Oct 4, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

6 mins read

Pakistan Draws a New Battle Line in the Afghan War

Considering its aims in Afghanistan, Islamabad will push back against Washington's new strategy in the war against the Taliban.
(CHRIS HONDROS/Getty Images and PeterHermesFurion/iStock)
  • If India increases its involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan will strengthen its opposition to pushing the Taliban into negotiations.
  • Pakistan will continue supporting the Taliban to prevent an alliance between Afghanistan and India.
  • Islamabad and Washington's threats against one another will limit the punitive measures both sides impose.

In the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan plays both sides. On the one hand, the country aids the United States in its fight against the Taliban. Pakistan offers NATO forces access to the port of Karachi to transit supplies to their bases in landlocked Afghanistan and tacitly allows the CIA to conduct drone strikes against militant hideouts in the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Yet on the other hand, Pakistan has nurtured the Taliban for more than 20 years. Pakistan's government in Islamabad supports the group as a means to many ends, including stabilizing Afghanistan, opening trade and energy routes to Central Asia, formalizing the Durand Line, and establishing a government in Kabul hostile to archrival India. By assisting both the United States and the Taliban throughout their nearly 16-year conflict, Pakistan has managed to benefit from an alliance with Washington, collecting over $33 billion in aid since 2002, while also pursuing its security objectives.

But the new U.S. plan for the war in Afghanistan has cast doubt on Islamabad's strategy. President Donald Trump's administration not only has threatened to crack down on Pakistan for supporting militant organizations, but it also has called on India to assume a larger role in rehabilitating Afghanistan's economy. The revised policy probably will spur Islamabad to change its approach in Afghanistan, though likely not in the way Washington intended. Instead, it will harden Pakistan's resolve against the United States and the effort to negotiate an end to the enduring war.

From Militancy to Politics

Despite the U.S. administration's admonishments, Pakistani militancy is as much a problem for Islamabad as it is for Washington. Pakistan has been working to circumscribe the militant groups operating within its borders since long before Trump rebuked the country in an address Aug. 21. In April 2016, for example, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency proposed plans to deradicalize scores of militants and bring them more under the control of the country's security apparatus. As part of that campaign, Islamabad allowed the Jamaat-ud-Dawa — a charity organization under U.N. sanctions for its links to the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba — to form a new political party, the Milli Muslim League (MML).

Combating militancy with politics is easier said than done, though. The process has been rife with controversy, exposing the historical divide between Pakistan's military and civilian leaders. Pakistan's Interior Ministry asked the country's electoral commission to block the MML's registration over concerns that the party's ties to and ideological affinities with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed for the deadly attacks in Mumbai in 2008, would invite criticism from foreign governments. But though the MML's registration is still pending, it hasn't let administrative matters get in its way. The party's candidate, officially running as an independent, placed third in the recent special elections in Lahore, and the MML plans to participate in Pakistan's general elections next year as well.

Pakistan Picks Its Battles

The MML's emergence demonstrates the Pakistani army's commitment to addressing militancy in the country. Its priorities in this endeavor differ from those of the United States, however, and as it tackles the problem, Islamabad will continue to resist pressure to attack the militant groups Washington has targeted. In Pakistan's view, after all, all militant groups are not created equal. Groups such as the Afghan Taliban and its ally the Haqqani network help Pakistan's army advance its objectives in Afghanistan. They are assets to Islamabad's foreign policy, and the Pakistani government treats them as such. Islamabad's accommodations, moreover, discourage these groups from attacking Pakistan, enabling the country to focus its scarce resources on the organizations that pose a more serious threat to its security, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and the Islamic State's Khorasan chapter.

Beyond these considerations, Islamabad's stance on militants also figures into its strategy toward India. Pakistan has relied on militant groups to compensate for its smaller military relative to that of its eastern rival since the partition in 1947, employing them as proxies against India while maintaining plausible deniability in the event of an attack. The policy has endured even after both countries became nuclear powers.

Considering its aims in Afghanistan, Islamabad will push back against Washington's new strategy in the war against the Taliban. Pakistan's recently appointed prime minister already has rejected Trump's suggestion that India take on a greater political or military role in Afghanistan, and pressing the idea will only strengthen Islamabad's resistance to it. At the same time, pushing the proposal will make Pakistan less likely to heed Washington's calls to try to encourage the Taliban into negotiations. (That some members of the Taliban have urged the organization to distance itself from Pakistan raises questions about how much sway Islamabad has with the militant group regardless.) The United States, of course, has various tools at its disposal to ramp up the pressure on Pakistan, including revoking the country's non-NATO major ally status, further cutting its aid package or sanctioning Islamabad. But Pakistan has its own options to make Washington think twice about taking punitive action.

U.S. Aid to Afghanistan

The Costs of War

In fact, Pakistan already has started employing some of these deterrents since Trump made his address on Afghanistan in late August. Islamabad turned down a visit from the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asia, who was leading a delegation of officials eager to hash out U.S.-Pakistan coordination in Afghanistan. Pakistan's foreign minister instead embarked on a three-nation tour to China, Turkey and Iran in hopes of increasing their diplomatic support for his country. He later delayed a meeting originally scheduled for August with his U.S. counterpart, Rex Tillerson, until the week of Oct. 2. More recently, Pakistan announced that it would adopt stricter protocols on U.S. diplomats to require a mutual agreement before American officials could visit the country and to prohibit lower-ranking U.S. functionaries from meeting with high-level Pakistani officials, such as the prime minister. The country also has floated the possibility of shutting down NATO supply routes, though it probably won't follow through on the threat unless Washington first makes good on one of its own.

Since the United States began its war in Afghanistan a decade and a half ago, the conflict has defined the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. Washington has encouraged Islamabad to focus on anti-militancy operations in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, two hotbeds of unrest in Pakistan, in support of the war effort. But the U.S. outreach — which includes a sizable military aid package — has given Pakistan's powerful armed forces even more influence in the country's domestic politics, yielding unintended consequences. The Pakistani military will use its sway over the country's foreign policy to keep India and Afghanistan from forging an alliance that could encircle Pakistan and threaten national security. And in the process, it will scuttle U.S. plans for drawing down its longest-running war.

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