December 2, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 568

The New U.S. Policy in Afghanistan: Evading the Root Problem

December 2, 2009 | By Y. Carmon and Tufail Ahmad*
Pakistan, Afghanistan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 568


In a speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point on December 1, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about the future of the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. He announced his decision to increase U.S. military forces there by 30,000 troops, and asserted that "our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan."

Obama further stressed that "the Pakistani Army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan, and there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.... We are committed to partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual respect and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries."

While the reinforcement of the U.S. military force in Afghanistan can help in the fight against the Taliban, the president's statements regarding Pakistan seem to evade the root cause of the Pakistan-Afghanistan crisis – namely, Pakistan's role over the past three decades in the region in general and in Afghanistan in particular. Hence, the new U.S. policy may prove to be ineffective. The following analysis will review the main factors in the Pakistan-Afghanistan crisis and will address the question of U.S. policies and their impact.

The Root Causes of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Crisis and their Long-Term Implications

The current situation in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region has been largely shaped by the Pakistani army's support of militant organizations over the past three decades. This ongoing support is rooted in the Pakistani identity and in Pakistan's perception of its role as an Islamic state ever since its creation in 1947.

For more than half of its 62 years, Pakistan was ruled by military officers. But even when it was ruled by civilians, in the debate over Pakistan's identity, secularists and liberal forces have always lost, while the military and the religious groups have always set the nation's agenda and defined its future course.[1] The way the Pakistani leaders view their identity defines their domestic policies and foreign relations. The shaping of the Pakistani identity on the Islamic path has over the years turned Pakistan into an expansionist state, which has translated into the military's policy of "strategic depth." In practical terms, this policy meant a constant concerted effort by the military-led Pakistani establishment to go beyond its borders into India (not only in Kashmir but also the mainland India) and in Afghanistan through the use of militant groups.

This self-perception of Pakistan's role, responsibility and identity is a genie that has been out of the bottle for decades now, and there is no way to get it back in. It has become the most decisive factor in the region's history and politics – so much so that when Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf tried after September 11 to reverse, though reluctantly, the policy of using the militant organizations as "strategic assets," he was not able to do so. In fact, this genie is so strong now that a number of young militant leaders who have emerged in recent years and are more ideologically driven are now beginning to launch attacks on the Pakistani security institutions, particularly since the military began cooperating with the U.S.

After the February 2008 election and the rise of the Zardari-Gilani administration, things only deteriorated further. The Pakistani military continued to dictate the terms of Pakistan's foreign policy, notably when the civilian government was almost face-to-face with a military coup on the issue of the Kerry-Lugar aid legislation passed by the U.S. Congress.[2] If President General Musharraf, who came from the ranks of the military establishment and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), could not reverse the years-long strategy and could not control the militants, the civilian government stands no chance of doing so.

The U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, which has led to growing pressure on the Pakistani military to reverse the decades-long Pakistani strategy, cannot succeed in achieving its goals either in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The Pakistani military is bound to pursue a policy which broadly runs between a) playing a double game with the militant groups by on the one hand attacking them, on the other hand providing them with early warnings and escape routes during various security operations, and b) coddling the militant groups as it does with the favored militant commanders and the Sunni jihadist organizations in the Punjab province, whom the military refrains from attacking.[3]

The Pakistani Military's Role and Responsibility

The current Afghan crisis was caused by the military-led Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is the final arbiter of power in Pakistan. In mid-1990s, the ISI organized and used the Taliban to remove the warring Afghan mujahideen and warlords from Kabul, and to serve as Pakistan's long arm in Afghanistan. However, after 9/11, the U.S. dislodged the Taliban from Afghanistan, throwing the Pakistani military's Afghan strategy of using the militants in Afghanistan into disarray. The Taliban, and with them Al-Qaeda, retreated to their homebase in Pakistan.

Between 2002 and 2004, there was relative peace in Afghanistan because the Pakistani military did not dare to confront America after its invasion of Afghanistan following September 11. However, in 2005 the ISI finally resumed its policy of strategic depth. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants began moving back into Afghanistan via the Pakistani tribal region. As a result, U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan increased rapidly. U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan were just 12 in 2001. Between 2002 and 2004, the average number of American deaths per year was about 50, but this figure doubled to 99 in 2005, 98 in 2006, and 117 in 2007, tripling to 155 in 2008, and jumping to 298 in 2009 (as of November 30).[4]

To this day, it is the Pakistani military which is the key supporter of the militants in Afghanistan. The militants continue to travel freely across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The key militant groups in Afghanistan, i.e. the Haqqani Network, Al-Qaeda, Hizb-e-Islami and the Afghan Taliban, have formed a strong working relationship, with the direction of the militants' strategy in Afghanistan being controlled by the Quetta Taliban Shura, which is the executive council led by Mullah Omar. That body is protected by the ISI, Pakistani intelligence.[5]

Some ISI-backed militant groups are also responsible for attacks in India and Bangladesh. The Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Muhammad are behind the attacks not only in Indian Kashmir, but also are involved in a series of militant attacks in the mainland India, notably the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. With the support of the ISI, these militant organizations have created the Indian Mujahideen by roping in disaffected Indian Muslim youth. Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami, which has its headquarters in Pakistan, are establishing strong bases in Bangladesh in order to achieve the twin goals of controlling Bangladesh and vandalizing India.

An overall assessment of the battle in Afghanistan on the one hand, and the U.S. drone attacks and the Pakistani army's show of force against the militant groups on the other hand, reveals that the militants are definitely not losing ground. In fact, in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban, the Hizb-e-Islami militants, and Al-Qaeda are present in all provinces. Moreover, in Pakistan, the Sunni militant organizations based in the Punjab province are not touched by the military. Instead, they are not only growing in number and strength, but are now beginning to hatch international terror plots.[6]

Oft-Discussed Options – Can They Work?

Sending More Troops to Afghanistan to Defeat the Taliban

Even if President Obama had authorized sending of the 40,000 U.S. troops requested by the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, and even if they were to succeed in defeating the Taliban, the victory would be short-lived, because the Taliban would retreat again to their homes in Pakistan as they did before and after the United States invaded Afghanistan following 9/11. They would then resume their infiltration into Afghanistan, as before in 2005-06.

Buying the Taliban Out and/or Including Them in the Political Process

These are not valid options. The Taliban are ideologically driven. Even if they agree to take money and join the political process, they will work to replace the present democratic structure with an Islamic state. Indeed, Saudi efforts to mediate secret Taliban-U.S. talks have borne no fruit.

Even some leaders of the Afghan jihad of the 1980s who joined the political process and became members of the Afghan parliament, such as Burhanuddin Rabbani, have proven unable to serve as a bridge to the Taliban.[7] Gulbadin Hekmatyar, another mujahideen commander of the 1980s, has rejected any talks as long as any foreign troops are present in Afghanistan.[8]

Fighting Only Al-Qaeda

This too is not a valid option. Al-Qaeda is well established in Afghanistan, and collaborates with the Pakistan-based Taliban Shura.[9] There is no practical way to conduct an isolated fight against Al-Qaeda alone. Indeed, a close examination of the Sunni militant organizations based in the Pakistani province of Punjab – e.g. Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – indicates close interrelationships among them. It also emerges that these organizations have been interacting with the top Al-Qaeda leadership for more than a decade now.

In fact, Al-Qaeda may be a secondary player now, while the Taliban and the Punjab-based groups are working in tandem with each other, and forming the backbone of Al-Qaeda.

A Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from the Conflict Zone

Such a move would significantly strengthen the militant groups and, as a result, enhance the Pakistani military's urge to use them to spread Pakistani control beyond Pakistan's borders.

This in turn will enhance the threat to the whole of South Asia, particularly to India. Given the nuclear arsenals that Pakistan and India have, such a development could endanger the United States itself.


The U.S. is locked in a conflict it cannot win. But it has to keep fighting it to prevent further deterioration of the crisis, which would endanger the whole region and America itself.

President Obama's strategy to build on partnership with Pakistan based on "mutual trust" defies the history and hard reality of the Pakistan-Afghanistan crisis.

Addressing the Pakistani role is indeed a sensitive issue. If done in an offensive way, it can lead to alienation of whatever half-hearted cooperation exists between the Pakistani military and the U.S.

However, if the U.S. can find a way to engage the Pakistani military to assume responsibility for the situation, the threat can be contained in its entirety.

Evading the role of Pakistan, however, can only prevent a safe exit strategy.

* Tufail Ahmad is Director of MEMRI's Urdu-Pashtu Media Project; Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1] Even the Taliban's rise to power, backed by Pakistani intelligence, happened in 1994 on Benazhir Butto's watch, when she was prime minister.

[2] For an analysis of the military's recent threats to the civilian government, see, Debating the Pakistani National Interest over the Kerry-Lugar Bill, MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 553, October 13, 2009.

[3] For example, it was seen during recent military operations in Bajaur Agency, Swat district and South Waziristan that the military first announced its plans to launch attacks and signed peace deals with some favored commanders, thereby creating escape routes for the militants. In the case of the Punjab-based militant organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the military-led establishment has even ruled out any action.

[4], an independent website, monitors military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq on a daily basis. The British fatalities too show a similar pattern, with 39 deaths in 2006, 42 in 2007, 51 in 2008, and 99 in 2009.

[5] The Pakistani military denies the existence of the Taliban Shura in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province. However, they are the only ones to do so. Most intelligence agencies and Pakistani journalists related to it as common knowledge.

[6] David C. Headley, an American citizen of Pakistani origin recently detained along with an accomplice by the FBI in Chicago, has been found to have travelled across India on a reconnaissance mission of strategic Indian targets for the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

[7] Some former mujahideen who fought against the Soviets during the 1980s are working alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda such as Gulbadin Hekmatyar, Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Mohammad Yunus Khalis's son Anwar al-Haq Mujahid, who controls the Tora Bora Jihadist Front. Other mujahideen leaders, such as Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rab Rasool Sayaf, have joined the political process.

[8] This position has been consistently argued by Gulbadin Hekmatyar of Hizb-e-Islami. He has called for an interim government acceptable to all the militant groups, but only if the U.S. makes clear a timeframe for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

[9] In an article in the Pashtu-language daily Wrazpanra Wahdat of November 17, 2009, former Pakistan Army chief General Aslam Baig estimated that Al-Qaeda's Brigade 500 alone has about 3,000 fighters.

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