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Af-Pak: A Strategic Quagmire For Pakistan


After almost a decade, desperation in the US/NATO camps is quite visible as well as explicable. This protracted war has devastated the US image as the sole superpower during the last decade. In this respect, Afghanistan proved much worse than Vietnam. In order to get a face saving exit from the graveyard of empires, the US/NATO forces have been desperately trying since the past two years to get a partial victory in any part of Afghanistan.

In March 2009, the Obama administration came up with a radical Af-Pak strategy under the name of “A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” to bring “stability” in Afghanistan by declaring Pakistan as a part-active battlefield. In simple words, the US extended its war in Afghanistan to Pakistan after having no solution to the Afghan resistance. The Pak-US relations have been a subject of consistent betrayals, arm-twisting and intimidations by Washington, lacking any strategic depth due to the clashing long term interests of both the countries.


Proclamation of the Af-Pak policy also unearthed Pakistan’s strategic value in the US foreign policy vis-à-vis India. Apart from declaring FATA as a battlefield, a more prominent role was given to India in Afghanistan for the purposes of rehabilitation and stability. The following excerpt from Obama’s speech was alarmingly troublesome for Pakistan’s long and short term strategic and security interests;

“The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan. In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al Qaeda’s leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe haven to hide, to train terrorists, to communicate with followers, to plot attacks, and to send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.

But this is not simply an American problem — far from it. It is, instead, an international security challenge of the highest order. Terrorist attacks in London and Bali were tied to al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan, as were attacks in North Africa and the Middle East, in Islamabad and in Kabul. If there is a major attack on an Asian, European, or African city, it, too, is likely to have ties to al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan. The safety of people around the world is at stake.”

Consequently, the Af-Pak policy defines the following points as its main vertices:

1. Al-Qaeda and its allies have moved to Pakistan.

2. Pakistan is an active military combat zone along with Afghanistan.

3. A high profile attack anywhere in the world in the future will be launched from Pakistan.

4. Al-Qaeda’s “safe heavens” in Pakistan are a danger not only for the US, but for the entire world.

5. Pakistan’s performance against Al-Qaeda and its allies would be monitored by the US otherwise Pakistan will not get any military aid from Washington.

6. The Policy proposed a multilateral solution involving nations with conflicting interests, like inviting India, for stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.

Af-Pak has been a subject of severe criticism in Pakistan’s military and intelligence circles since its inception due to the fact that it declared Pakistan a combat zone, a terrorist harboring land and the epicenter of future terrorist attacks anywhere in the world. The US officials were quick to do the damage control. In 2009, the former US representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Mr. Richard Halbrooke, in a bid to downplay the reaction shown by Pakistani intelligentsia on the term Af-Pak, described it as a mere bureaucratic short form of Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, a year prior to that, the New York Times, on 24th Feb. 2008, quoted the same person on the same subject as stating:

“There is a theater of war, that I would call Af-Pak, with two fronts — an eastern front and a western front,” said Richard Holbrooke, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations and a supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s. “I believe that we will look back ten years from now and say that Af-Pak was even more important to our national security than Iraq.”

This particular statement establishes the fact that the idea of declaring Pakistan as a war zone, just like Afghanistan, was nothing new. After almost two years, it would be prudent to examine if this policy brought about any constructive change and stability in the deteriorated and fidgety regional security profile? The answer is a big NO! Not only has it failed in Afghanistan, but Pakistan also became the direct victim of this flawed strategy, which was based on the intelligence estimates of the same intelligence apparatus, which had led to America’s global humiliation, in the year 2004, when the issue of Iraqi WMDs was discussed in the UNSC.

Just like all previous attempts by the US, now it is clear that the Af-Pak proved a classic failure on every axis of the Afghan war as well. When President Obama announced it on 27th March 2009, he declared 2008 to be the deadliest year for the US/NATO troops but after two years of announcement of the Af-Pak, the US/NATO forces and Afghanistan both are in a bigger and deeper mess. 2010 was the deadliest year for the US/NATO forces and keeping the previous pattern in mind it must be not very difficult to predict 2011 in context of the US/NATO casualties in Afghanistan.

Af-Pak and Regional Security:

The Af-Pak has devastated the regional security profile due to increased military usage both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This surge of military operations, on both the sides of Durand Line, triggered a new wave of anti-Americanism with a vengeance particularly among the Pushtun population on both sides of the border.

The CIA has stepped up its drone attacks in the FATA region, particularly in North Waziristan Agency, in order “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” but it has become clear that these drone attacks are counterproductive. So far, the majority of the victims of these attacks turned out to be Pakistani civilians, who had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda or terrorism. 993 Pakistanis lost their lives in 134 drone attacks in the FATA region during the last year alone. Intriguingly, never even for once, the CIA provided any concrete actionable information to the Pakistani security forces about the presence of Al-Qaeda operatives in a certain area.

Pakistani civilian killed in CIA drone attacks since 2004
Pakistani civilian killed in CIA drone attacks since 2004

Pushtuns on the Pakistani side are enraged, as they are the direct victims of this ruthless war turning the locals against Pakistani State and armed forces for their alliance with US in war on terror. Following are some of the most critical aspects of CIA’s unchecked drone war:

  • These drone attacks are providing people with a reason to turn against the Pakistani state and military, furthering the agenda of Al-Qaeda and TTP instead of disrupting and dismantling these terrorist outfits. Innocent tribesmen have been pushed into the hands of terrorist outfits and Pakistan has been caught in a vicious cycle with no sign of respite lest current internal and foreign policies continue.
  • Questions over defending the State’s sovereignty by the armed forces are being arisen in Pakistani circles now as a total lack of vision prevails in Pakistan on this matter both in military and civilian power centers. Even the foreign nationals, not directly related to the issue, are now inquiring about the consent of the Pakistani armed forces in these killings in CIA drone attacks.

    Pakistani causalities in suicide attacks in last 3 years
    Pakistani causalities in suicide attacks in last 3 years
  • Social scarscreated by these unjust and illicit attacks are undermining Pakistan army’s efforts to rehabilitate and develop the previously ignored tribal areas. These attacks are widening the trust deficit between Pakistan army and victims of these attacks. That is one of the core reasons behind a surge of terrorism incidents like suicide bombings despite the fact that Pakistan army has successfully pacified restive Swat and Malakand region and chasing the terrorists in the FATA region as well. Killings in suicide bombing incidents have been on the rise since 2008 that includes thousands of Pakistani citizens and security forces personnel who lost their lives in these incidents during last three years. Though Pakistani security forces and intelligence agencies were able to cut down the number of incidents by 35% but the death toll of Pakistanis due to these bombings keep rising. It is clear from the above data that 2010 was the bloodiest year for Pakistan due to these ruthless suicide bombings, killing 102 Pakistanis every month on the average. The victims who became paralyzed permanently and wounded due to these horrific incidents are not included in this table.
  • On the diplomatic front, Af-Pak policy is a strong testimonial of Indian lobby’s strength in Washington, which is effective enough to force White House to adopt policies like declaring Pakistan –otherwise a frontline ally of the US –as a dangerous hostile land, having terrorist safe havens, not only for the US but for the whole region as well.

In the presence of so many unsolved bilateral issues skulked between Pakistan and India, it was a horrible idea to give a direct role to India in Afghanistan. The strategy sent a strong signal to Islamabad about the US foreign policy vision in this region for the 21st century, where India clearly holds a key position. This move has strained the relations between the GHQ and Pentagon where uncertainty and skepticism holds sway instead of partnership.

Just like their Pakistani counterparts, the Afghan people have also been suffering since 2001 but the last two years have proved to be the most disturbing for them as well. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) 596 Afghan civilian deaths were caused by the US-led military forces in 2009, representing about a quarter of total 2,412 Afghan civilian deaths during 2009. While other estimates presents a much higher figures. Professor Marc W. Herold of the University of New Hampshire, tallied more than 1000 deaths in US led attacks in Afghanistan during 2009. Deaths occurred due to resistance attacks and terrorist incidents are not included here. 2010 was a security nightmare for Afghanistan as well where the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 1,271 Afghan civilian deaths in the American-led war in the first half of 2010. These figures do not include the victims of terrorist incidents in various Afghan towns since 2001.

Not only did the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan became more fragile as a result of Af-Pak experiment but the US/NATO forces also become more vulnerable and prone to Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. The table below shows how the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening for the US/NATO troops.

ISAF causalities in Afghanistan
ISAF causalities in Afghanistan

These facts and figures suffice in proving how flawed the Af-Pak strategy was to begin with and how its implementation is not only ruining the regional stability but also creating an extremely hostile situation for the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan. During December 2010, the Obama administration released much anticipated December review of the Af-Pak doctrine. Unfortunately, there was nothing in this review that the Afghan people and Pakistani victims of the CIA drone war had anticipated.

What is new in the Af-Pak Review?

The review document released in the Public domain by the Obama administration has nothing significant in it but same imaginary approach towards an excruciatingly complex war where not only the regional security is in complete jeopardy but the US/NATO troops in Afghanistan are faced with unparalleled survival challenges.

The review was ordered by President Obama in December 2009 to gauge the progress on various targets set in the Af-Pak, particularly disrupting and dismantling the Al-Qaeda. This document is an unequivocal depiction of the confusion and nervousness across the US security management apparatus. By keeping in mind the devastation caused by the Af-Pak during the last two years, it was anticipated that this review would recommend some immediate remedial measures in the problematic Af-Pak strategy but it looks like that more devastation and destruction is on its way to the region, particularly for Pakistan.

The review document described findings of the Af-Pak strategy in the context of Al-Qaeda, Pakistan and Afghanistan explicitly.
On Al-Qaeda, the review maintains the following findings:

“There has been a significant progress in disrupting and dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership and cadre of al-Qaeda over the past year. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been depleted, the group’s safe haven is smaller and less secure, and its ability to prepare and conduct terrorist operations has been degraded in important ways.

We remain relentlessly focused on Pakistan-based al-Qaeda because of the strategic nature of the threat posed by its leadership, and in particular the group’s continued pursuit of large-scale, catastrophic anti-Western attacks and its influence on global terrorism. We believe core al-Qaeda continues to view the United States homeland as its principal target, and events over the past year indicate some of its affiliates and allies also are more aggressively pursuing such attacks. Although the global affiliates and allies of al-Qaeda also threaten the U.S. homeland and interests, Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be the operational base for the group that attacked us on 9/11. The presence of nuclear weapons in the region also lends to its distinct status, highlighting the importance of working with regional partners to prevent extremists, including core al-Qaeda, from acquiring such weapons or materials.

There are a range of other groups, including some affiliated with al-Qa’ida, as well as individuals inspired by al-Qa’ida, who aim to do harm to our nation and our allies. Our posture and efforts to counter these threats will continue unabated.”

The crux of these findings can be summarized as under:

1. US security managers themselves are totally disoriented over the current status of their success against the Al-Qaeda and its leadership.

2. Despite all the sufferings and menace created in the country by the Af-Pak strategy, Pakistan is still accused of not finishing Al-Qaeda sanctuaries in FATA area.

3. Despite an exceptional success by the Pakistan army in Swat against the TTP insurgency, it is believed that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons can fall into terrorists’ hands.

4. Drone attacks on Pakistan would continue with a renewed retribution. This is bound to bring more tribulations for Pakistan’s national security and internal stability.

Apart from these trends in the coming times, following are the findings by the US security managers regarding cooperation with Pakistan:

“In 2010, we also improved the United States-Pakistan relationship through the Strategic Dialogue. The Dialogue improved mutual trust, prompted attention to reforms critical to long-term stability, and addressed development objectives important to the people of Pakistan.”

This assessment is far from reality on ground where the recent developments have shaken the Pak-US military relationships. Pakistani tribesmen in FATA, enraged by the reckless drone war, are now seeking justice from Pakistani courts against the CIA’s inept and illicit intelligence setup. Trust level between Pakistani ISI and the CIA has reached to new lows after CIA’s Pakistan station head fled from the country after a lawsuit was filed against him by a tribesman who lost his family in a US drone strike.

The Review document also confirms that instigation of the US/NATO withdrawal in July 2011 from Afghanistan is conditional and there is a great possibility that it will not start within the stimulated timeframe. It seems that the NATO allies of the US are in no mood to continue this protracted war anymore. So, an unconditional deadline of 2014 was set in the Lisbon Summit in November 2010 and the same timeline is mentioned in the Af-Pak review as well. This makes it clear that the next four years would be absolutely abrasive from the security point of view for the whole region. The Afghanistan portion of the document makes it clear that the US may remain in that country even after 2014 and this particular portion also mentions the following:

“While the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, these gains remain fragile and reversible. Consolidating those gains will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks. Durability also requires continued work with Afghanistan to transfer cleared areas to their security forces. We are also supporting Afghanistan’s efforts to better improve national and sub-national governance, and to build institutions with increased transparency and accountability to reduce corruption – key steps in sustaining the Afghan government. And we have supported and focused investments in infrastructure that will give the Afghan government and people the tools to build and sustain a future of stability.”

No matter how hard Obama administration is pressing for military gains in Helmand and Kandahar through recent military operations, the situation is getting desperate for the US/NATO forces as depicted earlier. But interestingly, like Al-Qaeda, Afghan resistance’s defeat has also been linked with Pakistan now. After a consistent military failure for 10 years, there is a realization in Washington that the US/NATO forces cannot fight and win against the ferocious Afghan resistance so Pakistan has been blamed once again.

Vowing to continue the current policy by the Obama administration is going to bring more harm to a region which has been devastated already due to the Af-Pak since the last two years. The Americans miserably failed in figuring out the root causes for their failures in Afghanistan despite having unparalleled military disparity. The US/NATO forces as well as the whole region are in dismay due to the under mentioned factors:

  • The US/NATO forces adopted extremely humiliating military tactics during their search and destroy operations in Kandahar and Helmand due to which the Afghan Pushtuns and their brethren in Pakistan are incensed. Searching women, entering in homes without permission and indiscriminatingly killing innocents in aerial bombardment missions have backfired and now the foreign forces are facing the wrath of the Afghan and Pakistani Pushtuns.
  • Instead of fixing their military strategy in Afghanistan so that hearts and minds of Afghans can be won, the US/ NATO accuses Pakistan of being the core reason for their failure. The only party benefiting from this assessment is India who has been looking forward to have a head on collision between Pakistan and the US since 2001.
  • The US/NATO forces have no clear goal to win a war. They are fighting on a hostile land, thousands of miles away from home and have no primary goal in front of them. So the confusion and nervousness is on the rise in the rank and file of the US/NATO troops.
  • The Americans have lost the trust of the Pakistani military establishment and patriots after undermining Pakistan’s legitimate core security interests by giving India an active role in Afghanistan from where she is busy launching insurgencies in FATA and Baluchistan.
  • Legitimacy of the drone war is a critical angle of the Af-Pak doctrine. The UN mandate for the US/NATO is limited to Afghanistan only. This fact turns the whole drone war into an illicit one. The Pakistani patriots are annoyed over the continuation of this menace.

Way Forward

It is time for Pakistani policy makers, both in the military and the political echelons, to come together to formulate a comprehensive foreign policy in context of the changing regional security scenario. Pakistan is not a hostile nation towards any state on the globe but Pakistan would protect its sovereignty with a religious fervor, this message must be transformed into a national security policy.

Following points can serve the basis for negotiations with the US in the war on terror and formulation of the national security policy:

1. Pakistan must make it clear that she would not accept responsibility for any high level terrorist attack anywhere in the world in the future unless provided with solid proofs by a global body like the UN. Pakistan cannot keep an eye on the whole globe. If the people previously implicated in global terrorism did visit the Pakistani tribal areas, it must be asked that how they managed to sneak in and out of those areas under the very nose of the CIA and other military intelligence setups working in Afghanistan. Due to the US dependence on Pakistan for supplies in Afghanistan, Pakistan has such leverage to renegotiate terms and conditions for its cooperation in war on terror.

2. Pakistan, with its MNNA status, must renegotiate the terms of engagement with the US. Pakistan must make it a part of an agreement for her cooperation in WOT to limit the Indian role in Afghanistan, particularly in issues like training the Afghan national army.

3. Drone attacks must be put to an end or their execution must be subject to confirmation of intelligence and approval by the Pakistani forces / intelligence operatives on ground.

4. The CIA has no mandate under the UN resolution to be on Pakistani soil. It is present on Pakistani soil because it was allowed to be there. But now it is clear, that this policy has flopped miserably so it is time to bring a decisive change in it.

The region has been facing a horrific blood bath since the last two years due to the US/NATO menace created under the Af-Pak strategy. More than anything else, Pakistan and her social structure is sinking deeper in this strategic quagmire and this trend would keep prevailing lest Pakistan’s current Afghan policy remains the same! It is time for a change in strategic thinking of Islamabad.

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Shahzad Masood Roomi

Shahzad Masood Roomi is a lead research analyst at Brasstacks security think tank in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and an assistant editor of monthly Brasstacks Security Review magazine, which presents a Pakistani prespective on regional and global strategic and political issues. Shahzad Masood Roomi area of expertise is military and strategics.

4 thoughts on “Af-Pak: A Strategic Quagmire For Pakistan

  • April 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I am not surprised by the lack of any mention of Pakistan’s state sponsored terrorism against India and its citizens. The whole world knows that the Pakistani security establishment was behind 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai. India’s cultural ties with Afghanistan dates long back in history.Pakistan cannot keep India out of Afghanistan however much it may try.

    • April 21, 2011 at 11:49 am

      What to say about keeping India out of Kabul and the eastern border of Afghanistan.We have to figure out how to keep them out of our front yard.Seems Mr Rajan could not present any
      analytic criticism.

  • April 21, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    @MUKUNDARAJAN: If that was the case, why India has not yet proved anything about that? And would you like to comment on Samjhuta Express bombing, for which Pakistan and its military establishment was blamed, as well?

  • April 21, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    We the ordinary people different from the one with Robert Redford in lead.Will not be able to
    pull our heads out of the sand,unless we get our hinds scorched.Well! there is more to see
    with closed eyes than with most powerful scope
    found in mother Hubbard’s closet.I wonder if our experts who would have dubbed this article
    conspiracy theory had it been written by some
    member of Geo team, got the chance to read and
    put their opinion in Dawn’s Blog! Who is Roomi
    going to shake in this administration? We live
    at Orwell’s Farm.I just hope he stays away from the ‘Sty’ thats where are ‘Masters romp and laugh’ most of the time.


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