Pakistan and the US won the Afghan conflict and the cold war in 1989 and 1991, respectively. But 27 years later, Islamabad and Washington are on the brink of losing the war in Afghanistan.
Soldiers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US are dying. China’s investment in CPEC is threatened by Afghan instability. While Washington and Islamabad quibble, other states in the region are waging a war of attrition against both America and Pakistan in what increasingly looks like payback for cold war.
Under these circumstances, the US, Pakistan and the Afghan people are the losers. The post-9/11 Afghan war has been a joint defeat for Pakistan and the US. Except for China, every other player in the region benefits from the US and Pakistan’s losses in Afghanistan. These states, barring Beijing, want to see a permanent conflict in Afghanistan and are rooting for a war between old allies, Washington and Islamabad. Unfortunately, there are elements in both capitals that are unable or unwilling to see this.
Yes, there are serious issues at stake and the blame game is not without reason, on both sides. Pakistan and the US led one of the most successful strategic projects of the cold war: the Afghan war and the defeat of Communism. While this project was a feat of military and intelligence prowess, it degenerated into a series of mistakes on both sides that now threaten to turn that victory into a defeat.
Pakistan and the US have been on the wrong trajectory since the end of the cold war. It is amazing to study the multiple ways in which this trajectory is hurting the strategic interests of both countries.
Talk to the Pentagon and Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence and you will find enough reasons to believe both narratives. The list of mutual grievances is now long, stale and often boring. It is a spider web of compounding issues.
America and Pakistan can choose to waste more years and continue to hurt their interests in the region. But it would be wise for both sides to pause and understand what is at stake.
China is worried about its CPEC project investments in Pakistan. Beijing is trying to help Islamabad and Washington stabilise Afghanistan. Chinese President Xi Jinping did the unthinkable by establishing contacts with the Afghan Taliban to mediate with Kabul and achieve peace. China wants America to succeed in Afghanistan. This is what Pakistan wants as well.
A failed Afghanistan is not in the interest of Islamabad and Beijing, and the role of the US is key to Afghan stabilisation because no other country can marshal resources and international support for peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military has conveyed to Washington that it wants the US to succeed in Afghanistan. This was conveyed to US and Nato commanders in unambiguous terms.
So, if Pakistan wants the US to succeed in Afghanistan, and China wants the same, then who wants America to lose the Afghan war? This is where it gets tricky.
This is the new, emerging map of alliances around Afghanistan. It is a return to 1997. To defeat the US in Afghanistan, two countries are waging a war of attrition. India is working with them to target Pakistan. The three states want US, Pakistani and Afghan soldiers to die in an endless war that would keep Washington, Islamabad and Kabul quarreling with each other. It is the ultimate win for the trilateral alliance, which was started in 1997 by backing the now-defunct Afghan Northern Alliance factions and continued after 2002, when their proxies seized power in Kabul, with help from the US.
It is understandable for Russia to bleed the US in Afghanistan. Another country in the region has quietly helped the US military and intelligence in Afghanistan after 9/11, but is now hedging its bets. But it is the Indian role that should disturb Washington. India is stoking Afghan unrest in multiple ways, leading up to the deaths of American, Pakistani and Afghan soldiers. Is India helping insurgents who kill American soldiers? It is difficult to answer this question without public evidence.
However, it is in India’s interest to fuel conflict between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US. Officials from the three countries blame each other when their soldiers are killed. Links between New Delhi and factions of Pakistan Taliban were proven on multiple occasions. Aside from India, there are elements in Kabul that benefit from stirring up infighting among Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US. Some of these Afghan factions are linked to two regional powers.
The Indian involvement in Afghanistan, which is entirely Pakistan-centric, will force Islamabad to counter India, and hinder the overarching American objectives in Afghanistan.
The elimination of a TTP commander by a CIA drone and the progress at the UN on Kashmir have been good news for Pakistan. Islamabad now needs to consider a robust engagement with the US and the world, work around the differences, confidently push its narrative, and secure its interests.
Pakistan played one of the most important roles in the triumph of the free world against Communism. Today’s international system and economy owe some of their existence to a handful of countries that played key roles during the cold war. Pakistan tops the list. Unfortunately, we became distracted after the end of the cold war in 1991. Instead of benefiting from the new international system, Pakistan was sucked into a cycle of internal political instability and self-induced isolation.
Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and the US can bring peace to the region, secure their individual interests, and convince other countries of the region to join peace efforts while countering the war of attrition in Afghanistan that primarily targets Pakistan and the US.
Mullah Fazlullah was a key reason for tensions between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US. State and non-state actors in the region used him to keep Washington-Islamabad-Kabul divided and squabbling. There is an opportunity to bring the three countries closer, end suspicions and build mutual trust.
The writer is a journalist and researcher.