The three failures of Afghan policy

Preserving NATO’s integrity is one of Canada’s leading foreign policy priorities, even as its immediate combat role around Qandahar will begin to wind down. Canada’s responsibilities within NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan will not therefore disappear.

There is a long grocery list of problems with NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan, but we will focus on those that pertain to Pakistan’s role in the insurgency, based on our repeated research trips there since 1999. There are three crucial lacunae with NATO’s strategy: the historiographic failure to understand the cause of the war and its consequences; the diplomatic failure of having a serious dialogue with Pakistan; lastly, another diplomatic failure of securing Afghanistan’s access to the Indian market. Until all of these are addressed, victory will never be attainable.

It is commonly believed that the root of the current insurgency began with the Soviet invasion in December 1979. This is a misperception. The war began on July 17, 1973 when Afghan President Daoud Mohamed, after having displaced the King Zahir Shah, supported insurgent Marri and Mengal Baloch in Pakistan and declared a deliberately provocative Pashtun separatist agenda against Pakistan. In retaliation that year, Pakistan President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, ironically a socialist with little sympathy for Islamists, instructed the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency and the Frontier Corps to provide sanctuary, training and weapons to a coterie of Islamists to begin the war against Kabul. This coterie was inspired by the famous Sayyid Qutb of al Azhar University in Cairo, led by his student, the Tajik, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and consisted of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Yunus Khalis and Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. Their Islamist revolt in 1975 failed, with hundreds of Islamist militants jailed and executed, with Islamist refugees fleeing to the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

Pakistan decided to reorganize its support and encouraged Hekmatyar, a Gilzhai Pashtun, to break with Rabbani, and resumed its support to the Islamist resistance in Afghanistan. Concurrently Pakistan’s intelligence organizations were organizing terrorist bombings of Afghan targets in Kabul and Jalalabad. The Islamists established a permanent base in Afghanistan by 1978. With insurgents infiltrating into Afghanistan from training facilities in Pakistan, Afghan and Pakistan frontier troops occasionally clashed. One incident escalated in 1976 to involve a major re-deployment of Afghan forces against an expected Pakistani attack, and was only avoided when the Shah of Iran intervened to mediate the dispute. Following the defection of an Afghan army brigade in Heart in February 1979, resulting in the massacre of about 50 of its Russian advisors and their families, the Afghan army began a steady disintegration that led to Soviet intervention 10 months later.

Had the Soviets never intervened, Kabul would have fallen earlier to the mujahideen, perhaps in April 1982, rather than April 1992. Had Pakistan (and Iran) not provided sanctuary and resources to Afghan insurgents, then the modernizing policies of the Daoud regime that were so provocative to the Islamists, coupled with the famines of 1971 and 1972, could not have been sufficient to sustain a broad insurgency against Kabul in 1978 and 1979.

This distortion is caused in part by the dependence of policy makers on Cold War frame of reference, and is reinforced by a reliance on Afghan scholars who distort the Afghan-Pakistan relationship. An often-repeated mantra is that Taliban victory in Afghanistan would lead to a similar collapse of nuclear–armed Pakistan, possibly through a military coup. There is no historical basis for this.

First, no coups occur in Pakistan without military approval. Of the successful historical coups (October 1958, March 1969, July 1977, October 1999), all were approved by the defence minister or the divisional/corps commanders’ conference, and were executed by a designated representative of the military. Of the unsuccessful coups (February 1951, December 1971, March 1973, September 1994), all were intercepted in the planning stages by the military’s intelligence services. Pakistan’s military is well organized, and has provided sufficient educational, health, employment and retirement benefits to its members to be undermined by religious, leftist or ethnic movements.

Nor are the Pashtun, Afghan or Pakistani in a position to challenge the Pakistani state. Since the Afghan Ahmad Shah defeated the Sikhs at Lahore in 1761, all subsequent Afghan ventures have met with disaster, including the 100,000 strong Afghan Jihadis led by Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi in 1831, or the 100,000 strong Afghan Jihadis led by Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi in 1919 against the British. Pakistan’s army is exceeding effective at counterinsurgency, having defeated five Baloch attempts at autonomy (1948, 1958-59, 1962-63, 1973-77, and 2002-2009), suppressed 75 million Bengalis in 1970-71 with 40,000 soldiers, and most recently, swept through the Swat Valley in 2009.

Despite the stability of Pakistan, a simpler explanation for this deficiency may simply be that the NATO members do not want to usurp the U.S.’s special diplomatic relationship with Pakistan, and Washington in turn is dissuaded from putting any pressure on Islamabad by the latter’s close relationship with China.

The second lacuna is NATO’s diplomatic failure to engage Pakistan, which has aggravated NATO’s failure to understand what Pakistan wants. Pakistan President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s intervention in Afghanistan in 1973 was in retaliation for Kabul’s breaking of the truce over Pashtun secessionism that had held since 1963. Afghanistan does not recognize the Durand Line which constitutes the Afghan-Pakistan border, because it severs the historical ties between the Gilzhai Pashtun and their ethnic kin in the NWFP. This rivalry can be dated to 1947, when Afghanistan was the only member of the United Nations to refuse recognition of Pakistan, to which Pakistan retaliated by embargoing Afghan trade to India. Starting in 1951, the Kabul regime began a series of military infiltrations and harassment of Pakistani interests in the NWFP. This led to a military confrontation in 1955 when Pakistan planned to repeal Pashtun autonomy. Afghanistan called up 70,000 reserves, and a standoff ensued with Pakistan until Egyptian and Saudi mediation deescalated the confrontation in September of that year.

Relations worsened when King Zahir Shah’s cousin and minister, Mohamad Daoud, took the defence portfolio. In September 1960, over a thousand Afghan soldiers infiltrated into the Bajaur District, and were repelled by the local forces of pro-Pakistan Pashtun tribes, and bombed by the Pakistan Air Force. The Pakistanis also made efforts to target the principal Pashtun separatist leader, Fazl Akbar (alias Pacha Gul) who had been inciting rebellion, and to impose order on the frontier, blocking the nomadic annual migration of the 200,000 Pawinda Afghans.

Afghan assistance to those willing to challenge Pakistani rule, including sanctuary, funds and Soviet weapons, persisted into 1962 and 1963. Fighting was not intense but casualties accumulated: Pakistan’s losses during one 18-month period were the equivalent of a battalion.

By the early-1960s Pakistan’s U.S.–sponsored rearmament gave it increased confidence to confront Kabul directly, which led Kabul’s King Zahir Shah to dismiss Daoud Mohamed. The result for Pakistan was 10 years of tranquility from 1963 until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973, which included Afghan support to Pakistan in its two wars against India in 1965 and 1971.

In effect what Pakistan wants is a return to this level of cordial relations. When Daoud Mohamed returned to power in 1973, Pakistan pre-empted his attempts to foment Pashtun secessionism with an Islamist insurgency that has been active ever since. Pakistan tried to stabilize Afghanistan, even providing aid to the communist regime of Mohammad Najibullah, severing support for the Mujahideen (including Hekmatyar), and seeking ways to obtain the return of the monarchy Zahir Shah. Attempts to obtain recognition from the Taliban of the Durand Line also failed.

If NATO can deliver a regime in Kabul strong enough to resist the temptation of stoking secessionism in Pakistan, then Islamabad will cooperate.

The final oversight of NATO’s policy in Afghanistan is its failure to secure third-party trade transit rights for Afghanistan to India. Without trade access to its historical export market in India, economic development in Afghanistan will fail. Although Pakistan and Afghanistan have signed the 2009 Afghanistan Transit Trade Agreement, which provides Kabul tax-free access to the port of Karachi, Pakistan has reiterated that it will not permit direct road or rail links to India. Pakistan is Afghanistan’s main trading partner (US$1.7bn trade in 2007), but the trade is heavily asymmetric, with many Afghan exports being re-exported to Afghanistan at higher costs, and Pakistan dumping cheap commodities and undermining indigenous capacity. Defeating the insurgency will amount to very little if opportunities for economic development remain undermined by a weak trade regime.

The common theme in all of NATO’s three shortcomings is a failure to recognize the role played by Pakistan in the fate of Afghanistan, besides its obvious host to Taliban sanctuaries. This equally implies compelling Kabul’s recognition of Pakistan’s interests, if not recognition of the Durand Line and cessation of inciting Pashtun secessionism, then at least a formal procedure for recognizing many of the de facto rights that come with an international frontier.

Dr. Julian Schofield, a former captain in the Army Engineers, is an Associate Professor at Concordia University. He has traveled extensively across Pakistan a number of times since 1999. Emil Torosyan, a former reservist, is an independent analyst focused on global energy security and strategic studies in the Middle East and South Asia.


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