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.