Missing the Forest for the Trees: Pakistan’s Fifty-Year ‘Forever War’ in Afghanistan and American Policy After 9/11

Missing the Forest for the Trees: Pakistan’s Fifty-Year ‘Forever War’ in Afghanistan and American Policy After 9/11

22 September 2021

Article author: Chris Alexander

Chris Alexandera former Cabinet Minister, Member of Parliament, and diplomat from Canada. Mr. Alexander was the first resident Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, a country where he has worked extensively during his eighteen years of diplomatic service. His 2011 book about the country, “The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace”, won the Huguenot Society of Canada Award, and earlier this year he wrote an important paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, “Ending Pakistan’s Proxy War in Afghanistan”.

Pakistan’s defeat by India in conventional warfare in East Pakistan in 1971 led their military establishment to rely increasingly on a policy of “strategic depth” by which they would seek to dominate their western flank by irregular warfare and, after 1989, support for terrorism and “global jihad”.[1] For fifty years, the strategic focus of this policy has been Afghanistan.

For one decade of this half century, Pakistan had the U.S. as a strategic ally and source of funding as it engaged in irregular warfare through proxies against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. For two more decades of this half century (from 2001 to 2021), Pakistan controlled the principal ground and air lines of communication and supply for U.S. forces based in Afghanistan, effectively preventing any concerted effort either fully to map or to end Pakistan’s support for groups fighting U.S. and Afghan forces. In other words, even while providing comprehensive support to leading terrorist groups, Pakistan’s military has considered itself and remained a de facto strategic U.S. ally for most of the period it has been waging its proxy war in Afghanistan.[2] Even after the effective U.S. withdrawal from the region in 1989, Pakistan relied on the principle of “positive symmetry” laid out by Secretary of State George Schultz in a letter to his Soviet counterpart on 30 March 1988 to justify its continuing military support for the Mujahidin, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other proxies fighting in Afghanistan.[3]

Given that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and other proxies led to the death of approximately 3,500 U.S., other NATO, and partner military members over the twenty years after 2001—more than the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks themselves—how do we explain U.S. failure to confront and alter Pakistan’s policy? To put it simply, the U.S. failed to see the forest for the trees. U.S. policy consistently pursued incremental change with Pakistan without tackling strategic realities. In particular the U.S. approach to Pakistan failed on three levels: (1) it under-estimated the determination of Pakistan’s military to orchestrate the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan; (2) it did not assess the creation of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in late 2007 and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in 2014 as means to this end; and (3) it overlooked the influence of a small group of ideologically-committed generals.

The result has been a sudden return to power of the Taliban, the rapid collapse of U.S. and democratic influence at Kabul, and a looming humanitarian, political and security crisis. How did Afghanistan return so quickly to this nadir?

Planning an Invasion

First, the U.S. and allies did not take full account of the Pakistani military’s top-level objectives. In late 2001 and early 2002, Pakistan’s General Headquarters (GHQ) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) welcomed Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan into pre-existing camps set up for Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT), Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), and other terrorist groups. After a call from the then-Pakistani President, General Pervez Musharraf, to President George W. Bush after the fall of Kabul on 14 November 2001, over one thousand Taliban fighters, with embedded ISI officers and support staff, were airlifted from Kunduz in the north of Afghanistan back to Pakistan.[4]

As the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan scaled up, Pakistan entrenched American dependence on ground and air lines of communication (GLOCs and ALOCs) passing through its territory and airspace, particularly transport of sea-borne cargo unloaded at the port of Karachi. For the next two decades, whenever U.S. pressure to “do more” against Taliban, Haqqani Network, or Al-Qaeda targets increased, Pakistan deftly reminded Washington that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan depended on these GLOC/ALOC arrangements.[5]

In the meantime, after concluding that the U.S. was sufficiently distracted by the impending invasion of Iraq, Pakistan’s military leaders made a strategic calculation to restart military operations in Afghanistan. On 1 March 2003, the ISI arrested Pakistani national Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—the operational architect of the 9/11 attacks who had done most of his planning in Karachi.[6] The arrest occurred in Rawalpindi, where GHQ itself is located. Later the same month, a Pakistani delegation led by Musharraf’s deputy and including then director-general of military operations, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, visited Washington where they found the U.S. pleased with this arrest, preoccupied by Iraq, and without further demands for their Pakistani partners.[7] The Iraq invasion commenced on 19-20 March. One week later, Swiss-Salvadorean International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegate Ricardo Munguia was killed in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province on orders from Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan.[8] Over the remainder of 2003 and beyond, the Taliban military offensive in the south escalated swiftly.

Over these and subsequent years, Afghan, U.S., and allied forces on the ground would frequently report that Taliban fighters were arriving from Pakistan with increasingly sophisticated training, arms, and munitions, including explosives for use in roads, vehicles, and suicide vests. Leading officials from NATO member states, as well as U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commanders, would intermittently refer to Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.[9] But the full scale of Pakistan’s role as Taliban sponsor was never addressed—neither in public nor, by available accounts, in official decision-making.

As a result, U.S. and NATO leaders failed to stop Pakistan’s proxy war. Instead, the Bush administration named Pakistan a “Major Non-NATO Ally” in 2004. In 2007, NATO and Pakistan established a Joint Intelligence Operations Centre (JIOC) in Kabul. As recently as 13 August 2021, the British Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter, ISAF’s southern commander in 2009-10, was “in no doubt that my opposite number in Pakistan, [the Chief of the Army Staff] General [Qamar] Bajwa, is very genuine when he says that he wants a stable and moderate Afghanistan”.[10]

Others had grave doubts. Lieutenant General David Barno, who commanded the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan in 2003-05, later said that “the U.S. never defeated the insurgency in large part because it had an external sanctuary to withdraw to when things got too hot”.[11] On 22 September 2011, then-Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who had the most extensive dealings of any senior U.S. official with Kayani after he became Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) in 2007, said that “the Haqqani Network acts as a veritable army of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence”.[12] On the day before Kabul fell in summer 2021, Mullen said it was time to “cut Pakistan loose”.[13] Mullen’s successor as chairman, General Joseph Dunford, testified to the Senate on 4 October 2017 that “it is clear to me that the Inter-Services Intelligence has connections with terrorist groups”.[14]

Yet punitive actions or coercive diplomacy never followed. Bush-era National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley (2005-09) was notoriously soft on Pakistan. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke focussed on restoring the authority of Pakistan’s civilian government, improving Afghan-Pakistani relations, and launching talks with the Taliban; he never seriously contemplated sanctions to end Pakistan’s support for these terrorist groups. Paradoxically, President Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2009-10 increased U.S. dependence on GLOCs and ALOCs through Pakistan. Tougher coercive stances towards Pakistan were regularly rebuffed by the United Kingdom, whose priority after 2005 was bilateral intelligence cooperation with Pakistan to prevent further domestic terrorist attacks in the U.K.

Diverting Attention

Pakistan’s GHQ and ISI have engaged in the Russian tactic of “диверсия” (diversiya), a term whose full meaning is not fully expressed by the English translations “sabotage” or “subversion”, in order to deflect U.S. and international attention from their military operations in Afghanistan. For instance, when, in 2006-07, the U.S. multiplied drone strikes against Haqqani and Taliban targets in North and South Waziristan, the ISI quickly organized the TTP—an umbrella group of “anti-Pakistan” terrorist forces, nominally dedicated to attacking state targets.

By claiming that Pakistan’s survival as a state was under threat, the ISI successfully drew U.S. drone targeting away from assets being used in Afghanistan and towards “disposable” TTP targets, including many that the ISI considered less reliable. Pakistan’s intelligence services may also have played a central role in orchestrating the Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad in July 2007, which generated a wave of Al-Qaeda and other attacks against state targets. During the ensuing Pakistani military operations to clear Bajaur, Swat, and later Waziristan of TTP and other “militants”, GHQ managed to extract considerable U.S. financial support.

When Holbrooke and others began to reach out to Taliban leaders in late 2009 and early 2010, Abdul Ghani Baradar and other prominent Taliban commanders were arrested to ensure they remained subject to ISI discipline.[15] By the time Baradar was released from Pakistani custody in 2018, he was prepared to follow ISI instructions to the letter.

When the U.S. launched airstrikes against Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) targets in Syria and Iraq in 2014, ISI quickly established a branch of the Islamic State in Pakistan and Afghanistan, known as ISKP, whose leaders were drawn, in a now familiar ISI pattern, from pre-existing terrorist groups. The U.S., U.K., and other allies have justified counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan since 2014 mainly on the basis of a perceived need to counter ISKP. The same argument is being used today to justify political and security cooperation with the Taliban—ignoring the fact that Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, TTP, and ISKP are all part of the ISI terrorist menagerie.

Pursuing Strategic Depth

This single-minded focus on irregular warfare in Afghanistan has been championed by a very small group of senior military leaders. General Mirza Aslam Beg, who became COAS in the wake of the probable assassination of Pakistan’s military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1988, was the key proponent of the doctrines of “strategic depth”, “global jihad”, and the “core of Islam”—concepts he developed in response to Pakistan’s defeat in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, when East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh, a traumatic loss of more than half of Pakistan’s territory and population. Beg was also known to favour nuclear cooperation with Iran and to be strongly anti-American.

General Beg and Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, who was director general of the ISI from 1987-89, were Pakistan’s key military leaders over the period when: (1) the Soviet forces were withdrawing from Afghanistan; (2) the U.S. was abandoning the region; and (3) Al-Qaeda was founded. Beg and Gul are both considered potential suspects in Zia’s death. President Musharraf and DG ISI (2004-2007) and COAS (2007-13) General Kayani were both heavily influenced by Beg. Their successors as COAS, Generals Raheel Sharif and Bajwa, have simply continued to carry out the proxy war policies of their predecessors.

In May 2011, Osama Bin Laden was liquidated by the U.S. in a raid into Abbottabad, Pakistan, which had to be conducted in secret because the U.S. did not trust the Pakistani military establishment not to tip-off Bin Laden. Yet even after this event, just as General Sir Nick Carter came to Pakistan’s rhetorical aid after the fall of Kabul, senior Western military officials—the very people who would be expected to know better, having fought Pakistan’s proxies on the ground in Afghanistan—were willing to defend Pakistan. In 2016, former ISAF and CENTCOM commander and CIA director David Petraeus was quoted saying “that during his long association with his Pakistani counterparts and interaction with ISI as head of CIA, he could never find a convincing piece of evidence which supported the allegation of double game by ISI or its explicit support to elements associated with terrorism”.[16]

As CENTCOM commander, Petraeus had himself visited Abbottabad in 2010 to give a speech to the students of the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) at Kakul, whose commandant at the time was Raheel Sharif, successor to Kayani as COAS in 2013.[17] PMA’s front gate was about 700 metres—a five-minute walk—from Bin Laden’s compound, a sprawling 3,500-square-metre, quarter-million-dollar structure surrounded by five-metre-high walls. When Bin Laden took up residence there in January 2006, Kayani was DG ISI, as well as colonel commandant of the Baloch Regiment, which is headquartered in Abbottabad. Nadeem Taj, Kayani’s successor at ISI in 2007, was commandant of PMA simultaneously.

The idea that Pakistan’s military never noticed the Bin Laden compound within sight of their most elite training college is fanciful. The Al-Qaeda leader clearly enjoyed patronage from the highest levels of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment. The evidence for this has mounted in the years since, yet neither harbouring Bin Laden nor the ongoing and increasingly brazen Pakistani support to Taliban military operations in Afghanistan led to the imposition of sanctions. Indeed, no coercive measures of any kind were ever applied.

Musharraf, Kayani, and their successors spent twenty years planning for a successful Taliban invasion and takeover of Afghanistan. Whenever they were challenged with evidence of Pakistani military support for the Taliban or other groups, they usually blamed retired, rogue, or subordinate officers. Beg and Gul were convenient scapegoats. This is disinformation equivalent to Russia’s claim that its invading forces in Ukraine in 2014 were retired officers who had gone on holiday and had nothing to do with the Kremlin. With U.S. national security attention firmly focussed after 2014 on ISIS, and U.S.-Pakistani cooperation focussed on countering ISKP, ISI focussed on setting conditions for a deal with the U.S. that would be advantageous to the Taliban.

In this respect, they were assisted by the election in 2014 of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who long pursued a policy of conciliation with Pakistan. President Donald Trump’s reappointment of Zalmay Khalilzad to the file in 2018 created additional scope for a “deal” with the U.S., since Khalilzad was determined to see Ghani, a long-time rival, removed from power. The ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America’, dated 29 February 2020, provided for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and cut the Afghan government out of the picture altogether.[18]

With the conclusion of this agreement, Pakistan’s military authorities began preparations for an all-out invasion to begin after the withdrawal of foreign forces, set to end on 1 May 2021. On 14 April, U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed U.S. forces were being withdrawn, but set 31 August as the date for completion of this “retrograde”. On 27 March, General (r) Beg wrote the following in his regular column in The Nation, a Pakistani daily:

All eyes are now focused on 1 May 2021, when foreign troops are to leave, and if they do not, the Taliban will sweep across the country to establish their writ over territory which they already control, pushing the Afghanistan government to the besieged cities and towns, which will also fall to the Taliban as they consolidate the larger swathes of territory.[19]

He was obviously well aware of what was to come. On 10 May, Bajwa used General Carter’s plane to visit Kabul. He reassured Ghani “that the restoration of the Emirate or dictatorship by the Taliban is not in anybody’s interest in the region, especially Pakistan. However, he said, some of the lower levels in the army still hold the opposite opinion in certain cases”.[20] While the last sentence was certainly true, the first was a palpable falsehood. Pakistan’s full-scale invasion of Afghanistan began the next day, taking only 95 days to reach Kabul.[21]

Baradar remains on the United Nations Consolidated List of those Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders subject to asset freezes, travel bans, and arms embargos. The fact that Baradar has now led an invasion of Afghanistan makes a mockery of this sanctions regime. A total of seventeen members of the Taliban’s 33-strong “caretaker” regime are U.N.-listed terrorists. That the brothers Sirajuddin and Anas Haqqani, together with their uncle Khalil Haqqani, have central roles in the new Taliban regime confirms the central role the ISI have played in this invasion. ISI chief Lt-Gen Hameed Faiz has visited Kabul twice in 2021—once with Bajwa to kick off the invasion on 10 May 10, and once on 3 September to take a “victory lap”, cement the new regime lineup, and oversee a combined Pakistani Special Services Group (SSG)/Haqqani assault on Panjshir, the principal redoubt of the current armed resistance to the Taliban takeover.

The Wages of Appeasement

For President Biden, rejecting Trump’s 2020 agreement with the Taliban was never an option and diplomatic coercion of Pakistan was never considered, despite the fact, as Petraeus told NPR on 13 August 2021, the eve of Kabul’s fall, “the most important element [in the situation is] that the Taliban Haqqani Network and the other associated extremists and insurgents have their headquarters, their major bases, outside of Afghanistan and beyond our reach in Pakistan, where our Pakistani partners refuse to eliminate them from their soil. So, you could never truly win. You just had to accept that. And then [do] what you have to”.[22] Elsewhere, Petraeus reiterated the GLOCs consideration: “Pakistan could shut down the ground lines of communication, and we were conscious of that. We needed them to allow that to continue, for us to go to and from Afghanistan.” With Afghanistan landlocked—Pakistan to the south and east, a hostile Iran to the west, and states under the sway of a hostile Russia to the north—“you can’t fly everything in and out of a country when you’ve got 150,000 troops on the ground”, said Petraeus.[23] Instead of working to mitigate this, Pakistan’s refusal to discard its aggressive policy was taken as an immutable given by Biden.

As a result of this failure to see the strategic forest for the logistical trees, President Biden did not fully grasp how far the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement had undermined Afghan morale. He failed to see that his policy of military withdrawal without a ceasefire or peace agreement would transform Afghanistan once again into a launching pad for global terrorism—undermining the very goal he had espoused, which was “to make sure Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland.” He also overlooked the risk that the war in Afghanistan, far from ending, would soon threaten the U.S. and its allies from new directions. Finally, Biden spent a number of public occasions explaining his disastrous decision, which by mid-August had resulted in a virtual handover of Afghanistan to the Taliban, culminating in his lengthy 31 August remarks, without once explaining the central role Pakistan had played in backing America’s enemies, overthrowing democracy in Afghanistan, and eviscerating U.S. credibility on a vital issue of national security.[24]

If an invasion on the scale of Pakistan’s summer 2021 military offensive against Afghanistan were happening in any other part of the world, the hue and cry would be overwhelming. Iran’s multiple proxy wars are under increasing scrutiny. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine elicited stiff sanctions. China’s belligerence abroad and genocide at home are drawing tougher responses. Yet Pakistan’s continuing state sponsorship of notorious terrorist groups and full-scale invasion of Afghanistan are still met with collective paralysis, perennial appeasement, and compulsive special pleading. Pakistan has been allowed to complete a fifty-year proxy war without any discernible penalty, creating dangerous levels of impunity, inertia, and indifference in the international system.

Pakistan’s policy over half a century in pursuit of strategic depth, culminating in several years of diversionary diplomacy while planning for the recent invasion of Afghanistan, has resulted in Pakistan’s generals managing to re-install their proxies at Kabul—while creating a range of new vulnerabilities even for their own country. Through this entire period, which included the U.S. withdrawal from the region in 1989 and the presence of Western troops from 2001 to 2021, the U.S. has misread Pakistan’s strategic intent. In doing so, the U.S. has done its own national interest enormous harm, while undermining the confidence of NATO allies. By failing to see the forest for the trees, and by postponing a reckoning with Pakistan over these threats to international peace and security, Biden and his three predecessors since 9/11 have disoriented the U.S. and key allies on an issue of great strategic importance. A change of course is still required—the sooner, the better.



ex Chairman Edu Board, Reg Dir Sindh Ombudsman, Bank Exec; B.A(Hons) M.A English, M.A Int Rel, LL.B, 3 acreds from Canada

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: