By HELENE COOPER, NYT, October 9, 2010
IN the panoply of national security conundrums facing the Obama administration, there is one that stands central.
Can the United States ever succeed in the Afghanistan war if its two principal allies mistrust each other? Indeed, can the war succeed if one of those two principal allies is in cahoots with the enemy?
The enemy, of course, is the Taliban. And the allies are the Pakistani and Afghan governments. Troops from both countries, as well as American forces, have been fighting elements of the Taliban on their respective soils.
But Pakistan has also been accused of pulling its punches in that fight, because it fears the day when a strong Afghanistan might align with India. It would be convenient for Pakistan if the Taliban remained a force to prevent that.
That explains why suspicions of such double-dealing were the talk of Washington last week, spurred by the multiple attacks on NATO convoys that just about every diplomat, foreign policy official and Beltway taxi driver laid at the feet of the Pakistani government.
In retaliation for American helicopter strikes that killed three Pakistani border soldiers on Sept. 30, the Pakistani government had shut down a border crossing used to supply the Afghan war effort. That offered Taliban and Qaeda insurgents a golden opportunity to blow up the NATO convoys, and within a week, three major attacks destroyed dozens of trucks.
Although the United States responded by blanketing Islamabad with mea culpas for the helicopter strikes, the incident has laid bare the fundamental challenge of the American-Pakistan alliance: When it comes to Afghanistan, America and Pakistan have very different national security interests.
President Obama defines American national security interests in South Asia as revolving around the need to prevent the region from becoming a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the United States and American allies.
That’s why, Mr. Obama says, American troops are in Afghanistan, and that’s why the United States is pushing the Pakistani government to act on its soil against militants like the Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network. That’s also why American troops were engaged in cross-border strikes.
But Pakistan, for its part, defines its national security interests as revolving around India, its nemesis in a tangle of disputes that have proven intractable for six decades. Every step that the Pakistani government takes is seen through that prism.
What Pakistan wants most in Afghanistan is an assurance that India cannot use it to threaten Pakistan. For that, a radical Islamic movement like the Taliban, with strong ties to kin in Pakistan, fits the bill. That is why the Pakistani government’s intelligence agencies helped the Taliban in its initial rise to power in the 1990s.
Now, Pakistan wants to ensure against the possibility of an Afghan national government with a strong army emerging on its border and aligning with India. So supporting the Afghan Taliban is again a hedge, as it was in the 1990s.
What’s more, the Pakistanis don’t believe that the United States will stay in Afghanistan, and Mr. Obama’s announcement that he will begin a pullout starting in July 2011 has exacerbated that belief. And if the United States leaves, the Pakistanis believe, it is only a matter of time before the Afghan Taliban return to power. When they do, Islamabad wants to make sure that it has kept in the Taliban’s good graces.
Finally — again because of India — the Pakistani government wants to make sure that its historic allies, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, will be deeply entrenched in any efforts to reach a political settlement that would involve power-sharing in Afghanistan.
“The Haqqanis represent a powerful element of the Pashtuns,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. “Those are the tribes that straddle the border.” The Pakistani government, Mr. Nawaz said, “feels that if the Pashtuns are in power, Indians are less likely to have a strong hold, because the Indian relationship has been very overtly with the Northern Alliance.” He was referring to the group of largely non-Pashtun Afghan militias that ousted the Taliban in 2001 with American assistance.
Moeed W. Yusuf, a South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, adds: “Pakistan sees that any political settlement in Afghanistan that does not include groups that are friendly to Pakistan, like the Haqqani network, will mean that Pakistan will have gotten the rough end of the deal. It will not be able to ensure an Afghanistan which does not allow inroads to India.”
Why not give the Pakistanis the strategic hedge that they want? For anyone who hasn’t read the latest policy brief on the Haqqani network, here’s a quick summary: From its base in the frontier region near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the network led by Sirajuddin Haqqani is suspected of running much of the insurgency around Kabul, and across eastern Afghanistan; that insurgency has carried out car bombings and kidnappings, including spectacular attacks on American military installations. It is allied with Al Qaeda and with leaders of the Afghan Taliban branch that answers to Mullah Muhammad Omar. Though he is now based in Quetta, Pakistan, Mullah Omar was in charge when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan and sheltered Al Qaeda there, notably on Sept. 11, 2001.
Since then, Western officials have blamed the Haqqani network for a string of attacks, including the 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the kidnappings of the British journalist Sean Langan and the New York Times reporter David Rohde, and hundreds of attacks on American forces in Afghanistan. Sirajuddin Haqqani is believed to be in the top tier of the allied forces’ “kill or capture” list.
In short, the Haqqani network has a lot of American blood on its hands.
“The aims of the U.S. and Pakistan in Afghanistan,” says Mr. Nawaz, of the Atlantic Council, “are not congruent.”
So given all this, the logical thing to do might be to focus on the Pakistan-India problem. After all, if you remove Pakistan’s fears of India as a threat, maybe the Pakistanis will stop working against American interests in Afghanistan?
Not so fast.
“It’s unfixable,” said C. Christine Fair, assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. “That’s why we’ll be working on this for the next 50 years.”
Professor Fair argues that because India is on the ascent, and will be even stronger militarily and economically in 10 years than it is now, the Indian government has no reason to negotiate seriously with Pakistan over the host of issues that bedevil the two adversaries now, when it can throw its weight around much easier later.
“If there was an easy way out of this, someone would have figured it out,” Professor Fair said. “But I don’t think it’s possible to untie this Gordian knot.”
Of course, Alexander the Great managed to conquer the Gordian knot. But we shall leave musings of how well he did in Afghanistan for a later article.