Stabilizing Afghanistan Means Dealing with the Insurgent Sanctuary of Pakistan
By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
The famous philosopher George Santayana famously quoted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This statement particularly applies to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The U.S. recently commemorated the 9/11 terror attacks that precipitated our involvement in Afghanistan. But since 2001, the United States has been unable to deal with the insurgent activity inside Pakistan.
The Strength of an Insurgency
Whenever an insurgent group like the Taliban enjoys a sanctuary inside a neighboring country, they will either win or drag out the conflict. If the United States is to be successful in bringing stability to Afghanistan, it must place a significant amount of pressure on the Taliban and Haqqani network inside Pakistan and stop Islamabad’s support for these terrorist organizations.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford recently traveled to Pakistan. They sought to persuade Islamabad to stop supporting proxy forces inside Afghanistan and start supporting the peace process.
Since the U.S. military intervention into Afghanistan, Pakistan has become a safe haven for the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups who operate with impunity, all under the watchful eye of Islamabad. Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was even allowed to escape across the border following the U.S. military incursion.
Trump: Time to Hold Pakistan Accountable
In the summer of 2017, President Trump remarked that “Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” This past New Year’s Day, Trump tweeted that the United States has “Foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years” with little in return, promising “No more!”
Days before Pompeo’s and Dunford’s visit to Pakistan, the United States placed added pressure on Islamabad. The federal government announced the cancelation of a $300 billion military aid package, which had coincided with a broader revocation of aid this past January.
So far, the Trump administration has not been successful in getting Pakistan to change its behavior. Similarly, former president George W. Bush and President Barack Obama were stymied by Pakistan.
Why Has the US Experienced a Lack of Success in Afghanistan?
Various reasons hinder the ability of the U.S. to bring stability to Afghanistan. These reasons include:
- The lack of effective Afghan governance at the regional level
- The over-focus on military tactics
- The Taliban’s ability to secure resources from foreign donors and the drug trade
- The sanctuary that Pakistan offers to the Taliban
Seth G. Jones, Senior Adviser to the International Security Program at the Center for International Studies, reported that “The Taliban’s senior shura (also called the Rahbari shura or leadership council) continues to reside in Pakistan, as do the Taliban’s regional shuras that support the Afghan war. In addition, Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) still provides sanctuary and aid to groups like the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network that are fighting the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.”
What the US Should Do to Bring Peace to Afghanistan
For the United States to be successful in bringing peace to Afghanistan, it must move beyond the tactical approach and formulate a strategic strategy that deals directly with the Taliban and the Haqqani network’s sanctuary inside Pakistan. If this strategy is not created, the U.S. will just replicate the mistakes of the past 17 years.
To turn the conflict around, U.S. leaders should remember the axiom articulated by military expert and Prussian general Carl Von Clausewitz in his famous military treatise, “On War.” Von Clausewitz defined “the Center of Gravity,” which is “the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.”
In any insurgency, the source of strength is the population. When the U.S. has Afghanistan’s citizens on its side, the chance for peace will increase exponentially.
Success Relies on Winning over Afghanistan’s Population
Both the Taliban and the Afghan government are competing to mobilize Afghanistan’s population to unite with their respective sides. Unfortunately, the Taliban has been more successful in gaining the support of citizens.
In the past year, the Taliban has gained more influence and control over the Afghan population. Much of the support has come from rural areas, because the local population is disillusioned with the current government.
The United States needs to understand that the local population doesn’t adhere to the Taliban’s extreme Islamic ideology, except in southern, eastern and western Afghanistan – including the provinces of Wardak, Nuristan and Zabul. But with extensive corruption from the Afghani government, it’s easy to inadvertently force the Afghani population into the hands of insurgents like the Taliban.
U.S. Needs to Target the Sanctuary Pakistan Offers to Insurgents
By its failure to deal with the sanctuary that Pakistan offers to insurgent groups, these insurgent groups can re-constitute themselves, build their organizations and formulate attacks inside Afghanistan with impunity. Washington must find a way to disrupt safe havens inside Pakistan.
The Pakistani government must also halt its duplicitous actions. Pakistan states that it supports bringing stability to Afghanistan, but it provides material support and logistics to the Taliban and the Haqqani network through their intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).
Much of the leadership of the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which the U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan, resides on the Pakistan side of the border. The leaders include:
- The Taliban’s leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada
- His deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqub
- Senior leaders like Abdul Qayyum Zakir, Ahmadullah Nanai, Abdul Latif Mansur and Noor Mohammad Saqib
All of these leaders reside in Pakistan. There are also a vast number of Taliban and Haqqani foot soldiers living in Afghanistan, who fight a government they deem corrupt, incompetent and illegitimate.
The Trump administration needs to reevaluate its strategy toward Pakistan, because the Taliban isn’t strong enough to take Kabul or overthrow any other major Afghan city. In the same vein, the Afghan government is too weak to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield, so the U.S. is in the middle of a political stalemate.
What the US Could Do in Pakistan
In a report by Southeast Asian expert Seth Jones, Jones suggests that the U.S. apply pressure to Pakistan. The U.S. could warn the Pakistani government that if they continue to harbor the Taliban and Haqqani leaders and fail to support the peace process, the United States will initiate several escalatory steps by:
- Providing more public transparency about Pakistan activities. For example, the U.S. publicly disclose the names of senior Taliban and Haqqani leaders residing in Pakistan. The U.S. could also include declassified intelligence – including satellite imagery – of Taliban locations in Pakistan.
- Committing to aggressively pursue U.S. enemies wherever it finds them. United States forces should be prepared to target the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other groups wherever they are found — including Pakistan. The United States could directly target the Taliban and Haqqani network in Pakistan or to surrogates that provide direct or indirect support to these terror groups.
- Continuing to freeze or terminate most military aid to Pakistan.
- Developing additional alternative routes to bring material to U.S. forces in Afghanistan through countries like Uzbekistan, which is situated along Afghanistan’s northern distribution lines.
- Suspending or terminating Pakistan’s status as a non-NATO ally. Non-NATO ally status offers military and financial advantages that generally are not available to non-NATO countries.
- Making it more difficult for Islamabad to get access to multilateral financial lenders.
- Placing Pakistan on the U.S. Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies have already collected an abundance of information about Pakistan’s ties to terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and India, from Lashkar-e-Taiba (or Jamaat-ud-Dawa) to the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network.
Both Pakistan and the United States have long-term interests in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. It’s time for the U.S. to convince Islamabad that peace is in everyone’s interests. Failure will ensure that the Afghan and Pakistani people will continue to suffer economic and political hardships.