WASHINGTON -- After their first official meeting earlier this month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and President Barack Obama faced cameras together in the East Room of the White House. One man's country had once given Osama bin Laden safe haven to plan 9/11; the other's destroyed that refuge and propped up an entirely new government in Afghanistan, losing over 2,000 soldiers and spending over $1 trillion in the process. Standing side by side, Ghani and Obama sought to show that the U.S. investment in a secure Afghanistan would ultimately prove successful.
But the outcome of the U.S. effort will not depend only on leaders in Kabul and Washington. Afghanistan’s future also relies on a third player, a volatile actor that has interchangeably assisted and undermined Washington’s efforts in the region: Pakistan's army.
The U.S. and Afghanistan have known for years that peace will not be possible unless the Pakistani military wants to make it happen. The army command is almost solely responsible for the country’s national security, even though there is an elected civilian government in Islamabad. The military also holds the key to Afghan stability, since it would be the key interlocutor in any peace agreement between Ghani’s government and the Afghan Taliban, with whom the Pakistani army has maintained close ties.
The trouble is that no one is sure what the military will do.
The Huffington Post interviewed a number of Pakistani politicians, retired military officials and analysts who suggested that the increasing focus on regional stability has allowed the military to exercise more dominance than it has at any point since 2008, when the last period of direct army rule ended. The army’s recent moves, these experts argue, show that it is keen to reassert its power, despite its insistence that it supports the civilian leadership.
For the U.S. and Afghanistan to rely more heavily on Pakistan’s army would affirm this creeping control. Moreover, the military is among the U.S.’s most controversial counterterror partners: For years, it has maintained that it is helping the U.S. fight extremists in Afghanistan, even while its ties to some of those very extremists are publicly known.
Despite all this, both Kabul and Washington are now warming to the idea that Pakistan’s military can fix the region's troubles, rather than exacerbate them. One of Ghani's first visits abroad after taking office was to Pakistan -- and his first stop there was the military headquarters in Rawalpindi. In the wake of continued skepticism, Ghani has expanded intelligence cooperation, entrusted the Pakistan army with training Afghan cadets and, allegedly, frozen an arms deal with Pakistan's chief regional rival, India.
At the joint press conference, Obama noted the improved coordination between the three countries and commended Ghani’s "bold leadership in reaching out to Pakistan, which is critical to the pursuit of peace."
As the U.S. prepares to end its longest-ever overseas war, the Obama administration faces a question that could pit America’s historic values against its security interests: Is it willing to trust Pakistan’s army -- and to compromise democratic civilian rule in Islamabad -- in exchange for a secure Afghanistan?
Pakistani armed forces march during the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2015. Their procession marked the first formal military march on Pakistan Day since military rule last ended. (Photo: Metin Aktas)
“The elected government remains in place but has few powers, and no longer rules the country," wrote Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Pakistani analyst, in the New York Review of Books' Apr. 2 issue. "The media, opposition political parties, Parliament, and the intelligentsia are trying to resist the gradual military takeover but they are weak and ineffectual.”
Pakistan watchers say Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who gained power in May 2013 in the country's first-ever democratic transition, has seen his authority steadily eroded by a charismatic leader who shares his name but is no relation: army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif. Since he landed the job in November 2013, the general has become a darling of U.S. policymakers and solidified his popularity among the public by getting tough on the Pakistani Taliban. Sharif has also engaged more with Kabul -- a shift facilitated by Ghani, who is much more willing to cooperate with Pakistan than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Still, many Pakistanis are alarmed by the military's expansion of power.
Nazish Brohi, a Karachi-based researcher and activist who has studied the Taliban-affected Swat region in northwestern Pakistan, told HuffPost earlier this year that she worried the country's civilian leadership was "ceding space" to the army. Even before Gen. Sharif took charge, she said, the military had been using security concerns to justify consolidating its power. She believes that the Pakistani Taliban's massacre of more than 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014 made that approach even more effective.
"If you say no to one [security-related measure], it's seen as a rejection of everything: you're saying no to the push against terrorism, and hence you're siding with the terrorists," she said.
Asked about Gen. Sharif’s more aggressive targeting of the Pakistani Taliban, Brohi said she does not doubt the army's present commitment to fighting the extremists. Still, she and others are wary of becoming too enamored -- particularly because, as she emphasized in a January op-ed, the last period of military rule in Pakistan did not prevent extremist expansion.
Brohi pointed specifically to a constitutional amendment, passed after the Peshawar attack traumatized the country, that set up a separate system of military courts for terror suspects. Critics of the law say it damages the country’s fragile judicial system, violates international legal standards and leaves citizens vulnerable to abuse.
According to Brohi, the law's success is especially alarming because it showed elected representatives willingly handing over power to the military. "We've had coups before,” she said. "This time it's through the democratic process."
Pakistani army troops arrive to conduct an operation at the Peshawar military school under attack by Pakistani Taliban gunmen on Dec. 16, 2014. (Photo: Mohammad Sajjad)
An incident earlier this month involving the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, one of the political parties that supported the military courts law, illustrated just how costly the military’s expansion of control might be. Although the MQM has a controversial record, having previously been linked to murders and organized crime, it has garnered praise as a rare and consistent anti-extremist voice and has traditionally frustrated the army with its talk of democracy.
Haider Abbas Rizvi, one of the party's leading parliamentarians and its chief spokesman, told HuffPost in January that his party embraced the military courts because "in extraordinary times we have to take extraordinary measures." Rizvi said he saw "goodwill" from army leadership and was not concerned about the possibility of a full military takeover.
But then the army came for his party. On March 11, a paramilitary force controlled directly by the military stormed into the party's headquarters and raided homes in the surrounding neighborhood. The army said the raid uncovered hidden arms and suspected murderers. Residents of the area claimed they were subjected to excessive force. Rizvi called the incursion "a transgression of authority."
Pakistan's security services have cracked down on the MQM before, so it was no surprise that the group remained in the army's crosshairs even after it expressed support for the military courts. But the incident came at a time when the military has said its chief focus is terrorism. The incident sparked concern about how broadly Rawalpindi might start defining terrorist elements, given its growing power -- and whom it could confidently target with impunity.
To Mosharraf Zaidi, a prominent Pakistani newspaper columnist, the raid looked less like a counterterror effort and more like a blatant show of military power.
MQM has a lot to answer for, but equating it to violent religious extremists smacks less of analytical error & more of prejudice.
— Mosharraf Zaidi (@mosharrafzaidi) March 11, 2015
Pakistani paramilitary officials escort handcuffed Aamir Khan, a leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement political party, out of a court in Karachi on March 12, 2015.
Yet as controversial and damaging as the military’s actions may be, its future moves will matter greatly as Pakistan and Afghanistan prepare for a future without the U.S. serving as referee.
Ghani has recognized this importance in recent months by trying to show goodwill towards Gen. Sharif. And the Pakistani military has reciprocated. In a striking first for an army that has long scorned Afghanistan's capabilities, it directly requested Afghan assistance with the Pakistani Taliban after the Peshawar school attack. After Afghan forces captured six militants connected to the massacre, Pakistan’s army publicly gave the Afghans credit for their success.
Retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former Pakistani national security advisor and ambassador to the United States, noted the unprecedented level of dialogue between Gen. Sharif and the new Afghan administration.
"On counterterrorism operations, on working with Afghanistan, it seems the military here is taking a lead," he told HuffPost.
But Durrani also noted that this improved relationship notably excludes Pakistan’s elected civilian leadership.
"The political leadership has to also get into the issue," he said. Asked whether he was confident in the civilian government, he chuckled. "That's a bad question, if you get what I mean."
Security cooperation and high-level meetings are taking place between the two neighbors for the first time in years, and both Kabul and Washington are anticipating that Rawalpindi could facilitate long-awaited peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. The extremist group sought refuge in Pakistan after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and its leadership has maintained relations with the Pakistani army. That connection has survived even as the homegrown Pakistani Taliban -- the group behind the Peshawar attack -- has become more powerful and directly challenged the military.
Washington policymakers have become more receptive to the idea of the Pakistani army serving as an intermediary with the Taliban, a marked departure from the U.S.’s prior posture. Previously, many in the U.S. had accused the army of tacitly helping to hide al Qaeda operatives and supporting the insurgency inside Afghanistan, saying the military had no genuine interest in improving the security situation. But with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan looming, Washington is more willing to concede that Rawalpindi’s much-maligned ties to extremist groups can be used to push fringe groups to the negotiating table.
President Barack Obama smiles as Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during their joint news conference on March 24, 2015. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin
Indeed, it’s easier to be positive about Pakistan these days, particularly after Gen. Sharif’s visit to Washington late last year. The army chief made a positive impression: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he sees Sharif as “a very superior individual.”
Sharif “sold his story” to U.S. policymakers, Durrani said, and conducted effective damage control.
A top Senate aide told HuffPost that the army chief went as far as committing to U.S. lawmakers that he would clear out elements of the military who were suspected of supporting extremists -- including in the seemingly untouchable Inter-Services Intelligence. That promise tacitly acknowledges Pakistan's earlier, more controversial approach to Afghanistan and, if fulfilled, would be a crucial shift.
Whether or not they want Gen. Sharif to play such a central role, Kabul and Washington seemed to have reached a similar conclusion: Working with his army is better than not consulting it at all.
“The question is not what [Pakistan] can or can’t do, the question is what happens if you exclude Pakistan from the conversation," said Shamila Chaudhary, who served as Obama's National Security Council director for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2010 and 2011, and is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "Pakistan is very good at playing a spoiler role in any of these kinds of conversations, and when they’re excluded from the conversation or excluded from having the information after the fact, that’s very frustrating for them because so much of this impacts their national security posture.”
Still, if the U.S. begins once again to lean on Pakistan’s military, it will be a complex and controversial process.
Washington famously cooperated with Pakistan's last two military dictators. Working with Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan, the CIA helped to forge the Taliban, while the U.S. turned a blind eye to the general's flailing democratic opposition. The Bush administration adopted a similar approach after 9/11, when it treated then-dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf as a chief counterterror ally, only pressuring him to engage with opponents once his rule already seemed to be in jeopardy.
The message to Pakistanis was clear: With the military in charge of those issues that the U.S. cared about, it would be the military that the U.S. reached out to.
President Barack Obama and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1, 2011. Photo: Pete Souza
Pakistan's army has been accused for years of supporting terror groups, chiefly those targeting neighboring India, and some of these allegations have been verified by former U.S. intelligence officers. Many in the U.S. suspected that American aid money was going to the very forces the U.S. was relying on Pakistan to help fight.
Those suspicions reached their peak in 2011 after the U.S. discovered Osama bin Laden hiding comfortably in a compound outside Abbottabad, Pakistan. The raid led to a devastating breakdown in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Pakistanis saw it as an illegal breach of sovereignty, while to many in the U.S., the incident proved that Pakistan had been using billions in aid to foster extremist forces in the region. Musharraf, who led the country from 1999 to 2008, later admitted as much. “Whoever wishes to be angry, let them be angry -- why should we bother?” he said in an interview with Pakistani television.
U.S. lawmakers remain aware of that misadventure even as they now express increasing support for the military leadership. Weeks after Gen. Sharif's Washington visit, Congress inserted a provision into the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that requires Pakistan to clearly show how it is aiding U.S. counterterror efforts before it can receive aid. The caution indicates that while Washington seems more willing to rely on Sharif, the trust remains tentative. Still, an unreliable Pakistan seems better than no Pakistan at all.
With relations on the mend, officials have been less shy about praising the Pakistani army: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said last year that intelligence cooperation was on “the upswing," largely thanks to new leadership in Islamabad and Gen. Sharif's efforts to smooth ruffled feathers.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) spoke to HuffPost earlier this month about what Pakistan can offer the United States.
“They provide us eyes and ears that we don’t have,” Burr said. “With all of our partners, we have ‘trust but verify.’ I think it’s no different with Pakistan. They’re a vital partner in sharing intelligence with [the] U.S.”
“We’ve always had concerns about the intelligence agency in Pakistan and what they’ve been up to,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referring to the secretive ISI. “I think we need to understand these relationships with our eyes wide open and understand there’s going to be some frailties and things that don’t exactly work out.”
Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif at the change of command ceremony in Rawalpindi on November 29, 2013, during which he took over the country’s most powerful institution.
But with Washington happy to once again ramp up cooperation with Pakistan’s military for security reasons, concerns about internal threats to democracy are unlikely to gain much traction.
“Our main interests there are counterterror and national security issues,” said Chaudhary, noting that “all of those issues that the U.S. cares about in Pakistan are all kind of in the domain of the intelligence service and the military.”
Even though U.S. leaders have praised the country’s democratic transition, Chaudhury said, Washington knows its most critical partners in Pakistan are in Rawalpindi's garrisons.
“We are dressing it up with other stuff," she said. "But we should never kid ourselves … [democracy and development] are not the real reasons we’re in Pakistan."
That leaves the U.S. once again hoping -- despite the troubled history and warnings from within Pakistan -- that the Pakistani military will help facilitate a stable future for the entire region.
But national security hands know that the region’s deep fissures will not be resolved by granting more power to men with guns.
“At the end of the day, you’re not going to change the tribal regions until you get economic development,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a prominent member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “You can’t just hold it by force alone. So an inclusive Pakistani government that can empower people is the ultimate antidote to this.”
Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported from Karachi, Pakistan, and Ali Watkins reported from Washington.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more