There are two interrelated strategic challenges that continue to impede U.S. efforts in Afghanistan (1) the unity and authority of the Afghan central government and (2) Pakistani intervention.
The extent of U.S. military involvement, that is, troop levels and the operational tempo have always been predicated on a single proposition, to buy enough time so that Afghan security forces can successfully take the lead against the Taliban with the U.S. in a supporting role, an endeavor now underway for over fifteen years.
What U.S. policymakers often fail to recognize is that the proposition stated above is largely independent of troop levels and the operational tempo.
Multi-ethnic security forces like those in Afghanistan can only remain intact if they are serving a relatively stable and unified national government able to extend its authority beyond major population centers into the countryside where the insurgency is most active. Unresolved factionalism and rivalry emanating from Kabul can infect the Afghan Army and Police with political, tribal, and other divisions affecting esprit de corps, which can have an impact on operational effectiveness. The lack of unanimity and organization throughout the chain of command has impaired the critical tactical skills of leadership and logistics.
Strategically, Pakistan may present the greatest threat to Afghan independence and the success of American policy in the region, especially in regard to building an effective Afghan security force and fostering a central government capable of extending its authority beyond the outskirts of a few major cities.
Pakistan views Afghanistan as a client state, a security buffer against what they consider potential Indian encirclement and as a springboard to extend their own influence into the resource-rich areas of Central Asia.
Pakistan’s use of Islamic militancy as an instrument of its foreign policy is not new. As early as the 1950s, it began inserting Islamists associated with a Pakistan-based Jamaat-e-Islami into Afghanistan.
In the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan War and to counter India’s military and industrial might, Pakistan took measures to increase the Islamic influence within its own society. They did this through proliferation of madrassa Islamic schools and greater support for militant groups to be used as proxies to challenge India in Kashmir and control the Pashtuns, whose tribal areas span the Afghan-Pakistan border.
In 1974, then Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, set up a cell within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to begin managing dissident Islamists in Afghanistan. Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) told one of his generals: “Afghanistan must be made to boil at the right temperature.”
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan backed Pashtun Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who struggled with his main rival, Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik from the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan, later assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks.
In 1994, under Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan shifted its support from Hekmatyar to the Taliban, who by 1998, had consolidated their power over most of Afghanistan and provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Without doubt, Pakistan and its intelligence service have more influence over the Taliban than any other country. It provides a critical safe haven to the groups’ leadership, advice on military and diplomatic issues, and assistance with fund raising. In 1999, Bhutto’s Minister of Interior, Nasrullah Babar admitted it quite explicitly, announcing, “We created the Taliban.”
Both sanctuary and supporter, Pakistan continues to be the Ho Chi Minh Trail for the Taliban.
Clearly, Pakistan benefits from a weak Afghan central government preoccupied with the Taliban insurgency and a fragmented and ineffective Afghan security force unable to thwart its aspirations for Afghanistan.
Acknowledging that it is impossible for the U.S. and Afghan forces to control Afghanistan’s vast territory and remote rural provinces with a limited number of troops and resources, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, in 2009, devised a plan to focus on protecting major Afghan population centers creating an archipelago of “ink spots” and then to try to connect them into a network by taking control of intercity roads. Subsequently expanding outward into the more remote areas, for example, by empowering village defense forces to augment the national army and police.
The Soviet Union was temporarily successful implementing a similar strategy in Afghanistan, but were eventually defeated as Steve Coll explained:
“Partly they just ran out of time, as often happens in expeditionary wars. Their other problems included their inability to control the insurgents’ sanctuary in Pakistan; their inability to stop infiltration across the Pakistan-Afghan border; their inability to build Afghan political unity, even at the local level; their inability to develop a successful reconciliation strategy to divide the Islamist insurgents they faced; and their inability to create successful international diplomacy to reinforce a stable Afghanistan and region.”
The U.S. faces the same obstacles, particularly in regard to Pakistani intervention, but by recognizing them, those obstacles also offer potential courses of action.
Early 19th century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz supplies a quote appropriate to the current U.S. situation in Afghanistan.
“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, a command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at email@example.com.