Michael KreponHaggling over Peripherals

Negotiations between the United States and Pakistan over the cost of hauling freight from Karachi port to Afghanistan and the wording of a statement of regret or apology over Pakistani deaths at a border clash last November have become demeaning to everyone involved. Patching up these contentious issues will have lasting benefit only if a much larger impasse can somehow be bridged. The central impasse currently afflicting bilateral relations is over a future composition of an Afghan government.

At the rhetorical level, Washington and Islamabad say they want the same outcome in Afghanistan, but at the operational level, the two sides are backing very different horses. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services in Rawalpindi are betting on groups and individuals that most Afghans, Washington, and other Afghan stakeholders will find unacceptable. Washington, NATO, and India are investing in the Afghan National Army and in a government that can prevent the recapture of Kabul by Taliban fighters. Rawalpindi is likely to oppose a future Afghan government that is friendlier to India than to Pakistan.

The tactics employed by Rawalpindi increase Pakistan’s continued isolation and decline. The tactics employed by Washington increase the likelihood of its estrangement with Pakistan. As long as current policies remain fixed, new points of contention seem inevitable between Pakistan, its neighbors, and the United States.

Washington is repeating one of the mistakes of the Vietnam War, thinking that an expansion of the battlefield across an international border could facilitate a successful result. This tactic is proving to be as unsuccessful with drones as with F-4 fighter aircraft. Drone strikes have failed to influence an Afghan settlement while succeeding in poisoning U.S.-Pakistan relations. Nonetheless, they are likely to continue if prompted by deadly attacks carried out by the Afghan Taliban from safe havens in Pakistan. This vicious circle will be hard to break as long as Washington measures the success of drone strikes numerically rather than politically, and as long as target lists do not shrink. An instrument that warrants use only in exceptional circumstances has become almost commonplace.

Rawalpindi is also repeating painful errors. In seeking to secure a friendly government on its western border, Pakistan’s fortunes have plummeted in every way – economically, internally, and externally. The problem lies not with seeking strong ties with Afghanistan, but with the means chosen to achieve this objective. Rawalpindi has good reasons to seek a friendly neighbor to the west, especially as ties with India remain problematic, and while Iran might someday seek to exploit Pakistan’s religious divisions. Pakistan would face intolerable security challenges if Afghanistan, Iran, India, and the United States were all hostile to Pakistan. No other country, besides Iraq, has suffered more incidents of mass casualty attacks over the past five years than Pakistan. These incidents could grow exponentially if tables were turned, and if Pakistan found itself on the receiving end of destabilization efforts originating from Afghanistan and India.

The means chosen to prevent these nightmares have instead brought them closer to realization. Pakistan’s decline over the past quarter century can be directly linked to its policies and its allies in Afghanistan. Yes, outsiders have contributed mightily to Pakistan’s woes, starting with the United States, but outsiders didn’t embrace the Taliban, and outsiders didn’t re-direct jihadist tactics against India after the Soviets departed Afghanistan. The U.S.-Pakistan partnership began to dissolve with this crucial decision to settle scores in Kashmir. And then Rawalpindi’s investments in Afghanistan turned to dust when the Taliban leadership offered a safe haven for al Qaeda and spurned Pakistan’s advice. A new generation of Afghan Taliban leaders operating out of Pakistan’s tribal areas may well prove to be similarly uncontrollable.

Much grief has come to Pakistan from the assumption that a friendly neighbor is required in the east but can never be found in the west. Some in India no doubt harbor the desire to use Afghanistan as a springboard to cause Pakistan’s demise, but sensible leaders in New Delhi have reasonably concluded that Pakistan’s demise would impair Indian security and imperil its economic growth. The advent of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent has served to reinforce the territorial status quo. The threat of clashes between India and Pakistan remains, triggered only by spectacular acts of violence on Indian soil that originate from Pakistan – acts that Rawalpindi is either incapable or unwilling to prevent.

The United States and Pakistan have made poor choices and have suffered the consequences. A partnership re-forged to hasten the Soviet exit from Afghanistan has again fallen on hard times. The United States erred in turning away from Afghanistan after Soviet troops went home, and Pakistan’s leaders erred in believing that their country’s security could be advanced by partnering with the Taliban. These errors have been compounded over the past decade. The U.S. economy is big enough to withstand very bad decisions. Pakistan’s economy is not.


  1. krepon (History)

    Note to readers: A slightly different version of this essay appeared in Dawn, a Pakistani Daily, on June 19, 2012.

  2. Andy (History)

    Excellent analysis, thanks Michael.

  3. Mantej (History)

    so what is the way out, give afghanistan back to the teliba. U.S has tried to pursuade pakistan over afghanistan several times in the past. but nothing has come out of it. all pakistan wants is more weapons and money so that it’s nuclear programe can go unhindered.

    • Alan (History)

      It would seem that the starting point should be Kashmir.

  4. Sharif (History)

    you say, “Washington is repeating one of the mistakes of the Vietnam War, thinking that an expansion of the battlefield across an international border could facilitate a successful result. ”

    This is correct and a fundamental mistake — incidentaly it has expanded to Africa and Yemem also.

    The ex-CIA station chief in Kabul has said the very same thing:


    ” U.S. policy has now carried the Afghan war over the border into Pakistan with its incursions, drone bombings and assassinations — the classic response to a failure to deal with insurgency in one country. Remember the invasion of Cambodia to save Vietnam?

    — The deeply entrenched Islamic and tribal character of Pashtun rule in the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan will not be transformed by invasion or war. The task requires probably several generations to start to change the deeply embedded social and psychological character of the area. War induces visceral and atavistic response.

    — Pakistan is indeed now beginning to crack under the relentless pressure directly exerted by the U.S.

    Anti-American impulses in Pakistan are at high pitch, strengthening Islamic radicalism and forcing reluctant acquiescence to it even by non-Islamists.”

  5. Anon2 (History)

    As a bystander, it is so sad to me that Pakistan cannot stop fighting the last war against India; and has invested so heavily in now independent, backwards leaning forces to do so. This is a great nation being held back by a independent security apparatus that is only answerable to itself; and appears to operate only for the benefit of those entrenched in the security apparatus.

    I like to blame Reagan’s administration for using Pakistan as a staging area in the Cold War against the former Soviet Union. Pakistan is left with the unintended consequences of being the arms bazaar for that war, and the ideological breeding ground of “cheap” cold warriors indoctrinated since childhood in schools with medieval ideology. Someone in the CIA didn’t think it through when they funded this.

    Its just so sad. I hope for better.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    Pointing out that India needs a retaliatory strike capability that is “credible and invulnerable” given its policy on no first use of nuclear weapons, Navy Chief Admiral Nirmal Verma has said that the Indian Navy is set to complete the nuclear triad for strategic deterrence.


  7. Mantej (History)

    are you saying pakistan did not do anything in all these decades to change the tribal character of pashtuns. I mean 65 years is not a small amount of time. US is not doing strike to measure the accuracy of the drone equipment, it doing because of taliban/AL-Qaeda. pakistan has been handled with extreme patience by the U.S. any other state would been declared a state sponser of terror by now. But U.S for whatever reason did not do it. they have given pakistan a lot of time. there is always a bogey played that pakistan is to nuclear to let it fail, on this pretext they interfere and make pakistan even more radicalise. same thing is happening with Iran. the left in the U.S has made Iran an existential threat and they can’t go back on it. I guess rewarding bad behaviour is the only option considered by the democrats in the U.S.

    • Sharif (History)

      For a large fraction of that time the Pashtuns were used as Cold War pawns. See Coll’s “Ghost Wars”.

      According to our DNI there are less than 75 AQ in the tribal territories: what we are now fighting are the Taliban — nationals of Af/Pak.

      i.e. Mission creep.

      I merely quoted what the ex-CIA station chief said. He goes on to offer a solution in the article I cited:

      “Only the withdrawal of American and NATO boots on the ground will begin to allow the process of near-frantic emotions to subside within Pakistan, and for the region to start to cool down. Pakistan is experienced in governance and is well able to deal with its own Islamists and tribalists under normal circumstances; until recently, Pakistani Islamists had one of the lowest rates of electoral success in the Muslim world.

      But U.S. policies have now driven local nationalism, xenophobia and Islamism to combined fever pitch. As Washington demands that Pakistan redeem failed American policies in Afghanistan, Islamabad can no longer manage its domestic crisis.

      The Pakistani army is more than capable of maintaining state power against tribal militias and to defend its own nukes. Only a convulsive nationalist revolutionary spirit could change that — something most Pakistanis do not want. But Washington can still succeed in destabilizing Pakistan if it perpetuates its present hard-line strategies. ”


      The drone strikes are definitely counterproductive strategically though they may have small tactical benefits on occasion.

      I believe they are used since they — and other similar methods — allow some metrics to judge what is considered “progress” but what isn’t: you can tick off the killing of 500 operatives but still lose the war on terror. Which, sadly, I believe we are.

      The problem has now metastasized to Africa and Yemen among other places.

  8. Cthippo (History)

    I’m not so sure history will judge Pakistan’s decisions as having been wrong. It seems to me that the American vision for the future of Afghanistan is, at best, a pipe dream, whereas Pakistan’s continuing support for the Taliban will likely pay off in the end.

    Based on history, everyone involved knows the US is eventually going to give up and go home, and will probably once again abandon Pakistan, just like we did before, and that Afghanistan will revert to a tribal – Islamic state, just as it has before. When that happens, Pakistan will reap the benefits of having stood by the Taliban even when it was unpopular in the form of a friendly state on their border.

    As for what Pakistan wants, I think the number one answer is security. They can’t match India in terms of conventional military or economic power, and India’s nuclear arsenal limits the value of their own. Having a friendly state on one side is worth a lot in terms of security and therefore worth the temporary hassles.

  9. John Schilling (History)

    And yet Pakistan still survives. Granted, there have been substantial economic costs associated with the strategy of the past generation. When ranking security, territory, nationalism, and economics, virtually every nation on Earth consistently puts materal wealth dead last. What else has Pakistan lost in its pursuit of Afghanistan and Kashmir by way of militant proxies? Nobody has yet invaded Pakistan, unless you count Seal Team Six. Pakistan’s armies and allegiances are weaker than they would otherwise have been, but still strong enough to prevent future invasions. There is some loss of pride in being unable to stop drone warfare in the frontier provinces, in having foreign leaders speak ill and dismissively of Pakistan, but these are matters of little real consequence.

    More to the point, what more does Pakistan have to lose?
    There seems to be little talk that an actual invasion of Pakistan is in the cards should current policies continue, nor devastation by aerial bombardment nuclear or otherwise. If all that Pakistan has to suffer is what Pakistan has already demonstrated is sufferable, how is this a losing strategy?

    Because, in the long run, it will win them Afghanistan at very least. No other power, nor any native Afghan government, can hold Afghanistan against an insurgency securely rooted in untouchable Pakistan. Whoever would contest Pakistani control of Afghanistan must either conquer or destroy Pakistan, or wage unending war without hope of victory. Sooner or later they – we – will give up and go home, and Pakistan wins.

    Kashmir is less certain, only because India might be up for the unending war without hope of victory. But if New Delhi wants a real and lasting peace, it will have to yield on the border.

    So I’m not seeing how this is a bad decision for Pakistan, unless we are imagining that the United States or India actually is prepared to invade. Or that Pakistanis value money over all else, which is even less likely.

    • krepon (History)

      Pakistan has, indeed, persevered.
      However, its problems feel different to me now, more severe and far more compounded.
      Afghanistan is one hell of a prize.
      One’s proxies turn into one’s headache.
      And at what cost? Is Kabul worth blowing up your ties to the US? Afghanistan can’t get you the next IMF tranche.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I suspect most of the Pakistanis who care more about the next IMF tranche than about Afghanistan, and care to do anything about it, now live in London.

    • Anjaan (History)

      It is myth that India yielding on the border would bring peace. Musharraf had corroborated this in one of his speaches that even if Kashmir issue is resolved, still there will be bad blood in Indo-Pak relations. Kashmir is not the malaise, but symptom of the malaise afflicting Pakistan.

  10. mantej (History)

    I think pakistan still can be pursuaded to take action against taliban/terriorists if pakistani army is given a comprehensive security package by the U.S. I meann all these years they have been getting good military hardware such as F-16’s etc, and they did not even bothered about
    lashkar-e-toiba, which were relatively easy. to go after haqqani’s, it will mean something of the order of F-22 or F-35 at the very least, along with some M-2 abhraham tanks, nuclear deal, and resolutions of kashmir as per their wishes. it is not that they don’t want to go after haqqanis’, but they just want the right price for it.

  11. sidd (History)

    1) First, a quibble:

    “Much grief has come to Pakistan from the assumption that a friendly neighbor is required in the east but can never be found in the west.”

    Should the words “east” and “west” be exchanged ?

    Next some thoughts, in no particular order:

    2) Power is Pakistan resides mostly in the military. Especially now, as the judiciary and the legislature are locked in struggle.

    3) The military has not forgotten, to use one of their own, more expressive, phrases that the USA used their country like a condom to effect the Russian expulsion from Afghanisthan. Any scheme proposed by the USA will be given lip service, at best, and assented to only to the extent that it serves the interest of the Pakistani military.

    4) The military does not particularly care if Karachi burns or Lahore riots, or Baluchistan starves, as long as they retain their grip on power. Unfortunately neither do the politicians.

    5) A large part of the power of the military comes from the holdings of military related manufacturing and real estate companies. These are organically tied to the older plutocratic families of the Punjab. These companies are also vulnerabilities and could be attacked.

    6) The military is not really sympathetic to their pet terrorists, rather view them as dangerous attack dogs to be unleashed as necessary. Those attack dogs, in turn, use military support as chance permits, and slip their leashes quite often; a relationship of mutual contempt, that often explodes into open war. The difficulty is that the military actually sees themselves as being in control of the situation, which is quite untrue.

    7) Pakistan’s military expenditures (on and off book) are unsustainable. In fact, so are most of their other expenditures. Another sufficiently large terrorist attack emanating from Pakistan would result in the end of most external funding, civil government collapse, and the country goes all North Korea. Nobody wants this, including India. But how to prevent ?


    • krepon (History)

      Thanks for the comments & correction–

  12. archjr (History)

    I may have the quote wrong, but security for Pakistan has always meant a significant measure of control in the “Greater Hindu Kush.” This phrase I heard first while note-taking in a meeting with the infamous General Beg in 1989 or so. As I recall, control of the area, however defined, in his mind went well back before 1947, which makes sense. And when Beg thought big (really, really sorry), his Hindu Kush wrapped all the way around to the Arabian Sea, to include Iran. But his point is clear; just look at the map. It is true, as you say, that “Pakistan’s military and intelligence services in Rawalpindi are betting on groups and individuals that most Afghans, Washington, and other Afghan stakeholders will find unacceptable.” You are also right when you say that, “Washington, NATO, and India are investing in the Afghan National Army and in a government that can prevent the recapture of Kabul by Taliban fighters.” This latter statement will logically strike some fear in the heart of any Pakistani general with a lick of strategic sense, given geography and the military culture they have grown up in. Also to be taken for granted in any look at Pakistan is the fact that the Army is the only stable institution that has persevered since partition, and that Pakistan’s only consistent ally since its founding has been China. The Pakistanis can be petty, and act against their interests as in the logistics screw-up with the U.S. But it all counts for something from Pakistan’s perspective, never, nor sadly now, understood in the U.S.

    Please, anybody who gets worked up about this, note that I am only trying to call it as I see it from 30 years of watching from a distance. The last thing anybody needs to do from outside the region is take sides. Those sides can change pretty fast, and I personally consider it a testament to smart folks in said region that there has been no fourth war.

    • krepon (History)

      The guy you met with, General Beg, entertained a posture of “strategic defiance” — a Pakistan-Iranian entente against the United States — when he was Army Chief, but was persuaded not to pursue this.
      I don’t think it’s possible to dissuade Rawalpindi that Afghanistan is a side show. My reading of history is that Afghanistan is the place where outsiders have their wallets picked and their ambitions broken. But Halford Mackinder suggests otherwise, in the view of Pakistani strategists.

    • krepon (History)

      make that persuade, not dissuade

  13. EquatorNation (History)

    “Rawalpindi are betting on groups and individuals that most Afghans , Washington, and other Afghan stakeholders will find unacceptable”

    Maybe you meant to say what “Northern Alliance, Tajik dominated ANA and Washington will find unacceptable”

    Or maybe i am unaware of the historic moment when Pashtuns collectively decided to forget their past enmities to the point where they will fight against their very own (Taliban) for the benefit of northern warlords.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Let us stipulate that the Taliban is beloved of the Pashtun people. Napoleon I was beloved of the French people, for very similar reasons, yet the rest of Europe quite legitimately found his rule to be unacceptable, and those who bet on him wound up among history’s losers.

      And most Afghans are not in fact Pashtuns, so it is quite possible that most Afghans find the Taliban unacceptable.

      If the Taliban were willing to limit the application of its violently opressive religious fanaticism to the Pashtun people, I think the rest of the world would be inclined to say they deserve each other and leave them to their fate. But, as with Napoleon, the Taliban’s ambitions are rather broader and so the rest of the world – starting with the rest of Afghanistan – will quite rightly try to block that future.

      Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, and Pakistan’s Generals, will need to decide whether they really want to stand against pretty much the entire rest of the world on this given that the rest of the world is A: mighty and B: right. Possibly the rest of the world is apathetic enough to let them win in the end, but it will be a very expensive victory.

  14. EquatorNation (History)


    Thanks for your reply.

    The whole point of bringing up the rather inconvenient schism in Afghanistan along ethnic lines was to challenge the narrative of Afghan nation state operating in the same parameters as other nation states where you could talk about majority. The fact of the matter is, the natural state of play in Afghanistan has been that of a De-facto partition along ethnic lines. Without Pashtuns and the area they dominate you do not have much of a Afghanistan as we know it to talk about ‘majority of Afghans’. It would be just as much of an Afghanistan the nation state as it was under Taliban’s rule which was again artificial and didn’t take much to dislodge. Over the past decade nothing has changed that fact on the ground. What has happened to Eikenberry rule and ANA’s makeup is one very instructive example. The blue on blue mainly done by Pashtun recruits talks volumes about how much confidence they repose in the current artificial state of Afghanistan.

    Secondly, i think there is a difference between being ‘beloved’ of Pashtun versus being one of them. They may not like them and not agree with them but they are still one of them and when it comes to the hatred of northern alliance warlords or foreign occupation forces will almost always prefer them over the later. Even Americans get the concept of ‘ours and theirs’, after all they coined ‘we knew he was a bastard but he was our bastard’.

    Thirdly, the whole point about brutality and fanaticism of Taliban is a big red herring. Taliban hardly has the monopoly on brutality in Afghanistan these days. It has been a decade and since then there have been a gazillion night raids, stories of kill teams, Quran burnings, prison torture, filmed desecration of corpses and plain old ‘mistaken strikes’ on civilians. And that is just the virtuous and just ISAF. The warlords of northern alliance were never quite the boy scouts to begin with even when Talibs were (and rightly so) earning their reputation as brutes. Even though this has been overlooked in co-opting these warlords, it is hardly lost on the people who have been at their receiving end before and even now that this nemesis wears ANA uniform or preside over them as state official.
    If world was really so worked up by fanaticism then i am afraid it will have to start doing the cleanup somewhere down in a certain gulf , in a peninsula that can rightly be judged mother of fanaticism export machinery. Those guys in the kingdom get quite a pass with blind eye towards brutality, human right violations, export of fanaticism and are also rewarded with billion dollars arms sales at regular intervals.

    Lastly, I don’t agree with your narrative of ‘mighty’ and ‘right’ world ostracizing Pakistan and Afghan Pashtuns. Last time I checked the world was falling over itself to get the hell out of that God forsaken land where they had been dragged in by their ‘senior partner’ screaming and kicking in the first place. The only country that does not share a border with Afghanistan and still fancies future strategy in that region is US, but after decade of involvement has vanished the public appetite for any such project. As for the other nations who has historically shared borders (and screwed up Afghanistan) they will find out one or the other horse to bet on. The way Iran has been found back dealing with Taliban should be a very good indication how emotionally invested these countries are in their proxies.