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Afghanistan: The cornerstone of US-Pakistan mistrust?

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Robert L. Grenier |

It might be hard to imagine now, but in the days immediately following 9/11, the George W. Bush administration saw much to like – at least potentially — in the Taliban. For one thing, they were actually in control of most of Afghanistan. Their ruling style may have been primitive and bloody-minded, but they had imposed their writ. And if any doubted it, they had only to look to the fact that the Taliban had recently succeeded in doing something that most would have thought impossible: They had successfully banned poppy cultivation in the lands they controlled.

The simple fact that the Taliban could exert its will on the restive peoples of Afghanistan was enough to recommend it to an otherwise hostile American regime – provided they were willing to do one thing: As President Bush had made clear in his speech of September 20, 2001, the Taliban had only to drive Bin Laden and his Arab Al-Qaeda minions out of Afghanistan and keep them out. Had Mullah Omar been willing to do that, the U.S. would have happily allowed him to continue his medieval rule unmolested. In due course, international sanctions would have been lifted, and the Taliban government would have claimed its coveted seat at the UN as the legitimate and internationally recognized government of Afghanistan. They might even have gotten American economic aid into the bargain.

American Interest to clear International Terrorists from Afghanistan

The fact is that the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was never just about bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Nor was it about “punishing” the Taliban. The core U.S. interest in Afghanistan – indeed the only legitimate American national security interest in that remote and primitive country, then or now – was to deny Afghan territory as a base of operation to international terrorists.

The U.S. was always going to get bin Laden and his core followers eventually (though in the end it took rather longer than one would have anticipated). Provided they had no ‘ungoverned space’ (or ‘irresponsibly governed space’) in which to hide, finding them and bringing them to justice would just be a matter of good police work.

The challenge which the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was meant to address was to ensure that they – or other terrorists to follow (Daesh and the TTP come readily to mind) – would not have space or freedom to operate there with impunity. On September 22, 2001, CIA Director George Tenet asked me, as his station chief in Islamabad, to write a paper for presentation to Bush’s war cabinet.

In it, I tried to make clear that the problem of Afghanistan was political, not military, and that its solution would therefore also be political. If the Taliban could be persuaded to change course and keep terrorists from using its territory, the problem of Afghanistan would be solved, and no military intervention would be necessary. But if not, the Taliban government would have to be smashed militarily, and the U.S. would have to take its chances to see what government might follow.

Read more: America’s “Game Changer” approach for victory in Afghanistan

Stark clear choices Confronted America

Given Omar’s intransigence, which he was soon to assert, the choice confronting the U.S.  national security establishment was simple, but stark: Either launch a conventional military campaign against the Taliban on its own, or, alternatively, provide military support to those anti-terrorist Afghans willing to oppose the Taliban for their own account and for their own reasons.

I strongly advised against launching a conventional U.S. military campaign. To do so would invite the disasters that had befallen the British and Soviets before us. I strongly argued for option two: By, instead, limiting ourselves to the smallest possible force and providing air support to opponents of the Taliban – both the Northern Alliance and dissident Pashtun tribes in the South – we would not only make Afghans the agents of their own liberation, but also provide those dissidents with the means to legitimize themselves politically, providing the chance – the prayer at least – for a viable alternative government which would pursue the anti-terrorist policy the Taliban would not.

That was the strategy adopted by the President on September 24 and even if its success had more to do with luck and serendipity than one would care to admit, by the end of the year it had succeeded.

When in May 2005, I strolled the manicured lawns of the Arg Palace in Kabul, this time as CIA’s head of counterterrorism, it was like walking in a dream. Hamid Karzai was the elected President of Afghanistan, the country had three and a half years of relative peace, construction was going forward, albeit at a snail’s pace, and Al-Qaeda had disappeared across the Pakistan border.

Read more: America’s Waterloo: ‘Scapegoating’ Pakistan for Failures in Afghanistan

Nascent Taliban Resurgence

But if it all seemed too good to be true, it’s because it was. Already, troubling signs were appearing of a Taliban resurgence. The story of the Taliban return can only be told district-by-district, as the winners of the recent conflict pressed their advantages against the losers, corruption and abuse of power again became rampant, and village mullahs formerly affiliated with the Taliban soon learned that there was no place for them in the new Afghanistan and opted instead to rejoin their companions.

At a policy level, the U.S. government which had once been willing to tolerate, if not embrace the Taliban, had ceded effective control of Afghan policy to the Pentagon, whose leaders were disinclined to make distinctions among those Taliban who were reconcilable and those who were not, and saw no practical need to do so in any case. Former Taliban leaders who might otherwise simply have taken their places back in society were provided every reason to regain active opposition to the Karzai government.

As signs of a Taliban revival in the Pushtun areas quickened in 2006 and 2007, the U.S. military generally refused to support the tribal warlords best positioned to counter them, in favor of a quest to build an ideal Afghan state which Americans could imagine, but which Afghans themselves could not produce.

Meanwhile, across the border, old patterns in U.S.-Pakistan relations were reasserting themselves in ways guaranteed to undermine their newly- revived relationship. During the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980’s, the tacit agreement between the two countries had been that the U.S. administration would ignore growing evidence of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program so that both could get on with the task of supplying the Afghan mujahidin. Once the Soviets withdrew, however, the bargain was off, and a nuclear-armed Pakistan was sanctioned and shunned, as U.S. law demanded.

General Musharraf could be forgiven for supposing that after 9/11, with Pakistan again a front-line state, the old rules would again apply: The nuclear unpleasantness would be forgotten, and other aspects of Pakistani policy, especially with respect to support of militants abroad, would be ignored. He was only partially right.

Read more: Afghanistan: From Soviet occupation to American ‘Liberation’

Early Signs of US-Pakistan Tensions

As early as the beginning of 2002, it was clear that Pakistani support of U.S. policy, in the region, would only extend so far. The post-9/11 deal, though neither made explicit by Pakistan nor formally acknowledged by the Americans, only met the Americans part way. Where Al-Qaeda was concerned, U.S.-Pakistan cooperation was exemplary and would continue to be so for years. Many, many dozens of Al-Qaeda militants in Guantanamo would have Pakistan to thank for their incarceration.

But where the Afghan Taliban was concerned, Pakistan had to look to its long-term interests. Al-Qaeda was not indigenous, and would not play in those interests, but the Taliban was, and would. Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban had always been complicated, and had never featured any real element of Pakistani control; tacit Pakistani support to U.S. efforts to overthrow the Taliban could hardly have been expected to improve them. Given past history and the prospect of American disengagement from Afghanistan, however, Pakistan apparently concluded that a degree of engagement with the Taliban would remain in its interest, especially given the perception of a hostile government in Kabul and of the growing Indian influence there. For me, in the final months of my tenure in Pakistan, working hand in glove with the ISI to dismantle the Al-Qaeda presence,

Pakistani tolerance of the Taliban leadership on its soil was simply a fact of life, something to be accepted if we and the Pakistanis were to cooperate in areas where our perceived interests genuinely coincided. Pakistan’s policy of retaining a measure of influence or engagement with Pashtun stakeholders in Afghanistan would later extend to the so-called “Haqqani network” as well.

If Pakistan feared U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan, it was not long in coming. Beginning during the later stages of the Bush administration, the U.S. reaction to growing Taliban strength on the ground was to take on itself the burden of both warfighting and government reform. The policy we had pursued immediately after 9/11 was turned on its head: now, rather than accepting realities on the ground and framing policies accordingly, American aspirations for Afghanistan had become millennial, and far too ambitious to be entrusted to Afghans themselves.

Read more: Making sense of Mujahidin Victory Day celebrations in Afghanistan

President Obama’s Shifting Agenda on Afghanistan

President Obama had been happy to accept and expand upon this project – until he understood the costs which would be involved. By December 2009, Obama essentially had decided to abandon Afghanistan. The timebound ‘surge’ of 2010 and 2011 was always a smokescreen to cover American withdrawal and a sop to an American military establishment demanding a chance to win the war.

It was only the real prospect of the eventual collapse of the Kabul government and a corresponding Taliban victory – completely negating even the modest goals of America’s initial incursion into Afghanistan – which finally induced Obama to maintain at least a modest military presence and very limited goals to suit. America would no longer fight to win, but merely not to lose.

The Trump administration’s vaunted ‘policy shift’ toward Afghanistan is nothing of the sort: It is simply a continuation of Obama’s final policy stance, without the timelines. The U.S. cannot defeat the Taliban with a force of under 12,000 troops and will not try. It can, however, prevent the Kabul government from losing until such time as the Taliban is willing to concede that it has no alternative but to reach a negotiated settlement. A policy of strategic patience and strictly limited goals may not play to the strengths of the turbulent and impatient Trump. Nonetheless, that is where America is at present, and where it is likely to remain indefinitely.

Thus, the future of Afghanistan is firmly in Afghan hands. None of the external stakeholders –  not the Russians, the Indians, the Iranians – not even the Americans or the Pakistanis – can have much effect on the eventual outcome.

The small but open-ended American presence in Afghanistan is actually good news for Pakistan. Were the Taliban to win and consolidate an uncontested hold on large parts of the country, they would willingly host the TTP and other militants intent on attacking Pakistan. Pakistan’s policy of ambivalence toward the Taliban, the Haqqanis, and perhaps other militants, borne of a combination of fear and cold-eyed calculation, thus carries with it many risks and ironies.

Read more: What happened to that ‘invasion’ of America?

Haqqani Network: An exercise in Realpolitik

Among those risks is a return to a hostile deep freeze in relations with the U.S., approximating what we saw during the 1990s. The reason is that while Pakistan might see hedging behaviors toward the Taliban and the Haqqanis as an exercise in realpolitik, the Americans see the question of the Haqqanis, in particular, in essentially moral terms. For the U.S., the Haqqanis are terrorists; the conversation stops there, and any softness or equivocation on Pakistan’s part is unacceptable.

This is the rock on which U.S.-Pakistan relations are likely to break and the twin irony is that even if Pakistan was to turn unequivocally upon the Taliban and the Haqqanis, it would make little material difference on the ground in Afghanistan; while Pakistan’s hopes of retaining a measure of influence over Afghan Pashtuns, borne largely of wishful thinking and self-deception, are likely to come to naught.

In short, the needless cycle of boom and bust in U.S.-Pakistan relations is set to continue for another round. We should be prepared for history to repeat itself in South-Central Asia.

Robert L. Grenier worked in the CIA for over twenty-seven years. He was CIA’s station chief in Pakistan (2000- 02), he later served as the CIA’s top counter-terrorism official (2004–06). He was Managing Director at Kroll, Inc. In 2009, he was appointed Chairman of ERG Partners, an independent financial and strategic advisory firm focusing on the security and intelligence sectors. Robert is a renowned expert on the Middle East, South Asia, and Counterterrorism and has written a book, 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary, published by Simon & Schuster.


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