The ravages of a seemingly endless war have kept the United States mired in South Asia for over 16 years. In August, U.S. President Donald Trump proposed a new solution to the intractable conflict in Afghanistan. The new strategy would focus not on meeting a specific deadline but rather on achieving the conditions necessary to bring peace to the war-torn country. To that end, Trump urged India to play a greater role in Afghanistan's economic development. He also had a few choice words for Pakistan.
The president took the large nuclear power, home to more than 200 million people, to task for continuing to harbor militant groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network. To compel a change in Islamabad's behavior, the Trump administration has threatened to revoke Pakistan's non-NATO major ally status and withhold more of the billions of dollars in aid that the United States has given the country each year since 2002. But the threats aren't working. On Nov. 9, NATO commander Gen. John Nicholson said Pakistan is still offering haven to militants. And even if Washington takes harsher punitive action toward Islamabad, it won't achieve the results it's hoping for. Militancy isn't the only enemy in Afghanistan; the United States is also fighting against the basic forces of geopolitics.
The Struggle for Survival
The foundations of geopolitics lie in the assumption that all nations are trying to survive and that to do so, they employ strategies based on the resources they have available to them. For Pakistan, the fight for survival dates back to its very birth as a country. Just two months after gaining independence in the partition of the British Raj in 1947, Pakistan was embroiled in its first war with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Pakistan's founder and first leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was acutely aware that some circles in India expected their fledgling neighbor state to collapse and began diverting resources away from development to national defense. In the process, he bestowed unrivaled power on the Pakistani army. An ineluctable principle soon emerged that guides Pakistan's foreign policy to this day: India is the enemy.
Tempting as it may be to accuse Pakistan of paranoia, it's important to consider the country's position. Pakistan already shares one border with its archrival. The last thing it wants is to have to contend with New Delhi along its western border — an area whose ethnic and linguistic diversity has given rise to unrest and insurgency — as well. With that in mind, Pakistan must keep New Delhi from establishing a presence along the Afghan border, while working to forge friendly ties with the government in Kabul. (India, likewise, uses development funding to try to buy influence with the Afghan administration.)
Bequeathing a Strategy
After the Soviet-Afghan war began in 1979, the United States helped Pakistan project power into Afghanistan through proxy forces as part of its wider struggle against communism. The CIA, along with Saudi Arabia, funneled money and arms to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency to train, arm and dispatch the mujahideen, a motley crew of religious and nationalist warriors, against the Soviets. Eager to destroy the godless ideology of communism — which in their view had no place in the devoutly Muslim country — the mujahideen eventually prevailed. The Soviets, beleaguered after a decadelong counterinsurgency war in unforgiving terrain, withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Washington soon followed suit, leaving the rival mujahideen to vie for control of Afghanistan. The ensuing civil war paved the way for a new fundamentalist movement known as the Taliban to rise to power in southern Afghanistan in 1994.
For Pakistan, which had grown frustrated backing the mujahideen parties, the Taliban presented an opportunity. By supporting the organization, Islamabad could try to stabilize Afghanistan and to use the country as a conduit for energy from neighboring Turkmenistan. Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's administration began funding the Taliban, helping the group take control through its conquest of Kabul in September 1996. That's where Islamabad's interests in Afghanistan started to conflict with those of Washington.
The Taliban played host to Osama bin Laden and his organization, al Qaeda. From the mountains in Afghanistan, bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks that prompted the United States to invade in October 2001. The Pentagon's main objective in Afghanistan was to prevent militant groups from using the country as a base for launching transnational attacks. Pakistan, meanwhile, maintained its links to its proxies in the Taliban to keep its stake in Afghanistan.
The Limits of Power
More than a decade and a half later, the intransigence of the United States' longest-running war has compelled the Trump administration to reassess Washington's relationship with Islamabad. By every measure, the United States is more powerful and influential than Pakistan is. It boasts the mightiest military in the history of the world along with an $18 trillion economy. Pakistan, by contrast, is a poor country, and its military — though a formidable fighting force — is no match for the U.S. armed forces. Despite the disparity, however, Washington has failed to coerce Islamabad into cutting ties with the Taliban.
The United States' own cost-benefit calculation is partly to blame for this failure. Consider, for instance, bin Laden's discovery in 2011. Finding the world's most wanted man in Abbottabad, a garrison town in northeastern Pakistan, doubtless raised questions in Washington about the Pakistani army's ties with the militants. Nevertheless, the United States continued its aid to Islamabad, which totals $33 billion to date. The Pentagon concluded that the benefits of a security partnership with Pakistan, including access to critical supply routes and help flushing out al Qaeda operatives seeking refuge in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, outweighed the costs of Islamabad's selective ties with militants. Neither President George W. Bush nor his successor, Barack Obama, would risk jeopardizing those benefits.
That may change under Trump. His administration so far has shown a willingness to question long-standing conventions in U.S. foreign policy as the United States takes a step back from global affairs to focus instead on domestic issues. Washington's alliance with Islamabad could be one of them. But even if Trump and his generals follow through on their threats to punish Pakistan, they are unlikely to change its behavior. So long as the country's survival is at stake in the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the costs of the United States' rebuke and probably seek alternative sources of funding, namely China. And from Islamabad's perspective, the resurgence of Hindu nationalism in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an existential threat. The movement's hard-line factions, after all, have never reconciled themselves to Pakistan's statehood and still regard it as an affront to their country's territorial integrity. Should Modi win a second five-year term in office in 2019, as he is expected to, his victory would strengthen Islamabad's desire to keep New Delhi from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan — and, by extension, its support for the Taliban.
The View Ahead
Pakistan's actions in Afghanistan derive from the same quest for survival that underlies any country's foreign policy. Ironically, Washington encouraged the very behavior that so vexes it today by helping Islamabad refine its strategy for proxy warfare in Afghanistan during the Cold War. But geography is the real culprit. Even if the last NATO soldier were to vanish from the desolated Afghan landscape tomorrow, Pakistan and India's imperatives to deny each other a space in the land known as "the graveyard of empires" would continue as before.
As part of that mission, the Pakistani army is currently sharpening its country's territorial contours by building a fence along the border with Afghanistan. The initiative is part of a plan to pacify and fully absorb the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which have defied governance since at least the colonial period, so the army can turn more of its attention toward India. The army has also sponsored a proposal to start giving militants an outlet in mainstream politics as a way to exert greater control over them. (The backlash that the creation of the new Milli Muslim League party inspired from Pakistan's Ministry of the Interior suggests, however, that the effort will be yet another source of contention between the country's military and civilian institutions.) And so, as the United States mulls more serious measures to try to weaken Pakistan's support for the Taliban, it will probably only weaken its partnership with Islamabad instead.