Pakistan Afghanistan issue
Afghanistan and Pakistan share multiple strands of culture, history, religion, and civilization, but the two countries have never succeeded in establishing bilateral relations free of tensions. Rather, passive antagonism and mistrust have marked bilateral ties for the larger part of more than half a century following the creation of Pakistan. The intensity of hostility has varied under different regimes in Afghanistan, however, and though brief periods of cordiality have occurred as well, these have never been enough to provide a consistent positive direction.
Although relations were stable to some extent under the Afghan monarchy and opposing claims over the boundary and tribes in the frontier region did not provoke serious conflict, a feeling of estrangement prevailed. The two states developed very different strategic visions and perceptions of regional roles, and became enmeshed in competing structures of global power. Their opposite tendencies in foreign and security policies manifested finally in the superpower contest of the 1980s; the Afghan government hosted the Soviet forces while Pakistan aligned with both the Afghan mujahideen rebels and the United States to defeat the Red Army.
As the effects of the Soviet-Afghan War spilled over into Pakistan in the form of millions of Afghan refugees and tens of thousands of armed fighters, Pakistan became deeply involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Front (comprised of Afghan factions), which forced every neighboring country to engage in a regional “great game,” drew Pakistan closer to the Taliban. The Northern Front leaders, who benefited from Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, blamed Pakistan for the suffering and pain that the Taliban inflected on them.
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In terms of the war on terrorism, the past continues to overshadow the shared quest of defeating terrorist groups that threaten both countries and to frustrate the efforts of countries in the international community that also share this interest.
Thorns in the Relationship
Relations between the two countries have been particularly strained ever since the Taliban were forced from power in 2001. Over the years, Afghan leaders have become convinced that Pakistan is actually aiding the Taliban – especially its most virulent faction, the Haqqani Network, which is responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Kabul. They believe that Pakistan intends to destabilize their government and bring the Taliban back to power.
As U.S. forces have pulled back from areas along the border in Afghanistan, elements of the Pakistani Taliban have taken refuge inside Afghanistan. From there they have targeted Pakistani military posts. The Pakistani army has responded by lobbing thousands of artillery shells into Afghanistan, leading to fierce condemnations in Kabul.
Exchanges of fire between Afghan and Pakistani forces are common along remote stretches where insurgents and smugglers (not to mention tribes that straddle the border) cross freely in both directions, almost as if the border did not exist. Accusations by each side are often contradictory and difficult to verify. Most of the border is not demarcated. Forces on each side operate from conflicting maps and occasionally cross over during routine patrols and operations.
The Pakistani military accuses Afghan leaders of intentionally escalating border incidents for political effect. Anti-Pakistan sentiment runs deep in Afghanistan and unites its fractious population more than almost anything else. Afghan leaders prefer to paint the Taliban insurgency as a tool of a foreign power rather than a domestic problem.
The Afghanistan-Pakistan border, known as the Durand Line, is among the longest disputed borders in the world. Successive Afghan leaders have refused to recognize it as an official boundary and have maintained irredentist claims to the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. There are nearly 30 million Pashtuns in Pakistan – more than twice as many as there are in Afghanistan – covering nearly a third of the country.
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US POLICIES REGARDING AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN
In announcing new Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, President Barack Obama articulated
“a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”
This is a sound conception of both the threat and U.S. interests in the region. Mr. Obama took a giant step beyond the Bush administration’s “Afghanistan policy” when he named the issue “AfPak” — Afghanistan, Pakistan and their shared, Pashtun-populated border. But this is inverted. We suggest renaming the policy “PakAf,” to emphasize that, from the perspective of U.S. interests and regional stability, the heart of the problem lies in Pakistan.
The fundamental question about Afghanistan is this: What vital national interest does the U.S. have there? President George W. Bush offered an ever-expanding answer to this question. As he once put it, America’s goal is “a free and peaceful Afghanistan,” where “reform and democracy” would serve as “the alternatives to fanaticism, resentment and terror.”
In sharp contrast, during the presidential campaign Mr. Obama declared that America has one and only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to ensure that it “cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States.” To which we would add the corollary: that developments in Afghanistan not undermine Pakistan’s stability and assistance in eliminating al Qaeda.
Consider a hypothetical. Had the terrorist attacks of 9/11 been planned by al Qaeda from its current headquarters in ungoverned areas of Pakistan, is it conceivable that today the U.S. would find itself with 54,000 troops and $180 billion committed to transforming medieval Afghanistan into a stable, modern nation?
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For Afghanistan to become a unitary state ruled from Kabul, and to develop into a modern, prosperous, poppy-free and democratic country would be a worthy and desirable outcome. But it is not vital for American interests.
After the U.S. and NATO exit Afghanistan and reduce their presence and financial assistance to levels comparable to current efforts in the Sudan, Somalia or Bangladesh, one should expect Afghanistan to return to conditions similar to those regions. Such conditions are miserable. They are deserving of American and international development and security assistance. But, as in those countries, it is unrealistic to expect anything more than a slow, difficult evolution towards modernity.
The problem in Pakistan is more pressing and direct. There, the U.S. does have larger vital national interests. Top among these is preventing Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and materials from falling into the hands of terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. This danger is not hypothetical — the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan, is now known to have been the world’s first nuclear black marketer, providing nuclear weapons technology and materials to Libya, North Korea and Iran.
Protecting Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal requires preventing radical Islamic extremists from taking control of the country.
Furthermore, the U.S. rightly remains committed to preventing the next 9/11 attack by eliminating global terrorist threats such as al Qaeda. This means destroying their operating headquarters and training camps, from which they can plan more deadly 9/11s.
The counter terrorism strategy in Pakistan that has emerged since last summer offers our best hope for regional stability and success in dealing a decisive blow against al Qaeda and what Vice President Joe Biden calls “incorrigible” Taliban adherents. But implementing these operations requires light U.S. footprints backed by drones and other technology that allows missile attacks on identified targets. The problem is that the U.S. government no longer seems to be capable of conducting covert operations without having them reported in the press.
This will only turn Pakistani public opinion against the U.S. Many Pakistanis see covert actions carried out inside their country as America “invading an ally.” This makes it difficult for Pakistani officials to support U.S. operations while sustaining widespread popular support.
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As Mr. Biden has warned: “It is hard to imagine a greater nightmare for America than the world’s second-largest Muslim nation becoming a failed state in fundamentalists’ hands, with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and a population larger than Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea combined.”
Avoiding this nightmare will require concentration on the essence of the challenge: Pakistan. On the peripheries, specifically Afghanistan, Mr. Obama should borrow a line from Andrew Jackson from the battle of New Orleans and order his administration to “elevate them guns a little lower.”
When American special forces plucked the second in command of the Pakistani Taliban from the hands of Afghan officials this October, they laid bare the extent of a largely covert war between Afghanistan and Pakistan that has been going on for several years. With a drawdown – perhaps even to zero – of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year, the secret war might just become an open one.
The capture of Latif Mehsud proved to be an embarrassment for the Afghans, and a vindication for Pakistan, which has long complained that the Pakistani Taliban – called the Tehrik -e-Taliban (TTP) – receives support from Karzai’s government. Afghanistan and the United States, for their part, have laid the blame for a 12-year insurgency at Pakistan’s feet, saying its intelligence agencies support the most effective insurgency group, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani.