Of all the players in the Afghan game, Pakistan is running up the highest score. For several decades, Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan has remained largely unchanged, regardless of who was running the country. That policy is to support Afghanistan’s Pashtuns in their seemingly genetic resistance to outside control (outside in this case extends to any government located in Kabul). By supporting Pashtun autonomy, Pakistan establishes for itself a security buffer zone on its northwest frontier, which comes with a friendly auxiliary army — the Afghan Taliban — as a bonus.For nearly nine years, U.S. officials have pleaded with Pakistan to suspend support for the Afghan Taliban and allow Afghanistan to unite under a central government. Pakistani officials have provided a variety of verbal responses to these entreaties but have not changed their policies toward the Afghan Taliban, whose military capability inside Afghanistan only seems to grow.
The United States cannot achieve its goals in Afghanistan while the Afghan Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan remain open. The Pakistani government refuses to close or even isolate those sanctuaries. Yet the massive U.S. foreign-assistance pipeline to Pakistan remains open. Why?
U.S. policymakers have seemingly concluded that they have more options and less risk by engaging Pakistan. They tried isolating Pakistan and found that course was neither wise nor sustainable. As a result, the Washington has opted to shower Pakistan with aid and hope that persistent persuasion will eventually result in greater Pakistani action against the Afghan Taliban.
The result has been a spectacular strategic success for Pakistan. Development aid from the United States has never been greater. The United States will deliver long-embargoed F-16 fighters to Pakistan and is providing other upgrades to Pakistan’s armed forces. Along with this has come a de facto U.S. security guarantee against the perceived threat from India. Pakistan’s diplomatic leverage over the United States has given it a free hand to work with China to upgrade its nuclear complex. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s proxy forces in southeast Afghanistan are successfully defending the security buffer zone. Pakistan’s dominant position has forced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to virtually sue for peace. This could result in an ethnic partition of Afghanistan that would secure Pakistan’s main objective in the conflict.
With its winning position, Pakistan’s current task is to arrange a stable end-state that avoids a backlash from the losers. Pakistan and the United States are in a largely zero-sum relationship over Afghanistan. Pakistan’s leaders must fashion a settlement (however temporary) that allows the United States to save face, that maintains the U.S. aid pipeline, and that keeps the de facto security guarantee in place. U.S. officials should hope that Pakistan manages the endgame as well as it has managed the rest of the match.