Understanding the conflicting Pakistani and US interests in Afghanistan
In the final paper in a comprehensive report titled Is a Regional Strategy viable in Afghanistan? released by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in May this year, Ashley Tellis presents his synthesis of the multiple interests of the regional states and their implications for US policy. Here is a long extract from his essay explaining how the discrepancies between American and Pakistani goals threatens any attempts to secure lasting peace in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, the most critical U.S. ally in the war in Afghanistan and one of Afghanistan’s most important direct neighbors, pursues far more divergent aims relative to Washington (and Kabul) than the high American dependence on Pakistan would lead one to assume. Although both Washington and Islamabad have gone to great lengths to publicly emphasize their shared goals in Afghanistan since 2001, a close analysis reveals deep and perhaps unbridgeable gulfs between the two countries, at least in the near term. These chasms are manifested most clearly on the core issues of high politics: defeating the Afghan Taliban and preventing its return to power in Kabul by force, and constructing a minimally effective central state in Afghanistan.
On both these counts, Pakistan’s interests differ from those of the United States. Where the first is concerned, Islamabad—or more precisely, the Pakistani military, which dominates national security decision making—views protecting the Afghan Taliban leadership and its core capabilities as essential to shielding Pakistan’s westward flanks against India. Although Pakistani policy makers certainly do not prefer to see the Taliban ensconced in Kabul, as they did before—in part because the events leading up to this outcome would be quite dangerous to their own country—they nonetheless seek a government in Afghanistan that has sufficient Taliban representation because of their conviction that such a regime alone would be capable of reversing India’s current influence and denying it any significant role in that country.
Islamabad also rejects the goal of building an effective central state in Afghanistan, because it fears that if such an entity comes to be dominated by secular Pashtuns, they would stymie Pakistan’s goal of preventing Afghan territorial claims on its Pashtun-dominated lands. Were a competent central authority in Afghanistan to be controlled by non-Pashtun ethnic groups, the disenfranchisement of Pakistan’s closest tribal allies in Afghanistan could, it is feared, leave Islamabad at a conclusive disadvantage vis-à-vis India. For these reasons, Pakistan’s commitment to supporting the U.S. objective of raising a minimally effective central state in Afghanistan is suspect. The erection of an effective central state in Afghanistan would also undermine Pakistan’s long-term goal of becoming the principal foreign adjudicator of Kabul’s strategic choices, which—whatever its justification—ends up placing Islamabad at odds not onlywith the United States, India, and Iran, but also with Afghanistan itself, when the interests of the Karzai regime, the northern regions, and the non-Taliban Pashtuns are taken into account.
The discrepancy between Pakistani and American goals in Afghanistan continues in the realm of economics as well: while Washington has a strong interest in ensuring the viability of the fledging Afghan state by restoring it to its historical position as a trade and transit corridor between Central and South Asia, Pakistan’s fear of becoming merely an appendage in the process, mainly supporting the growth of other major powers such as India, has led it to obstruct all worthwhile proposals relating to the expansion of economic intercourse across the greater South Asian region.
The foregoing summary does not by any means suggest that Pakistan and the United States are hopelessly divided on all issues: the partnership between the two countries has been particularly close on counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and the indigenous rebellion mounted by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. The United States also continues to rely heavily on Pakistan for the transport of dry cargo for coalition military operations in Afghanistan. But, on balance, the tension between U.S. and Pakistani goals is so acute on some critical issues that it could make the difference not only to the success of U.S. operations in Afghanistan but also to the viability of any regional approach intended to induce greater cooperation within the region.
But the money quote in the report comes from Frédéric Grare in his chapter about Pakistan:
Last but not least, Pakistan will be central in the agreement-making process vis-à-vis the present quagmire in Afghanistan. In a political environment where the political pressures to exit Afghanistan are on the rise, there is the temptation to view Pakistan as a destabilizing factor only as long as, and because, it feels threatened by its neighbors. The reality is different: Pakistan is a revisionist power and, in the eyes of India, an aggressor. It will therefore continue to feed its own paranoia. For this reason, concessions to a Pakistan that will not renounce terrorism as a means of pursuing its foreign policy objectives is likely to lead to a resurgence of the very organizations the coalition has been trying to eliminate for the past eight years. In a regional context where the political balance might have been altered in favor of Pakistan, such concessions would constitute regression and would make little sense from a security perspective.
As for the Indians, their position is perhaps best summed up by this quote from the famous British cartoonist, Ashleigh Brilliant.
My biggest problem is what to do about all the things I can’t do anything about.