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“The exploitation of ungoverned sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan by terrorists and    Afghan insurgents is the single greatest external factor that could cause failure of the coalition campaign.”  June 2017 U.S. DoD Report on Afghanistan

The latest U.S. Department of Defense Report on “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” reiterates that Pakistan’s sanctuary, support, and employment of insurgents and terrorists is a strategic impediment to ending that war well, or to ending it at all.  The Pentagon is now preparing to send about four thousands more troops.  A number of Coalition partners will probably send a commensurate number of additional troops.  More troops and more actions will build advisory capacity and thus improve the Afghan security forces capacity.  More capacity will, in turn, gain some tactical and operational momentum vis-à-vis the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other Islamist militants that benefit from Pakistan’s support and sanctuary. 

But more action and more troops in and of themselves will not gain strategic momentum.   Strategic momentum requires a marked change in Pakistan’s strategic behavior.   That requires a strategy which includes more regional cooperation and a much more coercive strategic approach to curb Pakistan’s machinations.  This requires a sea change in strategic thinking to shock, compel, and instill fear in Pakistan’s security establishment to break it out of its ingrained strategic-cultural pathologies.  Pakistan’s duplicitous incubation and export of proxy terrorists and insurgents is the most significant obstacle to peace in Afghanistan and South Asia.

Pakistan has nurtured and relied on a host of Islamist insurgents and terrorists for decades.  The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) has maintained links between Al Qaeda, its longtime Taliban allies, and a host of other extremists inside Pakistan. It is only possible for Pakistan to become a non-pariah state among the community of states and a helpful partner to the Coalition and the U.S. if it significantly modifies its regional conduct and ceases its support of proxy terrorists and insurgents.  America has doled out more than $33 billion in carrots to Pakistan in exchange for Pakistan’s treachery since 9/11.  This miscarriage of trust and reliability is abhorrent.

Yet, these sad truths about Pakistan’s malice have been in plain view in U.S. Government and NATO reports for years.  This most recent report from June 2017 highlights this same strategic impasse and forecasts the grave consequences of failing to address Pakistan’s odious collusion with the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba.  A finding that appears in this report, and the many reports that preceded it, is that “Afghanistan continues to face an externally enabled and resilient insurgency.”  This particular wording lacks specificity, most likely to avoid offending Pakistani sensitivities, but it does illumine the crux of the stalemate.  Other sections of this latest 2017 report offer a bit more clarity about the sources of support for the “externally enabled” insurgents.

For example, the section in the report on relations with Pakistan states, “Afghan oriented militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, retain freedom of action inside Pakistani territory and benefit from support from elements of the Pakistani Government.” It explains that Pakistan is the most influential external actor affecting Afghan stability.  This relates directly to the theater commander’s assessment of the main threat to success and stability in Afghanistan.  The most significant external factor that poses strategic risk and precludes a successful end to the war is “the exploitation of ungoverned sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan by terrorists and Afghan insurgents.”

When the commander’s assessment of the threat refers to the external sanctuary that impedes efforts to bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table, it is referring to Pakistan’s support of its proxy, the Taliban.  When the report states that external sanctuary affords terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network the time and space to plan coordinated operations against U.S. forces, Coalition forces, the Afghan forces, and civilians, this is referring to Pakistan as the only sponsor and employer of that group.  And, when the theater commander assesses that “external sanctuary allows the Afghan Taliban to rest, refit, and regenerate, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence,” Pakistan is that external sanctuary.

Readers need not explore the entire report to discern the raison d'être for the stalemate. The executive summary alone aptly identifies the sources of instability and violence: “Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, ISIS-K, and al Qaeda, in what is the highest concentration of extremist and terrorist groups in the world.”  Right up front, the report’s executive summary clearly states, “attacks in Afghanistan attributed to Pakistan-based militant networks continue to erode the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship.”  For anyone interested in reading it, the document reports that Islamist militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, continue to benefit from sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

In his March testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), General Joseph Votel (U.S. Central Command), stated that the malign influence of external actors providing sanctuary and support to violent extremist groups operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region was a particular problem that threatened any gains.  General John Nicholson’s (U.S. Forces Afghanistan) testimony in February of this year, provided a candid perspective when said that he believed that the war in Afghanistan was a stalemate. Indeed, it has essentially been a strategic stalemate since at least 2003 because Pakistan continued its double game when it had pledged to end its support of terrorists.  According to Nicholson’s statement, “the primary factor that will enable our success is the elimination of external sanctuary and support to the insurgents.”  This external sanctuary and support, to be sure, originates in Pakistan.

After almost 16 years, the war in Afghanistan remains a strategic stalemate because defeating an enemy requires taking away capacity and will.  And although the Coalition and the Afghan forces have hit the enemy’s capacity year after year, the Taliban’s will - their senior leaders, support, resources, rest, regeneration, and arms - continue to reside in Pakistan’s sanctuary and to benefit from Pakistan’s sponsorship. The Afghan security forces have grown in quantity and improved in quality.  Coalition and Afghan forces have undertaken many actions and operations that have disrupted and displaced the Taliban and the Haqqani infrastructure.

But these gains at the tactical and operational level have lacked permanence in the face of the most significant impediment to strategic success - Pakistan’s sanctuary and support for the enemy.  Killing, capturing, disrupting, and displacing insurgent and terrorist enemies, absent strategic momentum against the external sanctuary, have made this a groundhog war where fulfilling the purpose remains elusive.  Without a policy-strategy match that compels Pakistan to stop the sanctuary and support, this war will continue in perpetuity, with or without more troops.

Before the SASC early this year, General Nicholson’s testified that “multiple witnesses have appeared before this body and testified that insurgents cannot be defeated while they enjoy external sanctuary and support from outside of the national boundaries of the conflict area.”  Pakistan’s failure to alter its strategic calculus, its sponsorship, its provision of physical and ideological support, and its regeneration of murderous Islamist armed groups, poses a grave risk to a successful outcome for the war in Afghanistan.  This war will not end, or it will end badly unless the West and its regional partners bring the full weight of their national power to compel and break Pakistan of its pathological strategic behavior.  Pakistan’s actions have long been harmful to itself, to its purported friends, and to stability in South Asia.


To break the stalemate by 2020, the General Nicholson’s operational idea is to invest in those forces that have demonstrated the best capacity to outmatch the Taliban in most actions - the Afghan Special Security Forces and the Afghan Air Force.  In his testimony, he explained his operational idea to grow these relatively capable forces toward building an overmatch in offensive capacity vis-à-vis the Taliban to ultimately create favorable tactical and operational momentum. Creating offensive overmatch in the best and tested Afghan security forces will, in fact, create a tactical and operational capacity to hit the Taliban, disrupting and displacing their leaders and infrastructure. Offensive tactical overmatch will indeed disrupt the enemy, but without strategic change in reducing the sanctuary in Pakistan, these gains will be fleeting.

The U.S. and the Coalition must desist in the illusion that Pakistan, one of the foremost ideological and physical breeders of Islamist terrorists, can be an ally or a friend. It is neither.  Pretending that Pakistan was an ally in the war against Islamist militants, one that would act in ways to help defeat Islamist networks in the tribal areas, made the West partly complicit in Pakistan’s perfidy.  In September 2001, imagining that the only country on the planet with its capital named after Islam, and the foremost state sponsor of Islamist terrorists, would be a reliable partner in a war to defeat the very Islamists groups that Pakistan created, was a huge failure of imagination.    

Since this war began, the U.S. has stipulated that Pakistan must curb all domestic expression of support for terrorism against the U.S. and its allies; demonstrate a sustained commitment towards combating terrorist groups; cease support, including by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, to extremist and terrorist groups; and dismantle terrorist bases of operations in other parts of the country.  Clearly, Pakistan has not complied with these demands and continues to serve as a significant supporter and employer of Islamist insurgents and terrorists.  

Investing in and increasing the Afghan Special Security Forces and the Afghan Air Force to create overmatching offensive capacity, to then build tactical and operational momentum, will help assert influence over key population areas and take away Taliban capacity but it will be short-lived if not coupled with strategic momentum.  To break the strategic stalemate, the Coalition should cast off its anxieties and illusions about Pakistan’s potential fragility or comity.  After almost 16 years of Pakistan’s duplicity, it is essential to go heavy on sticks and light on carrots with Pakistan.  With the support of other major regional actors, sticks will work where carrots, cash, and cajoling have not. 

The following steps and demands, escalating from modest to severe, are suggested to break Pakistan of its pathologies and to break the stalemate: 1) stop paying for malice; 2) stop major non-NATO ally status; 3) state intention to make the line of control in Kashmir permanent; 4) shut down ground lines of communications via Pakistan; 5) declare Pakistan the state-sponsor of terrorism that it is; 6) issue one final ultimatum to Pakistan to end the sanctuary and to stop supporting the Taliban; 7) invite Indian Armed Forces into Afghanistan for security operations in the Pashtun east and south; and 8) reciprocate Pakistan’s malice using lethal coercion, both indirectly and directly.  

The United States has not devised a Pakistan strategy that uses its substantial resources to modify Pakistan’s loathsome strategic malfeasance.  A strategy that does not address that malign influence is no strategy at all.  A realizable strategy needs to bring the full weight of the U.S. and regional actors to compel Pakistan to cease supporting the Taliban.  The Taliban would have been diminished to a marginal nuisance without the full support that Pakistan rendered to the group in pursuit of its quixotic notion of strategic depth to assert control over Afghanistan.  Sanctuary remains the biggest obstacle to the defeat of the Taliban, and it is the reason for the stalemate.   


Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army officer who has written a number of books and articles about irregular war and Afghanistan. He has served in Afghanistan four times, in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Central Command area.  The views herein are from the author’s studies and service in the region and do not reflect the views of any of the institutions with which he affiliates.

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