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The Illusion of Strategy in Afghanistan: No Change in Pakistan’s Malice

Pakistan’s machinations and America’s past delusions pose obstacles to a successful strategic outcome for the war In Afghanistan.

January 6, 2018

“Strategy is not always an illusion, but it often is.”
(Richard Betts)

“The key to peace for the entire region lies with Pakistan.”

(Ahmed Rashid)

As 2018 begins, Pakistan has not stopped its support of terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, in any fundamental ways.

America and its Coalition partners have now been at war in Afghanistan for six years longer than the Soviets were at war in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: A protracted stalemate

There are a number of reasons why the war in Afghanistan is a protracted stalemate, but a huge one lies in the delusion that portrayed Pakistan as a friend and, until now, impaired clear-eyed thinking about a strategy for Pakistan.

The reason for the stalemate is the support and sanctuary that the Pakistani security establishment has continued to provide to the enemies of the Afghans, Americans and the Coalition partners.

Pakistan is nominally a U.S. major non-NATO ally that receives all the benefits that this status confers. But the reality is that Pakistan comports itself like a malicious and mendacious enemy to America and to Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Army and its Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) continue to collude with the Taliban and the Haqqani network, preventing their defeat and prolonging the stalemate.

Pakistan’s continued perfidy and America’s years of naïve neglect have seen Pakistan’s senior leadership deny and lie with shameless impunity about its support for the Taliban and other Islamist militants in Afghanistan.

This is why there is a protracted stalemate and this portends either no end, or a bad end to the war in Afghanistan. This is not a secret. It is stated in unclassified form for anyone to read in years of U.S. Department of Defense and NATO reports on the war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s machinations and America’s delusions

There are many astute South Asia scholars and journalists who have written books about Pakistan’s machinations and America’s delusions about Pakistan. Myriad titles and works ring true about Pakistan’s role and the prospects for stability and peace in Afghanistan.

A number of such works prompted this article, which distils insights from several works and titles to paint the grave picture that is Pakistan’s strategic duplicity, and America’s strategic illusion in presuming it can alter Pakistan’s conduct without fully investing itself in a regional strategy.

Magnificent Delusions

In the aptly titled Magnificent Delusions, a former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States offers an incisive view of the long relationship between Pakistani senior deluders and the deluded senior interlocutors from the United States.

The relations between the United States and Pakistan constitute a saga of false promises, mismanaged expectations and disastrous betrayals. Husain Haqqani notes that in the history of American-Pakistani relations, the United States’ rationale for seeking an alliance with Pakistan has differed from Pakistan’s reasons for wanting an alliance.

Pakistan’s purpose for the relationship has always related to its geopolitical competition with India. The United States’ reasons for the relationship were related to the Cold War competition with the Soviets and then to the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

American and Pakistani interests were most aligned during the Soviet-Afghan War, yet they were still imperfect. Those interests were most misaligned after 9/11 when the United States sought Pakistan’s help to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, the same Islamist monsters that Pakistan created.

The Dark Side

In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer explores how the United States under the George W. Bush Administration, with the heavy influence of a frantic Cheney, and supported by ideologue lawyers, breached a host of international laws and norms.

The Bush Administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks was a massive over reaction that led it to authorize torture and to expand renditions significantly.

Ultimately exposed at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the Bush team’s abominable transgressions of the international laws against inhumane treatment, combined with the colossally ill-advised and inept invasion of Iraq, to undermine U.S. security interests by catalyzing more support and recruits for its Islamist enemies.

Dark Side policies also helped catalyze the revival of the Taliban in Pakistan. The extralegal program engendered by the Bush team’s war against terrorists was a subversion of the U.S. rule of law. The torture policy did damage to the United States’ reputation and security that will take decades to reverse.

Cheney himself announced the Bush team’s self-destructive response to the attacks on the first Meet the Press after 9/11, when he said “we’ll have to work sort of the dark side, if you will.”

Deadly Embrace

Deadly Embrace describes the United States’ relationship with Pakistan and explores Pakistan’s disconcerting role in creating the global jihad movement.

Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country, the worst nuclear weapons technology proliferator, the single largest enclave for Islamist militants and the only country in the world with its capital named for Islam.

Author and long-time South Asia CIA veteran Bruce Riedel sees Pakistan as the epicenter and birthplace of global Islamist jihadists. He also describes Pakistan as a “crucible of terrorism” and “arguably the most dangerous country in the world.”

The war in Afghanistan should have ended in 2002 but instead Pakistan’s security establishment regenerated the Taliban and hosted the movement and its headquarters in Pakistan, along with myriad other Islamist terrorist groups.

The Pakistan Army and ISI continue to be longstanding patrons of Islamist militants like the Taliban and the Haqqanis, yet Pakistan has increasingly been a victim of the monsters it created.

The United States has helped make Pakistan fecund ground for growing Islamist movements by pursuing short-term interests and actions like supporting the most virulent strains of Islamists among the Mujihadeen and helping empower the ISI during the Soviet-Afghan War.

The Wrong Enemy

The Wrong Enemy examines how the United States’ policies and actions in response to the 9/11 attacks failed to focus on the correct enemy, Pakistan.

Carlotta Gall is a journalist with years of experience on the ground in South Asia. This book explores how the U.S.-led Coalition, instead of going after the real enemy of Pakistan, inadvertently and unwittingly made too many of the Afghan people its enemies as a consequence of attacks and strikes that the Coalition undertook because it did not understand Afghanistan.

By relying on too few forces, a dearth of quality intelligence and a surfeit of air power, for the first eight years of the war in Afghanistan, the United States and its Coalition partners bombed, killed, or imprisoned too many innocent Afghan men, women, and children.

From the beginning, the operational imperative in Afghanistan should have been, do no harm to the Afghan population. A big part of the explanation for the revival and return of the Taliban, along with the protracted stalemate that Pakistan’s regeneration of the Taliban created, lies in the fact that the United States mistakenly bombed too many Afghan civilians and invaded Iraq.

By attacking the wrong enemy, and not focusing on Pakistan, the true enemy, and an unequaled incubator for Islamist militants, the United States allowed and enabled Pakistan’s security establishment to resurrect the Taliban and destabilize Afghanistan.

The axis of evil was mistaken rhetoric and malfeasant strategy. Iraq was not a state sponsor of Islamist terrorists or a nuclear proliferator. But, Pakistan was, and continues to be, the biggest nuclear proliferator and a jihadist factory.

Descent into Chaos

Descent into Chaos looks at what happened in Afghanistan after the initial operational successes in 2001 and 2002.

Ahmed Rashid explores how a U.S. failure to understand the war in Afghanistan, the real enemy there, and itself, all contributed to Afghanistan’s Descent into Chaos again.

The book covers the poor decisions by the Bush team and heavy-handed actions on the ground to explain why Afghanistan and the world were generally less secure eight years after the 9/11 attacks.

Impetuous actions, in lieu of prudent strategy, saw the United States ignore what was needed to consolidate victory in Afghanistan by removing the root causes of instability, in favor of invading Iraq unnecessarily and creating the single biggest military disaster in U.S. history.

Rashid fully explores the role that Pakistan and its ISI played in resurrecting the Taliban. For example, he highlights that support, fuel, and supplies continued to flow from Pakistan into Afghanistan well after 9/11 and until late fall 2001 while the ISI and its Islamist allies in Pakistan welcomed the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other Islamist fighters fleeing Afghanistan into Pakistan during the same period.

Jihad as a Grand Strategy

Jihad as Grand Strategy delves into Pakistan’s strategic propensity for cultivating, exporting and employing Islamist militants to pursue its security policy in South Asia. A recurring theme in the ascendance of terrorism as an ever-present global threat is the disproportionate amount of terrorism that links back to Islamist militants in Pakistan.

Author Kapur’s central argument is that since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has employed Islamist militants for two main purposes, one external and one internal.

Externally, Pakistan had relied on Islamist militants to pursue its policy of revising the status quo by confronting India and asserting influence over Afghanistan.

Internally, Pakistan relies on its support of Islamist militancy to promote domestic cohesion and give the country meaning to compensate for the tumult and weak political foundations related to Partition. Pakistan realizes its essential purpose by supporting Islamists.

Fighting to the End

Fighting to the End complements Jihad as Grand Strategy. Instead of focusing on the strategic culture of Pakistan as a country, C. Christine Fair argues that the Pakistani Army’s organizational culture is a more salient explanation for Pakistan’s sponsorship of Islamist terrorists because it has been the Army that has dominated Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.

This idea relates to the adage that most countries have armies but the Pakistani Army has a state. One of the book’s central assertions is that the Pakistani Army is imbued with an obligation to defend Islam and employ Islamist militants to further Pakistan’s policy and interests to revise the status quo in South Asia.

This cultural preference stems from the way the Army perceives India as an enduringly existential threat, how it perceives itself as the principal protector of the Pakistan state as an Islamist bastion, and the Army’s interpretation of Partition as an unfinished outcome that disadvantaged the then nascent Pakistani state.

Playing with Fire

Finally, Playing with Fire portrays Pakistan as a national security state that is under siege by the same violent Islamist groups that it deliberately indulged.

The author, Pamela Constable, is a journalist with much experience on the ground in South Asia. Among this book’s relevant insights are that in Pakistan, “truth is an elusive and malleable commodity,” something that is ephemeral and politically fungible.

This book explores and explains why Pakistan has been unwilling and unable to check the growing menace and appeal of Islamist militant groups. Playing with Fire indicts Pakistan relentlessly for how Pakistan comports itself in international affairs, as Pakistani leaders consistently deny, deceive, and prevaricate about Pakistan’s machinations in Afghanistan and India.

As an example, Constable points to the Pakistani security elites’ persistent claims that Pakistan has no links to the Taliban or other Islamist terrorists. Yet, Pakistan’s cultivation of Islamist groups has gravely damaged Pakistan’s security and regional stability.

Some of the very Islamist terrorists that Pakistan created have been attacking Pakistan for years. It is analogous to an arsonist compelled to act as fireman for his own house that he lit on fire.


U.S. stated policy is to win in Afghanistan. In a pre-Christmas visit to Afghanistan this month, the vice president delivered a speech to troops, asserting that the administration’s strategy for Afghanistan would ultimately lead to victory.

But, for a winning strategy in Afghanistan, America must close the wide gap between theory and practice by marshaling all resources to compel Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban.

The current U.S. Afghanistan strategy acknowledges that Pakistan’s support and sanctuary for the Taliban is a major obstacle to success.

Until the U.S.-led Coalition has a strategy that shuts down the sanctuary and factories for the Taliban in Pakistan, operational forces will continue to capture and kill Taliban and the Taliban will continue to regenerate and multiply, with a flow of Islamist militants into Afghanistan from the incubator-madrassas in Pakistan.

It is no wonder then that the West has not achieved strategic momentum in Afghanistan. Until Pakistan changes its malicious strategic behavior, strategy for Afghanistan will remain an illusion, and the war will continue, with no end in sight.


Pakistan’s machinations and America’s past delusions pose obstacles to a successful strategic outcome for the war In Afghanistan.

The US and its Coalition partners have been at war in Afghanistan for six years longer than the Soviets were at war in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Army and its Inter Services Intelligence Directorate continue to collude with the Taliban, preventing their defeat.

After the 9/11 attacks, it should have become absolutely clear that Pakistan’s sponsorship of foreign terrorist organizations made it an enemy.

The relations between the US and Pakistan constitute a saga of false promises, mismanaged expectations and disastrous betrayals.