By Dr. Nayyer Ali

October 14 , 2011

The Failure of Pakistan’s Afghan Policy

 “If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.”  That saying summarizes the mindset of the Pakistani army when it comes to the Afghanistan policy.  For decades, Pakistan has viewed creating a friendly and compliant regime in Kabul to be essential to Pakistani security. 

On this basis, Pakistan supported the Mujahedin fighting the Soviets in the 1980’s.  But it supported selected ones, those most likely to be favorable to Pakistan and to fight on the basis of the Islamic ideology rather than Afghan nationalism.  Leaders like Gulbuddin Hekmetyar were favored while Ahmed Shah Massoud (who held off the Soviets in the Panjshir valley for years) were left unsupported.  Massoud was not given Stinger missiles that other Afghan groups got, missiles that allowed the Afghans to defend themselves against Soviet helicopters and low flying aircraft. 

With the withdrawal of the Soviets, Pakistan continued to support the Pashtun Hekmetyar as the key player they wanted to come to power in Kabul.  He was provided a large cache of missiles with which he destroyed much of Kabul.  But he could not dislodge the northern-based insurgents who had defeated the Communist government and taken Kabul, leaders like Massoud, Rabbani, and Dostum, who later became the “Northern Alliance”.  Pakistan insisted on a Pashtun-based regime, and so continued to support civil war in Afghanistan.  But in the mid-90’s a new Pashtun-based movement, called the Taliban, took hold around Kandahar and after some successes the Pakistani government and army moved to support their takeover of Afghanistan.  They captured Kabul, and the northerners were reduced to small fringes of territory till 9/11 and US support reversed matters. 

After 9/11 and the installation of a new government in Kabul with full US backing, Pakistan needed to seriously rethink its Afghan policy.  It had two options.  First it could reject the changed scenario, continue to back the Taliban, wait out the US presence, and restore the Taliban to power in the fullness of time.  This would ensure a favorable pro-Pakistani and anti-Indian government in Kabul, and would satisfy the military’s paradigm of seeing a friendly Afghanistan provide Pakistan “strategic depth” in a war with India.

The second option would have been to accept the new Afghanistan, shut down the Taliban and deny its support and sanctuary, and build a strong link to the new Afghanistan.  Because of its landlocked geography and long border with Pakistan, it would have been relatively easy to create a strong Pakistani influence over the Afghan economy.  The shared Pashtun population would have given Pakistan a natural lever of influence in Kabul, as well as a shared religion.  Given how poor and shattered Afghanistan was, and still is, the idea that Afghanistan could represent a military threat to Pakistan was absurd.  The US presence would also guarantee that Afghanistan would be strongly encouraged to cooperate with Pakistan, America’s key ally in the region.

So what did Pakistan do?  It couldn’t choose, so it tried to do both.  The Taliban were allowed to regroup in Quetta, and a second group, the Haqqani Network, was fostered and supported in FATA.  Meanwhile, Pakistan supported the US and made a show of friendship toward the new Afghanistan for the first several years.  But since 2008, Pakistan has shifted decisively toward a hostile stance toward Afghanistan, and has allowed the low level Taliban insurgency of a few years ago to blossom into something much larger, which provoked the US into deploying a massive ground force to counter them. 

This reflected the fundamental lack of imagination of the Pakistani army and the civilian politicians who enabled or supported this strategy.  It stems from the belief that only military force and violence can allow Pakistan to achieve its goals, whether economic or political or security related.  But instead, the strategy has profoundly backfired.  Just consider a few basic facts.  The TAP (Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan) gas pipeline project is one that Pakistan has approved and agreed to, which would provide Pakistan energy for decades, but how could such a project be completed while Pakistan is supporting a civil war in Afghanistan?  The support of the Taliban insurgents created a “Pakistani Taliban” which tried to spread their disgusting ideology into Pakistan.  The end result were military campaigns in Swat and South Waziristan, and terrorists bombs all over the country, while the space for tolerance and social freedom has been restricted.  The mayhem of the Pakistani Taliban has now resulted in the Chinese pulling out of a major coal mining and energy generation project, taking billions of dollars of planned investment with them, because they are worried about the safety of their engineers.  And finally, the Afghan government is now so thoroughly frustrated with Pakistan that it has openly declared its intention to forge a “strategic partnership” with India. 

The exact worst case scenario of the Pakistani army is coming to fruition as the result of their own stupidity.  Meanwhile, the ongoing support for the Haqqani network has resulted in a backlash in the United States, as many openly question whether Pakistan is even an ally.  The Taliban or the Haqqani Network are not worth risking the alliance with the world’s most powerful state and the supplier of Pakistan’s most advanced military equipment.  Pakistani leaders have tried to distinguish between Al-Qaeda, who Pakistan has fought and helped to dismantle (despite where Bin Laden was found), and the Taliban who they assert are not the same.  But to the US they are all the same, as the two were totally interwoven before 9/11, and even now they both shoot at and kill US soldiers, and keep Afghanistan in a state of war.

Pakistani strategy in Afghanistan now lies in ruins.  The army bears the brunt of the blame and should accept the fact that it has led Pakistan down a wrong and dangerous path.  If the goal was to create a friendly Afghanistan, the approach was disastrously in error.  As another saying goes, “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.”  Comments can reach me at



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