United States's Af-Pak Strategy at Crossroads

After ten years of deep and comprehensive partnership with Pakistan to destroy terrorism in the Af-Pak region, the US is faced with the most difficult question in its security strategy, whether Pakistan can be a reliable partner any longer? The answer that is staring in its face is a clear “No”.

The US partnership with Pakistan was based on the following four assumptions all of which have been vehemently disproved.

The first of these assumptions was that Pakistan shares the US perception that Taliban and Al Qaeda are the Enemy No.1. The US should have remembered that the then President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf agreed to support the US military action against the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11 under tremendous US arm-twisting which could not be resisted in the face of dire consequences threatened by the then Secretary of State Collin Powell. The Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan had links with the Taliban since 1994 and with Al Qaeda since 1998 when it started to provide training to both. Osama bin Laden enjoyed the protection of Mullah Omar and both enjoyed the protection of the ISI. Therefore, while agreeing to support the US war on terror, the Pakistani army and the ISI developed the parallel track of giving sanctuaries to the Taliban fighters retreating from Afghanistan, and subsequently making arrangements to help the Taliban to resurrect themselves as a powerful force in Afghanistan.

The second assumption on which the US built its partnership with Pakistan was that all sections of the Pakistani government and society are united in the belief that Taliban and Al Qaeda are the foremost enemies to be fought against. The US should have known that in the course of mobilizing Pakistani support for anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, thousands of Pakistani youth had been trained and sent across to Afghanistan. Their sponsors included leaders of Islamist and mainstream political parties as well as retired ISI officers. They had strong links with the Taliban government which captured power in Kabul in 1996 and could not resist the temptation to help the resurgence of Afghan Taliban after their defeat at the hands of the US in 2001. The fact that the Taliban in Afghanistan have been able to offer such strong resistance to the combined power of the US, NATO and the Afghan army is in no small measure due to the help they have received from their supporters in Pakistan outside and inside the government.

The third assumption underlying the US partnership with Pakistan was that Pakistan has no strategic objectives of its own in Afghanistan and would be content with supporting the US war effort just because it has been coerced to do so. The US should have known that the policy of “strategic depth” vis-à-vis Afghanistan evolved by Pakistan in the early 1980s under the leadership of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq was so fundamental to its interests that it would take priority over any other interests. This policy would enable Pakistan to co-opt Afghanistan as a landlocked and dependent junior ally in its goal of controlling access to Central Asia and off-setting Indian dominance in the east. Pakistan tasted success in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, lent support to the emergence of Pashtun dominated Taliban government in the 1990s, and has every reason to be satisfied with the success which the Taliban have achieved with Pakistani support in the last few years against the US-NATO-Afghan forces in Afghanistan. That is what the Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani meant when he told Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff at a NATO Commanders meeting in Spain recently that as a sovereign nation Pakistan has the right to pursue policies which serve its national interests.

The fourth assumption of US partnership with Pakistan was that a huge amount of military and economic aid to Pakistan will do the trick of buying Pakistani support for US anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan irrespective of its own strategic objectives. It must be admitted quite clearly that the US has been outsmarted by Pakistan in this respect. Any number of complaints, warnings and reprimands at different levels from the US asking Pakistan to take adequate steps to stop the Taliban in Pakistani sanctuaries from going across and attacking targets in Afghanistan have had no effect. Nearly $20 billion of US aid has enabled Pakistan partly to build its arsenal against India and partly to offset its costs in the half-hearted support it has given to the US.

All these assumptions turned out to be flawed. The irony is that even when the US realized some years ago that Pakistan was playing a double game, its options were limited. Its dependence on Pakistan for the success of its Afghan operations was so heavy that it had to move with caution. Among the important decisions it took was to launch drone attacks on critical targets within Pakistani territory on the basis of credible information provided by its own field agents. This decision yielded good results.

Simultaneously, the US started exploring alternative supply routes in the North to reduce its dependence on Pakistan. The success in this respect has been limited, but the prospects are not bad. In the last couple of years, ideas for reconciliation with the Taliban have been mooted, alongwith plans for withdrawal of US forces by 2014. These steps have been taken partly in recognition of the staying power of the Taliban, and partly in response to the demand for recall of US troops back home. But they only tend to prove the point that the US has not succeeded in achieving its objectives and that mainly due to Pakistan’s negative role.

The watershed in United States’ loss of faith in Pakistan came when US launched a clandestine military operation and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad on the mid-night of 1-2 May. The complete breach of faith was reflected in Adm. Mike Mullen’s statement in the US Senate Armed Services Committee on 22 September that the Haqqani network in Afghanistan “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Agency”.

Does the US-Pak Partnership have a future? It is very doubtful. What is certain however is that Pakistan has sown the seeds of its own destruction by allowing the free movement of armed Pashtuns across the Durand Line and thereby putting life into the concept of Pashtunistan which had become a dead issue before the 1980s. As regards Afghanistan, if the future is bleak, Pakistan will have to take the credit for it.