American military leaders are still in denial about fighting the wrong war in Afghanistan.
After successfully toppling the Taliban regime in 2001, the United States and our NATO allies implemented a policy of nation building to bolster the new Afghan government. Moreover, the coalition employed counterinsurgency tactics against the growing number of Taliban fighters that were returning to Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan within eighteen months of their defeat.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom circulating in the offices of the Pentagon, the conflict in Afghanistan is not an insurgency, but a proxy war. One can arguably claim that the Taliban comprises a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pakistani intelligence, the ISI.
It is common knowledge that there is a Taliban infrastructure and support network in Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan, which includes education, recruiting, training, financial and command and control centers. It is also no secret that the ISI employs local groups as “cut-outs” to facilitate the movement of Taliban fighters across the porous border because. Additionally, the facilitators’ names and locations are sometimes known, as well as the identities of the ISI handlers.
Although the motives underlying Pakistani behavior are clear, the rational behind the United States’ inaction is not .
Pakistan has always sought to maintain Afghanistan as a client state, free of Indian influence. More recently, Pakistan has decided to tie its future to China and that country’s economic and military ambitions in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. A continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan is an impediment to Pakistan’s ambitions Therefore, the United States. needs to be convinced that the Taliban will never be defeated, a claim that Pakistan has repeatedly made. Pakistan will always be able to do just enough to prevent the U.S. from achieving its aims in Afghanistan while simultaneously avoiding direct conflict with the United States
Pakistan’s strategy is not new. Forty years ago, President Zia ul Haq said that Afghanistan should be kept “boiling at the right temperature,” at that time to prevent Soviet intervention. For the last sixteen years in Afghanistan, the U.S. has been a slowly boiling frog.
The oft-cited and counter intuitive reason why the United States does not more vigorously challenge Pakistan’s support of the Taliban is that we need Pakistan’s help to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent it from becoming a launch pad for international terrorism. In other words, the U.S. wants Pakistan to defeat its proxy. Yet many still wonder why that has not happened.
The problem resides elsewhere. Pakistan’s military, the de facto government, has only two instruments of foreign policy: Islamic extremism and nuclear weapons. The former is primarily a regional threat, whereas the latter can be existential. Pakistan, thus far, has successfully applied a combination of both in Afghanistan, often in the form of blackmail.
The U.S. chooses not to attack Taliban targets in Pakistan because of the fear that doing so will further destabilize Pakistan and risk nuclear weapons getting into the hands of regional or international terrorist organizations .
The United States continues to pretend that war in Afghanistan is an insurgency, knowing that without Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal the conflict might have ended years ago. The United States does not have the adequate policies for managing rogue nuclear-armed states, who export instability, whether it is terrorist, nationalistic or ideological – or for the major powers that sponsor them.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT 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 firstname.lastname@example.org