The Evolving Strategic Calculus of War

by Joshua Foust on 4/11/2011 · 15 comments

One of the biggest strategic reasons for being in Afghanistan is, ostensibly, to keep Pakistan from falling into the hands of Islamist extremists like al Qaeda. While I support that goal—no one should really want Pakistan to turn into a proxy government of al Qaeda for a number of reasons—I’ve become less and less convinced over the last few years that the war in Afghanistan is actually contributing to that goal.

This, with the full understanding that Asif Ali Zardari is going to be self-serving and dodge any personal responsibility for Pakistan’s fate, I still found a lot to take pause at in this interview he gave the Guardian.

“Just as the Mexican drug war on US borders makes a difference to Texas and American society, we are talking about a war on our border which is obviously having a huge effect. Only today a suicide bomber has attacked a police compound in Baluchistan. I think it [the Afghan war] has an effect on the entire region, and specially our country,” Zardari said.

Asked about harsh criticism of Pakistan’s co-operation in the “war on terror” published in a White House report last week, Zardari said Pakistan always listened to Washington’s views. But he suggested some members of Congress and the US media did not know what they were talking about when it came to Pakistan.

Imagine that. This reminds me, though, of a January, 2008 interview with Pervez Musharraf. When asked about Pakistan’s quest to arrest Osama bin Laden, Musharraf responded, “We are not particularly looking for him.” So there is a bit of a dodge in that Pakistan has a very selective sense of what is worth going after—mostly low-level militants and foot soldiers—and what is not. The high-profile arrests of senior militants like Khaled Sheikh Muhammad and Mullah Baradar are so memorable because they are so rare.

The strategic positioning of the war is pretty worrying. Pakistan isn’t doing much to go after the Taliban, certainly not the Afghan Taliban, and it has declined to pursue the senior leadership of al Qaeda. The U.S. is fighting a war in Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming a sanctuary for al Qaeda, and to destroy the Taliban in both countries. Yet, Pakistan’s president is complaining that that very war is contributing to Pakistan’s instability—a dubious claim, at the very least, though there is little doubt that Pakistan is becoming less stable.

So, dear readers, looking at this weird tangled knot… what would you do in response?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Aaron Ellis April 11, 2011 at 12:14 pm

The problem with Zadari’s criticisms, which you indirectly touch on, is that the things driving the war are the things Pakistan is doing or failing to do. How shorter would this conflict have been, or more manageable, if Pakistan did go after the Afghan Taliban leadership or hunt down Bin Laden? It would be fair for Karzai to say Pakistan is destabilising Afghanistan.

Grant April 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm

You make a good point about Pakistan and Afghanistan, though I would say it’s closer to a vicious cycle where the problems of each country reinforce the problems of the other country.
However I will note that it isn’t exactly easy for the civilian government. They have dubious power (if any) over the military, none over the ISI, many of the factions seem too concerned with local issues and appearing to stand up for Pakistan rather than implementing reforms and the government’s control over the people is laughable. Perhaps Musharraf might have been able to attack Taliban-oriented groups when he was in power but I really don’t believe he ever wanted to.

Grant April 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I’m not so worried about Al Qaeda as much as various local extremist groups gaining power. I think people focus a bit too much on the flashy global groups and not enough on the ones that stick around in large numbers.

Johnny Matrix April 11, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Agree with your comment concerning the lack of Pak nationalism…I’ve heard many times that those within both sides of the “Pashtunistan” AfPak border refer to themselves as proud Afghans. Anyone else have similar experience? Does Pakistan have any friends at all? They have social problems…

Don Bacon April 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm

First. recognize the India-Pakistan situation.

As General McChrystal assessed in 2009: “Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan. . .and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI [Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence ].”

General McChrystal again: “Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.”

The U.S. is currently exacerbating this divide by siding with India, so I don’t blame Pakistan for not cooperating with the GWOT which places an India-aligned Afghanistan on Pakistan’s western border.

Adam April 11, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Taliban was ISI creation we agree with that(with our funding) we removed Taliban for Harboring Al Qaeda than what about Pakistan harboring and suporting Taliban, Al qaeda and more than two dozen other terrorist organizations?

“Unfortunately, the military-intelligence establishment of one of our neighbours still regards Afghanistan as its sphere of influence…continues to provide sanctuary and support to the (Taliban’s) Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, the Hekmatyar group and al-Qaeda….And while the documents recently disclosed by WikiLeaks contained information that was neither new nor surprising, they did make public further evidence of the close relations among the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence…
The international community is present in Afghanistan to dismantle these international terrorist networks, Yet the focus on this fundamental task has progressively eroded and has been compounded by another strategic failure: the mistaken embrace of ‘strategic partners’ who have, in fact, been nurturing terrorism.”- Rangin Dadfar Spanta and he asked a similar question in a Washington Post article on 8/23/2010: “While we are losing dozens of men and women to terrorist attacks every day, the terrorists’ main mentor (Pakistan) continues to receive billions of dollars in aid and assistance. How is this fundamental contradiction justified? Despite facing a growing domestic terror threat, Pakistan “continues to provide sanctuary and support to the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, the Hekmatyar group and Al Qaeda. Dismantling the terrorist infrastructure “

Boris Sizemore April 11, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Zardari is being Zardari. But it is true. Maybe not in the way the Pakistanis envisioned it-Pakistan is becoming destabilized and Zardari is correct.

Yes, everyone is to blame. The Pakistanis and ISI for supporting directly sections of the Afghan insurgency. The Pakistani military for wasting huge sums on a military budget reaching for the sky in a very poor country. The Pakistani government for allowing a drone campaign that enrages anyone with an ounce of patriotism or humanity.

Pakistan has evolved toward Shariah and the rule of the Mullah and each day brings this closer to reality.

One can hardly blame the new Pakistani Taliban and its suicide teams for taking advantage of an easy situation in which to grow dramatically in a short time.

The US is also to blame for launching a crude and unpopular drone campaign designed to increase resistance to both the US and the Pakistani Government. The US has also turned a convenient blind eye toward what has been obvious and increased interference by Pakistani military elements directly into the war in Afghanistan. By allowing misgovernment and essentially throwing aid money into the hands of a corrupt minority, American policy is predicated on a future of conflict in Pakistan.

I believe it would be better to heed his warning than damn the messenger. When his term is over Zardari and his heirs will be in France enjoying peace. Pakistan will be edging further toward both an Afghan type war and economic collapse. The stakes have grown and grown, and not one answer has been provided toward solutions to what is now the defining crisis for the entire region.

Yes, Pakistan is becoming very unstable. At least Zardari has the sense to tell us this now when it is perhaps already too late.

Faisal April 12, 2011 at 2:14 am

I see two strains of thought here that do not correlate. The first is the common refrain that the ISI and military establishment actively support the various AGE elements that have been based in Pakistan since the 1980s. There is ample evidence to support this claim and its common knowledge that the Pakistani government gives sancutary to these groups.

Then there is the refrain that Pakistan would fall into the hands of these militant groups and that they would take over and run amok. I am sorry but how can you have both? Following the common refrain from ISAF Pakistan not only harbours AGEs but also but funds them, arms then and gives them logistic support, how can there be a militant take over?

If we take Pasthunwali and a 30 year old personal relationship between the various elements at a personal if not family level, its very hard to consider they would turn their backs on the hand that feeds them. Additionally the ISI and Pakistani military has not taken any action against Haqqani, Hekmatyar or any of the Afghan elements at any point in the past 11/12 years of the war on terror.

Every action taken to date has been against elements which refer to themselves as the TTP or the BLA.

intelgal April 12, 2011 at 6:53 am

The two scenarios are not mutually exclusive at all. There is a wide variance of militant/terrorist groups in Pakistan: TTP, TTP-Mohmand, TTP-Punjab, Afghan Taliban, TNSM, Al Qaeda, LeT, JeM, HUJI, CNG, Haqqani, IMU, BLA, IJU, LeJ. Some of these groups are sponsored/supported by the Pakistani Military and ISI and others are anti-Pakistan groups seeking to overthrow the current government in Islamabad. It is not a paradigm wherein PAKMIL and ISI support ALL groups or none. As you correctly point out, Islamabad supports Haqqani, the group responsible for the majority of coalition deaths in AFG. Groups like HQN and LeT enjoy sponsorship and protection from Islamabad who use them to try and influence the internal situation in AFG. However, groups like TTP are targeted by the Pakistani military, because they are anti-Pakistan. PAKMIL’s current COIN operation in Mohmand Agency is proof of this, as is TTP’s execution of ISI Colonel Imam (see Youtube). Unfortunately, PAKMIL operations are not very effective and this is where the fear that the militants will “take over” stems from. So, ISI aids/helps terrorist groups and at the same time is trying to battle against them, depending on which group you’re talking about.

Grant April 12, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Additionally it’s far from uncommon for militant groups to grow out of control and start going after targets you never intended. One of the greatest criticisms I have for intelligence agencies backing them is that no one ever seems to consider what will happen when a state’s politics change.

Theo April 12, 2011 at 2:26 am

Invade Libya

Boris Sizemore April 12, 2011 at 2:44 am


You made a very good point.

The Pak military has been very very selective almost to a surgical level on which militant groups it targets. It sees this as a necessary balancing act evil.

The real question that follows from this is: Can they actually control in such fine detail what is essentially a well spring of support for Shariah based Government in Pakistan?

Riding the Tiger can be risky.

Your point on a 30 year relationship and Pashtunwali is perfect. Yes, that is what is required to gain a long term trust. The Pakistani military will never have this with the militiants. The militants do have this together. The bond of common religion, action, and struggle, not to mention now several decades of family ties-dating back to the 1980s is a very strong glue that actually keeps the insurgency going on a stable foundation.

When and I believe this to be very soon, the Pakistan Deep Government elements realize that the insurgency has a life of its own-it may be too late. The insurgents are realizing increased power in manners far outside of the their assumed careful delicate control of any Pakistani authority.

Yes, the opportunity may be too great, and yes, they will bite the hands that have fed them. Yes, they will fight against the appostate in all forms, as is required by the extremist beliefs that play a deep role in these insurgent groups. These same Beliefs are now held by more and more in the mainstream of the Pakistani population.

This growth gives confidence to all groups in both the struggle in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. It may have already begun a wide spread near united uprising against both Governments-one which we will all soon be able to recognize. This is not the time to be over confident, nor careless as the threat is indeed very very real for both countries.

intelgal April 12, 2011 at 7:09 am

Point of clarification – Pashtunwali applies to Pashtun culture, not Punjabis. Some of the Punjabi militant groups in Pakistan represent a very real existential threat to the current civil government and to PAKMIL. Pashtunwali doesn’t factor into it. Same things for the Baloch in Balochistan. Please remember that not all militancy in Pakistan is FATA or KPP based.

I’d have to somewhat disagree with the “common bond of religion, action and struggle” comment. While Jihad is a commonality between them and there is a certain level of collaboration, there are also definite rivalries, fissures and shifting alliances when you talk about PAK militancy. There are divisions that are tribal, sectarian, religious (Sufi vs. Deobandi vs. Salafist vs. Wahabbi). They don’t necessarily share a common language, being a conglomeration of speakers of Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Uzbeki, Balochi, Russian, Punjabi, etc…

Faisal April 12, 2011 at 8:28 am

Agreed. The Pakistani military has been very specific with it targets. It maintained solid relations with most if not all AGEs in Pakistan for the past 30 years. Even Karzai was on the ISI pay roll until 2000. However the issue of Shariah law is not that evident as most Pakistanis are not in favor of a Shariah based government system. The Pew Centre did a survey a year or two ago, and found a large number of Pakistanis did not feel there was a need for a Shariah based government system.

Additionally little known fact but Pakistan already has a Shariah court system. It covers specific issues under the legal framework and more importantly it can come into play when a person requests it. After all the reason Raymond Davis was let go by the LHC was because the concept of “Diya” is part of the law of the land and it is an aspect of Shariah.

For most Pakistanis – the average civilian and those “in the know” there are two elements with which they work with. The anti-Pakistan elements like Intelgal mentioned which consist of the TTP and the BLA and those that are “allies” or “proxies” of the GOP (Government of Pakistan) like Haqqani, Hekmatyar and the Quetta Shura. They are not all interconnected and more importantly they do not work together.

Hekmatyar and Haqqani do not work together. LET does not work with the BLA and most of the TTP gets its support from South Punjab. There is no one single over-arching command structure withing these different militant groups. To address specifically your comments Intelgal, the various groups you mention a majority of these militant groups do not work together and a good many of them actually hate each other. The ones that work without the support of the ISI and the Military are usually too small to cause any real damage to the actual government infrastructure. Those that are in fact dangerous like Haqqani and Hekmatyar get their support from the ISI and the Military but also more importantly from funds from the Gulf.

And like Intelgal already stated there are many divisions between the various militant groups, to the extent they have never acted like a single unit with any desire to work together. So while yes Pakistan support to the militants has a role in destablizing Afghanistan, these very same elements are way to entrenched in the current system to shoot themselves in the foot.

Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall April 12, 2011 at 8:15 pm

The difficulty in answering your question is that Obama isn’t being totally honest about the real (strategic) reasons for the expansion of the US war on terror into Pakistan. In fact, many Pakistani analysts see Pakistan – not Afghanistan – as the real target.

The Pentagon/CIA make no secret of their desire to see energy and mineral rich Balochistan secede from Pakistan to become a US client state – just like the energy and mineral rich former Soviet republics Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Moreover there’s no way to ascertain whether random acts of terror in the border regions are caused by the Taliban, Al Qaeda or the CIA-backed Baloch Liberation Army. Especially around the Chinese-built port in Gwadar, Pakistan (employed to offload Iranian oil destined for China). Given that Iran and China are major political/economic rivals, it’s a pity the US media fails to report on any of this.

I blog about this at “Our CIA freedom fighters in Pakistan”

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