The Afghan War and the Problem of Pakistan

The Burke Chair Analysis

Pakistan presents a critical challenge to the United States in fighting the war in Afghanistan. The US, ISAF, and Afghan forces are making significant tactical progress, and realistic transition planning is beginning for the first time. This progress is described in a summary briefing that draws on new US, ISAF, and UNAMA data obtained during a recent visit to Afghanistan and the region.

This report is entitled Afghanistan and the Uncertain Metrics of Progress: An Overview, and is available on the CSIS web site at It provides an overview of a detailed seven part series on the war that reflects a wide range of new material on progress in the fighting, aid efforts, the development of Afghan national security forces, and US and allied transition planning.

It is clear from this reporting that progress in Afghanistan may not be able to produce approaching a stable transition in 2014 and beyond unless Pakistan makes major changes in its de facto strategy, and addresses critical internal problems that are leading to steadily growing instability and violence.

Two additional reports raise serious questions about the probability that Pakistan can or will make the necessary changes:

This book provides a net assessment of the overall pattern of violence in Pakistan, and their causes – drawing largely on Pakistani NGOs and government reporting.  It provides a detailed warning that Pakistani stability is driven by far more problems than the fighting in the FATA area, Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistani Taliban. It shows that Pakistan is passing through one of the most dangerous periods of instability in its history.

A net assessment of the patterns of violence and stability indicate that Pakistan is approaching a perfect storm of threats, including rising extremism, a failing economy, chronic underdevelopment, and an intensifying war, resulting in unprecedented political, economic and social turmoil. 

The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed an in-depth net assessment of these threats and areas of internal violence; and does so within in the broader context of the religious, ideological, ethnic, sectarian, and tribal causes at work; along with Pakistan’s problems in ideology, politics, governance, economics and demographics. 

The assessment shows that these broad patterns of violence in Pakistan have serious implications for Pakistan’s future, for regional stability, and for core US interests. Pakistan remains a central node in global terrorism. Osama Bin Laden was killed deep inside Pakistan in an area that raises deep suspicion about what Pakistani intelligence, senior military officers and government officials did and did not know about his presence – and the presence of other major terrorists and extremist like Sheik Mullah Omar and the “Quetta Shura Taliban.” 

Pakistan pursues its own agenda in Afghanistan in ways that provide the equivalent of cross-border sanctuary for Taliban and Haqqani militants, and that prolong the fighting and cause serious US, ISAF, and Afghan casualties. At the same time, it cooperates with the US in dealing with some aspect of these threats, and it faces a growing threat from domestic terrorist and extremists.

Al Qa’ida and the Taliban are only part of the story. There are many other movements and tensions that feed violence and extremism in Pakistan, and which grow out of a government that has consistently failed to meet the needs of Pakistan’s people over a period of decades. There are tremendous shortfalls in the Pakistani government’s capacity and willingness to provide for its citizens in ways that discourage a rising tide of violence and separatist movements.

These failures in Pakistani governance and development interact with a growing wave of Sunni-Deobandi radicalization that manifests in anti-state violence and sectarian intolerance. A significant resulting uptick in terrorist violence has been accompanied by a gradual perversion of the Pakistani social fabric, intimidating secularism at the expense of militant Islam.

Despite these dangers, Pakistan is not a hopeless case. The country is not yet in terminal decline, if only because of its vigorous civil society and its talented secular elite. Nevertheless a wide gap exists between Pakistan official rhetoric and reality, and its leaders, military, and politicians fall far short of meeting its people’s needs.

Entrenched organizational interests including those of political and security elites, as well as religious radicals, resist effective reform.  Successful reform efforts require a far better planned and managed stabilization strategy that addresses all of the various causes of extremism and violence and actually executes such plans in ways that implement real, large-scale reforms.

As this analysis shows, the links between Pakistan’s conflicts and their causes also mean that selective attempts to redress grievances cannot fundamentally alter or reverse Pakistan’s problems and cannot hope to bring its people security and stability. Pakistan cannot succeed if its civilian leaders, senior officers, and security forces continue to rely on internal security, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency – important as improvement in these activities remain. Pakistan can only move forward if its leaders also focus on investing in its people’s welfare and addressing their people’s core grievances.

Pakistan needs to give priority to its internal needs over dealing with external threats. Pakistan continues to give priority to strategic competition with India, and in ways that create growing problems in Afghanistan as well as strengthen internal extremists. It devotes an inordinate amount of its attention and resources to this struggle, and does so at the direct expense of the welfare and future of its people.

The Challenges of Internal Violence

Pakistan faces the convergence of various localized conflicts that were once insulated from each other. A massive growth in militancy in the Pakistani-Afghan border area interacts with the growth of threats in the the heartland of the Punjabi, Sindhi interior, and Balouchi interior.  A growing instability does not have one cause or center of gravity, it has many

The war in Afghanistan has moved al-Qaeda into Pakistan along with the Taliban, Haqqani network, and Hekmatyar’s forces.  At the same time, Pakistan faces a combination of separatist pressures in Baluchistan and the Sindh and foreign and domestic neo-Salafi threats that have growing ties to al-Qaeda. These threats include the continuing violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) and the neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Insurgent momentum shows few signs of having been decisively reversed despite increasingly robust Pakistani military (PAKMIL) operations. Improved counterinsurgency efforts have had some successes in certain tribal agencies, but gains are likely to be ephemeral, as many of the root causes of militancy remain unaddressed, including political, administrative and economic stagnation.

A diverse array of militant actors, including core command nodes of al-Qaeda, continues to operate inside the tribal areas. They maneuver in support of distinct organizational priorities, including the global jihad, regional jihads in Afghanistan and Kashmir, as well as more domestic anti-state and sectarian agendas, but often collaborate on operational, ideological and fundraising axes.

Their combined activities have uprooted many of the traditional modes of tribal governance, complicating efforts to restore stability. Pakistani military operations have also helped compound these problems. The selective counterinsurgency approach adopted by the military has attempted to delineate between groups actively hostile to Pakistani interests, and those – like the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban -- that may have future strategic utility in reestablishing Pakistan’s sphere of influence and helping contain its external enemies. 

As senior US officials and officers have made all too clear – along with some Pakistani experts and their Afghan counterparts –some elements of the Pakistani governance and forces are supporting groups that are actively at war with the United States and Afghanistan. This strategy is causing a steady deterioration in Pakistani and US relations, and complicating the prospects for future US aid. It also is helping to strengthen extremists who ultimately may become an active threat to Pakistan.

These conflicts have been augmented by violence and tensions inside the rest of Pakistan. In south Punjab, a historical hotbed of militancy, various groups once firmly tethered to state policy have begun to splinter and migrate to the tribal areas. These groups have considerable experience in combat and knowledge of the weapons and technologies needed for asymmetric warfare. They have joined tribal militant groups, and assisted them in bringing terrorist violence into the previously insulated urban centers of the Punjab and the Sindh.

In Karachi, a key economic engine of Pakistan, ethno-sectarian violence has risen to new levels with the real danger of a slide back into the communal violence of the early 1990s. Such a reversal would be catastrophic for stability, exacerbating already chronic economic woes, whilst providing fodder for the sectarian and ethnic drivers of conflict in Pakistan.

In Baluchistan, a fifth separatist insurgency has become more active since 2004, and is closely linked and influenced by regional geopolitics. The Baloch insurgency is distinct from other conflicts, primarily in that Sunni-Deobandi philosophies play little role, but it nonetheless benefits from many of the same drivers, including widespread impoverishment, chronic underdevelopment and alienation from mainstream Pakistan.

The Challenges of External Relations

Pakistan’s focus on the challenge from India affects virtually every aspect of its external relations. This plays out in Afghanistan in the form of a competition for influence over the Afghan government where Pakistan attempts to use its ties to the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani network, and other movements to ensure its influence over the future of Afghanistan and to limit any threat of Pashtun independence movements.

The end result is the many of Pakistan’s leaders, senior officials, and politicians have a fundamentally different perception of Pakistan’s national interest from the US focus on Afghan security and stability. It is the reality behind the rhetoric of “ally” and “strategic partner” that has led to constant tension with the US. Cross-border violence into Afghanistan is a major irritant, and has resulted in deteriorating US-Pakistani relations.

The Indo-Pakistani border remains one of the most threatening areas on the planet, and is now linked on on both sides to the deployment of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. Cross-border violence into can escalate into large-scale war. Many Kashmiri militant groups have splintered, as in south Punjab, and the growing risk of militant proxies operating autonomously cannot be discounted, particularly to divert Pakistani military attention away from the tribal areas.

The end result is that Pakistan’s concern with self-defense, and a threat from India, diverts massive amounts of resources and security forces away from far more serious internal problems and threats. Pakistan’s current policies not only feed a major arms race with India, and tensions with Afghanistan and the US, they waste critical resources in the name of security that they have become a threat to the state and the future of the Pakistani people.

Instability as a Self-Inflicted Wound

Pakistan’s critical need to focus on its internal needs and security becomes clear from the detailed analysis of violence in Pakistan in the full text of this net assessment. This violence is driven by a mix of ideology, religion, politics, governance, economics, and demographics that have all of the ingredients that have caused instability in Middle Eastern regimes. The drivers of conflict are shaped by a systemic malaise that includes weak and underdeveloped governance institutions hobbled by the omnipresent specter of a military coup that incentivize the maximization of rents instead of efficient representation.

Economic mismanagement, and chronic underdevelopment in building up the nation’s base of human capital, have perpetuated deep inequalities and assisted in the alienation of large segments of the population. Demographics are an additional problem, and population pressures are compounded by a severe and growing “youth bulge.” Social services, including the provision of core goods such as education, employment and health are already inadequate, and integrating increasing population figures has worrying implications for future instability.

Other key underlying causes of violence and instability include a dysfunctional civilian government that is all too often mired in internecine squabbling, self-seeking service politics,  and the willingness to exploit ethno-sectarian divides for political gain. Strong organizational resistance continues to impede reform. Corruption, service politics, nepotism and favoritism, power brokers, entrenched feudal interests, and a marked civil-military imbalance continue to lead Pakistani elites to give their interests priority over those of the population, and help institutionalize entrenched patronage networks, widespread corruption and significant structural distortions in tax collections.

Pakistan has made some efforts to rectify these shortfalls in governance. The 18th Amendment package of constitutional reforms passed by the new civilian government in August 2010 included dilution in the powers of the executive and an expansion in the autonomy and representation of provincial interests. A greater emphasis on human security has also led to increased allocations to critical sectors such as education and employment.

Yet, these efforts have faltered, Far too many reform programs end up remaining rhetoric and exercises in political opportunism, with the government making only superficial attempts to rectify many of its deep-rooted structural problems. Where it has spent money, it has placed too much emphasis on allocating resources with too little emphasis on ensuring a meaningful outcome.

Money alone is no guarantee of success, particularly when entrenched corruptions and inefficiencies in the bureaucratic system provide diminishing returns to investments. Developing a focused set of metrics to accurately capture progress will be essential, and should reorient focus away from quantity to quality. Simply building schools in the tribal regions for example, has no bearing on the number of educated graduates if the schools lack capable teachers, better curriculums and more relevance to the labor market.

The Broader Cost of Pakistani Instability

Pakistan is a pivotal regional player, whose problems affect the security of other countries in the region, and that of the United States. It has the potential to be either a major disruptive force or a major source of stability, in assisting end to violence in Afghanistan, in assisting in the peaceful rise of India, and helping constrain Iran’s bid for Middle Eastern hegemony.

At present, Pakistan seems to be on a downward course. Its leadership is not adequately addressing either the causes of Pakistan's internal violence, or the needs of its people. Its politics are corrupt and self-serving, and far too many indicators reflect its failure to adopt policies that serve popular needs or meet popular expectations. It is playing a form of the “great game” which forces it to confront India on a region-wide basis and into a nuclear arms race. It has unleashed levels of religious extremism that not only threaten its Shi’ite minorities but also its moderate Sunni majority.  At the same time, it continues a long history of shifting the blame for its own actions to other states, and relying on political rhetoric as a substitute for effective action.

This presents major problems for the United States both in finding some favorable outcome to the Afghan conflict, and in helping to create some form of regional stability in South Asia – a greater US strategic interest than the future of Afghanistan and Central Asia. However, US options are limited. US military intervention inside Pakistan is deeply resented by both the Pakistani people and its leadership elite. US military assistance has so far won only grudging and limited support and economic assistance has failed to win broad support or achieve any major objectives. Cross-border sanctuaries -- which are tolerated by at least some elements of the Pakistani security establishment -- remain significant havens for Taliban insurgents

At the same time, the US, its allies in ISAF, and the Afghan government need every bit of military, and counterterrorism cooperation from Pakistan they can get. Even limited Pakistani intelligence support is crucial in providing them with an understanding of militant dynamics. They are also dependent on a logistic tail that keeps them reliant on a transit route through Pakistan.

Pakistan’s leverage in dissuading American pressure is further increased by the fact that the US is deeply unpopular in Pakistan This creates major problems for both the US and Pakistan in finding some practical way to create a truly effective strategic relationship, as well as making the success of economic and military aid uncertain, and sharply restricting the future ability for the US to transform its role from one of constant pressure on Pakistan to that of a real strategic partner.

The fundamental realties of Pakistan’s external relations are all too similar to those of its internal problems. Only Pakistan can save Pakistan. This can never happen as long as its leadership elite pursues policies where its definitions of “victory” that fail the nation and its people, and really mean defeat.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Varun Vira