Afghanistan: What Pakistan Wants

Pakistan border guard.jpg

Akhter Gulfam/epa/Corbis

A Pakistani paramilitary soldier mans a checkpoint at the Pakistani-Afghan border in Chaman, Pakistan, May 20, 2013

To understand Pakistan’s position in the conundrum of Afghanistan’s future, it is necessary to understand that in certain respects, Pakistan and Afghanistan have long blended into each other, via the population of around 35 million Pashtuns that straddles both sides of the border between them (a border drawn by the British which Afghanistan has never recognized). Pashtuns have always regarded themselves as the core of Afghanistan, where they form a plurality of the population (Afghan is indeed simply the old Farsi word for Pashtun); yet around two thirds of Pashtuns actually live in Pakistan, where they form the backbone of the present Islamist revolt against the state.

In the 1980s, the US encouraged this merger of Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun sentiment in order to strengthen support of Pakistani Pashtuns for the Afghan Mujahedin. In the 2000s, this came back to haunt America, since most Pakistani Pashtuns with whom I have spoken over the years regard the Taliban fight against the US and its Afghan allies in very much the same light that they regarded the Mujahedin fight against the USSR and its Afghan allies.

Pakistan’s Afghan policy today is essentially an attempt to reconcile the following perceptions and imperatives:

  • The need to appease Pakistani Pashtun opinion and prevent more Pashtuns joining the Islamist revolt within Pakistan;
  • The fear that if the Afghan Taliban come to full power, they will support the Pakistani Taliban and try to recreate the old Afghan dream of recovering the Pashtun irredenta—the Pashtun areas of Pakistan—but this time led by the Taliban and under the banner of jihad;
  • The belief that the Taliban are by far the most powerful force among Afghan Pashtuns;
  • The belief that Pakistan needs powerful allies within Afghanistan to combat Indian influence and that the Afghan Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami are the only ones available;
  • The assumption that sooner or later the present US-backed state and army in Afghanistan will break down, most probably along ethnic lines;
  • Pakistan’s economic dependence on the USA and on the World Bank and IMF;
  • Pakistan’s strategic dependence on China, which regards Pakistan as an important ally, but which has also acquired potentially very large economic assets of its own in Afghanistan, and which certainly does not favor Islamist extremism.

If as a result of all this Pakistani strategy has often looked confused, contradictory, ambiguous, and two-faced—well, it would be, wouldn’t it?

All the same, at the moment, the basic elements of Pakistani strategy are pretty clear, and, crucially, there does not seem to be any important difference between the aim of the Pakistani army and the new government of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) under Nawaz Sharif: namely, a peace settlement in Afghanistan involving a new constitution and a power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the non-Pashtun populations of Afghanistan, which used to be grouped in the so-called Northern Alliance.

To this end, the Pakistani military has put considerable pressure on the Afghan Taliban to join in the present peace process, and both the Pakistani military and the foreign ministry have sought meetings with the leaders of the former Northern Alliance to assure them that Pakistan is no longer pursuing its strategy of the 1990s, and does not want to see the Taliban win exclusive power in Afghanistan—if only because the Taliban would then be free to turn against Pakistan.

It is important to keep in mind how much Pakistan’s rulers and the Afghan Taliban loathe each other (with the admittedly important exception of some sections of the ISI who have been fighting alongside Afghan Islamists since the early 1970s). Many Pakistanis view the Taliban (and Afghans in general) as greedy, treacherous, primitive, and fanatical savages. For the Taliban, the Pakistani state and military (and non-Pashtun Pakistanis in general) are decadent, corrupt, treacherous, brutal, and greedy oppressors. Each side regards the other as inherently unreliable. This of course also means that for all the help that they have given to the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistanis cannot simply force them to accept a peace settlement that they see as contrary to their values and interests.

In the end, of course, peace will have to be made by Afghans themselves. That in no way absolves either the United States or the regional powers of their responsibilities, for Afghanistan’s dreadful experiences over the past forty years have resulted from a combination of Afghans failing to reach consensus, and outside powers backing different groups and stoking Afghan conflicts for their own purposes. These purposes have generally turned out to be contrary to their own long-term interests—as both the Soviets and the Americans found in the 1980s, Pakistan learned in the 1990s, and India will probably discover if it is misguided enough to try to replace the United States as the chief financial and military backer of the existing Kabul regime.

All the same, any lasting settlement will have to be between the Taliban (as representing certain permanent forces of ethno-religious Pashtun rural conservatism) and a mixture of forces representing the other Afghan nationalities and the technocratic elites of Kabul, including to some extent the commanders of the Afghan National Army. These are permanent forces in Afghanistan, which will still be there long after the Karzai administration has vanished into history and US forces have returned to America.

From this point of view, the indications so far are decidedly mixed. Last year, colleagues and I met with some of the more pragmatically-inclined members of the Taliban, who told us that they fully recognize that the Taliban do not have enough support to return to a “government of mullahs” and rule Afghanistan unilaterally, and that they will have to share power with other forces. More recently, however, briefings by other Taliban representatives have suggested that strong elements of the organization do believe that they can win an outright victory. In this regard, it is right to be worried by the Taliban insistence on the flag and sign of the pre-2001 Emirate of Afghanistan, because it may say something very important and worrying about the organization’s real willingness to share power.


At the same time, senior Afghan generals appear to believe that with US help—or Indian and Russian help if the US gives up—they can repeat indefinitely the experience of the Afghan army left behind by the Soviets when they withdrew in 1989: giving up most of the Pashtun countryside but beating off attempts by the enemy to capture the cities. In the previous case, this came to an end with the collapse of the USSR and the end of Soviet military and financial aid.

In one respect, we are in a much weaker position than the Soviets in 1989. They could leave behind a rather formidable Pashtun dictator, Najibullah Khan. We have committed ourselves to holding presidential elections in Afghanistan next year—with no credible leader to replace Hamid Karzai even remotely in prospect. The collapse of these elections could take the entire Afghan state and army with them. Already, a good many of the Afghan elites who are supported by the West are demonstrating their lack of confidence in the future of the current set up in Kabul by transferring their money, their families, and increasingly themselves to other countries. Particularly noteworthy is the apparent decision of dozens of Afghan diplomats to seek political asylum in the countries to which they have been posted. As a recent article in Der Spiegel notes, these diplomats are very often the children of high-ranking politicians and officials in Kabul—which says something rather awful about the nature of the regime that we have set up. According to Der Spiegel, there are many others who have refused to return to duties in Kabul, and have instead demanded an extension of their existing postings abroad until after next year’s elections.

As a Western taxpayer who has been paying the salaries of Afghan officials like them in an effort to help create a modern, democratic Afghan state, I find their behavior reprehensible. I must confess that as a human being, I understand it all too well.

This is the second of two articles about the search for peace in Afghanistan. Part one can be found here.

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