The Coming Civil War in Afghanistan

At ForeignPolicy.com, I discuss the dangerous centrifugal forces inside Afghanistan that could push the country toward civil war once again. I conclude with some advice on how to avoid such a scenario. The article is available here.

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Attacks on Afghan Shiites Highlight Pakistan’s Policy Failure

My latest article analyzes last week’s anti-Shia attacks in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif for the subscription-only World Politics Review (WPR). To view the article, you can subscribe to WPR or sign up for a free trial.

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With NATO Strike Crisis, U.S. Should Act Now in Pakistan

At the Daily Beast, I share my recommendations for what steps the U.S. should take after the deadly NATO raid on a Pakistani border post near Afghanistan. Read it here.

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Pakistan’s Persian Gulf Balancing Act

My latest blog post at ForeignPolicy.com’s AfPak Channel discusses opportunities and risks for Pakistan as the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry heats up in in the Persian Gulf.

The post can be read here.


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Pakistan Dives into the Persian Gulf

The always-important Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited Pakistan this weekend to ensure that the country’s major power brokers are behind Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as the latter faces a possibly Iran-backed domestic uprising from its Shia native majority.

Bandar, the once long-time ambassador to the United States and now national security council chief, sought to avoid a replay of the 1990 Gulf War, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif supported Saudi Arabia and the United States in Iraq war, while Chief of Army Staff Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg publicly called for an Iraq-Iran-Pakistan alliance against the West.

Today, it is the civilian government that is less likely to be on board with Riyadh’s game plan. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is a pragmatic nationalist aligned with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China.  The Islamabad coalition government is led by the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which has historically had poor relations with Riyadh. Its senior brass consists of many Shia Muslims, the minority Muslim sect hardline Salafis in Saudi Arabia have deep contempt for.  Riyadh has a soft side for the PPP’s rivals: the various center-right Pakistan Muslim League factions, particularly Sharif’s, as well as the army and military intelligence services.  The Saudi king has even expressed his personal disdain for President Asif Ali Zardari, describing him as “rotten” and the major “obstacle” behind Pakistan’s progress, according to State Department cables released by WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, the PPP has sought warmer ties with Iran, which has not improved the party’s standing in Saudi eyes.

But the Saudis are in need and seem to be reevaluating their hostility toward the PPP.  Bandar’s visit comes two weeks after the Saudi army chief’s meeting with Kayani. Riyadh’s concern for the future of Bahrain and potentially even Saudi Arabia’s predominantly-Shia eastern corridor provides the PPP with an opportunity to mollify Saudi antagonism, ease domestic pressure, and help its always-embattled government continue to crawl toward the finish line and complete its five-year tenure.  The Saudis have reportedly offered Islamabad oil on deferred payment or at concessionary rates, which could assist Zardari in maintaining oil prices at current rates and containing public opposition.  Inflation is at a seven-month low, but the PPP could be hit hard by a rise in global oil prices due to the strife in Libya, and the combination of a traditional summer oil price spike and IMF pressure to reduce subsidies.

Distrust between the PPP and Riyadh is considerable, but money talks. Riyadh’s assistance could give the PPP a temporary lifeline.  However, it cannot save the Islamabad government from from self-destruction. Furthermore, Riyadh is unlikely to let go of an option to support a center-right and Islamist alliance should Pakistan face early elections late this year or early next year.

One should not overestimate the importance of the civilian government in Saudi eyes.  Most likely, Riyadh simply wants all of Pakistan’s major power brokers to be on the same page.  But the most important player for the Saudis is the military.  The Pakistan Army, as one of the Sunni Muslim world’s most powerful armies (and because Rawalpindi is more likely than Ankara to play second fiddle to Riyadh), will become even more critical to Riyadh as the Sudairis doubt Washington’s intentions and resolve.  The Pakistani military — deeply allied with China, the largest importer of Saudi crude — has historically contributed forces to Arab Muslim states in times of need. It is an equal opportunity offender, having shot down Israeli fighter jets and brutally subdued Palestinian militant organizations.  Many of its retired officers have also served in the security services of Gulf Arab states, including Bahrain. Recently, the Fauji Foundation — a massive Pakistan Army welfare trust and business conglomerate — put out advertisements for hundreds of anti-riot instructor and security guard jobs with Bahrain’s internal security services.  Pakistanis have served in the Bahrain security forces for decades; many have been naturalized to boost the island nation’s Sunni population.

So the Pakistan Army is not a tangential player when it comes to Gulf security.  It can potentially serve as a force multiplier for the Saudis. Presumably, Riyadh is preparing contingencies for worst-case scenarios that might require the direct support of the Pakistan Army. Bandar’s meetings with the civilians – Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, as well as Zardari — are likely aimed at ensuring that they do not serve as a hindrance to such plans.

Interestingly, Bandar is not the kingdom’s major interlocutor with the Pakistanis.  The kingdom’s Pakistan portfolio is generally handled by the Saudi ambassador, foreign minister, and intelligence chief.  It is possible that in addition to his role as general secretary of the NSC, Bandar visited Pakistan due to his pragmatist and pro-US leanings, which might have helped in building confidence with PPP officials.  It also suggests a deficiency in the more regular channels of communication.

For Pakistan, siding with the conservative Sunni Arabic bloc risks alienating Iran, with which there remains the faint hope of a natural gas pipeline for the energy-starved South Asian state.  While an Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline seems unlikely in the present, it would be advantageous for Pakistan to have multiple gas import options available at least hypothetically so as to reduce its perceived dependency on a single source.  If it became clear that Pakistan’s sole option was the TAPI pipeline transiting through Afghanistan, then Kabul and ISAF could use this as leverage vis-a-vis Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Now only if the Saudis were a major exporter of natural gas.

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Pakistan and the United States: Frenemies in Need Can Be Friends Indeed

Senior Pakistani and U.S. officials met today in Washington to start what’s being billed as the third in a series of high-level “strategic dialogues” between the two war on terror partners.

Over the remainder of this week, thirteen working groups on a wide variety of issues, ranging from energy to women’s empowerment, will finalize their recommendations for enhancing cooperation and furthering objectives that are said to be mutually shared. A few major transactions, including a new $2 billion military aid package, will reportedly be announced. But the pomp, circumstance, and scale of the pledges belie the reality that Islamabad and Washington are as much strategic competitors as they are partners.

Glaringly, the two governments are pursuing separate and largely antagonistic endgames to the Afghan war. Recent press reports claim that NATO is facilitating peace talks between the Karzai government and Afghan insurgents, including the infamous Haqqani network that the Pakistani military allegedly sponsors to purge Afghanistan of arch-rival India’s influence.

General David Petraeus is promoting (or wants us to believe he is) a peace process in Afghanistan sans Pakistan but with the very groups that the Pakistani military-intelligence apparatus has urged the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reach out to. Yet, at the same time, the United States is asking Pakistan to smack the hornets’ nest in the North Waziristan tribal area, home to the Haqqani network.

Why would Pakistan create bad blood with an entity that could very well be integrated into the Afghan power structure in the coming years in a U.S.-endorsed reconciliation process? So its own Taliban-style insurgencies can live on even after the Afghan war comes to an end?

Unlike the United States, Pakistan cannot engage in a front-loaded withdrawal from the region. Barring a dramatic subcontinental drift, Pakistan and Afghanistan are — in Karzai’s words — “conjoined twins.” What goes on in Afghanistan doesn’t always stay in Afghanistan — it often bleeds into Pakistan. The thousands of Pakistani civilians and security personnel killed since 9/11 are case in point.

Pakistan and the United States can continue their transactional relationship. But no amount of money will induce Pakistan to commit strategic suicide. And no American president can be indifferent toward a safe haven in Pakistan where terrorist plots against the United States have been and continue to be plotted.

Maintenance of the status quo will not produce a lasting peace in Afghanistan, which is essential to the security of both Pakistan and the United States. Only a joint effort by the United States, (the predominant occupying force in Afghanistan) and Pakistan (the entity with the most leverage over Afghan insurgents) can end the thirty-year conflict in Afghanistan once and for all, and thereby seriously weaken regional and transnational militants in Pakistan’s border areas, such as al-Qaeda, that have thrived off of instability and foreign occupation across the Durand Line.

Pakistan, as the glue holding together a peace deal between the many Afghan factions and armed with a potent counterinsurgency force to man its frontier with Afghanistan, can serve as the guarantor for an enduring Afghan peace. But for this formula to even be fathomable requires adjustment by both Pakistan and the United States. Pakistan needs to take more seriously the threat posed to the United States and Western Europe by al-Qaeda and its affiliates inside its border regions with Afghanistan. And the United States will have to accommodate Pakistan’s legitimate fear that rising Indian influence in Afghanistan will result in it being strategically encircled by an emerging superpower on a $50 billion dollar military spending spree with which it’s fought three wars.

Peace in Afghanistan and containment or defeat of al-Qaeda are not possible if Pakistan and the United States work at cross-purposes. And so if the status quo continues, it will remain mission unaccomplished for both countries.

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OPED — Only way to end the Afghanistan war: US peace deal with the Taliban

Here’s my latest, an oped in the Christian Science Monitor.  I will try to discuss the topic more expansively in a blog post here.  Stay tuned.  My apologies for the extended absence.  I’ve been busy.

“Nearly six months into the United States surge in Afghanistan and six months prior to the White House’s review of the Afghan war strategy, it’s clear our mission in Afghanistan is not only failing, but beyond repair.

Only a political solution can bring lasting peace to Afghanistan and extract the US from this messy conflict. And given Washington’s bleak military predicament, it must begin to give precedence to a political reconciliation process with the senior Taliban leadership now, rather than next year…”

Read the rest here.

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Pakistan to America: What have you done for us lately

My latest blog post, a ForeignPolicy.com, is available here.

An excerpt is below:

“Next week, senior U.S. and Pakistani officials will meet in Washington for the first ever strategic dialogue between the two countries. The Pakistani delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, but make no mistake: at least when it comes to the Pakistani side, this will be the Gen. Ashfaq Kayani show….”

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Pakistani-U.S. Raid Nabs Mullah Baradar: Kayani Doctrine in Full Effect

The New York Times reveals this evening that the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command, Mullah Baradar, was arrested in Karachi on Thursday in a joint raid by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  The move is clear demonstration that the Pakistan Army, under the command of Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has a more flexible approach toward Afghanistan, guided by the realization that it has permanent interests, not permanent allies in its neighbor to the northwest.

In a recent briefing to foreign correspondents, Kayani said that Pakistan seeks a friendly government, stability, and ”strategic depth” (meaning, at the very least, that Kabul is not allied with New Delhi) in Afghanistan.  The Pakistan Army is willing to play by more conventional rules and begin to engage so-called good actors to secure these goals in Afghanistan.  Toward this, Kayani offered to train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.  Having denied India a strategic pivot into Central Asia and northwestern/western Pakistan via Afghanistan (note India’s minimal role in the London talks and absence from the Istanbul talks), the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment feels more secure to broaden its ties in Afghanistan and engage the current Afghan leadership.

In addition to having been provided an opportunity to diversify its contacts in Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army likely also feels a need to do so.  In my previous post, I speculated that Kayani’s overtures to the Karzai government possibly contained the following “implicit message” to the Afghan Taliban: “you are not our only option, so don’t take us for granted.”  And so the arrest of Baradar is perhaps part of an attempt by the Pakistan Army to induce behavioral change on the part of the Afghan Taliban, and particularly its obstinate leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar.  These desired changes likely include: giving up maximalist goals, such as the re-establishment of an emirate; and clear movement toward the bargaining table with Karzai and away from al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.  And equally important, as Afghans have engaged in a multitude of secret peace talks in the region, the Pakistan Army would like to ensure that it, to the exclusion of India, is part of the glue that holds together any power sharing arrangement in Kabul.  In other words, it doesn’t want the Afghans to make their own peace and shut Pakistan out of the process.  If Pakistan were excluded, then what was the trouble of the past eight years for?

The arrest of Baradar helps bring U.S. and Pakistan policy toward Afghanistan in closer alignment.  The Pakistan Army is willing to work with Afghan moderates and, at the same time, retains significant leverage over the country’s insurgents.  It has the capacity and willingness to engage, if not manage, a broad spectrum of Afghanistan’s major Pashtun actors — both “good” and “bad.”  One would imagine that Pakistani diplomatic, military, and political officials are also engaging Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks, particularly ex-mujahideen.

With its contacts, geographic location, and new-found “responsible” approach, it’s Pakistan — not Iran, India, or Russia — that is positioned to play the role of stability guarantor in a post-American Afghanistan, especially as it pertains to U.S. interests.  Pakistan has an opportunity to come in from the cold and project its regional influence through more conventional and “legitimate” means.  In doing so, it can secure its interests and the respect and trust of others, while also containing the Taliban contagion infesting its border areas with Afghanistan.

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The Kayani Doctrine

On Monday, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani briefed foreign correspondents in Rawalpindi and was unusually candid.  

In the briefing, Kayani articulated his Afghanistan doctrine.  Pakistan, he said, seeks a friendly government, stability, and “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.  He also added that Pakistan does not seek a Talibanized Afghanistan and offered to train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

Kayani, like many others in the region, is preparing for a post-American and post-ISAF Afghanistan.  Many actors fear the emergence of a security vacuum in such a context.  Kayani is expressing Pakistan’s willingness (or better put, desire) to fill the void, prevent an outbreak of instability, and even come to support the Karzai government.  His message to Karzai is: if you become our ally (because strategic depth really calls for an alliance, not just friendship) and ditch India, we can help keep you alive and in power.  And, it seems as if there’s an implicit message to the Afghan Taliban — key as both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia try to pull the group away from al-Qaeda: you are not our only option, so don’t take us for granted. 

Kayani’s doctrine is not revolutionary.  Its objectives are no different from Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy from the past thirty years.  But, for the first time, he is publicly demonstrating great flexibility in terms of choice of alliances.  Kayani is essentially a cold realist.  He believes Pakistan has permanent interests, not permanent alliances, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  And he and the Pakistan Army will do business with the entity that best facilitates achieving those objectives.  Behavior, not personalities, is key.   

Pakistan’s army chief also said that he impressed upon NATO that Pakistan’s “strategic paradigm” needs to be realized.  In that strategic paradigm, India remains a natural, long-term threat and Afghanistan is part of Pakistan’s sphere of influence – the latter being a perspective no different from America’s Monroe Doctrine.  Pakistan’s desire to be the predominant foreign power in Afghanistan is, as I said on a recent radio appearance, a policy that began in the late 1970s with military ruler Zia-ul-Haq.  But the key difference between the two is that the Kayani doctrine is largely agnostic, while the Zia doctrine was heavily religious.

The Pakistan Army’s behavior since 9/11 and India’s isolation from the two recent conferences on Afghanistan in Istanbul and London, demonstrate that Rawalpindi, at the very least, has a veto power on the key decisions regarding Afghanistan’s future.  Pakistan is not simply a nuisance or basketcase, but a regional power that has the capability to leverage a superpower’s depedency on it and check the regional growth of India, a rival, neighbor, and potential superpower. 

In the midst of this high wire act, Pakistan neared bankruptcy.  It has mastered the art of making a dollar out of fifteen cents.  Some would say, it’s done this by getting the United States to pay the remaining eighty five cents.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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