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Pakistan Seeks Control of Its Afghanistan Endgame

Encouraging Taliban attacks on NATO, leaders of the Pakistan military and its intelligence service are impatient for the US to abandon the war in Afghanistan. The Pakistani goal is to prevent a pro-India government in Afghanistan and install instead a puppet Islamic regime. In testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, the outgoing chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, bluntly noted that Taliban leaders and the Haqqani network “operate from Pakistan with impunity.” Pakistani military leaders on their part seethe over growing ties between the US and India, and a former ISI chief suggested that the US seeks an Afghan “proxy” for India, explains Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution. The US has little choice but to engage the world’s sixth largest nation, yet any hopes about negotiating with the Taliban to end the war vanished with the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Pakistan’s insecurity and ambition, along with the US need to protect itself from terrorists, ensure continuation of a deadly embrace. – YaleGlobal

Pakistan Seeks Control of Its Afghanistan Endgame

Using the strategic arm of the Taliban, Pakistan hastens US exit
Bruce Riedel
YaleGlobal, 30 September 2011
Fiery discord: US embassy under attack by Pakistan-backed Haqqani network (top); US charge provokes Pakistani protest

WASHINGTON: Tensions between Washington and Islamabad are at an all time high over Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban. While Pakistan has long been the Taliban’s patron, providing it with sanctuary, the insurgents’ attacks on the US Embassy in Kabul and other high-profile NATO targets this fall have pushed long simmering tensions to a boil. Pakistan is encouraging provocative Taliban operations, raising questions: What is Pakistan’s goal in Afghanistan? What endgame does Pakistan’s army seek in the Afghan war?

Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is not new, of course, but US Admiral Mike Mullen was unusually blunt during his last testimony for the Senate Armed Services Committee before retiring as chairman of the joint chiefs. He rightly noted that both the central leadership of the Taliban, the so-called Quetta Shura, named after the city in Pakistan where it meets, and its most deadly cell, the Haqqani network, “operate from Pakistan with impunity.”He said Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, uses them as “a strategic arm” and that ISI was directly involved in attacks on NATO targets. Since Mullen visited Pakistan 28 times as chairman and has described himself as Pakistan’s “best friend,” his remarks were especially powerful.

US Admiral Mullen noted that the central leadership of the Taliban “operate
from Pakistan with impunity.”

In response, the Pakistani chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Parvaz Kayani, convened an extraordinary meeting of the corps commanders of the army, the most powerful men in the country, and dispatched the head of the ISI on an urgent visit to Saudi Arabia to make sure Pakistan’s key ally was in step with the generals. Former ISI chief Hamid Gul spoke for the generals when he said the US was flirting with the “dangers of a third world war” by threatening Pakistan; another former ISI chief Javed Ashraf Qazi said the US is “pressuring Pakistan to hide its own failures in Afghanistan.” The Pakistani foreign minister chosen by the generals, Hina Rabbani Khar, warned that America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have always been conflicted neighbors. Afghanistan was the only country to vote against giving Pakistan a seat in the United Nations in 1947 because it disputes its British-imposed border, the Durand line drawn in 1893 by a British diplomat. No Afghan government, even the Taliban in the 1990s, has ever accepted the legitimacy of the border line, and some Afghan governments have laid claim to all of Pakistan west of the Indus River.

Pakistan’s generals have thus always been concerned about the danger of a hostile Afghanistan, especially one aligned with India. In the 1980s then dictator Zia ul Huq constantly warned the CIA of the threat posed by the Soviet-supported Afghan communist regime aligned with Indira Gandhi’s India, a treaty ally of Moscow. General Zia’s support for the ISI-CIA war against the Soviets was a function of his concern about Pakistan being squeezed between Afghanistan and India.

Pakistan’s generals have thus always been concerned about the danger of a hostile Afghanistan.

Today’s Pakistani generals see the same squeeze at play. General Gul warned after Mullen’s comments that Washington seeks an Afghan “proxy” for India. The ISI has used the Haqqani network more than once to attack Indian diplomatic targets in Afghanistan, which the Pakistanis suspect are bases for Indian intelligence operations aimed at Pakistan.

The Pakistani generals see the American and NATO presence in Afghanistan always in the context of America’s increasingly close relations with India. President Barack Obama’s visit to India in November, when he chose not to visit Pakistan, only reinforced Islamabad’s sense of isolation and the siege mentality that springs from it.

So the Pakistanis are now encouraging the Taliban to step up the war on NATO. They are convinced the Americans and Europeans are going to give up in Afghanistan and sooner or later cut and run. The ISI closely monitors the media on both sides of the Atlantic and reads polls that show support for the war is dwindling. They see Obama’s decision to draw down US surge forces faster than Mullen and other generals wanted as a sign American resolve is collapsing. They remember well that the US walked away from Afghanistan and Pakistan after defeating the Russians and are convinced it will happen again.

Now Pakistan wants to accelerate American departure. By spectacular attacks like the one on the embassy, the ISI hopes to convince Americans that the war is hopeless and that defeat is inevitable therefore give up now rather than later. If the TV talking heads say the war is unwinnable, America will quit.

For the generals, the American presence in Afghanistan has brought nothing but trouble. They blame the American war across the border for creating Pakistan’s militancy by pushing insurgents across the Durand line. They are humiliated by the drone strikes on jihadist targets in Pakistan’s tribal border zone; they were especially humiliated by the SEAL commando raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden just one mile from Pakistan’s top military academy in Abbotabad. The best solution for this trouble is an American defeat and withdrawal.

For Pakistan, a revived Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is the best insurance against a pro-India regime.

Some had hoped that Pakistan would at least facilitate talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban insurgency to provide a face-saving way to end the war. But the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani on September 20th has dashed any hopes of a negotiated agreement. Rabbani, long an enemy of the ISI, was charged by President Hamid Karzai with leading talks with the Taliban, but was murdered when a suicide bomber sent by the Quetta Shura on a fake peace mission blew himself up as he embraced Rabbani. Given the close connection between the Quetta leadership and the ISI, it is hard to believe the ISI did not have knowledge of the plot. 

What the generals want is a puppet regime in Kabul or at least in most of southern and eastern Afghanistan, and the Taliban is the only instrument for achieving that. A revived Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is the best insurance against a pro-India regime on the western border encouraging Pashtun and Baluchi separatism.

The military is a state within a state in Pakistan. The civilians, including President Asif Ali Zardari, live in fear of the ISI known for killing journalists and other enemies. The generals are not worried that America will cut off military aid; they calculate their Chinese and Saudi allies will give them what they need. China provides the nuclear reactors that fuel the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. The Saudis have given more aid to Pakistan than to any other country.

And the military knows it controls the vital NATO supply line from Karachi to Kabul used to ship more half of the allies’ supplies into the country. Foreign Minister Khar was only partly bluffing when she said the US  needs Pakistan more than it needs the US. 

Admiral Mullen rightly has argued that despite all the frustration with Pakistan, despite the fact that they are helping to kill American soldiers, the US has no viable choice but to engage with the world’s second largest Muslim country and the sixth largest nation in the world. But the engagement is increasingly hostile; the US is now engaged in an undeclared air war in Pakistani territory. More SEAL missions are likely to protect American cities from bin Laden’s successors. Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world, and the deadly embrace between America and Pakistan becomes more deadly every day.


Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution and adjunct professor at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad, came out in March. Click here to read an excerpt.
Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

16 October 2011
All said and done, A prosperous and forward looking Pakistan is in India's interest. The rhetoric loving populace of Pakistan will sooner than Later realize this. They live miserably. ( Not that Indian masses are much better off, only that they have at least a hope!) A case in point is the destruction caused by the flood last year in Pak attracted considerable International help. Nothing was done to bring relief and rehab by the powers in Pak. The effects of last years floods have been compounded by this years flood! Now the International community wants accountability for the monies paid last time around for fresh aid or dole.
Be realistic , you have to treat India as a friend and move on (if not a friend at least not a "sworn enemy"). Else America and China will squeeze you like cane-sugar and leave the dried husk to rot.
-Sunil Bhartia , Nagpur
16 October 2011
Mr. Bruce Riedel's observation that America facing defeat will withdraw is not ideally in line. The Americans were in South Asia to change the equation in subcontinent, Chinese and Saudi's have spoiled their party. Since prior to Zia's time America & Pak have hobnobbed to further their interests in the region. They used fire to fight fire. This has engulfed Pak and their neighbors, as it normally does. (India is Mammoth and Resilient enough to ride over the losses caused.) Americans have been poking finger in pies all around the world, and have been scalded time and again. Now, for Pak the question remains, if they can entirely trust China? Not at the cost of alienating USA! Some deft diplomatic maneuvers, some bending down, some dressing down, some toning down will surely take place to keep dollars rolling in. (Pak Army doesn't get their pay cheques till Americans dole out!)
Defeat or win here is not the question, Question is who controls what.
This economic slow down and hardships to debt loving West has come at a very tough bend. They do not know in the slightest what to meddle with what to leave alone. I am worried at their predicament!
-Sunil Bhartia , Nagpur
13 October 2011
Future map of Af-Pak that can take care of the problem
-well , US
13 October 2011
Marty - the only existential threat that India poses to Pakistan is that India continues to exist and refuses to return to the days of the Mughal Empire with the green flag of Islam fluttering over the Red Fort in Delhi and the kaffirs of the sub-continent submit to the rule of Islam. if you really understood history (beyond the simple anti-communist construct of the 20th century your countrymen devised) you might really appreciate the wider picture. In the meantime please do continue to drink the kool-aid from the ISI Media Centre
-Lalmohan , UK
6 October 2011
5 October 2011
US is walking out of Afghanistan, whether as a victor or not. This has been declared by them off and on.
We should be most concerned with what the Afghanis want and what they perceive to be in their best interest. Understandably, they want peace, security and economic progress and to become a progressive State. They want education, investments, social justice and an end of friction and intolerance. They have been a battle field of Big Powers for far too long.
Why cannot India and Pakistan jointly bring peace in Afghanistan? This requires statesmen in all three countries. Let us do what is best for Afghanistan and not play our petty games of power politics at their cost.
-Tirlochan Singh , USA
5 October 2011
There is nothing new in this article. We can also reciprocate real facts against Americans who supported Taliban against Russia, created Al-Qaeda and managed 9/11 event. How terrorists travel from the borders of Pakistan to Kabul and then come back safely back in the presence of US and NATO forces? Rather it is a strong point that US/ NATO forces stop infiltration of Taliban from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Pakistan has ruined its economy to more than $68 billion in this 'war' of no benefit to it except to US and its allied forces. Scholars like Bruce Riedel may continue for this unilateral blame game but I would wish they may suggest their government to wind up their presence in this region and put an end to their "Great Game".
-Iftikhar A. Malik , Lahore, Pakistan
3 October 2011
@ Marty Carlisle,
You have read about India supporting the Bangladesh Mukti Bahini in the 1971 war, Have you also read about how the Pakistani Army refused Late Mujibur Rahman his legitimate political powers even after his election victory, and raped and massacred the Bangladeshis instead ? Have you read about the twenty million refugees crossing over to India forcing India to get involved ?
You have mentioned quote - " All the trouble in Afghanistan for US / NATO is, honestly attributed to India, which is trying to hedge Pakistan using Afghan soil. I hope US administration understands India's motives and ensure pulling out from Afghanistan leaving a peaceful region." unquote.
- well, India did not create the Islamic Jihadi monsters in Afghanistan, nor was India behind the 9/11 in the US. The US/NATO forces are in Afghanistan not on India's invitation, nor do they need India's approval to leave the region.
India has been fighting against Pakistani Army's proxy war in Kashmir since 1989, and it will continue to fight and protect its own interest in Kashmir, Afghanistan and elsewhere at all cost, regardless of the US and NATO.
-Neel , India
3 October 2011
Dear Nandkishore,
I respect your views, however, there seems to be more of rhetoric in your arguments. Fortunately, I am a student of history as well and claim to have some expertise in understanding the security dynamics of South Asia. Please don't mislead the readers. India is a hegemon in true sense of the world - testimony is state of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
All the trouble in Afghanistan for US / NATO is, honestly attributed to India, which is trying to hedge Pakistan using Afghan soil. I hope US administration understands India's motives and ensure pulling out from Afghanistan leaving a peaceful region.
Dear Nankishore, We also your proxy Mukti Bahini's role in 1971. Let's not go into history. US knows India' s illegal occupation of Kashmir. It is the newly found relevance of India which forces US' strategic community to ignore Indian security forces massive human rights violations and attrocities committed on innocent people fighting for their right of self - determination. Remember, US was the force behind UN resolutions on Kashmir. Realpoltik is in play at the moment so India can enjoy.
-Marty , Carlisle, USA
3 October 2011
Marty. Don't pity Pakistan. It sent terrorists to Indian Kashmir from 1989. That's right 1989. Its quite fortunate for India that 9/11 happened. These terrorists has now in Afghanistan killing Americans with the help of ISI. Remember ISI also killed Benezir Bhutto. For your kind information Kargil war was started by Pakistan Army to dispose off a elected government. Marty, read their school books. Just not India, USA and Europe are enemies there. It is the only country which openly gives birth to terrorists. And is proud of it. India would be stupid to allow a terrorist Taliban government in Afghanistan. No, don't pity Pakistan. See how it fooled USA by hiding Osama in its garrison town. It is playing a double game. Remember the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Remember the mass floggings of women. Remember the killings in Kabul's stadium. Remember the destruction of centuries old Buddha statues. Pakistan is hiding these very Taliban in Quetta. And is opening saying so. And finally lets not forget the million Bengalis killed in Bangladesh by its army in 1971. Also remember Pakistan army killed Palestinians in Black September 1969.
-C Nandkishore , India