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“The failure to solve the riddle of ISI and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan became, ultimately, the greatest strategic failure of the American war.” – Steve Coll, Directorate S

At the end of June, the U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of the ninth American commander in Afghanistan and the 17th commander of that war overall.  The U.S.-led coalition has been fighting there for 16 years and ten months.  Senior commanders and political leaders have acknowledged the war is a stalemate.  Years of Department of Defense reporting and senior leader hearings testify to the difficulties with the war and the reasons for the stalemate.  Many open source articles and books explain why, what at first looked like, a successful war, with the Taliban taking flight, then saw the regeneration of the Taliban and the onset of a protracted war of attrition with increasingly grisly bombings and violence year after year.  Civilians have been victims of much of the violence.  A strategic stalemate after almost 17 years of war is disconcerting. 

What was a bit perplexing about the nomination hearing for the next commander among a long line of commanders in Afghanistan was the dearth of detail.  During the hearing on 19 June, the senators posed a few tough questions about the gravest obstacles to success in Afghanistan and did not exact substantive answers.  The most recent unclassified biannual Defense Department report on progress in Afghanistan, released in early July shortly after the nomination hearing, included more detail than the answers that the senators demanded of the new commander.  The recent report makes clear that Pakistan’s most lethal and reliable Islamist terrorist proxy, the Haqqani network, “continues to be an integral part of the Taliban’s effort” to pose an existential threat to Afghanistan, and that the region has the “largest concentration” of terrorist organizations in the world.

Most importantly, the June DoD report notes that the Taliban and the Haqqani network retain freedom of movement in Pakistan and that Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from an externally supported insurgency.  Pakistan is the principal source of external support.  This is not a recent epiphany.  Issued by DoD since 2009, these reports have regularly stated that the sanctuary in Pakistan and the material support emanating from Pakistan sustain the Taliban insurgents and prevent their defeat.  The report from last December state that “the externally supported Haqqani Network remains the greatest threat to Afghan, U.S., and coalition forces.” The June report omits this fact, but it does stipulate that compelling Pakistan to curb its support for “proxy terrorist and militant groups” is a focus of the regional dimension of the current strategy.

Pakistan, a nominally major non-NATO ally of the U.S., is the single biggest incubator and exporter of Islamist militant groups that kill and maim Afghan, American, and coalition soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan.  Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) Directorate provides support and sanctuary to the Taliban. This prolongs the stalemate and prevents the Taliban’s defeat.  The U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan partners will not end the war, or will not end the war successfully unless they can end the sanctuary by stopping Pakistan’s inimical strategic behavior.  Pakistan, in reality, behaves as an enemy in its strategic calculus.  By pretending to be an ally it deludes and dissembles with risible impunity.  Even though these facts have been unclassified in years of reports and testimonies, the Senate Armed Services Committee did not delve into this grave problem during the nomination hearing. Excerpts of the few tough questions and the responses provided at the nomination hearing appear below, along with more detail given by the author from a variety of open source publications:

SENATOR REED:  Can you give us a sense now from your great experience in the region as to where we are with regard to Pakistan and how effective they will be in assisting our efforts?
GENERAL MILLER: Senator, as I look at Afghanistan -- and I've looked at it for quite a number of years -- it is obviously a very tough neighborhood with some tough neighbors. As I look at Pakistan, Pakistan must be part of the solution, and we should have high expectations that they are part of the solution, not just diplomatically but from a security standpoint as well. 

MORE DETAIL: Pakistan behaves like an enemy but pretends to be an ally.  Pakistan’s security establishment has consistently and shamelessly lied to a host of senior American interlocutors.  Pakistan has been very effective at assisting America’s enemies with sanctuary, support, and advice, to prolong the stalemate.

SENATOR PERDUE: But right now, with the Haqqani network being protected inside Pakistan, do you see any relief for this cross-border safe haven that the Taliban now continue to enjoy?
GENERAL MILLER: Senator, that would be something I'd have to go look at, if confirmed. I go back to what I think our larger expectations of Pakistan ought to be is that we ought to have high expectations of them to address the issues you're speaking about there. 

MORE DETAIL:   No. There has been no significant relief from the sanctuary in Pakistan because Pakistan has not relented in its sponsorship of the Haqqani network and the Taliban.  Unless the U.S. gets clear-eyed and genuinely tough on Pakistan with all the instruments of national power, these groups will continue to benefit from sanctuary and support and this war will not end, or it will end badly.

SENATOR SULLIVAN: Can we ever secure our national interests, either from the train, advise and assist, or C.T. perspective if there is a safe haven in Pakistan?
GENERAL MILLER: Senator, a safe haven makes this infinitely more difficult.
SENATOR SULLIVAN: So, is that a – is that a no?
GENERAL MILLER: We have to squeeze out safe havens if we're going to be successful here.

MORE DETAIL: No.  It is not possible for the U.S. and its partners to secure their interests and achieve their aims of a stable Afghanistan inhospitable to Islamist terrorists while Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary and support to the Haqqanis, the Taliban, and a host of other Islamist militants.

However, the current strategy for Afghanistan does seek to break the stalemate.  In theory, the stated strategy for Afghanistan is to increase the size of the Afghan Special Security Forces and Air Force; and, to improve the conventional forces by placing more advisers at lower tactical levels.  The idea is that this effort will build momentum in the fight against the Taliban at the operational level while regional diplomacy and other levers at the strategic will compel Pakistan’s security establishment to reduce the sanctuary and support it provides to sustain the Taliban.  The DoD report from last December declared that for the strategy in Afghanistan to gain momentum, the U.S. must essentially see Pakistan reverse its long-standing venal policy of providing terrorist sanctuary inside its borders. That same report avowed to hold accountable those states that support Islamist militants who undermine stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan in any marked or essential ways. It is time to respond with punitive measures aimed at institutions and individuals in Pakistan that directly advise, fund, or sustain the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

The U.S. and its allies have been fighting terrorists and insurgents for almost 17 years. The coalition forces can win engagements, launch strikes, and kill terrorists year after year but in the absence of a viable strategy, the number of Islamist militants across the globe has increased since 11 September 2001.  Afghanistan remains a stalemate.  The U.S. and its partners have not yet matched the theory and practice of policy and strategy to successfully end the war in Afghanistan.  The headquarters that oversees the region, U.S. Central Command, is now in the process of conducting an assessment to determine how well the South Asia strategy is achieving policy.  Two areas require impartial scrutiny, and that need to avoid the Pollyannaish tendencies witnessed in many previous assessments from war zones.  The first is to take a hard look for genuine increases in the capability of the Afghan forces to sustain operations while overmatching their enemies.  The other is to conduct a clear-eyed evaluation of any fundamental changes in the Pakistani security establishment’s support and use of Islamist proxies that threaten Afghanistan. 

The U.S. and its partners need to get blunt about Pakistan’s sustainment of the Taliban.  Mincing words in official hearings when discussing the Taliban’s sources of support was most likely an attempt to be political on the record, but a nearly 17-year stalemated war requires more trenchant public discourse.  Pakistan sustains the Taliban, and the sanctuary conduces the stalemate.  The new commander in Afghanistan is one of the most capable and seasoned combat leaders of his generation.  However, the strategic contradictions that he inherits in Afghanistan and Pakistan have outlasted several very capable generals.  Until America’s senior leaders show the ruthlessness to publicly avow the dire strategic impediments that Pakistan’s duplicity causes, and summon the will to bring about the end of sanctuaries, Afghanistan’s war will not end.  


Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a Chamberlain Project teaching fellow at Wesleyan University and a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. His published work focuses on Afghanistan and irregular war. He has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. This article does not reflect the views of the institutions with which the author is associated.

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