Islamabad’s Afghan Policy: A Strategic Dilemma – Analysis


Pakistan has been caught in a vicious circle due to the prolonged Afghan conflict and complete indecision by the political and military establishment about conclusion of this war and Pakistan’s role. Pakistan has suffered more fatalities in so-called War on terror than the ones faced by the US and NATO forces combined in Afghanistan during the last 9 years. But still Washington assesses Islamabad’s role in War on terror (WoT) with suspicion.

Officially, Pakistan is a frontline ally of the US/NATO but ironically, every high level official of the US and NATO countries criticize the Pakistani intelligence agencies for being the biggest accomplice of the Afghan Taliban against the Allies. Recent accusations made by Admiral Mike Mullen about ISI collaboration with Haqqani network endorses this assertion further. The professional ties between Langley and Islamabad have turned utterly sour in aftermath of recent defiance shown by CIA against the Pakistani demands of putting an end to drone strategy. On the other hand, the Pushtun populace in FATA considers Pakistan a US/NATO ally and is annoyed at the former’s Afghan policy and not providing protection against senseless CIA drone attacks. This situation is a strategic nightmare for Islamabad and Pakistan is losing her diplomatic clout in Afghan affairs after adopting a ‘made in USA’ Afghan policy.

It seems as if in the whole Afghan equation, the Afghan Taliban and other resistance elements are the only stakeholders who are not confused over this nerve-breaking cliffhanger. In fact they are getting more focused inside Afghanistan and are hitting the allied forces with more lethality at a higher frequency. The death toll of the foreign forces in Afghanistan is increasing with every passing year.

Reliance of allied forces on Pakistan for their supplies provides Pakistan with the leverage to take some strategic strides in order to protect its own sovereignty and bring durable peace in Afghanistan. The recent announcement about pulling army out of North Waziristan has taken the probability of a full-scale operation there out of the equation. But how much this strategic maneuvering would do in securing Pakistani interest of unwind the enraged tribesmen who have announced to avenge the deaths of 47 elders killed in a drone attack carried out hours after the release of CIA mercenary Raymond Davis from a jail in Lahore. Certainly, the announcement of not conducting a military operation is not going to help the Pakistani cause especially in a restive milieu where CIA just has stepped up her drone attacks.

The inability to engage the world on diplomatically to identify the reasons of their malfunction in Afghanistan is the nucleus of Islamabad’s grand failure. Pakistani leadership, both military and political, have utterly failed to tell the world that these are the US war tactics that have botched her in Afghanistan and not some isolated armed tribesmen who cross into Afghanistan to seek revenge for the deaths of their dear ones killed in the relentless US drone attacks.

Afghanistan is not like Iraq as allied forces are here under UN Security Council resolutions and mandate of these resolutions does not encompasses Pakistan as battlefield. No part of Pakistani territory has played any role in creating the grim state of affairs faced by the US forces in Afghanistan today. Military failure of allied forces is not a creation of Pakistan or her intelligence apparatus but it is a self-inflicted wound of the US military.

Why the US can’t win in Afghanistan?

The 10 years long American war in Afghanistan is taking a turn similar to the one the Soviets fought some 30 years ago. Just like the Soviets, tactical victories by US/NATO forces in Afghanistan soon turned into the strategic encirclement of the allied forces by Afghan resistance groups, which have adopted an immensely difficult to counter ‘strategy of void’ denying any target for allied forces to hit at. US/NATO forces are fighting against an enemy that is totally elusive but equally ruthless. This strategy has been frustrating the US/NATO forces since the last 9 years but now this frustration has transformed into fear, which is creeping in the file and rank of the invading forces that find themselves encircled by an unseen and unforgiving adversary. In fear, the US military is taking desperate measures by turning counterinsurgency ops into an ethnic cleansing campaign, which is also going to blow on their faces.

After realizing the bitter fact that the coalition cannot win in Afghanistan, now the US/NATO have unleashed hell on the Afghan civilians in order to break the Afghan resistance by using the scorch earth strategy. Their aim is to break the low and mid level fighting elements of the Afghan resistance psychologically by destroying their dwellings and oppressing their spouses. There are the complex dynamics of the Afghan society which US forces had completely ignored in desperation to win their war against Taliban dangerously relying on her military muscle alone.

President Obama had to sack the US forces’ commander in Afghanistan twice within the first thirteen months of his administration in the White House showing how desperate Obama administration is to secure some sort of military victory in Afghanistan before the 2012 presidential elections. However, this goal remains elusive as the US forces are losing the critical battle of winning the hearts and minds of the common Afghan people due to factors mentioned below;

1. The US army is now profiling the Afghan population, particularly in Khandahar and Helmand provinces in the South, using biometrics –finger printers and iris pattern-scanning for keeping the individual’s unique biological record for later use. But these tactics are only good for guarding installations and premises; they cannot save the US/NATO soldiers from the IDE’s blasts or ambushes.

2. The Taliban are elusive targets and ruthless hidden predators. Their battle strategy has forced the US forces to execute an inhuman annihilation strategy in the villages of Afghanistan. The US Special Forces are using the scorch earth tactics in order to break the resistance but but it is certainly going to enrage the Afghans.

In one such operation, Tarok Kolache, a small settlement in Kandahar, was wiped off from the face of the planet by the US forces after being met with stiff resistance put up by the Taliban fighters. The Taliban had planted IDE’s and mines in the nearby orchards adopting a very complex deployment pattern. After two failed attempts by the US forces to enter the village, the commander of the ground forces called in an airstrike to pulverize the whole village. The USAF’s A-10 and B-57 bombers delivered some 49,000 lbs of ordinance and “accomplished that mission”.

The Petreaus solution — A Pashtun village — Before and after!

Such operations are breeding a sense of vindictive ferocity among the civilian populace against the ISAF presence on the Afghan soil. These operations are part of Petreaus’s policy to break the Taliban strongholds in Southern Afghanistan who is hoping surrender from Taliban to gain an advantageous position prior to the Obama administration’s initiation of talks with them. On the other hand, the Taliban have made it clear that no negotiations are possible unless the US/NATO forces have withdrawn completely.

The reliance on military strategy alone in Afghanistan has failed the US/NATO; their political strategy is on the backseat while Washington’s military complex is calling the shots in the Afghan war.

3. Military operations in Southern Afghanistan are more of revenge than counterinsurgency operations. The US forces are challenging the centuries old social order of Afghan society, which the Afghans guard jealously.

The US forces have enraged the conservative Afghan society, particularly the Pushtuns, by disrespecting their social norms during their search and destroy operations in Southern Afghanistan. Body-searching women, entering into houses and killing civilians in raids–as revealed by wikileaks –are creating more hatred against the US/NATO forces than any goodwill.

4. Majority of Pushtun population has no representation in the Afghan government and Afghan National Army (ANA). The Current strength of ANA is around 150,000, which would be increased to a total strength of 260,000 by the year 2014, with only 3-4% presentation of Pushtuns from Southern Afghanistan.

5. On political axis, US has no replacement for Karzai.Karzai is Pushtun but has been isolated after he expressed his disappointment over growing civilian casualties as a result of the allied forces’ attacks. The Pushtuns also consider him as a US puppet in Kabul.

6. US forces are fighting an aimless war creating nuisance among fighting units. There is no enemy in sight but there is certainly one in treacherous battlefield. Taliban tactics have infused a sense of void, silence, isolation and non-engagement with others in the minds of the allied forces. This is intolerable for invading forces who want to engage Taliban in frontal battles. On the other hand, pushing their strategy to the next level, Taliban often deliver painful side attacks and pinprick bites by ambushing moving columns of US/NATO forces.

7. US forces have no standardized reporting system, metric or narrative so that a complete broader picture of the whole battlefield, from every aspect, can be drawn to take important decisions and devise. The previous system used by US/NATO forces cannot cater to the important local factors like ethnicity, linguistics, tribal allegiance and political ties. These aspects make Afghan war many times more complex than the one going on in Iraq.

Americans are banking their hopes on Petreaus to pull off another Iraq like success in Afghanistan (Success in Iraq by Petreaus itself remains a debatable issue as that country is still facing ethnic and sectarian chaos) but it seem this success would be a mere tactical win once again and this is something which Pakistan has failed to tell Americans loud and clear.

Future Dynamics of the Afghan Conflict and Pakistan

Pakistan has emerged as the net loser in the Afghan conflict as there is a complete confusion in Islamabad about the future dynamics of the Afghan conflict both in short and long term perspectives. Recent restive ties between ISI and CIA can damage Islamabad’s strategic partnership with Washington irretrievably. For Islamabad, saving these relations and pacifying the enraged tribesmen simultaneously is biggest challenge at hand. Similarly current Afghan policy has no clue how Pakistan is going to protect her national security interest in Afghanistan in the post withdrawal scenario; in case if that happens.

1. Right now, all the parties in the Afghan conflict are angry at Pakistan. US feels that Pakistan is supporting the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network; the Afghan Taliban perceive Pakistan as US/NATO ally because the NATO supplies pass through Pakistan to keep the war alive in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance feels that Pakistan is supporting the Afghan Pashtuns and Taliban. On the other hand, Pakistan has reasons to believe that US/NATO/Afghan armies and Indian RAW are supporting the TTP insurgency inside Pakistan using the Afghan soil.

2. The Indians are exploiting the growing mistrust between the US/NATO and Pakistan to create an impression that Pakistan is the real cause behind the failure of the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan. Indian presence in Afghanistan and its role in supporting terrorism in Pakistan is a major nauseating factor for military establishment.

3. The Pakistan army is also faced with ever-mounting pressure from Washington to launch a military operation in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) against the elements of the Haqqani network, a tribal militia that is part of the Afghan resistance against the occupying forces. Pakistan army is already spread too thin across the entire swath of FATA and NWFP including the North Waziristan Agency (NWA).

A common misperception is that Pakistan army has no presence in NWA but this is far from reality. The Pakistan military has been conducting small-scale ops in the region since 2005. More than 700 terrorists and 300 Pakistani troops have been killed in NWA during the last 5 years. A military operation in North Waziristan is necessary from Pakistan’s own security point of view because this territory has become a safe haven for various criminal and terrorist groups from all over Pakistan. But as already stated, the Pakistan army is suffering from severe operational and logistical constraints as its strength is being stretched along the entire swath of FATA and parts of NWFP. To worsen the matter more, US is not even making timely payments to Pakistan army as part of the coalition support fund.

Apart from its operational feasibility, there are some other factors due to which the Pakistan army cannot launch a full scale military operation inside NWA right now. The military had signed peace agreements with two important militant factions in 200 6, Gul Bahadur and Molvi Nazeer groups. It is not clear what impact a new military operation would have on these peace treaties. Any hasty decision to conduct a comprehensive operation can push Pakistan army into a hornet’s nest, with the most important question looming ominously: How will the Pakistan army ensure that no further demands would be made for conducting military operations in South Punjab and Quetta as well? In this backdrop, the announcement of pulling army out of NWA and handing over the local security to FC and local Lashkars (militias) makes complete sense sense. But certainly, this provides CIA with an excuse to blame Pakistan for all the above mentioned military failures of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Weighing Pakistan’s Options

Right now, Pakistan has only two options for formulating its national security policy in the Western theatre given the current geopolitical scenario:

1. Pakistan continue with the current flawed policy, adopted back in 2001, and keep facing problems like terrorism, insurgencies, and anarchy within Pakistani precincts along with unchecked foreign meddling into its political matters.

The eventual outcome of persistence with current policy would be not much different from what has been mentioned below.

  • There would be no end to terrorism, chaos and insurgencies, while other shreds of 4GW would keep haunting Pakistan.
  • TTP’s safe havens, sponsored by Indian RAW, would remain protected by CIA inside Afghanistan.
  • The façade of WoT would keep providing cover for the surrogate wars waged by the hostile agencies and elements against Pakistan.
  • CIA would expand its footprint in the other areas of the country. Their presence on Pakistani soil is already undermining Pakistan’s national security.
  • Internal chaos and anarchy would provide more opportunities to India to use its political clout in the Western capitals to get Pakistan declared a failed and terrorist state.
  • All the Afghan elements, particularly Pushtuns, are monitoring Pakistan’s Afghan policy suspiciously though they don’t consider Pakistan as their enemy. The prevailing situation can lead to hostility Afghan and Pakistan Pushtuns and Pakistani state and this is exactly where this CIA drone strategy is leading to. This will be suicidal, keeping in mind the fact that Northern Alliance elements are already antagonistic towards Pakistan.
  • Continuation of the current Afghan policy would encourage the US/NATO forces to step up the ethnic cleansing of Pushtun population inside Afghanistan. This would create violent exasperation among the Pakistani Pushtuns and the Pakistani state and nation will become victims of more violence from within.

Pakistan’s current Afghan policy has not only devastated the national security profile but its catastrophic impact has torn apart the social cohesion within the country as well necessitating the need to revamp it ASAP.

2. Second option for Islamabad is to renegotiate its terms of engagement with the US on all the regional issues particularly Pakistan’s role in the Afghan war and peace process there. After the inception of Af-Pak, Pakistan cannot let other players to control her Western theater!

This kind of complete strategic paradigm shift demands a radical change in the strategic thinking of Pakistani political and military establishment regarding the whole Afghan conflict, the various dynamics of this conflict and post withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan and its regional implications as well.

For Pakistan, the current situation demands an incisive re-evaluation of the decade old Afghan policy. This reassessment must be based on the emerging threats to Pakistan’s national security, particularly on the Western borders due to the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan instead of the traditional thinking of remaining in the US camp at any cost. Indeed the Indo-US strategic relations in the 21st century and their impact on Pakistan and regional stability would also be a critical consideration during any policy review and Islamabad would not like to further deteriorate its already troubled relations with Washington. But the national and regional security related events that have transpired during the last 10 years necessitate a comprehensive overhauling of Islamabad’s strategic thinking and the Afghan policy.

Aggressive and assertive diplomacy is the key. Pakistan will have to send a strong and clear signal to the Pushtun populace that Pakistan is not an ally of US ethnic cleansing campaign against them in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Refraining from a full-scale military operation in NWA is a right step in right direction but needs to be solidified by measures to put a stop on non-stop drone attacks in these areas on ‘suspected’ Al-Qaeda activists. Legality of these attacks is a big serious matter and provides the opportunity to Islamabad to challenge CIA’s drone war internationally on a very different axis. Ironically, Islamabad has not raised this issue from legal point of view. Mere protests have done nothing but rather proved counter-productive in preventing drone attacks. But this opportunity leave us with the question that is Islamabad ready to reassess the strategic importance of Pak-US relations in the 21st century at a time when alternate global power centers, with converging interests are emerging in the region? Or Pakistan has left with a third option? Answer is writing on the wall and history of Pak-US relations endorses it completely. It is just matter of time when Islamabad is going to end the prevailing strategic confusion over Afghan policy.

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.

2 thoughts on “Islamabad’s Afghan Policy: A Strategic Dilemma – Analysis

  • April 25, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Pakistan’s casualty figures for its military is dodgy and unproven. We don’t have any independent sources to confirm their numbers – not that casualty figures are a measure of success. There are serious doubts on the “operations” that the Pakistani military conducts. It is said that by prior arrangement, the terrorists disperse while the army moves in and declares victory.

  • April 25, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    J. Stewart your imagination is like that of your army generals, wild, illogical and without evidence to support it. Your trigger happy brainless generals are loosing the war, nay, have lost their ‘war on terror’; did not heed Pakistani advise and got themselves into a war they can only win if they drop another atom-bomb in Afghanistan. But the likes of you would welcome that. How pathetic.


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