Finally, there’s some good news out of Afghanistan. The New York Post recently reported that Afghanistan and Pakistan have signed a deal to allow each other’s militaries the right of hot pursuit, meaning that both of them will be able to follow Taliban forces across the border into the other’s territory under certain circumstances. The problem of cross-border attacks has bedeviled the war effort for years and the news that Pakistan will allow cross-border hot pursuit by Afghan forces is welcome.
It is worth asking why Pakistan, previously so recalcitrant in helping the Afghan government and so duplicitous in its dealings with the United States would choose to increase its level of security cooperation with Afghanistan now. Surely the Taliban’s attack on a school in Peshawar in December, which killed the children of several senior military officers, must have scared some of Pakistan’s high command straight about the real cost of the Faustian bargain they have maintained with radical group for nearly 20 years, but the thaw in Afghan-Pakistan relations has been in the works for months thanks to the steady efforts of Afghanistan’s new President, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani’s efforts are precisely the kind of diplomacy that the Obama Administration failed to do in Afghanistan in 2009. The Administration badly bungled its Afghan policy right from the start. Ghani is now giving Obama a second chance to get Afghanistan right.
The new security agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan is only a small step toward defeating the Taliban. Much more is required of both countries, and one hopes this week’s news is only the start of a more aggressive joint effort. Unfortunately, the United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan at the very moment an opportunity to salvage victory against the Taliban is emerging. If President Obama follows through on his promise to continue drawing down U.S. forces in the country he will be making his second serious strategic error in Afghanistan and may waste his last, best chance to spare his successor from continuing to wage this costly battle. To understand why this thaw in Afghan-Pakistan relations is happening now, how the Obama Administration bungled their Afghan diplomacy when it came to power, and how the Administration can avoid bungling it again requires some background on Afghanistan’s history and an explanation of how the issue is seen by leaders in Islamabad.
Pakistan’s Afghan Conundrum
From Islamabad, the world appears to be a small and dangerous place. To the east sits the vastly larger and nuclear-armed India whose gravitational pull warps everything else in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Even Pakistan’s relations with great powers like the U.S. and China are driven mostly by how those relationships can help Pakistan ward off the threat from India.
To the west of Pakistan sits Afghanistan. Afghanistan is both a threat and an opportunity. If Afghanistan fell into the Indian orbit it would be a threat, as India would have its smaller neighbor surrounded. If controlled by Pakistan, however, Afghanistan would provide Pakistan with much-needed strategic depth.
The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is called the Durand Line and was drawn by the British at the end of the Second Afghan War. The Durand line severed off a large chunk of what had been Afghanistan and incorporated it into British India—and has been a source of trouble ever since. No Afghan government has ever recognized the legitimacy of the Durand Line, meaning that Afghanistan is essentially claiming to be the rightful owner of a large piece of Pakistan. Naturally, this has hampered relations between the two countries. The problem is exacerbated by the Pashtun question.
On the northern side of the Durand Line, the Pashtuns make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and account for 13 million of the country’s 31 million people. They have dominated the country’s politics ever since the creation of modern Afghanistan. On the southern side of the Durand Line live 29 million Pakistani Pashtuns who are politically marginalized because they are only a small percentage of Pakistan’s massive population of nearly 200 million. This creates a strange state of affairs whereby the country that has far fewer Pashtuns has its politics dominated by Pashtuns while across the border a far larger number of Pashtuns are unable to wield significant power.
Pakistan fears that if the Pashtuns fall out of power in Afghanistan they might try to secede and that Pakistan’s own Pashtuns would want to join the new Pashtun state. Pakistan needs Afghanistan to be run by Pashtuns so the country holds together but can’t allow those Pashtuns to become too strong for fear that a Pashtun-led Afghan government might become powerful enough to assert its objections to the Durand Line more forcefully. Pakistan’s strategic dilemma is that it needs to have Pashtuns run Afghanistan but also needs to have them run it badly.
At the risk of dramatically over-simplifying matters, there are essentially two major groups of Pashtuns in Afghanistan: the Durrani and the Ghilzai.
The Durrani Pashtuns are more urban and more educated. They tend to be wealthier. They also tend to be more effective administrators, in part because they are more likely to live in cities rather than small villages and in part because the Afghan Kings who ruled from 1747 until 1973 were all Durrani Pashtuns and mostly chose as their senior officials other Durrani Pashtuns.
The Ghilzai Pashtuns, by contrast, tend to live in small villages or as nomadic herders rather than in cities. They have much lower rates of literacy than the Durrani. They are also extremely poor and have not been able to rule for more than short periods because few Ghilzai have any skill for administration. The last Ghilzai rulers in the region were the Hotaki Dynasty which lasted less than 30 years and ended in an outbreak of violence 1738.
From Pakistan’s perspective, the Ghilzai appeared to be the perfect rulers of Afghanistan. They were Pashtuns but they would not be likely to run Afghanistan well. During the war against the Soviets, Pakistan threw its support behind a Ghilzai warlord named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a religious fanatic who spent little time fighting the Soviets, preferring instead to husband his weapons to fight his Afghan rivals. He received the bulk of Pakistani-supplied weapons during the anti-Soviet war. Pakistan continued its support of Hekmatyar after the Soviets withdrew, but when it became clear in the early 1990s that Hekmatyar would be unable to bring post-Invasion Afghanistan under his control Pakistan decided it would have to back a different horse.
Pakistan found what it hoped would be a winning partner in a group of Ghilzai religious students calling themselves the Taliban. With support from Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, the Taliban came to rule nearly all of Afghanistan by 1996.
Pakistan, India, and Karzai
Pakistan’s Taliban allies never managed to take control of the entirety of Afghanistan. A group of warlords calling themselves the Northern Alliance held out in the northern part of the country and fended off Taliban forces for nearly five years after the Taliban had taken Kabul. Nor was the Northern Alliance fighting alone; it received substantial support from India. In the late 1990s, the United States had come to see Afghanistan primarily as a staging ground for al-Qaeda terrorists who were hiding there, but Pakistan and India primarily saw the country as an opportunity for a proxy battle with each other. Pakistan hoped to use Afghanistan to gain strategic depth while India hoped to use Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan. Accordingly, Pakistan’s proxy was the Taliban and India’s was the Northern Alliance. When the U.S. toppled the Taliban and aligned itself with the Northern Alliance in 2001 it was a strategic windfall for India and a major problem for Pakistan.
India stumbled into another windfall when Hamid Karzai was chosen as the new Afghan President. Karzai himself had lived in India as an exchange student in his youth and had longstanding ties to the country. As President, he aggressively courted Indian investment in his country as well as Indian weapons for his armed forces. He made frequent visits to India and made New Dehli his most important global partner after the United States. He consistently had kind words for India in his public speeches and negative words for Pakistan. Pakistan reportedly insisted that Karzai reduce Indian influence in Afghanistan. Karzai, naturally, refused the request.
Pakistan responded to this turn of events by covertly backing the Taliban in the hopes that it could undermine India’s friend in Kabul. It is no surprise that Pakistan allowed the Taliban to take refuge in its northwestern frontier provinces. It saw that India had a strong hand in central Asia as long as Karzai was Afghanistan’s President and it needed to hide an ace up its sleeve. The failure to understand this dynamic proved lethal to President Obama’s first strategy for dealing with Afghanistan: the ill-fated Afghan Surge.
Obama and the Search for an AfPak Policy
When campaigning for the Presidency, Barack Obama was adamant that Afghanistan, in contrast to Iraq, was a war worth fighting. This makes it very strange that the President seemed to have no strategy for fighting the war in Afghanistan upon assuming office.
His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, argued for a comprehensive “AfPak” strategy, one that would treat the problem of terrorist activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single problem rather than as two distinct problems. This was undoubtedly the right approach and was pursued by Clinton and special envoy Richard Holbrooke. Unfortunately, the White House staff treated Holbrooke shabbily and the President did not give his Secretary of State a prominent role in crafting national strategy. Holbrooke worked hard to find an answer but a Presidential envoy who doesn’t speak for the President isn’t much of an envoy. Holbrooke died in 2010 of heart complications before he could achieve the diplomatic breakthrough he was searching for.
Obama waffled for months before finally settling on a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan that military leaders claimed would bring the violence under control, just as the counterinsurgency strategy had succeeded in Iraq. Obama approved a surge but crippled its chances for success by refusing to send the number of troops that General Stanley McChrystal had requested and by imposing a time limit on the U.S. presence in the country that ensured the surge would not last long enough to succeed. The timeline also ensured that Afghans would be reluctant to help the U.S. defeat the Taliban, fearing that the U.S. would leave and the Taliban would remain and exact vengeance on collaborators.
Even if President Obama had not made these mistakes, it is unlikely that McChrystal’s strategy could have succeeded. The Afghan Surge was a deeply flawed idea from the beginning. A counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan would face many hurdles that the Iraq Surge had not. The geography of Afghanistan was much more favorable to an insurgency that Iraq’s; Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and poor roads made it hard for U.S. troops to pursue Taliban fighters. The country’s population was dispersed in many small villages, making it harder for the U.S. to protect civilians from insurgent attacks or provide security. Low levels of development made it hard to engineer reconstruction projects that would be economically beneficial.
But the biggest obstacles to the success of the Afghan Surge were Hamid Karzai and Pakistan.
In order for a counterinsurgency strategy to succeed it needed a credible Afghan government as a partner. The plan, in essence, was for U.S. troops to provide security while the Afghan government provided basic services. A competent Afghan government would be able to establish itself in areas U.S. troops were securing and would win back the loyalty of the population. Unfortunately, Hamid Karzai’s government was famously corrupt and proved itself unable to fulfill that role in a counterinsurgency campaign.
The U.S. missed the chance to move on from Karzai during the 2009 Afghan elections, in which Karzai committed widespread fraud to secure a victory. Some villages showed more votes cast than they had residents. The U.S. could have stepped in more forcefully to ensure the vote was fair and to challenge Karzai’s fraud but it chose not to. Instead, the Obama Administration swallowed their objections and stood aside. Obama would be stuck dealing with Karzai for another five years and it would cripple counterinsurgency efforts inside Afghanistan as well as efforts to get Pakistan to bring the Taliban to heel inside its borders.
Despite endless talk by Administration officials of developing an “AfPak” strategy, they never did have one. In fact, the Surge made it harder to deal with the Pakistan problem. Since the U.S. force in Afghanistan was now larger, the U.S. was even more dependent than before on Pakistan for its supply lines. Since the U.S. was now more dependent on Pakistan to keep its supply lines open, it had less leverage in making demands on Pakistan to cut off support to the Taliban. As long as the Taliban could find sanctuary in Pakistan they would not be defeated no matter how many troops the U.S. put in Helmand Province. American diplomats had to get Pakistan to be more aggressive but they had few promises they could make and no threats they could deliver.
The U.S. would have done better to listen to Richard Holbrooke and find an alternative to Hamid Karzai. As long as Karzai was President of Afghanistan the Pakistanis would not end their support of the Taliban. They would severely limit the extent to which U.S. and Afghan forces could strike Taliban bases in Afghanistan. They would never use Pakistan’s own military to launch a serious attack against Taliban strongholds in places like Quetta. By sticking with Hamid Karzai, the U.S. ensured that the Surge would fail and Afghanistan would continue to drift towards the precipice.
A Second Chance
Napoleon Bonaparte famously asked for someone to find him a lucky general. Barack Obama hasn’t been particularly lucky in Afghanistan (nor has he managed to make any of his own luck). But he is lucky enough to now be given a second chance to get things right before handing his successor a still-unfinished war effort. Thanks to term limits, Hamid Karzai was ineligible to run for another term and left office last year. A contentious election resulted in a victory for a Pashtun named Ashraf Ghani, a 65-year-old former Finance Minister.
Ghani wasted no time doing the most important thing an Afghan leader can do for his country: reach an understanding with Pakistan on how to deal with the Taliban. In November, Ghani visited Pakistan and met with Pakistani leaders for two days to discuss the fight against the Taliban. Shortly after his visit to Pakistan, Ghani publicly stated he would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a proxy fight by India and Pakistan.
Barack Obama is being given a second chance to get Afghanistan right. The Afghan partner he needed in 2009 is the partner he has right now. Pakistan would never give up its support for the Taliban without a security guarantee from a credible Afghan leader assuring Islamabad that Afghanistan will not become so weak as to break apart, will not become so strong as to threaten Pakistan, and will not allow itself to fall into India’s orbit. Ashraf Ghani appears to understand this and is looking to reach exactly that understanding with Pakistan.
Unfortunately, President Obama is in danger of squandering this opportunity. He continues to draw down U.S. forces in the country, hoping to bring the total U.S. force to just 10,000 by the end of 2015. The drawdown of U.S. forces has been a boon to the Taliban and a disaster for ordinary Afghans. 2014 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2009. Large swaths of countryside have reverted to Taliban control.
It would be a grim irony for the United States to walk away from Afghanistan at the very moment when it finally has the Afghan partner it needs. The irony is only grimmer because the Administration has only itself to blame for getting stuck with Hamid Karzai for the last five years. Now that the Administration is free of Karzai it must avoid squandering its second chance to get Afghanistan right. It must embrace Ashraf Ghani’s diplomatic strategy and provide continued support to the Afghan government. It must provide the right incentives and guarantees for both Afghanistan and Pakistan to reach a diplomatic understanding that can last and that will convince Pakistan to end its relationship with the Taliban. To continue drawing down our commitment in central Asia would only increase the danger that Ghani’s halting first steps towards a diplomatic resolution of Afghanistan’s longstanding tensions with Pakistan will come to naught.
This diplomatic opening would have manifested itself in 2009 had President Obama not badly fumbled his diplomacy in Afghanistan. Now, he is lucky enough to be given a second chance. Let us hope he does not waste it.