Rather than winding down with the planned departure of NATO troops by 2014, the war in Afghanistan may just be undergoing a metamorphosis, as has happened many times since strife began there in the late 1960s. A slowly escalating old-fashioned war between Afghanistan and Pakistan may soon emerge, joining the internal insurgencies both of those governments are attempting to smother and pitting one state against the other. Cross-border sanctuaries and Islamabad's covert support to the Taliban are well-known features of the current violence. But as the Western military presence inside Afghanistan draws down, the trends leading to direct military escalation between Afghanistan and Pakistan are likely to continue.
The Afghan government will face an increasingly difficult security situation after 2014 and will need a new strategy if it is to survive. The number one security problem from Kabul's perspective is the continued presence of Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan, and the support the Afghan Taliban continues to receive from Pakistan's intelligence service. For a decade, U.S. and Afghan officials have pleaded with the Pakistani government to halt this support, to no avail. For Islamabad, groups like the Haqqani Network -- which specializes in periodic raids in downtown Kabul -- are proxy forces that Pakistan can use to keep Afghanistan weak and pliant.
After 2014, the Afghan army and police will bear nearly the full burden fending off the Haqqanis and other cross-border Taliban forces. Afghan military leaders are likely to conclude that they cannot reach a stable end-state by only parrying the Taliban's attacks. The only hope of ending the war on favorable terms is through offensive action against the Taliban's sanctuaries in Pakistan or action that inflicts pain on the leadership in Islamabad. If Kabul hopes to negotiate a settlement with Islamabad and the Taliban, it will have to acquire some leverage first. And that will come only after it has demonstrated a capacity to threaten the Taliban's sanctuaries and other assets inside Pakistan.
Initial trials of such incursions may have begun. Last week, the Pakistani government accused the Afghan National Army of a cross-border raid into the Upper Kurram District. Two Pakistani tribesmen were killed during a 90-minute gun battle. Although this particular incident may be more a case of hot pursuit rather than a deliberate attack, it also shows the Afghan army's willingness to step up its aggressiveness.
The Afghan government may also find it useful to employ the same tactics that Islamabad is using against Afghanistan. Pakistan has its own problem with Taliban insurgents, with these rebels using the Afghan side of the border as a sanctuary from Pakistani security forces. Indeed, in June, a Pakistani Taliban raiding party crossed from its Afghan sanctuary into Pakistan, captured 18 Pakistani soldiers, and videotaped the severed heads of 17 of these prisoners. Pakistan's army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani subsequently complained to U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the coalition commander, and urged him to take action to control the Taliban sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.
It seems doubtful that the Pakistani Taliban finding haven in Afghanistan are agents of Afghanistan's intelligence service. But the Afghan government has likely concluded that it needs to obtain leverage over Pakistan if it is to obtain a satisfactory settlement to the war. If the Pakistani Taliban lurking in Afghanistan are a potential source of that leverage, it might be only a matter of time before Kabul makes contact with the Pakistani rebels.