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January 14, 2011

It Isn't All About Us
Posted by Eric Martin

I cannot recommend enough my colleague Michael Cohen's piece on the need to take account of, and accommodate, Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan as part of our own strategic approach going forward. Cohen's assessment is realistic, thorough and takes care to recognize what Pakistani leaders (rightly or wrongly) views as its vital interests in Afghanistan, without falling into the trap of projecting our own goals onto Pakistan's leadership, or simply assuming that Pakistan will abandon its interests in a country it shares a border with for the sake of a mission undertaken by a power half a world away. 

In the present context, Pakistan has long cultivated influence in Afghanistan via its Taliban allies as a means to counterbalance its larger, and more territorial vast, rival: India.  In fact, as Cohen points out, the Pakistani security apparatus views almost all issues through the prism of India. Says Cohen:

Yet, for a policy that is so apparently solicitous of Pakistani needs, it is quite disconnected from actual Pakistani interests, particularly with regard to Afghanistan. In fact, the campaign to coax the Pakistani military into turning against its Afghan Taliban allies as well as the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan that seeks to defeat the Taliban and strengthen the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai undermines rather than furthers Pakistan's interests. In essence, U.S. policy consists of political and diplomatic efforts to convince Pakistan to act against its perceived interests. Instead, the United States needs to more seriously address Pakistani concerns about Afghanistan's future.

Not only would a full defeat of the Taliban cut off Pakistan's means of influence in Afghanistan, but the Karzai regime has established close ties to India - so consolidation of power by Karzai's regime would represent a double loss, an outcome that we cannot expect Pakistan to countenance on our behalf, no matter how many times we ask. 

In fact, the pressure placed on Pakistan to support such a self-defeating mission has led to an increase of anti-Americanism, instability and radicalization: all outcomes that the US should take seriously, and try to mitigate with all due haste.

Given these factors, the US should allow for the inclusion of those Taliban groups that abandon support for al-Qaeda in the Afghan government as a way to garner greater Pakistani cooperation. This approach has the virtue of focusing on what is our most vital interest: eliminating al-Qaeda's presence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further, Pakistan will have more incentive to cooperate with that mission in earnest if its concerns with respect to India's potential ascendancy in Afhganistan are assuaged.  

Contrast Cohen's prescritpion with that of Daniel Markey:

But the only way to convince Pakistani leaders to change course would be to demonstrate that the United States is serious about bringing enduring stability to Afghanistan, and that Washington's definition of Afghan stability does not leave a place for the leaders of extremist and terrorist groups now waging war from Pakistani soil. Only then might Pakistani leaders decide that a better way to protect their enduring interests in Afghanistan would be through the support of legitimate, nonviolent political actors.

Markey's recommended course, while perhaps more morally appealing, is simply not realistic.  The US cannot bring "enduring stability" to Afghanistan without Pakistan's cooperation in eliminating Taliban safe havens and ceasing material support for Taliban factions, and Pakistan won't do that for the reasons mentioned above.  Markey's formula begs the question.  

Further, even Markey acknowledges that if Pakistan believes that the US will eventually withdraw from the region, it will likely not relinquish support for its proxies. But how could Pakistan come to any other conclusion? It is not in the long term interests of the United States to remain substantially involved in Afghanistan indefinitely (already approaching a decade), and our presence will, eventually and inevitably, diminish. Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, however, will remain, geographically, right where they are.

Far better to accept the intractable reality of the situation, and attempt to craft a solution that can garner buy-in from the Pakistani security establishment, which would tamp down the instability in Pakistan while keeping our focus trained on al-Qaeda which should be our paramount concerns.

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Comments

This approach has the virtue of concentrating on what is our most vital interest.

I just don't see how we can get behind an approach that leaves the Taliban with political power there. Al-Qaeda's the enemy, sure. But the Taliban are the ones who refused to hand them over to us. So now, what? We just say "Okay, whatever, you got away with it?" If the Taliban winds up with any political power in Afghanistan then we have to impose sanctions on it and maybe push for a global blockade. Isolate and contain.

Got away with it?

You do know that thousands of Talibs were killed, thousands more fled the country and have lived in exile since.

You also do know that the Taliban are not a unitary movement - some were opposed to letting AQ stay in Afghanistan, and many more were enraged after the attacks of 9/11 and the wrath that brought upon them.

Either way, they are not necessarily our enemies to the extent they renounce ties to al-Qaeda.

al-Qaeda should be our focus.

If it looks beautiful, everbody? Give me a idea

There is one other country that has influence over the current Afghan government and that is Iran. If there was ever to be a multinational settlement in Afghanistan it would probably have to include the Iranians. Right now it seems that the administration is too concentrated on the Iranian nuclear program and not spending enough time reaching out to Iran when it comes to Afghanistan.

While I agree that a negotiated settlement is more likely to be durable if it includes the various major regional players, I very much doubt that the Pakistani Army/ISI or its sympathizers in the civilian government will relinquish support for its proxies without a fundamental change in that society.

Both Michael Cohen and the right-of-center pundits fundamentally misunderstand this point in my opinion. I offer Kargil up as one data point: full strategic depth did not prevent Musharraf from his activities or continued support for anti-India proxies.

Perhaps Mr. Cohen should take heed of his previous post and study the history of the region. I think a good case could be made for my above point based on past behavior. While the above suggestion of negotiated inclusion may be the only short-term recourse, it likely will not result in a more vigorous pursuit of internal networks that are used as useful in the future toward India. Afghanistan has nothing to do with this regional calculus. It is one way to get to an endpoint but does not represent the "endpoint." The support of proxies will continue.

My second point is that I'll say the same here that I said in a blog reply to a post by Max Boot at commentary:

"PS: I always enjoy reading Max Boot at Contentions but, er….?

The United States can influence the choice only at the margins, but we must do what we can to signal to the army leadership that we will stand behind them if they decide to do more to take on the radicals. In this connection, it is highly useful that President Obama has agreed to NATO’s timeline not to transition security responsibility in Afghanistan until 2014. That should put to rest some immediate concerns about America’s fickleness as an ally and reassure the Pakistani army that we will stand with the forces of moderation in Pakistan should they do more to battle the growing religious extremism that threatens the very survival of the state.

Respectfully, the Army is not a force of moderation. They are following a long-cherished regional strategic plan that has nothing to do with our alleged “fickleness.” Given China’s monetary support of the regime, I wager the Pakistani Army/ISI will continue to think they can play various networks to their advantage. 2014 or no. Sorry to be so cynical. I hope I am wrong."

Why does this mythology of "assuagement" continue to persist in our Foriegn Policy community? Bizarre.

The following paragraph in my above comment should have been blockquoted:

The United States can influence the choice only at the margins, but we must do what we can to signal to the army leadership that we will stand behind them if they decide to do more to take on the radicals. In this connection, it is highly useful that President Obama has agreed to NATO’s timeline not to transition security responsibility in Afghanistan until 2014. That should put to rest some immediate concerns about America’s fickleness as an ally and reassure the Pakistani army that we will stand with the forces of moderation in Pakistan should they do more to battle the growing religious extremism that threatens the very survival of the state.
- Max Boot

My response is then:

Respectfully, the Army is not a force of moderation. They are following a long-cherished regional strategic plan that has nothing to do with our alleged “fickleness.” Given China’s monetary support of the regime, I wager the Pakistani Army/ISI will continue to think they can play various networks to their advantage. 2014 or no. Sorry to be so cynical. I hope I am wrong."


Can someone please explain to me why the support of proxies continued during the 90s if strategic depth is supposed to assuage the Pakistani military? I have yet to see anyone offer a response.

A smaller military presence in Afghanista, less high profile visits to Pakistan by Americans, and fewer aid dollars are better long lasting options. A negotiated settlement will not stop the strategic calculus.


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