Since the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, Pakistan has lost more than 35,000 people, the vast bulk of them civilians. While the U.S. has had slightly over 1800 soldiers killed in the past 10 years, Pakistan has lost over 5,000 soldiers and police. The number of suicide bombings in Pakistan has gone from one before 2001, to more than 335 since.
“Terrorism,” as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari says, “is not a statistic for us.”
For most Americans, Pakistan is a two-faced “ally” playing a double game in Central Asia even as it siphons off tens of billions of dollars in aid. For Pakistanis, the spillover from the Afghan war has cost Islamabad approximately of $100 billion. And this in a country with a yearly GDP of around $175 billion and whose resources have been deeply strained by two years of catastrophic flooding.
Washington complains that its $20.7 billion in aid over the past nine years has bought it very little in the way of loyalty from Islamabad, while Pakistan points out that U.S. aid makes up less than 0.3 percent of Pakistan’s yearly GDP.
Both countries’ opinions of one another are almost mirror images. According to a U.S. poll, 74 percent of Americans do not consider Pakistan to be an ally, while the Pew Research Center found that six in 10 Pakistanis consider the Americans an “enemy” and only 12 percent have a favorable view of the United States.
This mutual distrust in part results from mistakes and misjudgments by both countries that date back to the 1979-89 Russian occupation of Afghanistan. But at its heart is an American strategy that not only runs counter to Pakistan’s interests, but will make ending the war in Afghanistan a far more painful procedure than need be.
If Pakistan is a victim in the long-running war, it is not entirely an innocent one. Pakistan, along with the United States, was an ally of the anti-Communist, right-wing mujahideen during the 1980s Afghan war.
Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan has always been multi-faceted. Islamabad is deeply worried that its traditional enemy, India, will gain a foothold in Afghanistan, thereby essentially surrounding Pakistan. This is not exactly paranoid, as Pakistan has fought—and lost—three wars with India, and tensions between the two still remain high.
Over the past six years, India has conducted 10 major military exercises along the Pakistani border. The latest—Viajyee Bhava (Be Victorious)—involved 20,000 troops. India has the world’s fourth largest army, Pakistan the 15th.
By aligning itself with Washington during its Cold War competition with the Soviets in Afghanistan, Islamabad had the inside track to buy high-performance American military hardware to help it offset India’s numerical superiority. Indeed, it did manage to purchase some F-16s fighter-bombers.
But when Pakistan allied itself with the Taliban, India aligned itself with the Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who opposed the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Pashtuns are a plurality in Afghanistan’s complex mix of ethnicities, and traditionally they dominated the Kabul government.
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Islamabad has always been deeply concerned about the Pashtuns, because a long-time fear of Islamabad is that Pakistani Pashtuns could ally themselves to Afghani Pashtuns and form a breakaway country that would fragment Pakistan.
From Islamabad’s point of view, the American demand that it corral the Taliban and the Haqqani Group that operate from mountainous Northwest Frontier and Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan could stir up Pashtun nationalism. In any case, the task would be beyond the capabilities of the Pakistan military. In 2009, the Pakistani Army used two full divisions just to reclaim the Swat Valley from local militants, a battle that cost billions of dollars, generated two million refugees, and inflicted heavy casualties.
Current U.S. strategy has exacerbated Pakistan’s problem by putting the Northern Alliance in power, excluding the Pashtuns from any meaningful participation, and targeting the ethnic group’s heartland in southern and eastern Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, but he is little more than window dressing in a government dominated by other ethnic groups. According to Zahid Hussain, author of a book on Islamic militants, this has turned the war into a “Pashtun war” and has meant that “the Pashtuns in Pakistan would become…strongly allied with both al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
The United States has also remained silent while India moved aggressively into Afghanistan. On October 4, Kabul and New Delhi inked a “strategic partnership” that, according to The New York Times, “paves the way for India to train and equip Afghan security forces.” The idea of India training Afghan troops is the equivalent of waving a red flag to see if the Pakistani bull will charge.
One pretext for the agreement was the recent assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghan High Peace Council, killed by the Taliban under the direction of the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, according to Karzai government claims. But evidence linking the Taliban or Pakistan to the hit is not persuasive, and the Taliban and Haqqani Group—never shy about taking the credit for killing people—say they had nothing to do with it.
Pakistan’s ISI certainly maintains a relationship with the Afghan-based Taliban and the Haqqani Group, but former Joint Chiefs of Staff head, Admiral Mike Mullen’s charge that the latter are a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI is simply false. The Haqqanis come from the powerful Zadran tribe based in Paktia and Khost provinces in Afghanistan and North Waziristan in Pakistan’s Tribal Area.
When their interests coincide, the Haqqanis find common ground with Islamabad, but the idea that Pakistan can get anyone in that region to jump to attention reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the deeply engrained cultural and ethnic currents that have successfully rebuffed outsiders for thousands of years. And in the border region, the Pakistan Army is as much an outsider as is NATO.
Dealing with the Mess
There is a way out of this morass, but it will require a very different strategy than the one the United States is currently following, and one far more attuned to the lens through which most Pakistanis view the war in Afghanistan.
The United States and its allies must first stand down their military offensive—including the drone attacks—against the Taliban and Haqqani Group, and negotiate a ceasefire. Then the United States must open immediate talks with the various insurgency groups and declare a plan for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. The Taliban—the Haqqanis say they will follow the organization’s lead—have indicated that they will no longer insist on a withdrawal of troops before opening talks, but they do want a timetable. Any government in Kabul that emerges from such negotiations must reflect the ethnic make-up of the country.
Pakistan’s concerns over Indian influence must also be addressed, including the dangerous issue of Kashmir. President Obama ran on a platform that called for dealing with Kashmir, but he subsequently dropped it at the insistence of New Delhi.
Pakistan and the United States may have profoundly different views of one another, but on at least one issue they agree: slightly over 90 percent of Pakistanis would like U.S. troops to go home, and 62 percent of Americans want an immediate cut in U.S. forces. Common ground in this case seems to be based on a strong dose of common sense.