Pakistan is key to the American strategy in South Asia. Caught between winning the war in Afghanistan and winning India as an ally — the United States’ two primary foreign policy objectives in the region — Pakistan is a pivotal but frustrating factor that threatens to undermine both.
The Obama Administration seemed to recognize this fact when it began to regard Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of the same theater of war. The Pashtun tribes forming the backbone of the insurgency move freely between the mountainous and porous border separating the two countries, making eastern Pakistan a dangerous breeding ground for extremism. The United States have no hope of subduing this threat as long as sanctuaries for the Taliban exist on the Pakistani side of the border, supplying and training assaults on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The Islamabad government, since its inception, has largely left the tribes roaming along its eastern frontier to its own devices until, in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the United States on 9/11, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf agreed to cooperate with the Americans and commit soldiers and resources to fight the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As Michael Scheuer points out at The Diplomat, Musharraf, a career military officer, “surely thought American political leaders and generals would react as he and his peers would have reacted; that is, by destroying the attackers. Based on this expectation,” he notes, “and under intense American pressure, Musharraf provided more aid for the United States war effort than any other American ally, NATO or otherwise.”
Musharraf allowed the United States to gather intelligence on his soil and execute military strikes against suspected Taliban strongholds on Pakistani territory. “He helped destroy the Taliban regime,” according to Scheuer, “even though Islamabad couldn’t have had an Afghan regime more compatible with Pakistan’s national interests.” The general had to cope with mounting discord among his own military and intelligence establishments which had regarded the status quo as a perfect counterbalance to India’s influence in the region. Up to this very day, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency provides funding, training and sanctuary to the Taliban insurgency.
Pakistani support for America’s enemies isn’t stopping Washington from transferring hundreds of millions of dollars in “aid” to Islamabad in reward for fighting its war, if only in part. Serious efforts have been made. Musharraf sent Pakistan’s army into the Pashtun lands and throughout northern Pakistan, in Bajaur, the Swat Valley, and South Waziristan, it managed to defeat the Taliban who subsequently fled to the central and southern provinces of the Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan. As Haider Ali Hussein Mullick wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, the Pakistani army, with its officer corps predominantly Punjabi, is considered something of a foreign occupation force by many Pashtuns living near the border in the north. This has pushed Pakistan to the brink of civil war.
The army’s offensives in the region have already killed several thousands of soldiers and displaced almost half a million people. The struggle between the Pashtun tribes and Islamabad was, until 2008, largely confined to the border area but has since spread into Pakistan proper, “bringing repeated bombings, ambushes, assassinations and commando-style raids to military and intelligence facilities, as well as to major cities like Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi,” according to Scheuer. He, unsurprisingly, concludes that, “The results of Musharraf’s understandable, if potentially fatal decision are wrecking Pakistan.”
As America prepares for defeat in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s leaders know that this administration isn’t any more serious about winning the war than the last one. They can no longer afford to do Washington’s bidding but must prepare for the likelihood of a Taliban victory and possibly an autonomous “Pashtunistan” occupying the border region in the near future.
Since America’s interests demand that it increases India’s role in Afghanistan — which is its best, if not only chance at establishing a semi-democratic, centralized government in Kabul — and since Pakistan will always regard an Afghanistan allied with India a threat to its very existence, Islamabad can only start working against the United States rather than with it.
Scheuer predicts that Pakistan’s intelligence service will try to mend fences with Pashtuns on both sides of the border and compel them to undermine Hamid Karzai and his government in an effort to hurry NATO’s defeat and help the Islamists to retake power in Kabul. “This is the only long-term result that meets Pakistan’s national-security needs,” he believes.
The army is likely to reduce its operations in the tribal areas in an attempt to end the civil war. Some efforts may still be undertaken to convince the Americans that Pakistan is on their side but Islamabad will be careful not to alienate the Pashtuns further. “This tack also will start to ease the deep discontent in the army over being tasked to kill Muslims for American infidels.”
Should American aid finally disappear, Pakistan can turn to either Saudi Arabia, China, or both for support. The Saudis rather prefer an Islamist regime over an Afghan government allied too closely with the West while the Chinese will jump on any opportunity to strengthen Pakistan as a counterweight to India’s rapid ascension. New Delhi may be able to persuade the Saudis otherwise as its own bilateral relation with Riyad is improving but China’s interference can only imperil an already fragile nuclear balance as Pakistan’s ties with Muslim fundamentalists will pose a constant threat to India’s security.