Failure in Afghanistan?  Blame Allies' Conflicting Goals

Shireen T. Hunter

Huffington Post
July 5, 2010


It has now become quite clear that after nine years the U.S. is not any closer to achieving its goals in Afghanistan. What is more, the U.S. after spending billions of dollars and suffering considerable casualties is considering dealing with the Taliban and thus forgoing an important declared goal, namely establishing democracy in Afghanistan and improving the lot of Afghan women. Yet, so far, most analysts have blamed the lack of success in Afghanistan on tactical errors, the lack of adequate attention to the developmental aspects of Afghan strategy and the corruption of the Afghan officials. Clearly all these factors have played a role in the lack of success so far in Afghanistan. However, there is a major factor that has contributed to this failure and which has not received enough attention, namely that the interests of the U.S. and its major regional ally in the Afghan issue Pakistan are in sharp conflict and have been since the withdrawal of the Soviet troops form Afghanistan in February 1989.

When the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, the United States lost interest in that country and the future shape of its government beyond the point of insisting that the Najibullah faction should have no role in any future Afghan government. By contrast, Pakistan knew well what it wanted and set out to get it. Pakistan's objective was to have a government in Kabul which was, if not exactly subservient to Islamabad, would be under its influence and would not engage in regional and international relations which did not meet Pakistan's approval. In particular, Pakistan did not want a future Afghan government to have any relations of any significance with Iran and more importantly with India.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's close ally Saudi Arabia and the main financial backer of the Afghan Mujahedin also wanted to prevent meaningful Afghan-Iran relations, a Saudi goal dating to the Shah's era. Because the forces of Ahmad Shah Masud, the Tajik commander known as the Lion of Panjshir, got first to Kabul after Soviet withdrawal and formed the post-Soviet government under the leadership of Burhaneddin Rabbani Pakistan supported the more extremist Gulbudin Hekmatyar's forces which embarked on a war against the government in Kabul. Most people seem to have forgotten that Kabul's destruction happened because of Hekmatyar's attacks with the Pakistani support and not during the Soviet -Afghan war. It was this Pakistani insistence for a dominant position in Afghanistan which led to the Afghan civil war and intensified both Iran's and India's engagement in intra-Afghan matters.

Meanwhile, after the Soviet collapse and the regional and international competition in Central Asia heating up, plus the beginning of the U.S. policy of Iran's containment Pakistan marketed itself as the bulwark against the Iranian infiltration in Central Asia and transformed the Taliban into a formidable fighting force. The role of Pakistan and its army and intelligence services in the training of the Taliban became very clear during the massacre of the Afghan Shias in Bamian in 1998. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE funded the Taliban and recognized the Taliban run Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan together with Pakistan and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Then the Taliban, with Pakistan's connivance, on 9 September 2001 assassinated Ahmad Shah Masud the only Afghan with sufficient trans-ethnic support and qualities to run a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan upset Pakistan's plans. However, the United States refusal to see the fundamental divergence between its interests in Afghanistan and those of Pakistan and its continued reliance on Afghanistan as its main source of supply and main ally in Afghan operations, coupled with its refusal to deal with Iran, despite the latter's cooperative posture after the 2001 US invasion, enabled Pakistan to once again turn the tables. Pakistan's main instrument as in the past has been the Taliban, whom they have supported, ironically, with funds provided by the US.

If Pakistan could stabilize Afghanistan by putting back a Taliban dominated government in Kabul thus enabling the US to disentangle itself form the ongoing war, this option would be worth considering. However, this is highly unlikely. Bad blood between the Taliban and other major Afghan ethnic and religious groups namely the Tajiks and the Hazaras is too strong. The beheading recently of eight Hazaras by the Taliban demonstrates the depth of the Talibans' hatred of the Shia Hazaras. Regional powers, notably India, would not countenance a Taliban -dominated government in Kabul. The upshot of this Pakistani strategy would be a resumption of civil war in Afghanistan.

What the above means is that, as part of a new strategy for Afghanistan the US must realize that, in order to succeed in Afghanistan it needs to reduce its dependence on Pakistan. It should also realize that, in the Post-Cold War world era, at times, in some areas its interest will coincide more with those of countries with whom it disagrees on other matters, in this case Iran, rather than with those of its allies, in this case Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Historically, since becoming an independent country, Afghanistan has had to maintain an essentially neutral posture in its international and regional relations, and to have good relations with all major countries and with its neighbors. Its problems started when under general Daoud Khan who ended the Monarchy in Afghanistan in 1973 tried to move away form this posture. This policy led to a process which culminated in the Soviet invasion of 1979. To stabilize Afghanistan, a balance must be achieved among its diverse ethnic groups, and among regional countries whose security is affected by developments there. Efforts to make Afghanistan a launching pad against other regional countries, and Pakistan's bid for a dominant role in Afghanistan runs against the goal of Afghan stability and plays into the hands of the Taliban.