmiri insurgents and Mumbai terrorists, as well as the Afghan Taliban. Support for extremist groups has become — along with nuclear weapons and strong conventional forces — one of the pillars of Pakistani national security policy. The great political and economic progress in India today stands in marked contrast to the often self-inflicted problems under which Pakistan suffers.

Zardari would have us believe that the Taliban developed in a “political vacuum,” but the truth is — as Steve Coll and Ahmed Rashid have documented — that the Taliban field forces were in large measure the creation of the Pakistani intelligence service during the time when Bhutto was prime minister, no less. Today, the Afghan Taliban and its allies, the Haqqani network, and the Hezbi Islami Gulbuddin, have a largely unmolested sanctuary in Pakistan, even as the Zardari government with U.S. help makes war on its Pakistani cousins, who have become an existential threat to the state. On the other side of the Durand Line, however, American soldiers are attacked daily by insurgents whose existence and sustenance owe much to the support or forbearance of the Pakistani government. How long can such a contradiction last?

Afghanistan history

Throughout its recent history, all the governments of Pakistan have taken armed interference in the affairs of Afghanistan as a virtual right. The desire for a weak or pliable Afghan government has been a long-standing objective of Pakistani national security policy. Pakistani strategists talk openly of Afghanistan as their “rear area” and the need for “strategic depth” in their overarching competition with India. Their manic concern about the modest level of Indian activities in Afghanistan is unjustified. Worst of all, the Pakistani assumption — that a weak or pliable Afghanistan is in the interest of the Pakistani state — underpins their regional policy. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban has also contributed to the radicalization of its own citizens. Having sown the extremist wind, Pakistan today is reaping the whirlwind. Pakistan’s neocolonial “divide and conquer” policy toward Taliban groups has failed, but it is not clear that Pakistan understands that failure.

While the West needs to increase its aid to this beleaguered nation, Pakistan also has to help itself. It is beyond the scope of this article to recommend a full reform program, but in some areas, it is not at all difficult, albeit with American eyes, to see what Pakistan should do. First, Pakistan should recognize the basic laws of realism: If the enemy of a U.S. enemy is a U.S. ally, then the ally of a U.S. enemy must also be a U.S. enemy. If Pakistan, a major non-NATO ally, wants long-term U.S. aid and assistance, then, just as the U.S. has taken action against the Pakistani Taliban, it too must take action against the Afghan Taliban and its close associates. Pakistan must end aid and advice to the Afghan Taliban and stop permitting its territory to be used as a sanctuary for people who are killing Afghan, U.S., and NATO soldiers. This can be accomplished in conjunction with a peace or reconciliation effort, but Pakistan should make it clear that, by a certain date, armed Afghan Taliban in Pakistan will be considered criminals and treated as such.

Second, rather than permitting Afghan Taliban enclaves in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Baluchistan, Pakistani police and military forces should take those areas under control and ensure that they are not being used for aggression against Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan should step up border cooperation with Afghanistan and leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Pakistani forces — military, paramilitary and police — are on the same side as their Afghan and NATO partners.

Getting Pakistan to agree to this new approach will not be easy. For one, it will be a drastic change of perspective on regional security dynamics, one that may well look like Pakistan is buckling under U.S. pressure. Secondly, it will complicate its battle with its own extremists. The Pakistani Army has lost 1,200 of its own soldiers fighting the Pakistani Taliban at home, more than NATO has lost in Afghanistan. The Pakistani leadership will argue that this is the wrong time for Pakistan to be recruiting new enemies, and in truth, attacking radical extremists will cause great expenditures of blood and treasure. Finally, it will be bureaucratically difficult. Hundreds of Pakistani intelligence service people have made their careers helping the Afghan Taliban, Kashmiri militants and other extremist groups that are based in Pakistan. This may be a case where elements of the Army recommend: Say one thing, but do another. Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, himself a former head of Inter-Services Intelligence, will have a special struggle on his hands. Indeed, the Army’s dominant role in all security issues makes this issue of changing world views also an issue of military reform. Can Pakistan continue to field a military that stands apart from its civilian masters?

The Obama administration should not expect this set of changes to happen quickly, but as costs and casualties mount in Afghanistan, the U.S. cannot afford politically to wait much longer for its Pakistani allies to put pressure on the Afghan Taliban to cease and desist in its war against the elected government of Afghanistan.

One option might be a policy of linkage. With billions of U.S. dollars flowing into Pakistan, one might imagine a quid pro quo. We will provide the billions if Pakistan’s leaders, in effect, will turn over Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, or at least force them to leave the country. At the same time, they would remove the sanctuary privilege for these groups in the FATA and Baluchistan, and declare that, inside Pakistan, heavily armed Afghan Taliban would be treated as criminals.

A longer-term and more lasting fix would be to help the members of the Pakistani political elite change their strategic framework and have them disavow their support for extremist groups, which is sadly a key aspect of their foreign policy. This should be done with additional support for security assistance, military training and education in the U.S., and a long-term commitment to helping Pakistan fashion a viable public education system nationwide. Led by Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the ongoing dialogue between Pakistani and American officials must be nurtured and continued. The U.S. must treat peace between India and Pakistan with all the urgency that it accords to peace between Israel and its neighbors.

A “new” Pakistan would become a more attractive aid target for Europe, East Asia and the international financial institutions. Trade with Afghanistan would grow even faster, and Pakistan with its outlets to the sea would benefit from increased transit of goods and services. As the economy improves, the impetus behind internal rebellion would decrease. Peace negotiations with India would accelerate in the wake of a Pakistani national security policy divorced from its support to extremist groups. Lessened tensions would bring confidence-building measures and growing transparency on defense arrangements and each other’s posture in and toward Afghanistan.

In all, Pakistan could gain mightily from becoming the enemy of our enemies. Its leaders need only ask themselves how much they have lost by being the ally of our enemy.

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or U.S. government.