A daring assault by Taliban forces this week in Afghanistan on Camp Bastion, a heavily fortified U.S. military base in Helmand Province, killed two Marines and destroyed six Marine AV-8B Harrier jets. The attack’s remarkable sophistication suggests it was not the work of a few Afghan insurgents using homemade weapons, but of trained military tacticians. U.S. military sources revealed this week that one of the Taliban fighters, who survived the U.S. counterattack, admitted that his unit had organized, prepared, and trained for the attack over several months in Pakistan. The incident should focus Washington’s attention on the failing U.S. policy in the region: not in Afghanistan where the attack took place, but in Pakistan where it appears to have been planned and organized.
Washington pundits’ and policymakers’ predictable reaction will likely be to call for a tougher policy towards Pakistan to force the civilian government in Islamabad to exercise stronger control over its own borders, military, and intelligence operatives who appear to be secretly bolstering the Taliban. The CIA’s discovery of Osama bin Laden’s comfortable compound near a Pakistani military school in Abbottabad in May last year provides persuasive evidence of the severity of this problem. Clearly the Pakistan military and intelligence services protected bin Laden for more than a decade at the same time it was claiming to support U.S. policy in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have long suspected that ISI—the most powerful of three Pakistani intelligence services and functions as a virtual shadow government outside the control of political leaders—is much more sympathetic to Taliban and al Queda, than to Pakistan’s cooperation with United States and its allies.
For a decade now U.S.-Pakistan diplomatic relations have been based on a diplomatic dance of delusions. Too many U.S. policymakers have believed the United States could buy cooperation by Pakistan in the region through the use of more robust carrots and sticks: the U.S. threat to isolate Pakistan in the international system if it chose to support the Taliban and al Queda, U.S. drone attacks against Taliban targets inside Pakistan, and yet at the same time, an expanded U.S. military and development assistance program as the carrot. In fact Pakistan has taken the aid and pursued its own interests, while pretending to support U.S. policy. But Pakistan’s own policy in the region has been based on the faulty assumption that it can control Afghanistan through its covert support for and control over the Taliban.
The heart of the problem is not the inability of Pakistan’s civilian government to control its own military and intelligence service; it is the clash of the vital national interests of Pakistan and the United States, at least as the two countries see these interests. Afghan leaders have privately told U.S. officials for a decade that their country’s instability is not a function of its internal dysfunctions (of which there are many), but of Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan’s affairs. In the half dozen or so meetings between 2002 and 2005 that I had with senior Afghan officials over reconstruction issues, they repeatedly argued that unless Pakistan stopped meddling in their country’s internal affairs, reconstruction would fail to stabilize Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s pursuit of its own vital national interests should not be surprising. It is a profoundly insecure state in an unstable region. To the east Pakistan faces India, its traditional adversary, a country five times its size with a stronger military, political system, and economy. India and Pakistan have fought four wars since both achieved independence from Great Britain in 1947, and nearly fought a fifth one a decade ago, which the United States aggressively intervened to stop. Both have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them and a war might well have led to a nuclear exchange.
What are Pakistan’s vital national interests in the region that have led it to undermine Afghan’s internal stability? The Pakistani military and security apparatus fears that if it loses control (however illusory) in Afghanistan, that other regional powers will fill the void and they may end up being encircled by their adversaries. Even more, the Pakistani leadership fears the chaos that they believe will ensue in Afghanistan after the United States tires of its nation-building enterprise and withdraws. And that U.S. military withdrawal is now underway. They also fear the Pashtuns, a tribe which straddles the border area between the two countries, and whose loyalty to the Pakistani state has been traditionally weak. Pakistani leaders, rather than risk a prolonged military campaign to impose control in the Pashtun areas, have given tribal leaders virtual autonomy in governing their areas. The Pashtuns are the dominant tribe in Afghanistan and have led successive Kabul governments for centuries. (Hamid Karzai, for example, is a Pashtun.) A strong Afghan state dominated by the Pashtun tribe would pose a threat to Pakistan’s territorial integrity, as Pakistani Pashtuns might try to secede and join Afghanistan. Pakistani fears about its own insecure position in the region are legitimate and the United States should be respectful of them, regardless of what personalities or parties lead the government in Islamabad. However the efforts of the Pakistani security apparatus and elements of military to support Taliban, destabilize Afghanistan, and encourage radical Islam are clearly counter to United States (and Afghan and other countries’) interests in the region.
No matter what carrots and sticks the United States tries to employ or how aggressively it tries to apply them to induce Pakistan to cooperate in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s perception of its own vital national interests will not likely change. Its willingness to compromise its vital interests to please the United States is quite limited unless the balance of power in the region changes. Pakistan cannot magically relocate the country to some other more stable region of the world where there are no threats to its territorial integrity. Pakistan is stuck where it is, and the United States is stuck dealing with it if we wish to have any influence over events inside the country. Should the Pakistani state collapse and extremist Islamist groups, which are growing in power and influence in the country, gain control of the government, the nuclear arsenal of the country would pose a risk to international order. What, then, should U.S. policy in the region be to get Pakistan to play a constructive, instead of destabilizing, role in Afghanistan and the region?
The United States ought to be changing the Pakistani military and intelligence service’s calculation of how it views Pakistan’s vital interests. And in this regard the U.S. relationship with India holds the key to a new policy. President George W. Bush’s administration built the strongest relationship the United States has had with India since its independence. As a country the United States under the Bush administration had the highest poll ratings in India since 1947 which reflected public support for this new strategic relationship. The de facto consequence of this policy was to apply heavy, yet subtle and constant, pressure on Pakistan, even if the U.S.-India relationship made sense for other reasons which had nothing to do with Pakistan. The United States and India are both robust democracies, share a common interest in combating international terrorism, and have a mutual interest in greater economic cooperation—our two economies are increasingly tied together.
When the Obama administration took office it made an about face and distanced itself from India, presumably to make Pakistan feel more secure and thus encourage greater cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan. This about face encouraged Pakistan to move some of its military forces to the Afghan border in the west from the Indian-Pakistan border in the east, where most of its army had been positioned for the past half century. This was theoretically done to support the counterinsurgency effort against Taliban bases in Pakistan. But that effort has been a failure, as the Camp Bastion attack demonstrates.
A confrontational U.S. policy towards Pakistan right now would be unwise and imprudent, as it would undermine a weak civilian government in Islamabad, and give fodder to radical Islamists in the country who continue to launch violent attacks against the central government. The United States should instead send a subtle yet clear message around the civilian government in Islamabad directly to those elements of the Pakistan military and intelligence service which have been playing a game of shadows in supporting radical Islam and Taliban attacks in Afghanistan undermining the country’s internal stability. The United States should exercise this other option, which is to renew and strengthen the natural, long-term strategic alliance with India based on shared interests and common values. That strategic alliance with India made sense a decade ago, and it makes sense now. Einstein once said that one definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. The United States should abandon a policy which has repeatedly failed and choose a new route.