The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war

Shaun Gregory
25 November 2008

Pakistan's internal turmoil and conflict continues, even if much current external media coverage of the country is filtered through the lens of the transfixing global financial crisis and United States election. Both these events indeed reverberate in a Pakistan desperately short of funds and more hesitant than much of the rest of the world about its prospects under a Barack Obama presidency. But the country's crisis will not be salved by an emergency loan or a new figure in the White House: indeed, it is being reinforced under the influence of Pakistan's key institutional actors.

Shaun Gregory is professor in the department of peace studies at the University of Bradford, northern England, and head of the Pakistan Security Research Unit there. He is the author of Pakistan: Securing the Insecure State (Routledge, 2008)

Also by Shaun Gregory in openDemocracy:

Pakistan on edge" (25 September 2006)

"Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

"Musharraf: the fateful moment" (16 November 2007)

"Pakistan's political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond" (27 August 2008)

The heart of Pakistan's conflict is the violence in Pakistan's tribal areas, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North West Frontier Province (NWFP); this in turn has a key impact on the United States-led war in Afghanistan. To understand what is happening, it is necessary to distinguish between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban; and to grasp the relationship of each to the Pakistan military and Pakistan's lead intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

A state of duplicity

The Pakistan army and the ISI supported the Afghan Taliban in the movement's rise to power in Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996. Pakistan was one of only three states (the others being Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) to offer diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime under Mullah Omar (see Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia [Yale University Press, 2000]). The Taliban offered Pakistan stability in Afghanistan after the chaos of the post-Soviet years and, more importantly, a pro-Pakistani leadership in Kabul that denied India influence in Afghanistan. After 9/11 Pakistan was given no choice other than to support the US war in Afghanistan; but Pakistan stayed loyal to the Afghan Taliban, providing Mullah Omar and his leading commanders with sanctuary in Pakistan's Pashtun-dominated tribal areas and in northern Balochistan (see Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos [Penguin, 2008]).

Pakistan opposes the post-Taliban Afghan leadership of Hamid Karzai because Karzai is antipathetic to Islamabad and is permissive of Indian influence in Afghanistan (evidenced by, for example, the proliferation of Indian "consulates" across Afghanistan). Pakistan also opposes the presence of the US and Nato in the Afghan theatre - in part because the west props up Karzai and thus colludes in Indian influence, in part because the west complicates Pakistan's regional calculus, and in part because the US and Nato war continues to destabilise Pakistan (see the analyses of the Pakistan Security Research Unit [PSRU]).

The the Afghan Taliban may no longer be as subject to Pakistani influence as in the past, but they continue to serve Pakistani interests - as the instrument most likely to force Hamid Karzai from power, India out of Afghanistan, and the US and Nato out of the region. Thus the Pakistan army and the ISI have either turned a blind eye to Afghan Taliban activity on Pakistani territory after 9/11 or (to a more cynical eye) actively supported the Afghan Taliban in its resurgence; in any event, the result is that the movement now exercises a permanent presence in more than half of Afghanistan (see "Stumbling into Chaos: Afghanistan on the Brink", Senlis Council, November 2007).

While Pakistan's apologists may contest this analysis, there is no doubt that under the presidency of Pervez Musharraf - the supposed darling of Washington - no move was made against Mullah Omar or against other Afghan proxies such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaludin Haqqani.

A boomerang war

The US-led war in Afghanistan has however also radicalised tens of thousands of Pakistanis, including many amongst the Pashtun tribal groups in the FATA and NWFP. It is these groups which have grown stronger in recent years and which have come together to form the Pakistani Taliban, the core of which is Baitullah Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) based in Waziristan but with strong following across the FATA not least in Bajaur agency; affiliates such as Maulana Fazlullah's Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) based in Swat; and Mangal Bagh Afridi's Lashkar-e-Islami (LI), based in the Khyber Agency. These groups have the Pakistani state in their sights - fired by the intention of overthrowing the pro-western leadership of Pakistan and establishing a sharia-based state (see Jayshree Bajoria, "Pakistan's New Generation of Terrorists", Council for Foreign Relations, February 2008).

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Irfan Husain, ""Pervez Musharraf's desperate gamble" (5 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, ""Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: a country on fire" (24 September 2008)

The Pakistan army tried to negotiate with these groups, even bribing them into curbing their violence against the state. A series of "peace" deals in 2005 and 2006 appeared to have achieved a degree of stability, but since 2007 it has become clear that these deals - and the money handed over - only empowered the TTP and TNSM - which have since launched an unprecedented campaign of violence and suicide-attacks against the Pakistan state. The targets have included many members of Pakistani security forces, leading Pakistani officials, the Marriott hotel, and - many suspect - the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 (see Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: a country on fire", 24 September 2008).

The ferocity of this violence has finally provoked the Pakistan military under General Musharraf's successor, General Ashfaq Kiyani, to take the fight directly into the tribal areas with a sustained campaign in Bajaur agency in particular. This has allowed Kiyani and Pakistan's new civilian administration, which takes the international political flak but is not in control of Pakistan's military operations, to claim that a new era of Pakistani realism about the terrorist threat now obtains. The Pakistan army is taking heavy casualties in its war with the TTP, TNSM and affiliated tribal militants - and is trying to hang on to its remaining "peace deals" with other Pakistani militant groups - but it and the ISI are still making no moves against the Afghan Taliban who continue their rise in Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan.

This Pakistani duplicity and its implications for the faltering war in Afghanistan seemed at last, in July 2008, to have dawned on the US military and the CIA. The straw that broke the camel's back appears to have been evidence which linked the ISI, through the Pakistan-backed Jalaludin/Sirajuddin Haqqani network, to the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul (see Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure", 11 July 2008). Pakistani denials of involvement notwithstanding, the bombing undercut the Pakistan army's supporters in Washington by demonstrating Islamabad's continued commitment to terrorism as an instrument of state policy and the tensions between the US's and Pakistan's objectives in Afghanistan.

From July 2008 the George W Bush administration articulated a new strategy for Pakistan's tribal areas which included stepping up cross-border air-strikes ever deeper into Pakistan against Afghan Taliban targets and escalating cross-border US ground incursions into Pakistan, the latter of which have been met with gunfire from the Pakistan army. At the same time the US has stepped up the hunt for the al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan's tribal areas amid continued rumours of ISI and Pakistan army involvement in their protection (see Syed Saleem Shazad, "US Strikes Deeper in Pakistan", Asia Times, 20 November 2008).

The ground beneath

The United States-Pakistan relationship is consequently under extreme strain. This will present president-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on 20 January 2009, with one of his most difficult and pressing foreign-policy challenges. Washington has recently sought to put the Pakistani army and the ISI under intense pressure through military aid in particular, and Obama had spoken about getting tough with Pakistan; the Pakistanis have countered by reminding the US and Nato that more than 80% of the logistics for the war in Afghanistan pass through Pakistanis ports and have to make a long and perilous journey across Pakistan through the tribal areas (see Paul Rogers, "A Pakistani dilemma", 15 November 2008).

The Pakistan army thus has its thumb on Nato's jugular. As US-led air-strikes continue to escalate inside Pakistan so too do Taliban attacks on Nato logistics convoys. Pakistan knows that the war in Afghanistan is not going well for the west, and that domestic political pressure is building in some western states for a Nato withdrawal. The Pakistan army and the ISI are therefore calculating that they need only bear the current pressure from the west and keep the Pakistani Taliban under control, for their objectives in Afghanistan to be eventually realised.

The US and Nato for their part find themselves in the invidious position of fighting a faltering and grinding war in Afghanistan from a position of unavoidable dependency on a dangerously unreliable, if nominally allied, state. It will not be lost on the US or Nato that the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu - widely read at both West Point and Sandhurst - argued that the army which does not fight on firm ground is lost.

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