The Duck of Minerva

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Pakistan and Afghanistan: misguided strategic priorities

September 10, 2008

A fantastic commentary by Troy at Abu Muqawama.

If you haven’t seen it already, the New York Times magazine has an excellent article by Dexter Filkins on the Taliban in Pakistan. It is a longer piece, but well worth the read.

A fair amount of it covers ground that should be familiar to anyone who has been watching South Asia for the past couple of years:

* Taliban factions are in control of Pakistan’s tribal areas

* The Pakistan Army and ISI are actually supporting the Taliban while pretending to cooperate with the U.S. to control the militants

* By way of example, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the de facto leader of a powerful Taliban faction in North Waziristan that organizes suicide bombings in Eastern Afghanistan, is close to UBL, wanted in Afghanistan, and (drum roll please) an ISI intelligence asset! ISI quote from Filkins: “We are not apologetic about this.” Note: The Haqqani compound outside Miranshah was the target of a Predator strike yesterday.

* The Talibs are free to operate in Afghanistan/attack NATO forces provided that they “refrain from attacking the Pakistani state and from setting up a parallel government.”

* Keeping the Taliban intact is a hedge against the day when the U.S. leaves Afghanistan and the government in Kabul collapses so Pakistan can be assured that a friendly (and anti-Indian) government can reestablish stability.

* The Pakistan Army is in such poor shape as a warfighting organization that it likely couldn’t defeat the militants even if it were actually trying to do so.

* This “double game” allows Pakistan to obtain U.S. aid which is critical to sustaining its broken economy.

What Troy found more illuminating was the discussion of the new government’s counterinsurgency strategy, which focuses on economic development (billions will be poured into the tribal areas over the next five years to build roads, schools and health clinics) and negotiation with tribal leaders in a manner that seeks to sideline the militants. This contrasts sharply with the Musharraf-era negotiations that took place directly between the Army and the militants themselves. This strategy sounds similar in many respects to the notions proposed by Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason (previously discussed here) that strengthening and re-building the Pashtun tribal structures was key to bringing the tribal areas back from the radical brink.

The major problem with this mode of thinking, as Filkins makes clear, is that the Taliban has shredded the old social order that these strategies seek to re-establish. Not only have a significant number of Tribal Maliks been killed, but more importantly, the various Taliban factions have cultivated loyal adherents by overthrowing traditional tribal elders and/or hereditary feudal leaders and elevating lower-class people in their place. A number of prominent Taliban warlords, such as Baitullah Mehsud and Manghal Bagh were common laborers before picking up guns. While the attraction of the Taliban has often been framed in either religious or cultural terms, they are also tapping into that age old conflict between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Those who have benefitted under the new social order are unlikely to be too enthusiastic about a return to the old way of doing things.

Just as insightful is a comment on the post by “bill”:

But, of course, the Pakistani government’s role is very interesting. Historically they backed Islamism for national unity and the Taliban for strategic depth, both to counterbalance their demographic disadvantage against India. Until that strategic calculus changes, until Pakistan stops trying to balance India, the government will have a very strong interest letting the Taliban survive.

This is a point that deserves a great deal of emphasis. Pakistan’s strategic position today is not like it was in the 1960s, or even the 1970s and 1980s. The can deter India with nuclear weapons, of course, but the important relative trajectories–most notably economic and military trends–all point towards continued growth in the already significant gap between the two countries. This gap favors India.

India’s GDP (PPP) in 2007 was around $3 trillion. In 2006 and 2007 India’s economy grew by 8.5%. In 2008-2009 it reached 9.1%. Even with a likely slowdown, India’s prospects remain better than Pakistan’s. In 2007, Pakistan’s GDP (PPP) was around $410 billion, with growth between 6-8% between 2004 and 2008 (source for most of these figures: CIA World Fact Book). But that growth is imperiled by high inflation and interest rates.

The Pakistani military is not in particularly good shape; morale and training are quite low. India spends $26.5 billion on its military, but that’s below 2% of its GDP, and India announced in June that it would increase spending to $40 billion; Pakistan spends about $4.4 billion (with close to an additional $10 billion coming from US military aid) but even that comparatively modest expenditure amounts to an enormous drag on Pakistan’s budget and economy.

The hard reality is that India is heading for even more robust regional hegemony, and there’s very little Pakistan can do about it. But even more important is that fact that Pakistan’s major security threats are no longer external; the Pakistani state is unlikely to meet its end via an Indian invasion.

Pakistan’s major security challenges now stem from within its nominal territorial boundaries. Pakistan’s grand strategy of preserving “strategic depth” by placing a friendly regime in Afghanistan–or, at least, preventing the consolidation of a pro-Indian regime there–constitutes, in light of current challenges, an anachronism driven by the straitjacket of organizational culture within the ISI and certain corners of the military.

Indeed, the consolidation of a Taleban state-within-a-state represents the most important threat to the Pakistani government. One day, the ISI’s and military’s allies may launch much more than terrorist strikes against the Pakistani state; it is far from clear who, at that point, will be able to stop them.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.