National Security

Kabul's Unlikely New Ally

Has Pakistan decided it's finally time to embrace Afghanistan?

The recent meeting of Afghan and Pakistani leaders with Secretary of State John Kerry in Brussels marked a renewed effort by the Obama administration to get these two South Asian nations to resolve hostilities that have fueled the war in Afghanistan. 

"It's fair to say that there's good feeling among all of us that we made progress," Kerry said after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's top military officer. "We will continue a very specific dialogue on both the political track as well as the security track.... [A]ll of us agreed we are committed to try to find stability and peace within both countries and the region itself."

The meeting came at a time when American officials believe that after years of supporting militants who were trying to undermine the Afghan government -- and as U.S. forces prepare to leave the region -- Pakistan has changed its approach to Kabul and has become more cooperative in seeking a political solution to the conflict raging next door, American officials say. However, even as they insist there is a new approach, those same officials  acknowledge there has been no "measurable change" in support for the combatant groups U.S. and allied troops confront in Afghanistan.

Such a shift, if actually executed, would be significant. Pakistan's support for the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura, and other Afghan Taliban militants -- whom it has sheltered, trained, and armed -- has perpetuated the insurgency in Afghanistan and angered the United States, which has spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of troops trying to stabilize the country since ousting the Taliban from power in 2001. Pakistan's support for these groups has been motivated by its fear that Afghanistan could become an ally of longtime enemy India and nurture separatist movements in the western part of its territory. Supporting the Taliban was seen as a means of keeping Indian influence in Afghanistan to a minimum.

"The growing regional pivot in Pakistan's foreign policy is a reflection of our democratic policymaking," Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said last September at the United Nations General Assembly. "A brighter Afghan future will only be possible when the search for peace is Afghan-owned, Afghan-driven, and Afghan-led." Zardari -- who has led the Pakistan People's Party since his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in 2007 -- said his nation would support Afghan efforts toward "reconciliation and peace."

Pakistan's government was dissolved in March ahead of national elections this month, but support for the regional shift is shared across the nation's major political parties. Among those embracing this view is the odds-on favorite to become the nation's next leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and his wing of the Pakistan Muslim League.

One U.S. official who deals with Pakistan notes that Hina Rabbani Khar -- until recently, the country's foreign minister -- has been saying, "This is for real, we really are turning a corner in the way we approach Afghanistan. It's a state in its own right, it's not just rubbish in our backyard."

American officials believe this rhetoric is sincere, signifying a genuine change in strategy. The Pakistanis "are going out on a limb publicly, they are really pumping this thing," the official said. "Fundamentally, the message is quite consistent and well coordinated between... the five or 10 senior most people in their hierarchy," including Kayani, who serves as the chief of army staff.

American officials say one concrete sign of Pakistan's new policy is its move late last year to free Afghan Taliban prisoners that Kabul's High Peace Council had asked to be released. U.S. representatives also stress that the Pakistani foreign minister has visited Kabul often and met with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, which is composed mostly of Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara political leaders who are close to India and fought the Pakistan-supported Taliban during the 1990s.

Pakistanis are also now cooperating more with Afghan and U.S. military officials on border security, one senior Defense Department official said in an interview. Pakistani leaders have "publicly and privately expressed support for the Doha political process," in which the Afghan Taliban would be allowed to open an office in Qatar in order to meet with Afghan and foreign officials, with the aim of negotiating a conclusion to the war, the defense official said. The United States has been pushing for this development for a couple of years.

"The number one factor" driving Pakistan's shift in policy, according to the senior defense official, is the "growth of domestic radicalization, militancy, and terrorism" in Pakistan. According to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an independent think tank, nearly 40,000 civilians have been killed or injured since 2006 in violence stemming from terrorism, ethnic and sectarian strife, and the separatist insurgency in Baluchistan, as well as criminal activity.

"Pakistan's biggest fear is that if the [Afghan] Taliban come back into power through violence, through force, they will create trouble all around them, including in Pakistan," the official said. "They will not only provide safe haven to militants that are in Pakistan... but more ideological stimulus to these groups." This line of thinking had been simmering for a number of years but "has now crystallized in Pakistan across the civilian and military leadership, over the course of basically 2012."

Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, says that although Pakistan has relied on the Afghan Taliban to advance its interests in Afghanistan for the past two decades, Pakistan's military leaders are now "uncertain about their [Afghan] proxies and whether they will turn against them, and whether the proxies have alliances with the people they are fighting in Pakistan, the Pakistan Taliban. Ideologically, there is no difference between them." Cohen says Pakistani officials "are nervous about their support for the [Afghan] Taliban bouncing back and hurting them in terms of their war against the Pakistani Taliban, which is now a full-scale war."

Pakistan's new army doctrine, which has not been publicly released, now recognizes that the military must also focus on the internal threat to the country's stability, according to Shuja Nawaz, who directs the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. For the first time, the doctrine tries to introduce to the senior ranks the notion that Pakistan is facing "multifaceted" threats and should be "no longer simply India-centric," he said.

"Our efforts must be directed towards stabilizing the internal front," said Kayani last August in a speech on the nation's independence day. "Today, extremism and terrorism present a grave challenge."

The U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is another factor propelling Islamabad's new approach, according to the first U.S. official, who deals with Pakistan. The Pakistanis are concerned that the Afghan National Security Forces will not be able to provide stability "at least in some provinces," this official said. "And I believe the Pakistani leadership, when they say that they don't, they categorically do not want the Taliban to come back to power." 

Some former U.S. officials are skeptical, though.  

"What they are doing is marginal," said one former senior defense official, who noted that while there may be some improvement in the Afghan-Pakistan relationship, "There are way too many things in play before you can say this is a concerted shift."

"There is no historical precedent" for Pakistan to change its entire approach toward Afghanistan, says Seth Jones, who advised U.S. special forces in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. Now a political scientist at RAND, Jones notes that Pakistan has backed militant organizations in Afghanistan since at least the 1980s, aiming to ensure a friendly country on its western flank.

Pakistan also appears to have continued to support violent extremists even after it launched the purported shift in approach. According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now with Brookings, when the Haqqani network attacked Camp Bastion in Afghanistan last September, "one of the Afghan Taliban attackers was captured alive, and in his interrogation, he indicated the attack was planned in conjunction with the ISI [Pakistan's intelligence agency], and they facilitated their route to the target and helped them plan the attack on the facility."

Even U.S. officials who believe a significant shift is underway say it will be implemented only gradually.

The U.S. official who deals with Pakistan said that Washington has not "seen any measureable change" in Pakistani support for the Haqqani network. Nor did this official expect to see any decrease in support for the Haqqani network anytime soon. "I think that is part of Pakistan's hedging strategy," the official said. "They will want to see how things are playing out a little bit more across the border before they take action."

Another official said that the Pakistani government would not go after these militants because they do not threaten the Pakistani nation. But Pakistani officials realize that a lot of these groups can morph or are already playing multiple games, some of which are anti-state," according to this source.

Pakistani military officials deny they distinguish between Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban.

"We do not discriminate, as a matter of state policy, between terrorist groups. So the concept of the good Taliban and the bad Taliban -- there is no such thing," one Pakistani defense official insisted in an interview. "How do you differentiate," the Pakistani official asked, between a Haqqani network fighter and somebody else who belongs to another Pakistani Taliban group?

The militants lack uniforms and "don't have distinctive patches where you could identify them," the official said. "And at 100 meters, 200 meters, a person who has an AK-47 and is shooting at you -- you don't really ask him to identify himself so that you may respond. You tend to shoot first and identify later."

The next test for the strategic pivot will be the May 11 parliamentary elections. The American official who handles Pakistan issues said, "I think the idea has been socialized enough and enjoys enough support across the spectrum that I don't think we'll see a big shift in that particular approach."

It appears that the party that is currently leading in the polls in Pakistan is likely to continue this "regional pivot."

"We want the peace process in Afghanistan to be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned," Tariq Fatemi, a foreign policy advisor to Nawaz Sharif, said in an interview. "We do not want to see any interference from any country in Afghan affairs. Afghanistan is a sovereign and independent country. We respect its sovereignty and we want Afghanistan to be treated as such by all the foreign powers." He added: "Mr. Nawaz Sharif knows very well what happened with the departure of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the civil war that ensued, the chaos that ensued. And we are frightened [by] that nightmarish situation." 

As for the peace talks that have been launched by the U.S. and Afghan governments with the help of the Pakistani government, Fatemi said, "We think it's a step in the right direction."  

Evan Vucci/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

What Was Obama Thinking?

How the administration backed itself into a corner on Syria.

What was President Obama thinking in August 2012 when he declared that Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria would alter his calculus and cross a red line, triggering U.S. intervention? Did the president's advisors comprehend that such a statement would put U.S. credibility on the line regarding a particular threat -- chemical weapons -- that would be extraordinarily difficult to address absent the insertion of ground forces?

Apparently not. It was only after U.S. allies began claiming that the Syrians had used chemical weapons against their own people that the White House realized it had gotten itself into quite a pickle. The wording of the letter the White House sent last week to Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, announcing that the intelligence community had determined with "varying degrees of confidence" that Syria had used chemical weapons, was but one indication of this. A clearer sign was the statement on Friday that the United States would not permit the "systematic" use of chemical weapons, suggesting that sporadic use of such weapons might not trigger U.S. military action.

The Obama administration has backed itself into a corner: There appear to be no clear, actionable options for the United States to respond directly to Syria's use of weapons of mass destruction, but there are three main issues it needs to confront.

First, the United States has real interests at stake in the Syrian conflict itself. As Gen. James Mattis, the head of Central Command, testified earlier this year, the removal of Assad and his replacement with a government less friendly to Iran would be the greatest setback that Tehran has faced in over two decades. The Iranian regime knows this and is doing all it can to support Assad with weapons, advisors, and funds. Moreover, with over 70,000 dead and mounting numbers of refugees -- both internally displaced and crossing Syria's borders to neighbors like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon -- the United States has a serious and growing interest in preventing further mass slaughter and in helping its allies and partners shelter those fleeing the conflict.

Another, perhaps more important, issue at play is the credibility of the United States as an ally and security partner. The president of the United States declared a threshold for U.S. action in Syria that has now been crossed. To the extent that the U.S. response is perceived as lawyerly, or as a means for delaying or avoiding U.S. action in Syria, America's reputation and its interests will suffer. Not only are potential adversaries such as Iran and North Korea watching, but competitors such as China and Russia and long-standing allies such as South Korea, Japan, Australia, and Turkey are watching too. If these nations perceive a lack of resolve on the part of the United States for dealing with security challenges, they might then be tempted to strengthen their own security in ways that are detrimental to U.S. interests. For example, Iran might be less restrained in challenging U.S. naval patrols in the Persian Gulf. The Chinese navy might be emboldened to further challenge other nations' claims in the South China Sea. South Korea might decide to acquire its own nuclear weapons to deal with the persistent North Korean threat. The list goes on. During the Cold War, it was just such a lack of perceived U.S. credibility that contributed to the Soviet Union's decisions to invade Hungary and Czechoslovakia and that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, the United States has withdrawn from Iraq, it is in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, and many allies and partners in Europe and the Middle East believe it has reduced its traditional leadership role. The U.S. reputation for action is on the line.

Finally, the use of chemical weapons in Syria is one of many increasingly likely contingencies involving weapons of mass destruction in a failed or failing state. With nuclear weapons in the hands of an untested leader in North Korea and the possibility that instability in Pakistan could allow jihadists to gain control of the country's growing nuclear arsenal, one would think that the United States would have developed the necessary strategy, capabilities, forces, military posture, technologies, and alliance relationships to handle such eventualities.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. The Pentagon's strong bureaucratic inclination for focusing on symmetric adversaries with large, advanced air forces and navies (e.g., China) is crowding out needed investment in these more uncomfortable, yet more likely, scenarios. Just as terrorism was discounted before the 9/11 attacks, counter-WMD contingencies now do not get the attention that they merit, especially in an age when the technologies for developing such threatening capabilities are proliferating rapidly. The political sensitivity of the Pakistan scenario also ensures that such efforts are addressed in small rooms that garner few resources. This is a case of bureaucracy and organizational culture overwhelming imagination and appropriate hedging of the defense portfolio. Secretary of Defense Hagel should make dealing with WMD in failing states a central, driving factor in the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the development of WMD-related diplomatic strategies, interagency planning, and resources should be greatly accelerated and heightened.

In Syria, the U.S. position up until now has been to provide non-lethal aid to vetted rebel groups and, essentially, to look the other way as other nations (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Qatar) provide more lethal forms of assistance, such as infantry arms and other military equipment. Calls for U.S. leadership to establish a no-fly zone to remove Assad's use of air forces against rebel groups and civilians have gone unheeded.

Now, with growing evidence that Assad has crossed the U.S.-declared red line by using chemical weapons, what options does the United States have? Unfortunately, not many. First, ensuring that we know the precise locations of Syria's massive chemical weapons inventories amidst an ongoing and dynamic civil war is an uncertain enterprise. While we likely know the locations of the larger stocks of chemical weapons in Syria, it is unlikely that we can know where all such stocks are. Second, trying to destroy the weapons from the air could cause many more casualties because the chemical agents could spread after air-delivered munitions are dropped. Finally, there is the ground option -- i.e., inserting U.S. and coalition ground forces into Syria to secure the chemical weapons sites. No serious analyst would recommend such an option, because once ground forces are deployed, the United States would "own" the Syrian conflict and find itself mired in an extraordinarily complex sectarian war of uncertain duration and outcome. Any suggestion that specialized force teams can rapidly and pristinely secure all chemical weapons sites should be discounted, as the on-the-ground realities in Syria are messy, shifting, foggy, and uncertain.

So what should the United States do? Since dealing specifically with the chemical weapons threat is so difficult absent a change in the conditions on the ground, the United States should significantly expand efforts to topple Assad and encourage and enable the mainstream opposition to establish a government more beholden to Syrian civil society. The United States should lead a coalition that uses limited airpower in combination with local and regional military forces to help turn the tide in favor of the rebels. Establishing and enforcing a no-fly zone would take away Assad's use of the air and essentially eliminate the functional capabilities of the Syrian Air Force.  In combination with the provision of military equipment to vetted rebel groups, such measures could tip the balance in favor of the rebels. A quid pro quo for such assistance could be rebel assurances regarding the security of chemical weapons sites as well as, potentially, rapid turnover of such sites to military forces from other states in the region. The reasons for the Obama administration's caution about Syria have long since gone by the wayside; it is now time to lead and to act.

Alex Wong/Getty Images