Unfriendly Allies: Blaming Pakistan for Failures in Afghanistan

Image credit: Dawn, Pakistan

By Adnan Qaiser

French statesman, Georges Clemenceau had notably observed, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” Although no general ever happily walks into his Waterloo, American generals’ jitteriness in Afghanistan is understandable. US defence secretary, General (R) James Mattis admitted recently: “We haven’t fought a 16-year war so much as we have fought a one-year war, 16 times.” Despite employing NATO’s full military might, President Trump’s war-cabinet – dominated by a few generals who remained unsuccessful in Afghanistan – has now put the entire blame of US failures on neighbouring Pakistan. Is it rational or convincing? The answer is, no.

In his brilliant soldierly scholarship Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars retired US general, Daniel Bolger confesses: “Our primary failing in the war involved generalship … demonstrated poor strategic and operational leadership … This was our war to lose, and we did.”

Trump’s Threat: Pakistan’s Stern Response and Regional Disapproval

While outlining his revised Afghan strategy, President Trump threatened a nuclear-armed Pakistan with fire and brimstone at Fort Myre on 21 August 2017. However, Mr. Trump’s bullying attitude not only incensed Pakistan – a “major non-NATO ally” in the war-on-terror – but also startled other regional countries like Russia, China and Iran. Unexpectedly, Pakistan, that has largely survived on American largess, but brimming with 74 percent anti-Americanism (2012 figures), came out with an outraged and alarmed response.

Pakistan’s disquiet is natural; it not only provides air and ground supply routes to the NATO forces since 2001 but also shares vital intelligence and has helped in arresting over 400 al-Qaeda terrorists on its soil. Pakistan army and its Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) laudable contribution can be gauged from their successful operation in Pakistan’s tribal area on 11 October 2017, recovering a kidnapped Canadian journalist, Joshua Boyle along with his American wife, Caitlan Coleman and their three children from Taliban’s captivity, since 2012.

However, Mr. Trump’s umbrage, made Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi firmly reject the idea of Pakistan becoming a “scapegoat” for failures in Afghanistan besides refusing to allow fighting the Afghan war on Pakistani soil – a reference to cross-border strikes and hot pursuit – in his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2017.

While Pakistani sentiments were already inflamed, US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson’s claim of ‘knowing’ Taliban’s presence in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar further worsened US-Pakistan relations. In its unanimous resolution, Pakistan’s National Assembly (parliament) rejected the “hostile and threatening” US statements. As expected, Pakistan’s “all-weather friend,” (China), immediately came-out in Pakistan’s support. In a phone call to US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, China’s State Councillor Yang Jiechi stated: “[W]e should attach importance to the important role that Pakistan plays in the Afghanistan issue, respect [Pakistan’s] sovereignty and legitimate security concerns.” Echoing similar sentiments, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, also lambasted Trump’s Pakistan strategy and insisted that Islamabad is “a key regional player to negotiate with. Putting pressure [on Pakistan] may seriously destabilize the region-wide security situation and result in negative consequences for Afghanistan.”

It is intriguing, indeed, that just a day before Mr. Trump’s speech, US CENTCOM commander, General Joseph Votel had completed his two-day visit to Pakistan, in which he was given an extensive tour of North Waziristan – allegedly Haqqani network’s abode – stressing “increased understanding of the counterterrorism and counter-insurgency efforts of the Pakistani government.”

ISI-Taliban Nexus Blame-game

While Pakistan denies the accusation, the ISI has always been blamed for providing sanctuaries to the Taliban’s supreme leadership council (Quetta Shura) and Haqqani command council on Pakistani soil. On a question about ISI’s links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Pakistan’s former president, Asif Ali Zardari had stated to CNN in 2009 that all “intelligence [agencies] have sources in all such organizations;” however, the contacts do not necessarily translate into support. The question is: despite US drone-strikes in Pakistan – ranging between 406 and 429 from 2004 to 2017 – and at least 24 cross-border attacks, how come the Taliban and its leadership not taken out in Pakistan, if present?

I recall posing this question to US General David Petraeus at Conference of Defence Associations Institute’s annual conference in March 2010, that amid all these allegations and outcry about Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, why no action had been taken against the Quetta Shura and Haqqani network under UN Security Council’s resolutions 1373 and 1377 of 2001. Probably, due to lack of concrete evidence as well as the handicaps involved in invading a nuclear-armed Pakistan, I was instead given a detailed account of Pakistan army’s “appreciable and supportive activities across the border.”

US contradictions are self-evident too: Despite former chairman, joint chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen called the Haqqani’s as ISI’s “veritable arm,” General Patraeus admitted that during his long association with his Pakistani counterparts and interaction with ISI as head of CIA, he could never find a convincing piece of evidence which supported the alleged double game by ISI or its explicit support to elements associated with terrorism.

While the ISI is solely accused for supporting the Taliban, the rag-tag militia’s reach and control (see New York Times map) extending to the south (Helmand, Nimroz, Farah and Herat), west (Mazar-e-Sharif) and north (Kunduz and Baghlan) demonstrates Iranian and Russian backing too, in view of: 1) Taliban’s grassroots support-base, which may result in its return to power in some form or manner in the future (According to US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Taliban presently control 40 percent of Afghanistan); 2) Worries about the practicability and survivability of Afghan government (rife with internal discords, abuse of power and corruption), and 3) Doubts about the capability and viability of Afghan security forces to defend their homeland. General Nicholson admitted he could not “not refut[e]” reports about Russia providing support, including weapons, to the Taliban. In this regard, the Iranian constitution’s Article 3 (16), Article 152 and Article 154 are also noteworthy, as they abide the Iranian foreign policy to defend all Muslims and peoples facing oppression.

US Options on Pakistan and their Consequences

As I had anticipated in an earlier paper, Punishing Pakistan on Afghanistan: US Befuddled Policy, Mr. Trump was out disciplining Pakistan to eliminate the Taliban. However, could America achieve its strategic goals in Afghanistan by penalizing a vital component of regional stability? Analysts have already found Trump’s continued military strategy – disregarding a political solution – doom to fail. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has also called Trump’s policy a “futile course.” Meanwhile Taliban have warned, “If America doesn’t withdraw its troops, soon Afghanistan will become another graveyard for this superpower in the 21st century.”

US options to coerce Pakistan are, however, limited; and each option carries dangerous consequences, with unbearable costs, in some cases.

First of all, before thumbing its nose to a nuclear-armed Pakistan, America should carefully review its constraints: 1) Other nuclear and near-nuclear powers like North-Korea and Iran are already showing their open defiance to Washington; 2) Caught in their own challenges to Europe’s integrity (like Brexit and Catalan), European partners are reluctant to support reneging on Iran-nuclear deal; 3) While Syria remains under Russia’s firm control (including, of course, parts of Georgia and Ukraine), US-led coalition’s airstrikes drag-on in Iraq (Moscow has recently chided Washington for “pretending to fight IS in Iraq;”) 4) Kurd referendum has further pushed the Middle East into incessant turmoil; 5) Mr. Trump has instigated a war of words with Turkey over Gulen and visas issue; and 6) Afghanistan remains in a sorry state. Amid all this commotion, arm-twisting Pakistan at a time when anti-Americanism has reached to disproportionate level in a country having world’s sixth-largest population and which stays politically and economically unstable may increase US liabilities.

Secondly, Mr. Trump’s accusation on Pakistan for providing safe havens to the “agents of chaos,” granting full authority to his military commanders in Afghanistan, may result into cross-border strikes on alleged Taliban targets in Pakistani cities and/or on Afghan refugee camps. However, one, it would amount to invading the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan. Two, as in the case of drone attacks, the legitimacy of those targets would remain unknown – as well as disputed – besides causing an enormous amount of collateral damage. If US monitoring and surveillance systems and human intelligence (HUMINT) assets have so far remained unable to track large hordes of Taliban launching attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil and then retreating to their bases, as alleged, ‘hot-pursuit’ of targets remains questionable. Three, US boots on Pakistani ground would be a messy affair; Pakistan has already rejected any joint US-Pakistan operations on Pakistani soil as “out of question.” While Taliban has vowed to support Pakistan under US threat, director-general of Inter Services Public Relations, Major General Asif Ghafoor has told reporters, “Let it come … Pakistan shall do whatever is best in the national interest.” Instead of wrapping-up, it would be foolish to widen the Afghan War after 16 years. Pakistan’s Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani indignantly proclaimed, “Donald Trump must also realize that when he talks about a threat to Pakistan, we hail with the legacy of Vietnam and Cambodia. So if he wants Pakistan to become a graveyard for American forces, then let it be so.”

US third option is to keep employing drone-strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, further straining the bilateral relations, as Pakistan keeps protesting the drone-attacks as an affront to its sovereignty. However, if over 400 drone-strikes in Pakistan could not eliminate the Taliban militants there is little likelihood of any future success. Pakistan’s parliament has already condemned drone-strikes as a violation of “the charter of the United Nations, international laws and humanitarian norms.”

Fourth, Washington carries the leverage of economic coercion on Islamabad, keeping in view the precarious state of Pakistan’s economy. Trump claimed of “paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars [while at] the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” Pakistan, although, (exaggeratedly) claims its loses in the “war on terror” totalling some US$123.13 billion; the country received US$33.4 billion as civil and military aid and assistance, including Coalition Support Fund, (monies reimbursed for services rendered in support of operations in Afghanistan) between 2002 and 2016.

Both US secretaries of state and defence have hinted about using the economic stick to change Pakistan’s behaviour. With country’s external debt and foreign liabilities standing at a whooping US$83 billion; foreign exchange reserves depleting to US$13.86 billion (October 2017), current account/trade deficit standing at US$4.4 billion; and a colossal amount of budgetary deficit and circular debt (that comes from unpaid electricity bills and faulty transmission lines), economists worry about Pakistan seeking another International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) bailout package. World Bank’s recent report has also warned of “increasing macroeconomic risks” in Pakistan.

However, a self-assured Prime Minister Abbasi not only claimed Pakistan’s no more dependency on US military hardware, but also ruled-out going back to the IMF.  Furthermore, Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa has also told the American ambassador, David Hale, point-blank: “We [Pakistanis] are not looking for any material or financial assistance from the USA but trust, understanding and acknowledgement of our contributions [in the war against terror].” Pakistan’s reassurance probably comes from its close ties with China, which has recently established a parallel Bretton-Woods in the shape of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

US has already stopped Pakistan’s military assistance, and if more pressure is mounted and economic sanctions applied, Pakistan will most likely go into default and economic meltdown, with unknown consequences for the viability of the state and regional stability. America should also be mindful of two things: One, the economic sanctions imposed during (the later-half of) 1980s and 1990s to halt Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program could not stop the country from becoming a nuclear power; and two, it had been the crunch of sanctions, most probably, that pushed Pakistan towards nuclear proliferation – selling its nuclear know-how and technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea – through its nuclear scientist Dr. A.Q. Khan’s network. In his book, The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenge to American Power, David Sanger quotes Pakistan’s former army chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg to have threatened “to sell nuclear technology to Iran if [the American] arms supply was cut off.” The general also pressed the then prime minister, Benazir Bhutto “to strike a US$4 billion nuclear deal with Iran in exchange for money and oil” Sanger alleges.

Fifth, Washington’s threat of revoking Pakistan’s ‘major non-NATO ally’ status’ may hasten Islamabad falling into Beijing and Moscow’s embrace. Having become a full-member of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Pakistan has already begun its ‘Chinanization’ through a US$62 billion ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (CPEC), connecting Kashgar with Pakistan’s deep seaport at Gwadar. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khawaja Asif has already expressed remorse for having sided with America in the Afghan jihad against Soviet Union during 1980s. The non-NATO ally status, through which Pakistan receives preferential military aid and equipment, has largely remained symbolic and already been undermined by the US, when it declined to provide F-16 aircrafts to Pakistan through subsidy in 2016.

Lastly, the US threat of declaring Pakistan a “state sponsor of terror” – with bill introduced in the US Congress in September 2016 – hangs as another Sword of Damocles over Pakistan. Although, through Saudi Arabia’s intercession – a long-standing US ally – this threat may not see the light of the day. In a masterly display of military-diplomacy, Pakistan’s army chief has already paid snap-visits to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, with plans to visit Iran and Russia also. Moreover, with strong messages of support from Russia, China, Iran and Turkey, Pakistan finds itself in a robust geopolitical situation.

Pakistan’s Riposte

While Pakistan felt insulted by Mr. Trump’s “blatant disregard of Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war on terror,” US defence secretary, General Mattis’s statement of giving “one more time” to Pakistan has added fuel to fire, further enraging Pakistani sentiments. However, despite having the wherewithal to frustrate US military success in Afghanistan – owing to four-decades of “strategic depth” in its backyard – Pakistan too finds itself tied with numerous constraints that limit its response.

Pakistan’s prime minister, defence minister and interior minister, have all held separate parleys with Trump administration to allay Washington’s concerns and put across Islamabad’s viewpoint. In his talk at the Council of Foreign Relations on 21 September 2017, Prime Minister Abbasi highlighted the robustness of US-Pakistan 70-year long relations, which are not defined by the conflict in Afghanistan alone.

First of all, Pakistan fully understands the foolhardiness in clashing with a superpower, in which its “iron brother” (China), may also be of little help owing to geopolitical compulsions. Although denied by former US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, Pakistan’s former president, General Pervez Musharraf had quoted him in his book In the Line of Fire, threatening Pakistan to be “bombed back to the Stone Age.”

Secondly, Pakistan may block the two ground lines of communication (GLOC) of NATO supplies from its Karachi port to Chaman and Torkham border-points – as it did two times in the past during frictions in ties (in 2010 and in 2011-12), though allowing the air passage over Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. However, in the present circumstances, the blockage would be untenable: One, NATO forces are presently fewer in number, whose logistics may be airlifted or brought-into Afghanistan from Central Asia; and two, Pakistan’s political and economic vulnerabilities and its civil-military divergence would not let the blockage sustainable for a longer period of time.

Third, despite revising its bilateral protocols by bringing changes in its set of rules for the visiting US officials, Pakistan may find it difficult to dictate its terms of engagement with the US, rhetoric notwithstanding. On Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Pakistan on 24 October 2017, the whole Pakistani civil and military leadership lined up to meet him.

Fourth, considering Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban and the Pashtun population of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s ISI can very well frustrate US interests and long-term plans in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s former ambassador to the UN, Munir Akram, has recently noted: “Ultimately, as history attests, an external military solution cannot be imposed on the Afghans. Like others, the US will leave the ‘graveyard of empires’ in ignominy if it does not depart in dignity.”

President Trump’s threat has, however, reinvigorated Pakistan. Its army chief not only cajoled an annoyed President Ashraf Ghani by leading a high-powered delegation to Kabul but Pakistan has also revived the quadrilateral peace process comprising of the US, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan, lying in morgue since February 2016, with a fresh huddle taking place at Muscat, Oman on 16 October 2017.

Sanity Must Prevail

Since every country protects its national interests, Pakistan should not be cornered for maintaining links with the Pashtun Taliban, considering a sizeable Pashtun population – plus some three million Afghan refugees – residing in Pakistan. Secondly, Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns about its archrival India, putting pressure on Pakistan from Afghanistan, need to be addressed. Both Prime Minister Abbasi and Foreign Minister Asif have clearly told Washington that any role to New Delhi in Kabul would be unacceptable to Islamabad (supporting India’s contention, General Mattis’s recent observation on CPEC “passing through a disputed territory” (Gilgit-Baltistan) has not only offended Pakistan but also distressed China). Third, economic sanctions or other hostile measures may further destabilize a democratic Pakistan resulting into another military takeover or the country is forced to adopt unconventional ways to make its ends meet. Secretary Tillerson has already voiced his concerns about the stability of Pakistani government. Since international community cannot afford another impetuous North Korea in South Asia, it must counsel restraint to the US. Finally, US must heed the long-neglected international advice of accepting the Taliban as an Afghan reality and seek a political solution through genuine talks without delay.

Taking into account US current difficulties – when its allies and partners around the globe are staying aloof, if not alienated by US policies – America must exercise caution, especially when dealing with “world’s most dangerous place [and a nuclear] “flashpoint” – as put by President Clinton in 2000. US-Pakistan relations have historically remained transactional, which Secretary Tillerson confirmed on his recent visit to South Asia, by stating: “[W]e have made some very specific requests [to] Pakistan [to eradicate alleged safe havens on its soil] … so our relationship with Pakistan will also be conditions-based.”

However, in response, Pakistan’s foreign minister also laid down the country’s policy in the parliament unequivocally: “They [US] failures over the past 16 years is before them … [which] they are not ready to accept. However, if they want that we act as their proxies to fight their war … this is unacceptable. We will not compromise on our sovereignty, or dignity.”

Former CIA’s station chief in Islamabad, Robert Grenier, who played a key role during the initial days of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, dismayingly records in his book 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary: “By 2013, U.S. policy in South-Central Asia had conspired not only to generate a losing war in Afghanistan but in the process to fundamentally destabilize neighbouring Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state of some 180 million people … a combination of unwise policies, inept execution, and myopic zeal had produced a situation arguably worse than the one with which we started.”

Never having the right strategy to fight wars of national liberation and insurgencies, as established in the Korean peninsula, Vietnam and Iraq, history has already announced its verdict against America in its longest war in Afghanistan – and it is not very comforting.


Adnan Qaiser is a Research Associate at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, Canada, with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy. He can be reached at: a.qaiser1@yahoo.com 

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A Canadian of Pakistani origin, Adnan Qaiser began his professional career as a commissioned officer in the Pakistan Army, taking early release as a Major. Working at various command and staff positions he developed a thorough understanding of national politics, civil and military relations, intelligence establishment, regional geopolitics and the security and policy issues that surround them. Moving on to international diplomacy on his next career ladder, he fostered political, economic and cultural relations at bilateral and multilateral platforms, watching closely some of the most turbulent times in the South Asian, Far Eastern and Middle Eastern politics from a G7 perspective. Immigrating to Canada in 2001, he kept upgrading his education, while maintaining memberships and affiliations with various industry verticals for his professional development. Adnan has worked at key positions in public, private and not-for-profit organizations. Speaking many of the languages and having deep insight into the region he keeps publishing papers on South Asia (Pakistan and India), Afghanistan, United States, China, Middle East, religious extremism and radicalization. Adnan has been a regular commentator at Canadian and Pakistani televisions and occasionally gives online talks at YouTube. Having been associated with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, Canada since 2009, Adnan has delivered talks at think-tanks like CDA Institute and Canadian International Council (CIC). Adnan holds a Level-II (Secret) security clearance from the Government of Canada. He Tweets @adnanqaiser01 and can be reached at: adnanqaiser1@yahoo.com