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America’s Perennial Pakistan Problem

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The U.S. failure in Afghanistan also reflects the failure of Washington’s approach to Pakistan. Islamabad has been the Taliban’s most important foreign sponsor: it helped birth the group in the 1990s, then worked against the United States to enable its survival and resurgence. Today, prominent members of Pakistan’s security establishment are cheering the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Despite billions of dollars in aid and high-tech military equipment from Washington, they remain convinced that their unwavering commitment to the extremist Islamist group was a brilliant strategic gambit.

How could the United States have failed so completely to engineer a change in Pakistan’s behavior in Afghanistan? Why couldn’t Washington convince or coerce Pakistan to join its side?

These questions are even more urgent following the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. With its client established in Kabul, Pakistan remains deeply entangled in its neighbor’s politics. Future solutions to the threats posed by a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan—including the potential resurgence of al Qaeda or similar terrorist groups—will likely run through Islamabad. Recent U.S.-Pakistani dialogues on these issues show signs of friction: Pakistani officials have downplayed the extent of the Taliban’s domestic crackdown and have sought public praise for their assistance in evacuating third-country officials, while U.S. diplomats remain less sanguine about Taliban reprisals and more focused on the threat of resurgent al Qaeda and Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliates in Afghanistan.

The United States has a vital interest in understanding why it failed for two decades to influence Pakistani behavior in Afghanistan—and in developing a new, less militarized strategy for advancing its goals in the region. Washington will need to appreciate just how little leverage it often holds with Pakistan, particularly when it tries to push an overlong list of priorities or makes demands that run counter to Islamabad’s entrenched interests. If the relationship touches on issues of vital American national interest, as it did after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. policymakers will need to level credible threats to ensure Pakistan’s compliance with their agenda.

Short of that, as will most often be the case, the United States should lower its ambitions with Pakistan to transactional cooperation on issues where the two sides mostly see eye to eye. This could include some counterterror and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, as well as regional diplomacy and crisis management. That cooperation should not be confused with strategic partnership, but even small-bore successes would be an improvement over costly overreach.

The Taliban would not exist today without Pakistan’s support. In the chaotic aftermath that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Islamabad saw the group as a means to expand its influence westward and, crucially, to deny the territory to regional rivals such as Iran and India. When the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, they turned Afghanistan into a playground for Islamist terrorists and militants, including groups supported by Pakistan to attack India. Some Pakistani security officials supported the Taliban out of ideological sympathy, while others shortsightedly believed—and continue to believe—that the group could be manipulated to support their own interests at a reasonable cost.

Pakistan withdrew its official support to the Taliban only after the administration of President George W. Bush convinced Pervez Musharraf, the country’s dictator, to join its post-9/11 mission against al Qaeda operatives. But even then it maintained an open-door policy to fleeing Taliban leaders that allowed them to evade American capture. Within months, the Taliban began to regroup and organize new operational hubs from Pakistan, where they launched the insurgency against U.S. forces.

A few short years after the U.S. invasion, the Taliban had made progress in their insurgency campaign. From that point onward, Pakistan never stopped providing a safe haven for the group. Its intelligence agency even provided specialized training and support for the Haqqani network, the al Qaeda–linked branch of the Taliban responsible for some of the most deadly and spectacular attacks in Afghanistan, including ones that targeted American and Indian officials. The Taliban’s recent offensive was marked by a sophisticated application of battlefield lessons from the 1990s that suggests extensive Pakistani assistance with respect to planning, logistics, intelligence, and likely even more direct involvement........

© Foreign Affairs

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