Bob Churcher Headshot

Afghanistan and Pakistan: Anatomy of a Proxy War

Posted: Updated:

Obama's Afghan surge and new strategy attempt sophistication and nuance, but fail to grasp the terrible complexities of the Afghan war. In his speech the President noted two key issues: Afghanistan's rampant corruption and the problematic role of Pakistan. But these problems are more vexing than he admits.

I know the depth of these problems from study and from years of -- sometimes bitter and disappointing -- experience working in Afghanistan. From 2001 until very recently I was intimately involved with Afghan security and intelligence agencies; helped to create the Afghan National Security Council; did reconstruction work; trained NATO forces for deployment; and traveled across much of the country by road, in the process coming to know many of its local and regional leaders.

First, the issue of a "credible" Afghan partner. Obama wants Karzai to fight corruption and he wants to sidestep Karzai to effectively deliver aid. Good luck with that.

But what about the heart of the strategy, the Afghan National Army? This force is supposed to "stand up as we stand down." Sadly this is a phantom Army. Made up from the recombined remnants of Northern Alliance militias, held together by British and American money and training, it has nowhere near the numbers needed nor claimed. Drug addiction and demoralization are rampant among its soldiers.

Most importantly, the ANA is a largely Tajik army. Tajiks are the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and are based in the north of the country. The Pashtun are the largest group and dominate the south. The Taliban draws its support from the Pashtun. Tajik and Pashtuns are bitter rivals.

In the eyes of Tajik leaders, Karzai (a Pashtun) isn't "their" president, and this isn't "their" war, nor are Tajiks too keen on getting killed in it, as many US soldiers have noticed.

Even if Tajik forces were willing to fight and replace NATO soldiers, sending the Tajik dominated ANA into the south to control the Pashtun would not amount to a "national army" fighting "its own" war. The Pashtun would and do see these Tajiks as invaders.

In short, this is not the force that will beat the Taliban.

What about our other ally, Pakistan? Regardless of what they tell you, the Pakistani military is not on America's side. They pretend to be because they enjoy receiving billions and billions of dollars in aid every year, but in the end the Pakistani Army is obsessed with India. Their fear of India means they want a weak Islamic Afghanistan behind them.

The Pakistani officer class sees the current Afghan government as allied to India and thus hostile to Islamabad -- which it is. India supported the communist government of Afghanistan and then the northern Alliance and now the Karzai government. It is heavily involved in Afghanistan. But Pakistan is determined that it will dominate Afghanistan once we, the foreigners, leave.

Despite its weakness, Afghanistan's political leaders have always coveted large areas of Pakistan: the Pashtun inhabited North West Frontier Province, (the NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (the FATA). Afghanistan lost these regions to what was British India in 1893 when it accepted the so-called "Durand line" which is now the border with Pakistan.

In the 1950s and early 60s, Afghanistan did its best to destabilise Pakistani control in these regions, and actually sent armed tribal groups to invade them. This did much to encourage Islamabad's later enthusiastic support of the US-back Mujahadeen in the late 1970s and 1980s.

In the Pakistani military's view, the international community will leave Afghanistan, as they did after the Soviets left, and indeed as Obama has promised to do. When that happens Pakistan feels that it must be in position to install a friendly regime in Kabul, one that will expel the Indian advisors, spies, diplomats, contactors, etc and provide a potentially friendly area to the rear of Pakistan in the event of another major war with India. This is the Pakistani idea of "strategic depth."

Who would be that friendly government: most likely, the Taliban.

And if they cannot get a friendly government in Kabul, an ungoverned Afghanistan is better than the present Indian dominated one.

This pro-Taliban stance remains the Pakistani position, despite the blow back from their encouragement of extremist Islamic groups. Pakistan uses radical jihadist groups as proxies in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Sometime it looks different, because the Pakistanis do just enough by way of arresting Arabs and other Islamic extremists to keep the US happy. Bluntly speaking, the Pakistanis desperately need the US money (billions every year, year on year) to equip themselves in the build up against India.

And the Pakistan military is being forced to push back the various newly formed Pakistani Taliban groups. So it can look like the Pakistani's really are US allies. But that is an illusion.

Whilst the Pakistani Taliban maintain strong connections with the Afghan Taliban and other Islamic rebels and extremists, the Pakistani military regards the two forces as entirely separate. In their eyes, the Pakistani Taliban are dangerous rebels, whereas the Afghan Taliban are the next government of Afghanistan; and must be kept on good terms and assisted at every juncture.

It has taken US intelligence, military and diplomats years to see this and they still don't quite know what to do about it.

The Afghan Taliban created themselves almost spontaneously in 1994, with the intention of improving justice and security, and removing illegal checkpoints and local warlords. But the Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, soon began supporting them. And soon this vigilante force became a religious army of Pashtun nationalists, believing that they have a god-given right to rule.

This Pakistani encouragement of radical Islam in Afghanistan and in Kashmir has seriously "blown back." Much of the Pashtun areas of Pakistan are now in rebellion and the Pakistani Taliban does not answer to the ISI. From here it may seem like one single movement and threat however, it is essential to understand that Pakistani military and intelligence officers regard the two Taleban organizations (or clusters of organizations) as separate.

The present action against the Pakistani Taliban is just that. The Pakistan has, definitively, not moved against the Afghan Taliban. In fact, the Afghan Taliban leadership remains secure in Pakistan. Indeed they are widely thought to have moved the Quetta Shura (Mullah Omar's command structure) to Karachi, to protect it from possible air strikes.

Powerful elements in Pakistan will continue to support the Pashtun insurgency in Afghanistan no matter what Islamabad's government says or does. This is only one of many problems affecting Afghanistan, but it is the core problem.

Unless the international community can address the proxy fight between Pakistan and India at a political level -- through a settlement on the line of control through Kashmir and a guarantee of security for Pakistan -- it is unlikely that Pakistan's support of the Afghan Taliban can be stopped. And without that stabilizing Afghanistan is very unlikely.

Bob Churcher is a former British Army Officer with a degree in history. He served in Northern Ireland and Africa and has spent the last 20 years in conflict or post-conflict environments, including, the Balkans, East Timor and Afghanistan.