FPI Analysis: Leveraging Pakistan to Prevail in Afghanistan

March 22, 2012

For years, America’s strategy in Afghanistan has relied on sustained cooperation with Pakistan.  Unfortunately, bilateral relations are now tense, due especially to the November 2011 cross-border NATO airstrike into northwest Pakistan that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.  <--break- />Since that attack, Pakistan has closed critical NATO supply routes through its territory into Afghanistan, forced U.S. personnel to leave a drone base within its territory, and boycotted an important December 2011 conference in Germany on Afghanistan’s future.  More recently, news reports emerged about a leaked cable that U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan C. Crocker sent to Washington in January 2012, warning of the dangers posed by the Haqqani Network’s safe havens within Pakistan to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

A key challenge of U.S. policy is to get Pakistan’s military and intelligence services to stop tacitly or actively allowing terrorist entities like the Haqqani Network to launch operations into Afghanistan.  But to alter Islamabad’s strategic thinking, Washington must make Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership understand that the United States is not rushing to exit the region, but rather will remain committed to fostering stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the long term.  In part, this will require facilitating more mutually productive relations between these two neighboring states.  Additionally, this broad-based strategy must find new ways to recommit to alleviating Pakistan’s long-term concerns about its national security, internal stability, and economic development.

As the White House and Congress debate the future of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, this FPI Analysis outlines four steps that Washington should immediately take to recalibrate its relationship with Islamabad, not only to make clear to Pakistan that its long-term interests align with those of the United States, but also to further America’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan.

(1) Recommit to Afghanistan’s long-term security.

Afghanistan is a key symbol of U.S. commitment to South Asia.  To alter Pakistan’s strategic thinking, the Obama administration must recommit to stabilizing Afghanistan and ensuring that it does not once again become a safe haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.  President Obama took positive steps in this direction in 2009.  With the help of the President’s “surge” of 33,000 troops, the United States and NATO allies have made significant security gains in Afghanistan.  Coalition forces have arrested or killed many top al-Qaeda officials, and drastically improved security in former Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan. 

Unfortunately, President Obama’s June 2011 decision to withdraw the troop “surge” by September 2012 seriously endangers these hard-fought gains, and undermines Pakistan’s confidence in America’s commitment to the region’s future.   As Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution observes:

“They are convinced the Americans and Europeans are going to give up in Afghanistan and sooner or later cut and run.  The ISI closely monitors the media on both sides of the Atlantic and reads polls that show support for the war is dwindling.  They see Obama’s decision to draw down U.S. surge forces faster than Mullen and other generals wanted as a sign American resolve is collapsing.  They remember well that the U.S. walked away from Afghanistan and Pakistan after defeating the Russians and are convinced it will happen again.”

Pakistan’s support to the war effort in Afghanistan is critical.  The United States and NATO have relied heavily in recent years on Pakistan for distribution lines to transport equipment and goods into Afghanistan.   Due to the recent closure of these Pakistani supply lines, NATO has diversified critical supply lines to Afghanistan by increasing shipments through Uzbekistan and the Northern Distribution Network.  Yet this has come at a financial and political cost.  According to the U.S. Transport Command, shipping routes through Central Asia cost twice as much as through Pakistan.  The United States has also been forced to become more reliant on Russia, complicating efforts to maintain a balanced relationship with Moscow.

In addition, U.S. intelligence operations targeting militants in Pakistan are crucial to efforts aimed at undermining the capabilities of al-Qaeda, Taliban, and associated forces in Afghanistan.  Pakistan has also mounted important raids on its own soil against terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).   

What’s worrisome is that with the prospect of a precipitous American withdrawal that leaves an unstable Afghanistan its wake, it is likely that some key Pakistani officials now believe that the Taliban and groups such as the Haqqani Network provide the best way to ensure Pakistan’s future interests in Afghanistan.  Indeed, Pakistan supported the Taliban in Afghanistan prior to September 2001 as a way of exerting influence and protecting its western border.  In the absence of unambiguous statements from the United States about America’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s stability, Pakistan is likely to continue to hedge. 

(2) Target Haqqani Network finances and operations.

Until now, the Haqqani Network has operated with near impunity in North Waziristan, Pakistan.  The group is closely tied to elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services, who view the group as key proxy force against U.S. and Indian interests in Afghanistan.  In September 2011 Admiral Michael Mullen, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee:  “The fact remains that the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network operate from Pakistan with impunity.  Extremist organizations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as U.S. soldiers.”   Ambassador Crocker’s recently leaked memo, as described in news reports, underscores the importance of a more aggressive approach to dealing with this lethal group.

The Haqqani Network is responsible for multiple attacks against U.S. civilian and military personnel in Afghanistan—in particular, the attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul on September 13, 2011; the attack on Combat Outpost Sayyadabad that injured 77 U.S. troops and two Afghan civilians on September 10, 2011; and the attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul on June 28, 2011.  Jeffrey Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War writes that the group is responsible for at least 15 high profile attacks in Afghanistan since 2008, including the July 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 41 and injured over 130. 

The United States should no longer tolerate Pakistan’s complicity in the Haqqani Network’s activities in Afghanistan.  The Obama administration should demand that Pakistan’s military take immediate action against Haqqani Network’s influential leadership in North Waziristan.  Eliminating or capturing key leaders would systematically remove important decision makers within the insurgency.  As Dressler recently noted:

“The ideological and strategic cohesion of the network is held together by key Haqqani Network family members and trusted senior commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan…  [T]he family leadership maintains the ties with foreign terrorists such as al-Qaeda, the IMU and others.  Removing these senior leaders and family members from the battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan could help fracture the network.”

However, if Pakistani forces fail to act, the Obama administration should consider using all available tools to target and dismantle the network.  First, Haqqani Network leaders in Pakistan should be targeted, just as al-Qaeda leaders have been since 2008, when the United States dramatically increased precision drone strikes in Pakistan against Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives.  Indeed, drone strikes across the tribal regions of Pakistan have become a proven tool in dismantling al-Qaeda.  Bill Roggio and Alexander Mayer of the Long War Journal note that since January 2008, the United States has launched 258 airstrikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, with 53 attacks already this year.  CIA drone strikes in September 2011 killed Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al-Qaeda’s second-ranking figure, in the mountains of Pakistan.  Although less frequent, strikes against high-level Haqqani Network leaders have been equally successful.  For example, in October 2011, a CIA drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan, killed the network’s third-ranking leader. 

To help the United States succeed in Afghanistan, further such strikes against Haqqani Network targets must occur.  However, recent events have complicated this approach, as Pakistan shut down an airbase within its territory used for drone operations in response to the November 2011 cross-border incident.  To alleviate tensions between the two governments, the United States halted all drone attacks in Pakistan for 55 days, although a handful of unmanned strikes launched from Afghanistan have since restarted.  Targeting the Haqqani Network may also come at a cost.  Drone attacks are unpopular among the Pakistani population and public officials.  Pakistan’s Parliament recently conducted a major review of U.S. relations, and called for an end to all CIA drone strikes.   Although Pakistan’s intelligence services previously allowed the United States to launch drone operations against al-Qaeda within its territory, it has consistently denied involvement or knowledge of operations against the Haqqani Network on Pakistani soil.  However, given the damage that the Haqqani Network continues to inflict on America’s interests in Afghanistan, more aggressive actions against that group are worth the costs.  The United States must make clear that it will not tolerate the active targeting and killing of American troops and personnel.

Second, the United States should further implement financial and diplomatic sanctions targeting the Haqqani Network.  In September 2011, the Treasury Department took initial steps when it announced punitive sanctions on five individuals who allegedly provided financial and material support to extremists groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  One of the men, Abdul Aziz Abbasin, was formerly a high-level commander in the Haqqani Network.  This is a positive development, but individual sanctions are not enough.  The State Department, in coordination with the Treasury Department, should implement additional financial sanctions by formally designating the Haqqani Network a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).  The designation would further complicate the group’s operations in Pakistan, making actions in neighboring Afghanistan more difficult. 

In September 2011, Secretary of State Clinton announced that the Obama administration was in the final stages of a “formal review” to determine whether the Haqqani Network should be legally designated a foreign terrorist organization.  No formal action has been taken since that time.  Yet as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote in a letter to the State Department on September 22, 2011:

“There is no question that the Haqqani Network meets the standards for designation specified in Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.  It conducts attacks against U.S. targets and personnel in Afghanistan, and poses a continuing threat to American, Afghan, and allied personnel and interests.”

Designating the Haqqani Network would not be without precedent.   In 2004, the United States sanctioned al-Qaeda in Iraq, at the time the most lethal insurgent group in that country.  General David Petraeus, then-Commander of Multinational Force-Iraq, described the group as “public enemy number one,” as the al-Qaeda affiliated group was launching mass casualty attacks against U.S. and coalition forces from areas in Baghdad and nearby cities.  Just as designating al-Qaeda in Iraq helped the United States utilize additional resources against the insurgency in Iraq in 2004, designating the Haqqani Network can help the United States in Afghanistan today. 

(3) Leverage civilian and military aid to Pakistan.

The United States has a long-term interest in promoting a Pakistan that is stable, democratic, and moderate.  Pakistan’s population numbers 180 million, and the country is home to the world’s most rapidly growing nuclear arsenal.  To play a key role in shaping that future, the United States must continue to use foreign aid—strategically—to encourage positive changes in Pakistani policies.  Indeed, a key way to protect gains in neighboring Afghanistan is through U.S. support of economic and political development of Pakistan.

The United States has given Pakistan $20 billion in aid since 2001.  The majority of this sum, $14 billion, has been military aid and reimbursements to support Pakistan’s efforts against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.  In addition, President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 State Department budget allocates $2.4 billion in assistance to Pakistan.  Although billions of dollars in military aid have yet to transform Pakistan’s behavior toward regional threats, the State Department and Congress should resist calls to abruptly cut off all military and civilian aid to Islamabad. 

Rather, future security aid should be more assertively linked with increased efforts by the Pakistani military and intelligence services to counter the operations of militant and extremist organizations in Afghanistan.  Behind closed doors, Washington should make clear to Islamabad that consequences will follow, if further cooperates with militant and extremist groups that target U.S. troops and interests in Afghanistan.  These demands should emulate the Obama administration’s decision in June 2011 to withhold $800 million in security aid when Pakistan cancelled visas of U.S. Special Operations trainers.  The decision was a clear indication of displeasure towards Islamabad’s recent behavior.  Three months later, Pakistan agreed to allow U.S. military personnel within its country, although at a lower number than previously allowed.  As part of this approach, the U.S. government must develop a more comprehensive verification system—or benchmarks—to properly ensure that improper ties are broken.    

When pressured by the United States in the past, Pakistani authorities have often cited, and even exaggerated, their country’s growing Chinese ties.  China’s strategic partnership with Pakistan is designed to provide an additional hedge against India’s growing military capabilities.  Beijing has sold Islamabad an array of modern weapons programs, including aircrafts, helicopters, small arms, and tanks.  Yet despite the relationship’s growth, ties between China and Pakistan remain limited in scope, and Washington’s leverage should not be understated.  The fact is that not only does Pakistan remain deeply reliant on U.S. assistance, but China is also unable to replace the United States in that respect.  As Lisa Curtis and Derek Scissors recently noted:

“Pakistan has traditionally sought close ties with both China and the U.S. and it would have to seriously consider the costs of putting all its eggs in the China basket. China’s lack of interest in bailing Pakistan out economically and the substantial influence the U.S. wields within international lending organizations, such as the IMF and World Bank, are factors that Islamabad would have to take into account.”

That said, the United States must rethink the strategy behind civilian aid to Pakistan.  For too long, U.S. policy has strengthened Pakistan’s powerful military establishment without adequately bolstering the civilian government.  Today, civilian government officials in Islamabad are virtually powerless over actions of their military counterparts. 

Yet in recent months, Pakistan’s independent Supreme Court—long criticized as being submissive to the powerful establishments—has taken positive steps to challenge the authority of the country’s military and intelligence services.   America’s best chance at helping to improve Pakistan’s stability in the long term is perhaps by increasing the capacity of the country’s democratically-elected civilian government.  Abruptly cutting off or reducing aid to Pakistan’s government would have the opposite effect.  As S. Akbar Zaidi of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote:  “A stronger signal needs to come from the United States that it is supporting the democratic government in Pakistan.  While the short-term goals are militaristic, the long-term goals need to be based on Pakistan’s security and stability.”

Abruptly cutting all aid to Pakistan, as some have called for, would eliminate any American influence in that country.  As Admiral Mullen, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, correctly noted:  “I think it's a very dangerous long-term outcome should we cut it off.”

(4) Promote democratic governance and economic development in Pakistan.

For the United States to be truly successful in Pakistan, it must also implement a long-term strategy that focuses on improving governance and economic development in Pakistan.  As Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 26, 2011:

“In the long run, U.S. policy would benefit by weaning Pakistan away from its fundamental orientation and ideological driven identity and worldview by helping the civilian, secular, and liberal elements in the country. In this context non-military aid that furthers the growth of a modern middle class and civil society is well worth the investment.”

The task will not be easy.  Pakistan’s underdeveloped economy—ranked the 28th largest in the world—is plagued by corruption, high inflation, and low foreign investment.   Demographically, the challenge is equally significant.  While the United Nations estimates that 63% of Pakistanis (roughly 103 million people) are less than 25 years old, few economic opportunities exist for Pakistan’s rapidly growing youth population as unemployment levels throughout the country remain perpetually high. 

To counter this troubling trend, the United States should bolster Pakistan’s democratic government.  As Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, “democratically elected politicians—including those of a mildly anti-American hue—are more likely to focus on jobs, education and roads than the army.”

Pakistan has already begun to take these necessary steps, albeit in a limited way.  Although the country still suffers from rampant corruption, Pakistan’s civilian institutions are slowly being built.  Whereas Pakistan’s military held control over the government for 34 years after independence, the country will hold national elections in 2013.  Pakistan’s judiciary, even in the face of threats, has become increasingly independent. 

Additionally, the United States—as well as NATO and regional partners—should take steps to bolster Pakistan’s economic development.  In the long-term, Pakistan’s civil society can only be as successful as its people.  Unfortunately, decades of economic mismanagement, coupled with Islamabad’s failure to fund a proper education system, have stymied opportunities for entrepreneurship and upward mobility.  While various U.S.-sponsored economic and development programs have made positive contributions to Pakistani society, more can be done to improve future prospects for the nation’s population. 

To this end, Washington should work with Islamabad to expand opportunities for private enterprise, trade, and market access between Pakistan and the United States.  Meanwhile, civil society groups should continue to train young Pakistani’s with important skills necessary to compete in South Asia’s regional economy.  By offering Pakistan’s population an alternative way forward, the United States—and its allies—can help transform Islamabad into a more stable and constructive future partner.


The United States has long benefited from Pakistani assistance in Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror.  At the same time, elements within Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have tacitly or actively supported militant extremists that pose serious threats to American troops and interests in Afghanistan.  To ensure hard-fought gains in Afghanistan are not lost, the Obama administration must alter Islamabad’s policies towards it neighbor.  A key element of that entails making clear to Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership that Pakistan’s interests will not be served by continued efforts to play a double game in Afghanistan—and that the United States will remain committed to Afghanistan and the region well beyond 2014.

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