Later this month, President Obama will decide the size and scope of the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. July 2011 marks the beginning of a process that should ultimately result in the complete transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghans by 2014. Although the American public has grown tired of the ten-year-long war, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll indicates that 43 percent of Americans say the war is worth fighting, compared to just 31 percent in March. Even with the recent successes in the south, where a counterinsurgency campaign has targeted the Quetta Shura Taliban, there is still much that remains to be done. Perhaps most significantly, Washington needs to wean its Pakistani ally off its relationship with insurgent groups that straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
Popular opinion holds that the U.S. and coalition forces cannot succeed in Afghanistan as long as Pakistan continues to support militant groups sheltering, training, and plotting in the sprawling tribal regions. For years, the U.S. has begged, bribed, and cajoled influential Pakistani leadership to sever their ties to insurgents. And yet these groups continue to be supported by current and retired elements of Pakistan’s military and security services such as the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a policy that has approval at the highest levels of the Pakistani security establishment. The only way to convince Pakistan to break with its insurgent proxies is by defeating them on the battlefield in Afghanistan.
Pakistani interest in Afghanistan can generally be understood in terms of Islamabad’s dominant concern with its archrival, India. Pakistani strategists hold that the key in any future conflict with India is to secure “strategic depth,” a concept that for the past several decades has dominated the thinking of senior military leadership, including chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The theory holds that in the event of a full-scale Indian military incursion across Pakistan’s eastern border, Islamabad would need to secure territory deep in Afghanistan’s south and east in order to retreat, regroup, and mount a counteroffensive focused on recapturing their territory. Pakistani relationships with proxies such as the Taliban and others stem from their calculation that these groups would provide them with the territorial depth necessary to regroup and go on the offensive.
In order to secure strategic depth, Pakistan relies on a bevy of militants with which it has maintained relations since the Soviet-Afghan war. There are three groups in particular that constitute the majority of the insurgency in Afghanistan’s south and east: the Haqqani Network, Hizb-I Islami (led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar), and the Quetta Shura Taliban.
In Afghanistan’s southeast provinces, and increasingly in the mountainous east, the Haqqani Network, led by Siraj Haqqani and his brother Badruddin, is Pakistan’s most reliable and potent proxy force. The network sends recruits, weapons, and supplies to attack U.S. and Afghan security forces, Afghan political leadership, and Indian targets. Elements within the Pakistani security establishment are believed to provide the Haqqanis with material, financial, and operational support for their activities inside Afghanistan, including assisting with the facilitation of the group’s fighters across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-I Islami forces are primarily active in Afghanistan’s remote eastern provinces. In addition to Hizb-I Islami’s insurgent force, there is also a Hizb-I Islami political wing that is an important player in the Afghan political scene. Publicly, the political and military wings of Hizb-I Islami profess their independence from each other; privately, however, they may not be as distinct as they appear. Pakistan’s alliance with Hizb-I Islami is a means to secure territorial influence in eastern Afghanistan while achieving influence at the national, provincial, and district levels through political actors.
Pakistan’s most notorious proxy force is the Quetta Shura Taliban, led by the former emir of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar. The Quetta Shura maintains a sizable, national insurgent movement that stretches from the movement’s birthplace in Kandahar to Afghanistan’s east, west, and north. For the Pakistanis, the size of the Quetta Shura’s fighting force, geographical reach, and ideological leadership of the majority of Afghan insurgents makes it an indispensable ally.
Over the past decade, the U.S. has promised and delivered billions of dollars in aid, military hardware, and counterinsurgency trainers in order to secure Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-led effort to establish a secure and stable Afghanistan. This won Pakistan’s cooperation on a range of issues, including attempts to address their own militant issue (Pakistani Taliban) and willingness to let critical supplies for the ongoing war transit through their country. However, the Pakistani security establishment’s support for proxy groups only increased when the U.S.’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan appeared to be on the wane. What reversed the momentum of the insurgency was an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in the south starting in the summer of 2009 that degraded the Quetta Shura Taliban’s forces. For the first time since the overthrow of the Taliban, Pakistan may now be beginning to doubt its strategy of employing proxies to secure its interests in Afghanistan.
Now Washington has momentum on its side. As soon as the security situation in southern Afghanistan allows, forces must be reallocated to the east for a full-scale offensive against Pakistan’s proxies there, the Haqqani Network and Hizb-I Islami. This is a determined insurgency, closely allied with and supportive of al-Qaeda’s global jihadist agenda. Accordingly, it is unlikely that President Obama can successfully achieve his objective of defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan without dismantling the groups upon which they operate in Afghanistan’s east. This is perhaps the only course of action Washington can pursue to change Islamabad’s calculus.
If Pakistan can no longer count on its proxies to achieve its objectives, it may be persuaded to abandon support for these groups, and instead play a more constructive role in Afghanistan’s political process. This would accelerate efforts to establish security in Afghanistan’s south and east and would signal a more productive relationship with the United States, one based on mutual interest and respect rather than the distrustful, transactional relationship that currently exists.
Jeffrey Dressler is a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, specializing in Afghanistan and Pakistan security issues.