The key element in President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is getting Pakistan to fight the Taliban on its side of the border. But despite the Administration demanding a more concerted effort against militants on Pakistani soil as a condition for further aid to Pakistan’s military and warnings by Centcom commander General David Petraeus and others that the Taliban threatens to destroy Pakistan as a state many in Washington and beyond are skeptical that Pakistan will cooperate.
U.S. military officials have recently made clear that more than seven years after America went to war on the Taliban, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency continues to provide active support to Taliban forces fighting in Afghanistan. “Fundamentally, the strategic approach with the ISI must change,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen told CNN last Friday, “and their support … for militants [on both its Afghanistan and India borders] has to fundamentally shift.” But the problem is not confined to the ISI, or elements within it. In the recent truce between the Pakistani Army and local Taliban groups in the Pakistani region of Bajaur, the militants recanted their hostility to the Pakistani security forces but vowed to concentrate on fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan. And Pakistan has been far more tolerant of Taliban forces on its soil who conduct operations in Afghanistan than of those who fight the Pakistani government.
The U.S. obviously sees little merit in that distinction, nor do some of the younger generation of Pakistani Taliban leaders, such as Baitullah Mehsud, a target of U.S. drone strikes who claimed responsibility for Monday’s deadly attack on a Lahore police academy, claiming it was an act of revenge for Pakistani complicity in the U.S. campaign. But even the uptick of Taliban violence inside Pakistan won’t necessarily spur the country’s military establishment to act against Taliban forces that are using Pakistani territory as base from which to fight NATO in Afghanistan.
The strategic logic of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is based on seeing Afghanistan as inextricably linked to Pakistan’s existential conflict with India. Many in Pakistan’s security establishment see the government of President Hamid Karzai as, first and foremost, a close ally of India, and therefore as a rival to Pakistan’s strategic interests. The Obama Administration’s exit strategy is unlikely to change that outlook. As long as Pakistan remains in conflict with India, the country’s military establishment will be reluctant to “put all its eggs in the American basket,” as one Pakistani analyst put it.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, then-President Pervez Musharraf had little choice but to support the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan despite his misgivings over Washington’s strategy there. Indeed, Pakistan had helped install the Taliban in Kabul in 1996, to ensure that its western flank was controlled by a friendly regime. Even a month after the U.S. air campaign in Afghanistan had begun in October 2001, President Musharraf declared publicly that his government had no intention of breaking diplomatic ties with the Taliban, saying these ties provided “a useful diplomatic window” and claimed that the relationship was “useful and fruitful and accepted by the coalition.” Viewed through the prism of Pakistan’s conflict with India, then, the current regime in Afghanistan represents encirclement by India and its allies. And that’s a situation that Pakistan’s strategic establishment would prefer to change.
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