The recent replacement of General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has led to increased criticism of the war in Afghanistan and concerns about whether the White House is looking for an exit strategy. There’s also a sense that Afghans are losing confidence in the allied operations, and Pakistan is looking to "exploit that advantage," says CFR South Asia expert Daniel Markey. Pakistan would like an Afghan government that’s sympathetic to Pakistan and committed to not allowing much Indian influence in Afghanistan, says Markey. He says that President Barack Obama’s stated July 2011 starting point for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has posed problems for U.S. policies in the region. "That date remained fixed in peoples’ minds," says Markey. "Afghans are concerned that that date means that that will be the end of U.S. commitment. Pakistanis see an opportunity in that. Indians have been very worried."
General McChrystal’s replacement and recent efforts by the Pakistani leadership to enter into serious discussions with Afghan leaders have led to speculation that the United States is on its way out of Afghanistan next year, and the Pakistanis and Afghans are looking to secure their future. How do you see the situation?
The Pakistanis have for a long time anticipated the United States would eventually be looking for an exit strategy from Afghanistan. If the Pakistanis could provide that strategy and provide the opportunity to bring back Pakistani proxies, including the Haqqani network, the head of the Quetta Shura Taliban [headed by Mullah Omar], and others, then Pakistan would come out ahead. They’ve been looking for a way to deploy that strategy ever since 2002, and now that they’ve sensed there’s a question in American minds about whether we will stay the course--and certainly a sense in Kabul of deteriorating confidence in U.S. and NATO operations there--the Pakistanis are looking to exploit that advantage.
What would the Pakistanis like to see, ideally?
The Pakistanis would want to see an Afghanistan run by a collection of individuals who are at least sympathetic to Pakistan and who are committed to not seeing much in the way of Indian influence in Afghanistan. You really do have to trace this back to Pakistani concerns about being confronted on both eastern and western borders by India. Some of that is a bit obsessive, but that’s certainly the way the Pakistanis have perceived developments in Afghanistan. They have seen a rising amount of Indian influence and a potential that they would be squeezed by both sides. So they want to make sure that they have preponderant and certainly dominant interests and influence in Kabul into the future. They will probably not be satisfied with anything short of that. The challenge, from the U.S. side, is to find a strategy or an outcome that would suit Pakistan’s political interests without rewarding militant groups like the Haqqani network with clearly established ties and close relationships with international terrorists like al-Qaeda.
The Haqqani network is giving sanctuary to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden?
Everybody in the region has keyed on that [July 2011] date since Obama’s West Point speech. There’s no question that that was the headline for Afghans, for Pakistanis, for Indians, really for everyone.
That’s exactly right. And of the various groups based inside of Pakistan, that network is seen as one of the most dangerous and one of the ones that has done the most to increase violence inside of Afghanistan, targeting especially Indian interests there, in particular the Indian Embassy.
President Obama has seemed annoyed at people asking him about the July 2011 withdrawal date. But it was he who first mentioned this date in his West Point speech last December. Are the Afghans wary of what the United States is going to do?
Everybody in the region has keyed on that date since Obama’s West Point speech. There’s no question that that was the headline--for Afghans, for Pakistanis, for Indians, really for everyone. The rest of that speech got washed away, and that date remained fixed in people’s minds. Afghans are concerned that that date means that will be the end of U.S. commitment. Pakistanis see an opportunity in that. Indians have been very worried. I’m told that the Indian government has been reassured that July 2011 doesn’t have a fixed and firm quality to it, and the United States will remain engaged in Afghanistan well after that date. But they still are very concerned, because all of them would much prefer to see the United States depart Afghanistan, but on a more gradual path, except for perhaps the Pakistanis. But even they would rather not see a precipitous withdrawal of the United States, even though they see themselves, maybe wrongly, as being able to pick up the pieces better than some of the other regional players.
The Pakistani military chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the intelligence chief were in Kabul this week. What were they trying to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to do?
It’s not entirely clear what either the Pakistani army chief or the head of the Inter Services Intelligence [ISI], Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, are trying to do. There are stories in al-Jazeera that they’re directly brokering talks between the Haqqani network and Karzai; that they can bring these folks to the table. Some of this is probably an overstatement, but they’re trying to square Pakistan’s interests in having influence in Afghanistan with Karzai’s interests in reaching out to members of the Taliban. It wasn’t so long ago that Karzai had his jirga in Kabul and brought together all sorts of representatives from Afghan society who essentially endorsed the idea of outreach to members of the former Taliban. So in some ways, Karzai is simply following up on that, and the real question is just how much further he’s going, and what exactly the Pakistanis can put on the table.
Talk about the connection between al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and the Taliban.
The Haqqani network is loosely affiliated with the Afghan Taliban leadership, which was formerly under Mullah Omar, and is often referred to as the Quetta Shura Taliban. So that would be the core of what used to run Afghanistan before 9/11 and before the United States and NATO came into Afghanistan. Haqqani shares their interests in large part of seeing international forces out of Afghanistan, and yet doesn’t really come under them in a formal sense.
The Haqqani network, though based primarily in North Waziristan inside of Pakistan, has by most accounts forged ever-closer ties with international terrorists, both the Central Asian terrorists as well as the al-Qaeda core. It has also reportedly had ties, whether passive or active, with the Pakistani Intelligence Services. Like the rest of the Afghan Taliban, it appears to have been given a freer hand inside of Pakistan as long as they directed their violence into Afghanistan and against international forces and Indian forces or Indian facilities there.
None of these groups that the Pakistanis are talking about making a deal with are the kinds of groups that we could easily find our interests protected by. The Haqqanis are the first example.
But the Pakistani Taliban are those Pakistanis who have taken up a sworn allegiance to the broader Taliban and have directed their violence primarily toward the Pakistani state. They are who the Pakistani military has primarily targeted for violence in South Waziristan.
There are divisions between these groups, but there are also linkages, and the linkages are perhaps more troubling. One other troubling link is to groups that are now commonly called the Punjabi Taliban, distinct from the Pakistani Taliban. These are groups who are not primarily ethnically Pashtun and have bases of support in the rest of Pakistan, in Punjab, the most dominant and populous of the provinces of Pakistan. They include groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, that was responsible for the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, and which of all the groups in Pakistan is believed to have the closest connections historically to the Pakistani state and intelligence services. It is widely believed by many Pakistanis, as well as others, [that the group continues] to enjoy at least passive support and a great deal of influence that allows it to operate in the tribal areas alongside some of the other groups. This is of great concern to the United States, as you see these groups targeting U.S. interests in India, and potentially in Western Europe, and eventually possibly in the United States as well.
If President Obama asked you for advice, what would you give him?
Among other things, that Lashkar-e-Taiba in particular is of enormous concern. We haven’t seen concrete, firm action by the Pakistanis. That’s an area which some people say is a ticking time bomb in South Asia. That needs to be a focus even more than, for instance, the Pakistani Taliban, who are more of a local, inwardly directed group despite the fact that Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad claims to have been affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban. We shouldn’t lose sight of Lashkar-e-Taiba and its links to all of these other groups. One other thing I’d say, as the Pakistanis look to give us what they would suggest are easy and honorable ways out of Afghanistan, is that we shouldn’t see these as actually quite so easy. None of these groups that the Pakistanis are talking about making a deal with are the kinds of groups that we could easily find our interests protected by. The Haqqanis are the first example. Our primary concern is to avoid seeing another safe haven in Afghanistan, one that would serve as a base for al-Qaeda operations and similar types of groups. The Haqqanis have very clearly demonstrated that they’re willing to facilitate that. The idea that we would make a deal with them that would serve our basic interests, I find highly questionable.
I assume you think it’s important for General Petraeus to continue the planned offensive in Kandahar, to crack down on the Afghan Taliban?
Petraeus has said several times that we’re just beginning to get the inputs right in Afghanistan--meaning resources, troops, strategy, and leadership. The question is whether Washington and the American people more broadly will have the patience to see this through and to see through what’s already been the bloodiest time that we’ve been in Afghanistan and that’s something where in some ways Petraeus will be in a better position than McChrystal was to make that case. It’s the right case to make now. This was the right strategy when it was decided last fall, after a very exhaustive review, but we actually have to see it through to judge whether it’s working.
By the end of the summer we’ll finally have the resources in place, and it will take at least six months to really make a serious assessment whether it’s starting to work. You’ve seen these stories about Special Forces operations that are beginning to really get plugged in and take down the number of mid-to-senior level Taliban operatives inside of southern Afghanistan and put some pressure on them. That’s one side of things. The other side is the political side, and that’s less encouraging, trying to bring some sort of adequate governance to parts of the country where they perceive the Afghan government as being more predatory than helpful.