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How could the United States have failed so completely to engineer a change in Pakistan’s behavior in Afghanistan? Why couldn’t Washington convince or coerce Pakistan to join its side?
These questions are even more urgent following the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. With its client established in Kabul, Pakistan remains deeply entangled in its neighbor’s politics. Future solutions to the threats posed by a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan—including the potential resurgence of al Qaeda or similar terrorist groups—will likely run through Islamabad. Recent U.S.-Pakistani dialogues on these issues show signs of friction: Pakistani officials have downplayed the extent of the Taliban’s domestic crackdown and have sought public praise for their assistance in evacuating third-country officials, while U.S. diplomats remain less sanguine about Taliban reprisals and more focused on the threat of resurgent al Qaeda and Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliates in Afghanistan.
The United States has a vital interest in understanding why it failed for two decades to influence Pakistani behavior in Afghanistan—and in developing a new, less militarized strategy for advancing its goals in the region. Washington will need to appreciate just how little leverage it often holds with Pakistan, particularly when it tries to push an overlong list of priorities or makes demands that run counter to Islamabad’s entrenched interests. If the relationship touches on issues of vital American national interest, as it did after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. policymakers will need to level credible threats to ensure Pakistan’s compliance with their agenda.
Short of that, as will most often be the case, the United States should lower its ambitions with Pakistan to transactional cooperation on issues where the two sides mostly see eye to eye. This could include some counterterror and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, as well as regional diplomacy and crisis management. That cooperation should not be confused with strategic partnership, but even small-bore successes would be an improvement over costly overreach.
The Taliban would not exist today without Pakistan’s support. In the chaotic aftermath that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Islamabad saw the group as a means to expand its influence westward and, crucially, to deny the territory to regional rivals such as Iran and India. When the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, they turned Afghanistan into a playground for Islamist terrorists and militants, including groups supported by Pakistan to attack India. Some Pakistani security officials supported the Taliban out of ideological sympathy, while others shortsightedly believed—and continue to believe—that the group could be manipulated to support their own interests at a reasonable cost.
Pakistan withdrew its official support to the Taliban only after the administration of President George W. Bush convinced Pervez Musharraf, the country’s dictator, to join its post-9/11 mission against al Qaeda operatives. But even then it maintained an open-door policy to fleeing Taliban leaders that allowed them to evade American capture. Within months, the Taliban began to regroup and organize new operational hubs from Pakistan, where they launched the insurgency against U.S. forces.
A few short years after the U.S. invasion, the Taliban had made progress in their insurgency campaign. From that point onward, Pakistan never stopped providing a safe haven for the group. Its intelligence agency even provided specialized training and support for the Haqqani network, the al Qaeda–linked branch of the Taliban responsible for some of the most deadly and spectacular attacks in Afghanistan, including ones that targeted American and Indian officials. The Taliban’s recent offensive was marked by a sophisticated application of battlefield lessons from the 1990s that suggests extensive Pakistani assistance with respect to planning, logistics, intelligence, and likely even more direct involvement as well. The campaign unfolded nationwide, as Taliban forces eliminated most pockets of resistance in the north and closed border crossings to Iran before taking Kabul.
Of course, the Afghan republic might have fallen even without Pakistan’s support of the Taliban. The political order that the United States created in Afghanistan offered fertile ground for insurgency, as the government in Kabul was rife with corruption and made enemies of many of its own citizens. But without Islamabad’s aid, the Taliban leaders who fled in 2001 would have been imprisoned or killed, or at least driven underground so completely that their movement would have been crippled. New Afghan opposition forces may have arisen in the two decades after the 9/11 attacks—groups that would not have carried the Taliban’s baggage of such close association with al Qaeda.
Washington would have been less likely to escalate its military operations against just about any other Afghan group and more likely to negotiate an earlier withdrawal. Even the eventual collapse of the Kabul government would have represented less of a strategic blow than the triumphant return of the Taliban.
Although it is difficult to imagine as disaster now engulfs Afghanistan, the United States rarely placed Afghanistan at the top of its list of priorities with Pakistan. In fact, the country often placed third, well after countering al Qaeda and nuclear weapons proliferation—and sometimes fell to fourth place when India and Pakistan came to blows. This deprioritization helps explain why Pakistani leaders repeatedly doubted Washington’s seriousness of purpose in Afghanistan. These doubts were only compounded after 2003, when the United States focused greater attention on Iraq, and Afghanistan became what U.S. military officials dubbed an “economy of force” mission.
U.S. efforts to advance one set of goals with Pakistan often produced setbacks with respect to its other goals. The core of the challenge was the U.S. relationship with the Pakistani security forces: every American administration since 2001 simultaneously found itself working with Pakistan’s military and perceiving it as a central obstacle to Washington’s goals in the region. The United States collaborated closely with the Pakistani army and its intelligence service to capture and kill al Qaeda operatives and to improve the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, even as it was clear that the same military was responsible for fomenting terrorism and increasing the likelihood of nuclear war in South Asia.
Washington will need to appreciate just how little leverage it often holds with Pakistan.
Pakistan’s generals were adept at making themselves Washington’s indispensable partners, skillfully exploiting their leverage in the relationship. They would satisfy the bare minimum of U.S. demands on them—for instance, by putting global nuclear proliferation ringleader A. Q. Khan out of business and under house arrest. It helped that the army presented a unified front: Washington rarely found exploitable fractures within it and even feared that sowing such divisions would risk collapsing the single most effective institution of a nuclear-armed state. No matter the implications for Afghanistan, that was never considered a risk worth taking.
The majority of the Pakistani state, as well as a significant portion of the general public, simply never bought into the U.S. vision for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. An important contingent within the Pakistani security forces flat-out opposed any cooperation with the United States and attacked Pakistanis who collaborated with Washington, including fellow officers in the army and the intelligence services. In December 2003, Musharraf escaped two assassination attempts traced to military officers with connections to al Qaeda, and several other plots were also reportedly foiled. Over the next four years, opposition to cooperation with the United States metastasized into a domestic insurgency under the banner of the Pakistani Taliban, known as the TTP. The group initially enjoyed sympathy from many quarters in Pakistani society, including serving and retired military officers. As violence spiked against the Pakistani state, including the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence, some U.S. observers grew concerned that the army-led state might splinter.
All the while, even those Pakistanis who were willing to consider cooperation with the United States remained unconvinced that their core strategic aims in Afghanistan could be met by following Washington’s lead. It is true that U.S. officials never demonstrated much sympathy for Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan, which they often viewed as overwrought. They never took seriously Islamabad’s anxiety that the Kabul-based government could emerge as a threat, either by supporting irredentist claims on Pakistani territory or by siding with India. The United States also routinely demurred when Islamabad asked for help resolving the Durand Line border dispute and increasingly moved ever closer into its own strategic partnership with New Delhi.
Overcoming Pakistan’s skepticism also became more difficult as the Taliban insurgency grew in strength. Through the Afghan Taliban, and especially through the Haqqanis, Pakistan was effectively working to push India out of the country and target its perceived enemies. It held no other tool of comparable efficacy: it had long ago betrayed the trust of non-Taliban Afghan leaders and lacked sufficient economic clout to buy its way to a position of influence.
The United States tried many times to use coercive measures and positive inducements to win Pakistani support—frequently adopting a mix of both policies at the same time. These efforts, however, never provided Washington with much leverage on Afghanistan. U.S. “carrots,” such as the sale of F-16 fighter jets, were granted only belatedly and after extensive congressional debates that often diminished their diplomatic payoff by drawing public attention to the ways in which Pakistan undermined U.S. goals in the region. Billions of dollars in “reimbursements” for Pakistani military operations were routinely delayed or arrived with various strings attached, making it difficult to calibrate assistance to punish or reward Islamabad’s behavior.
The majority of the Pakistani state simply never bought into the U.S. vision for a post-Taliban Afghanistan.
The United States also rarely threatened to make Pakistan pay a high price for its intransigence. Only once during the entire 20-year war did Washington raise the stakes in a sufficiently targeted and forceful manner that Islamabad was forced to change its approach in Afghanistan. This lone success came in the immediate shock of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, when Pakistan’s generals felt compelled to stand aside as their Taliban allies were routed. Musharraf and his compatriots clearly feared what the United States might do otherwise, and they were unwilling to go down with the Taliban.
But Washington failed to seize other prime moments for coercion, when Pakistan’s leaders felt vulnerable and U.S. threats were more likely to be credible. The first opportunity came immediately before the Obama administration’s 2010 “surge” into Afghanistan, when the threat of a major U.S. military escalation could have forced Islamabad and its Taliban proxies into serious negotiations. Washington instead chose to delay negotiations in the hope that its military advances would deliver a sweeping victory over the Taliban or at least an opportunity to negotiate from a position of greater strength. In retrospect, the threat of U.S. escalation probably offered a better coercive stick than the actual escalation.
The second opportunity came in May 2011, immediately after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in an audacious raid inside Pakistani territory. The al Qaeda leader’s presence on Pakistani soil exposed to the world that Islamabad was either incompetent or deceitful—or some messy combination of the two. Pakistan’s military stood humiliated and vulnerable to pressure at home and internationally. However, rather than following up with new threats of what would come if Pakistan did not change course, U.S. officials largely backed off.
These officials likely feared the consequences of kicking the Pakistani military when it was already down and hoped to maintain at least enough cooperation to enable U.S. military access through Pakistan’s roads and airspace into Afghanistan. The United States also believed that Pakistan’s situation could always get worse. Duplicitous generals were less bad than outright Islamists and the army’s ruthless grip on domestic politics more predictable than the messy alternatives.
Washington now finds itself in a position with Afghanistan that looks much like the late 1990s. The country once again risks becoming a base for international terrorism, as the Taliban victory offers a rallying point for global jihadism. The Taliban, and especially the Haqqanis, have never fully broken with al Qaeda, and pockets of ungoverned territory in Afghanistan will offer safe haven to groups such as ISIS or new terrorist organizations with global aims. Taliban rule could also support extremist movements abroad and spark an exodus of refugees, further increasing regional instability.
The experience of the last two decades will make the Biden administration and its successors even more circumspect about seeking Pakistan’s cooperation in countering these threats. Yet the United States will have relatively few good options to affect Afghanistan’s course, given that none of the country’s other neighbors hold as much sway as Pakistan. For its part, Islamabad will be even more attached to its dangerous proxies, less awed by U.S. threats, and less inclined to trust Washington’s commitments.
Moving forward, U.S. policymakers would do well to appreciate the many contradictions and constraints that have plagued prior efforts with Pakistan. Perhaps they will try again, hoping to avoid past errors. They would be wise to begin by narrowing and focusing their ambitions for any future cooperation with Islamabad. Understanding the limits of U.S. leverage—through inducement or coercion—must be the name of the game. In many ways, the top U.S. priorities remain unchanged: global terrorists need to be deprived of opportunities to plan and implement attacks, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons need to stay unused and securely inside the country.
Washington should heed the lesson of the past two decades: a strategic partnership with Islamabad is currently out of reach.
In Afghanistan, the United States will also seek Pakistan’s support for evacuating refugees in the near term and delivering humanitarian assistance over the longer run. The Biden administration, in concert with its friends and allies, should also keep up the diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to facilitate the escape of the thousands of Afghans who fought with coalition forces. However, Washington should also be realistic enough to appreciate that Islamabad’s interests now lie in cultivating firm ties with the new Taliban regime and that it will be difficult to induce Pakistan to play a broadly helpful role in the country. For now, at least, working through Central Asian states, and even Iran, is more likely to save the lives of Afghan allies.
Similarly, only a subset of U.S. counterterror operations will realistically benefit in the near term from closer military and intelligence cooperation with Pakistan. When Washington and Islamabad see eye to eye on the threat posed by groups such as ISIS, they can reliably share targeting information. Of course, the same can be said even of the Taliban, with which U.S. forces have worked to counter ISIS in recent years. Unlike the Taliban, however, Pakistan offers air access from the Arabian Sea and monitoring and surveillance capabilities of its own.
The United States will find it easier to calibrate its relationship with Pakistan if it keeps the relationship transactional and focused narrowly on specific terrorist threats. For instance, if Islamabad helps U.S. forces track al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Washington can help Pakistan against the TTP. Of course, Washington will also likely need to work against terrorist groups that Pakistan and the Taliban continue to aid and abet, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed. For that reason, any cooperation should not be confused with genuine strategic partnership, cause for reopening the spigot of U.S. assistance to Pakistan, or even friendlier high-profile diplomacy.
The United States’ other focus with Pakistan ought to be on preventing the use or spread of nuclear weapons. Earlier U.S. efforts to bolster the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile were always of limited utility, mainly because they never engendered Pakistani trust in the United States. Given Pakistan’s tightening ties to China, there is no reason to attempt similar initiatives now. U.S. policy should instead fall squarely on establishing credible deterrent threats to keep Pakistan from using its weapons in a hostile exchange with India or against other targets, including Israel, and to keep it from sharing nuclear weapons and know-how with other states, such as Saudi Arabia.
Pakistani diplomats have already signaled that they wish to turn the page with the United States. Yet Islamabad’s choices over the past 20 years have consequences: a generation of American military officers and political leaders has come of age knowing Pakistan mainly as a spoiler in Afghanistan. The United States should not punish Pakistan simply out of pique for past wrongs, but it should also heed the lesson it has learned the hard way over the past two decades: a strategic partnership with Islamabad is currently out of reach. If a deeper bilateral relationship is to be built, it will take years, if not decades, and the initiative will have to come first from the Pakistani side.
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