I served as an undercover officer in the CIA in South Asia’s three largest countries: India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. While in Pakistan, I had the opportunity to drive along the road leading to the top of the Khyber Pass—that fabled mountain pass that serves as the gate to Afghanistan from Pakistan. I couldn’t help but consider the number of great civilizations throughout history who failed at their military objectives inside Afghanistan: the Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, Great Britain (twice), and the Soviet Union. Today, the road to Afghanistan through Pakistan is more than geographical and just as treacherous.
Former Pakistani President General Muhammad Zia ul Haq once stated in reference to Afghanistan, “The pot should be kept boiling, but should not boil over.” This mentality about maintaining a weak centralized government in Afghanistan endures inside Pakistan to this day. The Taliban are making the most inroads inside Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001, and they are doing it with the support of Pakistan.
It is a matter of national security for the U.S. to clearly demonstrate that we will not tolerate Pakistan’s continued support for terrorist groups like the Taliban. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Shareef need to realize that continuing such behavior is detrimental to their own self-interest. Eventually the pot will boil over. The U.S. can speed up this process through engagement because, if we fail to engage Islamabad, we will not succeed in Kabul.
The Pakistanis should understand their influence over the Taliban is limited. The terrorist group currently controls one-fifth of the territory in Afghanistan. Some analysts have called this estimate conservative given the difficulty of reporting on the level of influence the Taliban has in rural parts of the country where the central government has limited access. The more the group pushes out of Pakistan into Afghanistan, the less they will rely on Pakistan as a sanctuary. The Taliban will no longer be forced to operate out of Miramshah in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan, or maintain a council in the Baluchistan city of Quetta.
Pakistan’s assessment that their regional influence increases by supporting the Taliban is simply false. Their actions have lost them America’s trust and support, while the U.S. government has deepened and widened its relationship with Pakistan’s primary rival, India. Congress has already blocked subsidies for Pakistan’s $700 million purchase of the F-16. Contrast this with the warm reception Congress gave Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he addressed the House and Senate about the developing Indian-American strategic partnership.
Our military, too, has demonstrated its mistrust of Pakistan when it deliberately chooses not to inform the Pakistani government of planned drone strikes inside Pakistan’s borders.
While Pakistan’s behavior has been utterly frustrating to the United States, we must remain engaged with them. It is the only way to help Pakistan understand the wide-spread, long-term implications of their actions. Ultimately, as long as Pakistan perceives India as a threat, they will continue to support groups that undermine the central authority in Afghanistan. Only our sustained engagement with Pakistan will help mitigate the fear they believe India poses to them.
Pakistan must view the U.S. as a strong, dependable ally. President Barack Obama’s policy to scale down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan only demonstrated to Pakistan that we are a fair-weather friend—not a partner they can rely on. Surrounded on all sides by enemies, it is no wonder Pakistan resorts to cozying up with hostile groups. If they do not trust us to make their security a priority, they will continue supporting the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. Again, this is where we must make credible commitments to Pakistan’s leaders. It is on us to demonstrate that a relationship with the U.S. is the superior choice to a relationship with the Taliban—and that they cannot have it both ways.
Remaining engaged with Pakistan is also necessary to ensure its nuclear arsenal remains protected from extremists. Terrorists could get their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear material in one of two ways: instability could render the nuclear arsenals vulnerable to physical incursions by radical groups; or lax security and vetting could allow for corrupt officials working at the facility to sneak out plans, equipment, or resources for terrorist groups to build their own weapons. U.S. engagement over the years has pushed Pakistan to improve security at nuclear facilities and to take steps to prevent future proliferation of its nuclear technology and materials. It is critical we continue our efforts on this front.
My sincere hope is that after November the next Commander in Chief will be prepared to present American citizens with a strategy toward Pakistan; one that reflects a genuine understanding of its political environment, as well as a nuanced appreciation for the geostrategic calculations it is forced to make constantly. Right now Pakistan is at a critical moment. Either Islamabad will try to restore a deteriorating relationship with the U.S. by upholding its commitments to fighting terrorist groups and helping support the Afghan government; or it will drift into further isolationism to pursue unilateral policies that could very well come back to bite them—and us—later. The actions of our next president will determine which way Pakistan leans and whether or not our objectives in Afghanistan will be the latest failure in the ‘Great Game.’