By Karl Kaltenthaler
University of Akron/Case Western Reserve University
The security situation in Afghanistan is bad and growing worse. More and more areas of Afghanistan are threatened by the Taliban and, to a much lesser degree, the Islamic State. The Afghan military and police forces are not in a position to keep the Taliban and IS from re-supplying, replenishing their ranks, and developing new and more effective ways to fight.
While a lot of this has to do with problems within the ranks of Afghan police and armed forces, the bigger source of the Afghan government’s problems comes from the Afghan Taliban’s primary means of logistical, military, and financial support: the Pakistani military.
The key to defeating or even degrading the Taliban as a fighting force lies in undermining the support the militant group finds in its Pakistani allies. Without getting the Pakistan security establishment to weaken their support for the Afghan Taliban, the war in Afghanistan will drag on and get worse for the Afghan government.
The United States government has threatened many times over the last two decades to get tough on Pakistan and its support for Islamist militants such as the Taliban and has cut much-needed military and other financial aid to the South Asian country. It has only resulted in cosmetic gestures and no real substantive change on the part of Pakistani policy toward supporting such militant groups, particularly the Taliban.
The recent efforts to get Pakistan to back away from the Taliban include an aid freeze and some very tough rhetoric. Despite those aggressive words and actions, we will see no substantive change in support for the Afghan Taliban from Pakistan security authorities.
Why is the Pakistani military so set on maintaining its support for the Afghan Taliban when it risks souring its relationship with the U.S., threatens hurting Pakistan financially, and gives Pakistan a black eye in world opinion? The answer is the same now as it was when the Taliban was forming in 1994: The Taliban is viewed by the Pakistani military as vital to securing the continued existence of Pakistan.
How can a somewhat rag-tag, mostly illiterate bunch of fighters from the backwoods of Afghanistan be so important to Pakistani national security? The overarching consensus among the Pakistani military elite is that India is an existential threat to Pakistan and an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan is a means by which India can undermine Pakistan.
Pakistan can ill afford to have India threaten it from its eastern and western flanks. The much larger Indian military is not something that Pakistan can hope to neutralize merely by its nuclear deterrent. An Indian presence in an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan is a way for India to support and infiltrate militants and its own agents into Pakistan, which weaken it from the inside.
Thus, while Pakistan had many cards to play against the U.S. and its threats over its support for the Afghan Taliban, such as its central logistical role in supplying coalition forces in Afghanistan, its intelligence cooperation against elements of Al Qaeda and IS, and some of its military operations against militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan, it is Pakistan’s perceived vital national security interest in controlling Afghanistan that will not see it abandon the Afghan Taliban.
That includes even the most dangerous parts of the Taliban nexus, the Haqqani Network, which is such a potent threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This is the part of the Afghan Taliban that is, in fact, closest to the Pakistani security establishment. This explains, to a large degree, why the Haqqanis have developed such lethal skills.
Where does this situation leave the United States in Afghanistan?
A purely battlefield victory over the Afghan Taliban is an elusive goal. As long as Pakistan gives the Afghan Taliban refuge and support, the war will drag on. Thus, the war can only be wound down by a political settlement that includes the Afghan government, the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the U.S., and India. Thus, it will probably not be a settlement that focuses on Afghanistan alone but is a détente and reduction of the security dilemma between India and Pakistan.
Without some reduction of the high tensions between India and Pakistan, Afghanistan will continue to be a battlefield for other countries’ security interests.
Dr. Karl Kaltenthaler is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Akron and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Case Western Reserve University. He teaches and researches in the areas of U.S. national security, terrorism and counterterrorism, political psychology, and security issues in the Middle East and South Asia.
All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.
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