Changing the dynamics of the Afghanistan war

lawrence sellin

The United States can not win militarily in Afghanistan.

Pakistan regulates the operational tempo through its support of the Taliban and the Haqqani network as well as controlling the supply of our troops to landlocked Afghanistan.

Pakistan will always do just enough to prevent the U.S. from achieving its goals in the region unless there is a change in the strategic conditions that provides incentives to do otherwise.

There are three main elements to Pakistan’s foreign policy: Islamic extremism, nuclear weapons and a close alliance with China.

In addition to the use of the Taliban and the Haqqani network against Afghanistan, attacks are launched against India by Pakistan-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and against Iran by Jaish-al-Adl, virulently anti-Shia jihadis operating from safe havens in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s ever expanding and sophisticated nuclear arsenal is used, not just as a deterrent against India, but as a form of international blackmail when coupled with Pakistan’s self-induced instability based on an official policy to promote Islamic fundamentalism since the Presidency of Zia ul Haq in the late 1970s.

That is, the U.S. does not attack Taliban and Haqqani network sanctuaries for fear of further destabilizing Pakistan, risking nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorist groups. Regardless of what is happening in Afghanistan, the United States should have a plan to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in an emergency situation.

Pakistan’s alliance with China, in particular its participation in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, has provided additional motivation for Pakistan to push the U.S. out of Afghanistan, whose presence is seen as an obstacle to the regional ambitions of both Pakistan and China.

Pakistan knows that, militarily, American policy in Afghanistan is untenable and the U.S. has few diplomatic cards to play in a negotiated settlement.  That is why the U.S. needs to look beyond the current strategic conditions.

Balochistan, Pakistan’s southwestern and largest province, is potentially a strategic center of gravity in South Asia.

It is an ethnically mixed transnational region spanning Pakistan, eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan, where the Baloch people represent the majority followed by the Pashtuns. The remainder comprises smaller communities of Brahui, Hazaras, Sindhis and Punjabis.

The Baloch, a people with their own language, tribal structure and culture, have had a reputation for secularism and tolerance. The region has also been the site of a festering ethnic insurgency since the partition of India in 1947, when the Baloch were promised autonomy and briefly gained independence from August 1947 to March 1948, but were then forcibly incorporated into Pakistan.

Despite its wealth of natural resources, including gold, copper, chromite, and natural gas, the Baloch have been intentionally kept underdeveloped by the Pakistan government, which has been a cause for sporadic uprisings, along with oppression and alleged killings of Baloch dissidents by the Pakistani military.

Recognition of human rights violations in Balochistan and support for the self-determination of secular Baloch entities would have a strategic impact on three areas of U.S. national interest: undermining Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and other Islamic extremist networks in Balochistan; inhibiting Chinese regional hegemony; and providing a foundation for regime change in Iran.

Such an approach might offer the United States needed diplomatic leverage for present and future challenges in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at lawrence.sellin@gmail.com.