Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan: Geo-political Perceptions

The military’s Afghan goals are clear but with at least one part of the Tal­iban now attack­ing Pak­istan, ques­tions are being raised as to whether the military’s goals are good for the coun­try. This is com­ing increas­ing­ly to the fore as the stage is set for the long await­ed Afghan peace talks. The Afghan pol­i­cy has become all the more entan­gled as Pakistan’s rela­tions with the US dete­ri­o­rate sharply. Again, so many of the con­tentious ele­ments to the Pak­istan-US rela­tion­ship even­tu­al­ly go back to the pri­or­i­ties of the generals.

US drone attacks, which have angered the Pak­istani pub­lic deeply, were tol­er­at­ed as a quid pro quo for “large amounts of US mil­i­tary assis­tance. Now that the US rela­tion­ship has soured, post Abbot­tabad, the drone attacks are a vir­tu­al fait accom­pli. The open bat­tling between the ISI and the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency is an intra-agency squab­ble that is hav­ing reper­cus­sions against the nation­al inter­est. Poor rela­tions with Wash­ing­ton, some fear, could cost Pak­istan in the all impor­tant Afghan talks. 


Inso­far as rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process is con­cerned Pak­istan wants a stran­gle­hold on this issue. It has done its best to sab­o­tage any direct talks between Afghanistan gov­ern­ment and the Taliban

In Pak­istan itself, there is a grow­ing debate on not just its pro­posed role in Afghanistan but the obses­sion with issues abroad. “This exces­sive focus out­side is becom­ing a fatal dis­trac­tion for the urgency of address­ing press­ing inter­nal prob­lems,” says Malee­ha Lod­hi, a for­mer Pak­istan ambas­sador to the US. Lod­hi makes the point that Pakistan’s for­eign pol­i­cy needs to be turned on its head. “The fix­a­tion with over­seas engage­ments is of course not new. It reflects lega­cy, his­tor­i­cal fac­tors, the country’s geostrate­gic loca­tion, intru­sion of big pow­er pol­i­tics in the region and Islamabad’s pro­cliv­i­ty to lever­age geog­ra­phy to enhance its strate­gic rel­e­vance.” Ulti­mate­ly all these for­eign pol­i­cy strands come togeth­er over the ques­tion of what role Pak­istan will play in the region in the com­ing years. There is con­fu­sion here, again because of the mil­i­tary ver­sus civil­ian divide. All are in agree­ment over bet­ter rela­tions with India; any effort on the part of the polit­i­cal lead­er­ship to move ahead is thwart­ed by the mil­i­tary high com­mand. As things stand, expect­ing the polit­i­cal lead­er­ship to stop mil­i­tary inter­fer­ence in civil­ian mat­ters would be expect­ing too much.

Tal­iban campaign

Vio­lence against civil­ians has reached a record high in Afghanistan this year, with more than 1,400 civil­ians killed in the con­flict till June 2011, accord­ing to a recent­ly released UN report. The Tal­iban insur­gency is respon­si­ble for 80 per cent of civil­ian casu­al­ties, with 14 per cent caused by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organ­i­sa­tion) and Afghan forces. On 29 July 2011, a road­side bomb killed 18 civil­ians in south­ern Hel­mand province. The mini­van car­ry­ing the civil­ians hit an explo­sive device in Nahri Sara­ji district.

In the month of July 2011, insur­gents man­aged to car­ry out three major assas­si­na­tions, employ­ing sui­cide attack­ers to elim­i­nate Ahmed Wali Karzai, half broth­er of Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai and Pres­i­den­tial aide Jan Moham­mad Khan. Both Ahmed Wali and Jan Moham­mad were influ­en­tial pow­er bro­kers in south­ern Afghanistan. The third per­son killed was Ghu­lam Haider Hami­di, may­or of the restive Kan­da­har province. While the killing of Ahmed Wali and Hami­di took place in the restive Kan­da­har city, Jan Mohammad’s killing occurred in the out­skirts of the nation­al cap­i­tal Kabul.

On 28 July, 2011, the Tal­iban added anoth­er suc­cess­ful attack to their list of achieve­ments. A dare­dev­il and well-coor­di­nat­ed bomb and sui­cide attack involv­ing mul­ti­ple attack­ers in Uruz­gan province killed 21 peo­ple. Some of the areas like Lashkar Gah in the south­ern Hel­mand province have wit­nessed a series of vio­lent incidents.

The three major assas­si­na­tions in less than a month have cre­at­ed a pow­er vac­u­um in south­ern Afghanistan and have con­se­quent­ly erod­ed Pres­i­dent Karzai’s sup­port base among the Pash­tuns, par­tic­u­lar­ly among the Popalzai tribe he belongs to. Anoth­er impor­tant poten­tial impli­ca­tion for the south would be the intra-eth­no-trib­al rival­ry and pow­er strug­gle that is like­ly to ensue. The Afghans are quick to point out the role of for­mer war­lord Gul Agha Sherzai in these killings. If Sherzai, belong­ing to the Barakzai tribe, gets appoint­ed as gov­er­nor of Kan­da­har, it would be an indi­ca­tion of dwin­dling sup­port and influ­ence of the Karzai clan.

Seen in the con­text of the ongo­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process with the Tal­iban, these tar­get­ed killings both in the south and north also rep­re­sent mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion of those who have either opposed the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process or have gained sig­nif­i­cant clout of their own. Fol­low­ing the killing of police com­man­der Gen Mohammed Daud Daud in north­ern Takhar province in May 2011, there have been appre­hen­sions that those opposed to the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process or have been effec­tive in neu­tral­is­ing the Tal­iban are being tar­get­ed and elim­i­nat­ed. The com­mu­ni­ty elders and offi­cials in Mazar-e-Sharif, the cap­i­tal of the north­ern province of Balkh, indi­cate that the tar­get­ed killings have been intend­ed to mar­gin­alise them in the future pow­er-shar­ing agree­ment with the Tal­iban. As a result, revival plans for the now defunct North­ern Alliance as a hedge against such mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion is gain­ing ground. Is Pak­istan play­ing an over­am­bi­tious zero-sum game. The recent assas­si­na­tion of Rab­bani and the Haqqani group’s attacks on the US Embassy in Kab­ul almost point to a game plan where Pak­istan will go to the extent of try­ing to turn the US retreat in Afghanistan into a rout. That cer­tain­ly is overreach. 

Pak­istan has been advo­cat­ing the neces­si­ty of strate­gic depth in Afghanistan to mask its ter­ri­to­r­i­al ambi­tions and its aim of expand­ing its strate­gic fron­tiers towards West and Cen­tral Asian regions. Secure west­ern bor­ders and a sub­servient Afghanistan will enable Pak­istan to deploy most of its armed forces against India. Pakistan’s pol­i­cy of gain­ing strate­gic space in Afghanistan is not new but prob­a­bly is direct­ly relat­ed to their ambi­tion for carv­ing out a larg­er Islam­ic enti­ty in the South Asian region joint­ly with the glob­al Islam­ic jihad move­ment, to emerge as a dom­i­nant pow­er in South Asia

About the Author
Lt Gen R K Sawh­ney PVSM, AVSM (retd) — The writer retired as the Deputy Chief of the Army Staff. He is a post grad­u­ate in Defence and Secu­ri­ty Plan­ning from the Roy­al Col­lege of Defence Stud­ies, Lon­don. He has com­mand­ed an Infantry Bat­tal­ion, Divi­sion and Corps dur­ing his mil­i­tary career and sub­se­quent­ly served as the Direc­tor Gen­er­al of Mil­i­tary Intel­li­gence. He is present­ly a Dis­tin­guished Fel­low of Vivekanan­da Inter­na­tion­al Foun­da­tion, a ‘think tank’ in New Del­hi, com­pris­ing retired senior offi­cers of Armed Forces, diplo­mats, intel­li­gence offi­cers and civ­il servants. 

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