America’s Afghanistan Strategy

America’s Afghanistan Strategy
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Pakistan Is the Source of the Stalemate, Not the Scapegoat for It​

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"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. "  – Sun Tzu

"Afghanistan is a marathon, not a sprint. The surge was a sprint. And America got winded too quickly."    – Kael Weston

Late this August, it was encouraging to hear that U.S. policy will not be to quit Afghanistan, not be to fire the commander, and not be to use mercenaries.  In Afghanistan, defeat would indeed be worse than persevering with what will now be a modest increase in capacity and an ostensibly genuine regional strategy.  Quitting the field would have meant giving up the potential for some form of victory and potentially seeing the Taliban overwhelm the Afghan security forces and the government in Kabul.  And, if the Taliban were to revive an Islamist emirate in Afghanistan, there is reason to suggest a future with more attacks against the West, planned and prepared, with increasing scope and intensity, from Afghanistan and from Pakistan’s Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Although detail in the President’s speech was lean, it was reassuring to hear that the U.S. policy is to work with the Coalition and its Afghan partners in pursuit of a winning regional strategy.  War without strategy is violence without end and without meaning, so it is a positive sign that the senior U.S. leadership intends to give strategy a chance.  Absent thus far, a regional strategy is imperative for success.  A measured increase in American and Coalition troops to advise and assist the Afghan security forces was part of the policy mentioned in the speech on August 21st.  Though this increase alone will not break the strategic stalemate, it will support the theater commander’s operational design to grow the Afghan special security forces, build the capacity of the Afghan Air Force, and improve all Afghan security forces by employing more advisors with tactical units, where the fighting occurs.

Growing and strengthening the Afghan security forces will build operational momentum by overmatching the Taliban’s capacity to fight.  Those conditions alone will not bring strategic momentum, but they can complement a regional strategy that aims to undermine the will and strategy of the enemies of Afghanistan and the Coalition.  A refreshing aspect of the President’s announcement on Afghanistan policy was the shift from timelines to conditions on the ground to mark progress in the war. 

The other key piece in the President’s Afghanistan policy announcement was the candid and explicit recognition that Pakistan’s provision of sanctuary and support for the Taliban and other Islamist terrorists is a major reason for the current stalemate.  This statement was not a fanciful attempt to make Pakistan a scapegoat, as many South Asian opinion writers subsequently opined, a bit disingenuously.  It is a fact that Pakistan is the most prominent source of the stalemate in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the denial and deception that Pakistan’s security establishment and its pundits narrate to the contrary.

U.S. senior leadership has chosen the pursuit of victory over the agony of defeat.  U.S. policy is now to win in Afghanistan.  What does this mean and how does the Coalition get there?  A victory would see the Afghan government and its security forces with sufficient capacity to secure Afghanistan’s future.  A win is a durable Afghan state, with the government, security forces and the population aligned against a marginalized Taliban.   A successful end to the war in Afghanistan would not resemble the victory in World War II where the Allies thoroughly defeated and then received the unconditional surrenders of Germany and Japan.  The end will be conditional and negotiated.  But, winning in Afghanistan requires a strategy that aligns political will, capacity, and intellectual capital to attack and undermine the enemy’ s strategy.  Victory requires cutting off external support to render the Taliban irrelevant as an existential problem for the Afghan government and its population.  External support flows primarily from Pakistan.  Why is this so?

Since the partitioning of British India in 1947, Pakistan’s perceived raison d'être has been to revise the regional status quo by opposing India through the export of Islamist militant proxies. The cultivation and export of Islamist militants provided purpose and meaning for Pakistan, its leaders, and its people.  To be sure, the plenitude of prophets and Islamist zealots in South Asia today is the result of a decades-long effort by Pakistan’s national security leaders to nurture some of the most virulent strains of Islamists for use as their proxies.  Twenty designated terrorist organizations now operate in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region.  These groups have perpetrated egregiously violent acts in Afghanistan, India, Kashmir, and in Pakistan itself.  Ultimately, Pakistan’s jihadist factory has made Pakistan a fragile state.

Other factors – ones stemming from the burdens of its history, geography, and demography – help illuminate, but do not exonerate Pakistan’s pathologies.  The partition in 1947 was gruesome and visceral.  It saw 12 million people moving west and east.  More than 1 million people died.  There were massive rapes and atrocities.  This horrific event remains indelibly etched in the collective memory of Pakistan’s population.  Since then, Pakistan’s principal, real and perceived existential enemy has been and continues to be India, a comparative leviathan pointed right at the core of a relatively narrow Pakistan.

The Durand Line and the British Forward policy were a fait accompli when Pakistan became a state in 1947.  What’s more, Afghanistan did not recognize Pakistan at its inception in 1947 because of the 28 million or so co-ethnic Pashtuns living on the other side of the Durand Line.  During the past 70 years, Afghanistan has raised the Pashtunistan issue several times.  The notion of Pashtun irredentism disquiets Pakistan’s security establishment, given the geographic implications of any Pashtun irredentist becoming manifest.  Indeed, Pakistan’s fixation on the strategic depth fiction is linked to concern about Pashtun irredentism; to the prevention of influence other than Pakistan’s over Afghan policy; and to Pakistan’s phobia about its narrow geographic space vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan.     

The principal reason why Afghanistan has discernibly increased the quantity and improved the quality in its forces’ fighting capacity, yet continues to face a strategic stalemate, lies in the Pakistani security elites’ malign strategic calculus that sees them rely on Islamist militants.  Strategic momentum has not been realized because the will of the Taliban and the Haqqanis endures with the benefit of Pakistan’s support and sanctuary. The Taliban’s senior leadership is protected in Pakistan, where the Taliban regenerates fighters and materiel.  Pakistan has created this paradox to prevent the defeat of the Taliban, protract the war, and erode the Coalition’s will, to make the capacity of the Coalition irrelevant because it might quit the war without a win.

Pakistan’s pathological strategic cultural preferences are rooted in its geopolitical burdens, its encirclement neurosis, and its industrial-scale production and export of fanatics animated by a Salafi-Deobandi-Jihadist ideology. Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence Directorate has maintained links with Al Qaeda, its longtime Taliban allies, and a host of other Islamists inside and outside Pakistan.  Pakistan must abandon its support of proxy Islamist terrorists and insurgents to comport with the norms of the international system and to end its long-running rogue state reality.  The fact that America  has paid Pakistan many billions of dollars for Pakistan’s treachery since 9/11 is lamentable.

A trans-regional strategy needs to bring the full weight of the U.S. and other regional actors to compel Pakistan to alter its strategic rationale and to stop its support to the Taliban and the Haqqani network.  Pakistan’s proxy jihadists cannot be defeated with half measures.  Since 9/11, the U.S. has explicitly stipulated that Pakistan must curb all domestic expression of support for terrorism against America and its allies; show 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.  

Long belatedly, but refreshingly, the U.S. and the Coalition are openly dropping the charade that Pakistan is a friend and an ally when it has behaved like an enemy.  After 16 years of pernicious duplicity, a strategy must lever regional actors and the panoply of national instruments to tap into Pakistan’s perceptions and pathologies in truly novel ways.  Elsewhere, this author has described a get-tough approach comprising a menu of eight to ten steps that would essentially take away things of value to Pakistan and impose measures of harm to Pakistan.  This is needed because Pakistan’s proclivities for producing and exporting Islamist militants have been deeply ingrained in its strategic culture over seven decades. To envision any prospect for influencing or modifying Pakistan's malign strategic conduct requires a trans-regional strategy that relentlessly encroaches upon Pakistan’s interests and fears.  

A regional strategy cannot deal with Pakistan’s role without considering India.  Furthermore, a trans-regional strategy cannot engage India without weighing some degree of cooperation and quid pro quo arrangements with China, Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian states.  Withal, the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis – the only countries other than Pakistan itself that endorsed the loathsomely antediluvian Taliban regime – would likely have to play some role in any negotiated end to the war.  Qatar, already recognized as an interlocutor by most parties, would likewise be involved in a trans-regional approach with a negotiated end to the conflict at some point in the future.

The Coalition and its Afghan partners need to be intrepid, clear-eyed, and scrupulous when it comes to Pakistan’s inimical strategic behavior.  In the past senior, diplomats and interlocutors have succumbed to the Pakistani narrative that peddles the myth of a fragile and over-stretched Pakistan that does not support Islamists, one that would be at risk of collapse if pressed to be more forthcoming in the war against Islamists.  This is risible dissembling by Pakistan and unfathomable naïveté on the part of those senior officials.  A real regional strategy will be one that does not yield to more of the same, to more of Pakistan’s narrative of dissimulation.  Any strategy that doesn’t deal with Pakistan’s pariah conduct will lead to more self-delusion, perpetual war, and ultimately, to defeat.


Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel who teaches at Wesleyan University as a fellow.  He is the author of three books and several articles about irregular warfare and Afghanistan. He has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The ideas in this article derive from the author’s studies and experience and do not reflect the views of the institutions with which he affiliates.

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