The U.S.-Pakistan partnership in the war in Afghanistan has been both challenging and complex. While Pakistan’s military has cooperated with its U.S. counterpart and has incurred tremendous losses itself, it has resisted American pressure to act against prominent anti-U.S. groups operating in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil. From the Western perspective, Pakistan has deliberately played a “double game” in South Asia by picking and choosing which militant outfits to target, while leaving out those that have been directly responsible for the deaths of Western forces in Afghanistan. Bewildered by this, Western analysts have often asked why Pakistan has not fallen in line with the U.S. position.

This article attempts to explain Pakistan’s strategy from the point of view of its security establishment. It highlights why Pakistan has defied the United States and why it is unlikely to depart from its position substantially. Comprehending Pakistan’s strategy requires analyzing the conflict from within Islamabad’s own strategic calculus and perceived objectives. Using this lens, Pakistan’s otherwise bewildering position appears rational even though it is counterproductive to U.S. interests. Understanding the Pakistan security establishment’s outlook is critical so that the United States and Pakistan can find converging interests on which they can achieve an end state in Afghanistan.

Mismatched Goals
The potential for divergent strategic objectives between Pakistan and the United States was inherent in the circumstances that led the two to partner in the “war on terrorism.” The United States was seeking to eliminate al-Qa`ida and the Taliban from Afghanistan and wanted full Pakistani support.[1] Pakistan’s dilemma was that it had supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Islamist militants in Indian Kashmir for years; it feared that an abrupt reversal in policy would cause an internal backlash. Moreover, its strategic calculus had always been India-centric, and a fear of a “two-front” scenario—whereby animosity with India was compounded by an unfriendly or irredentist Afghanistan—had preoccupied the county’s military minds for decades.[2] Therefore, while Pakistan agreed to support the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, at no cost did it want its intervention to upend its balance vis-à-vis India or to create an unfriendly scenario in Afghanistan.

To ensure full Pakistani support, the United States needed to institute an incentive structure to convince Islamabad to alter its strategic calculus. To date, however, the United States has failed in this endeavor. In fact, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan became the reason for Pakistan’s growing, not lessening, reluctance to support U.S. policy. In the view of Pakistan’s military, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan further aggravated the regional imbalance regarding India and brought to power an antagonistic government in Kabul.[3] Furthermore, Pakistan has been gradually challenged from within as Pakistani Islamist militants continue to make their country’s partnership with the United States the pretext to launch attacks and destabilize the state.[4]

Pakistan’s Response
The key point of divergence between Pakistan and the United States has been the treatment of the Afghan insurgent groups and al-Qa`ida cadres who sought refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas to escape U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.[5] Pakistan was wary that an all out effort against these groups—the major Afghan groups include Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and Hizb-i-Islami—would unnecessarily cause them to turn against the Pakistani state.[6] Pakistan’s concerns about a backlash were accentuated when the state faced extreme opposition to President Pervez Musharraf’s 2002 decision to send the army into the tribal region.[7] The Pakistani tribal areas are peculiar in that citizens from the region are fiercely opposed to intrusion of any sort from the central government in Islamabad; there had always been an in-principle understanding that the Pakistan Army would not be sent into the tribal areas without permission from the tribes. Moreover, cultural considerations reign supreme in the region; therefore, although the Afghan militants and al-Qa`ida operatives had not been invited by Pakistani tribesmen, once they sought refuge the tribal customs did not allow the tribes to refuse them outright.[8] The locals thus saw the Pakistan military’s propensity to target these “guests” as a breach of trust.

As local resentment grew and as the military’s initial forays proved ineffective, Pakistan’s establishment concluded that defying U.S. pressure was preferable to launching an all out war against Afghan insurgent groups on Pakistani territory. A full blown military operation was seen as a catalyst that would unite these groups and large segments of Pakistani tribesmen against the state. Instead, Pakistan chose to pursue a selective approach whereby it targeted non-Afghan al-Qa`ida cadres—this was preceded by difficult negotiations and peace agreements with the tribes—while taking a much softer approach toward the Afghan militant groups.[9]

Even this selective approach did not prevent a substantial number of ideologically-motivated Pakistanis, mainly hailing from the tribal belt, to use Pakistan Army operations as a pretext to launch a domestic insurgency. Starting with inconsequential sporadic operations in the bordering tribal region in 2004, these loosely knit operators eventually came together under the banner of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).[10] By 2008-2009, the TTP had successfully undermined the writ of the state in large pockets in the country’s northwest.[11] A number of new splinter groups, some of them associated with the old anti-India guard and situated in the heartland of Pakistani Punjab, also saw an opportunity and began to support the TTP—these individuals have been somewhat casually labeled the “Punjabi Taliban.”[12]

Pakistan’s reaction to the growing instability within its borders was precisely the opposite of what Washington had hoped. Rather than heeding to Western warnings that Islamist militants ultimately share the same ideology, retain organic links and should therefore be seen as a singular threat, the Pakistani security enclave chose to bank even more heavily on its selective approach. Capacity limitations were also a major concern; as the internal threat grew, the security establishment became more certain that it could not afford to open new military fronts. This view was justified considering that Pakistan had already deployed more troops to fight militants in its northwest than the combined presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. troops in Afghanistan.[13] Moreover, Pakistan’s military was (and remains) acutely short on equipment required for counterinsurgency operations.[14] As a result, Pakistan’s military focused almost exclusively on the TTP and its associated groups from 2007 onward.[15] As for the Afghan Taliban insurgents present in Pakistan’s tribal belt, the state used its leverage to prevent them from supporting the anti-Pakistan groups; this was the quid pro quo received for not attacking them directly.

There is an external dimension that played into Pakistan’s strategy as well. In Afghanistan, Pakistan lost a friendly government with the Taliban’s departure. The new Afghan government, led by President Hamid Karzai, was until recently decisively firm against Pakistan and open to allowing Indian ingress into Afghan territory.[16] This shattered the two fundamental pillars of Pakistan’s security calculus: preventing India from encircling Pakistan and retaining a friendly government in Afghanistan. The Bush administration’s reluctance to address these concerns—evident from its supportive attitude toward President Karzai’s firm policy vis-à-vis Islamabad, as well as Washington’s proactive efforts to reach out to India while ignoring Pakistan’s demands—irked Islamabad even more. In 2003-2004, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan also seemed to be nearing defeat.[17] From Pakistan’s perspective, its neighbor was slipping out of its control and the prospect of an antagonistic Afghanistan had become real. Pakistan had been sidelined in what seemed to be the end game at the time.

With no other allies within the Afghan political spectrum, the Afghan insurgent groups remained Pakistan’s obvious and only support base if it had any chance of regaining ground in Afghanistan. This reinforced Pakistan’s reluctance to target these groups. In fact, Pakistan had an interest in turning a blind eye to their actions in Afghanistan, and according to some accounts even actively supported their efforts in a bid to raise Western costs.[18] In retrospect, Pakistan’s Western allies underestimated Islamabad’s potential to influence events in Afghanistan. They also discounted Islamabad’s inevitable rejection of any outcome that left India at an advantage. Indeed, just as Islamabad had hoped, multiple Western failures in Afghanistan post-2004, Washington’s divided attention between Iraq and Afghanistan, reported links between Afghan insurgent groups and al-Qa`ida’s affiliate in Iraq, and the former’s ability to operate from Pakistani soil reversed Western successes and forced Pakistan back into the equation. Today in 2010, Pakistan has won the round tactically; the world acknowledges that it has a central role to play in negotiating an end state in Afghanistan.[19]

The Opportunity
The United States and Pakistan have blamed each other for being insincere partners. Yet the fact is that both Pakistan and the United States have sought to defend their self-defined interests all along. Bilateral mistrust and frustration stemmed from the fact that their goals have never really converged; in Pakistan’s case, U.S. policy has been unable to incentivize the necessary switch in its security establishment’s thinking. Therefore, just as they have cooperated, both sides have also continued to work at odds with each other. Going forward, a convergence of interests and not a normative blame game will bring about a final solution in Afghanistan. There is an opportunity for the two sides to work together to find a mutually agreeable end state. The optimism stems from the fact that both sides are highly constrained in their options and yet remain frustrated with the status quo.

Three Pakistani limitations should give Washington hope. First, Pakistan’s quest for internal stability should make it favorable to some semblance of stability in Afghanistan. A reversion to an anarchic Afghanistan with little or no state authority would imply a fresh refugee spillover and economic burden on Pakistan. Pakistan is also wary of the possibility of the TTP using a lawless Afghanistan as a safe haven to launch attacks within Pakistani territory once the U.S. and international presence scales down. The anti-Pakistan groups appear intent on fighting Islamabad, regardless of what happens in Afghanistan.

Second, Pakistan’s security establishment is no longer interested in an all-powerful Afghan Taliban government across the Durand Line (or for either of the other two mentioned Afghan insurgent groups to take power on their own). There is growing consensus that a return to the 1990s would cause Pakistan’s isolation among the international community. There is a realization that the Afghan Taliban may have already peaked militarily and that a lengthy civil war would have to ensue for Taliban militants to take over Afghanistan; Pakistan is neither willing nor able to back a new civil war across the border. Pakistan is also cognizant of the development benefits large pockets of Afghan society have extracted from the U.S. presence, making Afghans unwilling to return to the repressive era of the 1990s.[20] U.S. opposition to having an Islamist government rule Kabul is also a deterrent.

Third, Pakistan has an interest in having the Afghan insurgent groups currently present in its tribal belt relocated to Afghanistan. Their presence provides the TTP and other anti-Pakistan groups the ability to present their actions as an extension of the Afghan fight against the Americans.[21] Their co-existence in tribal agencies such as North Waziristan also makes it difficult for Pakistan’s military to launch decisive operations against the TTP. The sheer proximity of the two factions carries a lingering threat of growing organic, and perhaps even covert, links.

In practical terms, the above implies substantial convergence in U.S. and Pakistani views on the end game. To begin with, both sides see an interest in stabilizing Afghanistan. This should prevent Pakistan from supporting any move that raises Western costs to a point that they consider a premature troop withdrawal. In fact, Pakistan has been looking for assurances from Washington that President Barack Obama’s July 2011 troop deadline does not signify a drastic scale down next year. Next, the averseness to the Afghanistan of the 1990s means that Pakistan is open to a broad-based government in Kabul. Pakistan’s positive reception of President Karzai’s recent conciliatory overtures toward Islamabad should be seen in this light.[22] Although the view is still far from unanimous, prominent voices within Pakistan’s strategic enclave contend that it should be satisfied with any Afghan government that is friendly, addresses its concerns vis-à-vis India, and prevents militants from using Afghan territory to operate against Pakistan.[23] Finally, Pakistan’s interest in seeing the Afghan insurgent groups relocate across the border implies a desire for a negotiated settlement sooner rather than later.

Approaching the End State
Despite some shared goals between the United States and Pakistan, there should not be unwarranted optimism. There are a number of differences that need to be addressed within this frame of convergence. To cite just one example, both sides have different definitions of a “broad-based” government. It is still not clear whether Washington would accept the three Afghan insurgent groups playing a role in the new government.[24] Pakistan, on the other hand, is likely to insist that these groups be accommodated, or they will continue their insurgent activities and possibly join the anti-Pakistan groups directly. Moreover, the United States would likely seek as a prerequisite a guarantee that Afghan soil would not be used against U.S. interests in the future. Pakistan will be unable to provide any such assurance. In addition, the Pakistani paranoia about India’s ambitions to encircle Pakistan remains entrenched; the stubbornness on not allowing India a foothold in Afghanistan is categorical.[25] Will the United States be willing to dispense with India on the Afghanistan question? If so, will India find enough reason to oblige?

The United States will have to be realistic as it moves forward. If repeated recent U.S. pronouncements that a favorable end state in Afghanistan is impossible to achieve without Pakistan’s acquiescence are true, then any sustainable end state will have to be closer to Islamabad’s position. An imperfect yet defendable settlement is the best one can hope for at this point. Pakistan on its part must not get carried away by its success in regaining a place at the table. Its achievement is tactical at best, and any flirtation with unrealistic goals in Afghanistan may cause this to be converted into a strategic loss. Be that as it may, Washington and Islamabad are best advised to focus exclusively on the points of convergence identified in this article. Within this framework, they should seek a minimal end state acceptable to both. Their current recognition of each other’s limitations provides a window of opportunity that must be exploited as such windows are temporary. Should this pass, both Pakistan and the United States may be eventual losers.

Moeed W. Yusuf is the South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is responsible for managing the Institute’s Pakistan program. Before joining USIP, he was a fellow at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University, and concurrently a research fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center at Harvard Kennedy School. In 2007, he co-founded Strategic and Economic Policy Research, a private sector consultancy firm in Pakistan. By training as a political scientist, he has worked extensively on issues relating to South Asian politics, Pakistan’s foreign policy, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, nuclear deterrence and non-proliferation, and human security and development in South Asia. Mr. Yusuf has published widely in national and international journals, professional publications, magazines and newspapers.

[1] U.S. President George W. Bush defined his initial goals in a speech announcing the launch of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. For details, see “Bush Announces Opening of Attacks,” CNN, October 7, 2001.

[2] Ayesha Siddiqa Agha, “Pakistan’s Security Perceptions,” in Imtiaz Alam ed., Security and Nuclear Stabilization in South Asia (Lahore: Free Media Foundation, 2006), pp. 201-216; Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia (New York: Viking Press, 2008).

[3] President Karzai was viewed as favoring elements of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, perceived by Islamabad to be anti-Pakistan, to take major power-wielding positions in the post-Taliban Afghan set-up. Moreover, he remained strictly opposed to allowing Pakistan any major role in developments in Afghanistan and instead made positive overtures toward India. India’s major role in reconstruction in Afghanistan’s north was sufficient to irk Islamabad tremendously. Relations reached their nadir in 2007 when Presidents Karzai and Musharraf were regularly involved in a war of words as they sought to pin the blame for the failing military campaign in Afghanistan on each other. For details, see Moeed Yusuf, “Rational Institutional Design, Perverse Incentives, and the US-Pakistan Relationship Post-9/11,” Defense Against Terrorism Review 2:1 (2009): pp. 25-26.

[3] From 2003 onward, sporadic terrorist incidents began to take place in Pakistan. Between 2003-2006, Karachi, Rawalpindi, Multan, Quetta, and Dargai were attacked. It is largely believed that much of this anti-state activity was a direct reaction to Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas.

[4] From 2003 onward, sporadic terrorist incidents began to take place in Pakistan. Between 2003-2006, Karachi, Rawalpindi, Multan, Quetta, and Dargai were attacked. It is largely believed that much of this anti-state activity was a direct reaction to Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas.

[5] These fighters also sought refuge in parts of Baluchistan Province.

[6] For background information on these groups, see Greg Bruno and Eben Kaplan, “The Taliban in Pakistan,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 3, 2009; Imtiaz Ali, “The Haqqani Network and Cross-Border Terrorism in Afghanistan,” Terrorism Monitor 6:6 (2008); “Hizb-i-Islami (Islamic Party),”, undated.

[7] The Pakistan Army was first ordered to deploy to the Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency to check possible infiltration and movement of militants from across the Durand Line. The first major offensive, however, came in February 2003 when the army, under U.S. pressure, launched an operation against al-Qa`ida and Afghan Taliban operatives in South Waziristan Agency. Opposition to the military intrusion escalated thereafter.

[8] For a brief discussion of the local tribal norms and the challenge they have posed in eliminating terrorist sanctuaries, see Vikram Jagdish, “Reconsidering American Strategy in South Asia: Destroying Terrorist Sanctuaries in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 20:1 (2009).

[9] In the initial stages, the Afghan Taliban are believed to have found a relatively safe existence in their hideouts in Pakistan. For this view, see Ashley J. Tellis, Pakistan and the War on Terror: Conflicted Goals, Compromised Performance (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2008), p. 7.

[10] For a profile of the TTP, see Hassan Abbas, “A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,” CTC Sentinel 1:2 (2008).

[11] By April 2009, the Taliban had not only established their complete control in South Waziristan and partial control in a number of other tribal agencies, but they had also effectively captured the settled area of Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province) and were threatening to continue their advance further south. When Pakistan’s military finally launched a decisive operation against them in late April 2009, the Taliban had infiltrated Buner District, merely 60 miles from Islamabad.

[12] Hassan Abbas, “Defining the Punjabi Taliban Network,” CTC Sentinel 2:4 (2009).

[13] The Pakistani military claims that its deployments have been upward of 100,000, while ISAF and U.S. forces combined only crossed that mark in 2009.

[14] Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership have constantly emphasized the need for additional hardware to bolster their counterinsurgency capabilities. See “Zardari Asks US for Aid to Combat Terror,” Rediff India Abroad, January 29, 2009; “Kayani Asks US to Give Pakistan Cobra Helicopters,” Daily Times, February 28, 2009.

[15] Pakistan has staunchly resisted U.S. demands to launch operations against Afghan insurgent groups operating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, citing its need to focus on the TTP as a priority. The author’s conversations with Pakistani strategic experts and military officers confirm that the security establishment is acutely concerned about the military’s capacity limitations and is wary of opening any new operational fronts for fear of spreading itself too thin.

[16] After indifferent relations in the initial period of President Karzai’s rule, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations reached their nadir in 2006-2007 when Presidents Karzai and Musharraf continuously blamed each other for the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. See “Bush Urges Karzai, Musharraf to Unite Against Terrorism,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 28, 2006.

[17] The confidence about having defeated the insurgency was high enough for U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to declare in May 2003 that “major combat activity” in Afghanistan had ended.

[18] The recent “wikileaks” controversy has reinforced this belief by exposing U.S. intelligence documents that allege that Pakistani intelligence was supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan as recently as 2007. Pakistan has consistently denied the allegations. See Mark Mazzetti, Jane Perlez, Eric Schmitt, and Andrew W. Lehren, “Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan, Reports Assert,” New York Times, July 25, 2010.

[19] A number of Pakistani moves throughout this period have reiterated both the country’s desire and ability to manipulate the end game. One much-hyped recent move was to arrest Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior member of Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban, allegedly because he was reaching out to President Karzai for peace talks without the acquiescence of the Pakistani establishment. Despite initial indications to the contrary, Pakistan has not extradited Baradar to Afghanistan. For details, see Dexter Filkins, “Pakistanis Tell of Motive in Taliban Leader’s Arrest,” New York Times, August 22, 2010.

[20] Most representative polls conducted in Afghanistan since 9/11 suggest that the majority of Afghans oppose a return of the Taliban. This remains true even as the insurgents have gained ground of late and opposition to the Western presence and the Afghan government has risen tremendously. For a sense of the changing opinion, see “WPO Poll: Afghan Public Overwhelmingly Rejects al-Qaeda, Taliban,” World Public Opinion, January 30, 2006; “Afghanistan Conflict Monitor,” Human Security Report Project, available at

[21] Moeed Yusuf, “Taliban Have Been Fooling Us All Along,” The Friday Times 21:12 (2009). Interestingly, not only has this been the message the TTP has presented publicly, but this is also the thrust of their motivational message imparted to would-be suicide bombers and in their multimedia productions targeted at potential recruits.

[22] The Afghan president has repositioned himself to accommodate Pakistan’s concerns, a move largely believed to be a result of his realization that Pakistan’s support is necessary for a stable end state in Afghanistan (and his own political future). See Nick Shifirin, “Afghan President Karzai Steps Up Talks with Insurgents,” ABC News, June 29, 2010. Senior Pakistani military officials have reciprocated the overtures and have reportedly visited Kabul frequently in the recent past.

[23] This information is based on the author’s various personal conversations with Pakistani strategic experts and military officials during the summer of 2010.

[24] As stated earlier, these groups include Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and Hizb-i-Islami.

[25] This information is based on the author’s various personal conversations with Pakistani strategic experts and military officials during the summer of 2010.

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