• The terrorist groups destabilizing Afghanistan are mostly Pashtun nationalists
  • Pakistan is supporting them, with help from China, to curb India’s rise
  • Long-term stability in Afghanistan will require a peace deal with the Pashtuns
  • A surge of U.S. troops could give the Afghans leverage in negotiations

To grasp the scale of the challenge facing the Afghan government, the United States and NATO in stabilizing Afghanistan, after thousands of deaths and almost a $1 trillion spent since 2001, it is worth considering some metrics: The government in Kabul controls only 60 percent of the country; 10 percent of the population (roughly 3 million Afghans) lives in terrorist-controlled areas; and 20 U.S.- or UN-designated terrorist organizations, out of a total of 98 globally, operate in the restive Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.

The road to stabilizing Afghanistan is still a very long one. For Afghanistan and NATO, the key achievable objectives are to keep the terrorist threat in the country manageable and to prevent large swaths of territory from becoming ungovernable spaces that terrorists can use as a base of operations.

Pashtun nationalists

This already complicated task is made immensely more complex by the direct support that Pakistan, Iran and Russia provide to the Taliban – all for very different reasons. China, also a neighbor, is suspected of supporting Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan, since Beijing is Islamabad’s main geopolitical guarantor against their common rival, India.

Pakistan’s longstanding support for the Taliban stems from its view that a stable Afghanistan would strengthen India’s influence. Moreover, peace between China and India survives on a dangerously balanced status quo – especially when it comes to territorial arrangements – that satisfies neither. Some Indian defense analysts go as far as to say that war between India and China is inevitable.

Pakistan’s support, including the provision of operational depth, is the key reason behind the enduring strength of the Taliban and other insurgents fighting the government in Kabul.

These organizations, based in areas straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, are essentially Pashtun nationalist forces first, and a confederation of tribal and fanatical religious interests second. Pashtun nationalist aspirations, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and their historical roots – rather than religious fanaticism per selie at the heart of the current tension between the countries.

Recognizing the strength of Pashtun nationalist aspirations is key to understanding Pakistan-Afghanistan relations

This has been the case since the government of British India and the king of Afghanistan agreed on the Durand Line in 1893. The line was supposed to be the border between the British and the Afghan spheres of influence, but it also split the Pashtun population, which currently numbers some 45 million on both sides of the line in today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan. Whereas Pakistan accepted the line after it became independent in 1947, Afghanistan continues to refuse to recognize it. This has led to Pashtuns moving across the frontier without documents, and to armed skirmishes whenever the Afghan army goes in hot pursuit of insurgents across the border.

From 1947 until the 1970s, it was the Afghan government, often with the support of India, that mounted covert operations inside Pakistan. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, however, the U.S.-Saudi coalition enlisted Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to operate deep inside Afghanistan in support of the Mujahideen, giving the Pakistanis the opportunity to turn the tables on both Afghanistan and India. It could now operate freely within Afghanistan, offering sanctuary for rest, regrouping and training to the various insurgent groups on its side of the border region.

Recognizing the strength and depth of Pashtun nationalist aspirations, as well as their history and geography, is key to understanding Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. It is also necessary to acknowledge some uncomfortable facts about the conditions required to create stability inside Afghanistan. Whereas in the short term this may mean a foreign military presence in Afghanistan and serious political pressure on Pakistan, in the long term only a political settlement that deals with both Pashtun nationalist aspirations and resolving the Durand Line issue will deliver a lasting and stable Afghanistan.

U.S. role

In terms of tactics, the key factor over the next couple of years is whether President Donald Trump will increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The key strategic aim in the longer term is to sit down at the negotiating table with a critical mass of Taliban and Pashtun forces to arrive at a political settlement. This combination is not unlike what was supposed to happen in Iraq in 2009 when General David Petraeus led the surge of American forces in Iraq while also putting the Sunni ‘Sahwa’ militias on the U.S. payroll. The combination led to the defeat of al-Qaeda in the Sunni heartlands in the north and west of Iraq.

President Barack Obama decided to reverse the surge and withdraw some U.S. troops. He also agreed to then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s demand that the Sahwa forces’ payroll be transferred to the Iraqi state, a move that was then used to imprison and kill Sahwa militiamen in a sectarian purge. These factors led to the birth of Daesh in Iraq and the current instability.

The bombed-out German embassy in Kabul, after a terrorist attack in May, 2017
The German embassy in Kabul was destroyed in May by a bombing allegedly carried out by the Pakistan-backed Haqqani network. It left 90 dead and 400 injured (source: dpa)

When General Petraeus co-opted the Sahwa, their condition was that they would be allowed to have substantial political participation in the Iraqi government. The failure of that process, which came as the U.S. pulled out its forces, is a key indicator for the main Afghan scenario should President Trump fail to approve another surge. The situation in the country now, like that of Iraq, was wholly avoidable had President Obama not obsessed over drawing down U.S. troops in 2014. That move gave the Taliban breathing space and led to their first major assault in years – on Kunduz in October 2016. Since then, they have felt that the disparity in numbers is working in their favor, which emboldened them to mount a violent bombing campaign, including in sensitive areas of Kabul.

The vacuum left by retreating NATO forces has also led to the deeper involvement of the Pakistan-backed Haqqani network, which reportedly was responsible for the May 2017 bombing near the German embassy in Kabul, which left 90 dead and 400 injured. The assumption behind this bombing is that Pakistan’s ISI and elements of the military establishment have reverted to using these violent tactics to further destabilize the Afghan government and reaffirm their ability to act on Afghan soil.

The same combination of the Haqqani network and Pakistani agents was also accused of a string of assassinations against leading Afghan figures following the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. The U.S. has been vocal in warning Islamabad that these activities may lead it to deny Pakistan a prominent role in the region, thus straining U.S.-Pakistan relations further.

China’s role

Although Beijing sees Islamabad as potentially aiding its agenda in Afghanistan, it has nonetheless held back from getting more directly involved there, including economically, because of similar fears about Pakistan’s strategy of destabilizing Afghanistan. The Chinese are also concerned that Pakistan’s actions will undermine their strategic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through which they invest heavily in Pakistan. China is also wary of any Islamist influence on its own Muslim population, particularly now that Daesh (also known as Islamic State or ISIS) has also moved into Afghanistan, creating a new unit and fighting Taliban forces for territory and influence, although their success has been limited.

China seems to have acknowledged that Pakistan does exercise some degree of control over the Haqqani network

China’s foreign minister, in an attempt to mediate between Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Kabul recently for talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In January 2017, the United Kingdom also tried to calm the tensions between the two sides. At the heart of the talks is Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network.

Importantly, China seems to have indirectly acknowledged that Pakistan does exercise some degree of control over the Haqqani network. This may be another sign that Beijing is focused on the big picture – the strategic objective of the BRI – and is therefore ready to take a practical stance and push Islamabad to reduce its support for the various terrorist groups.


In the best-case scenario, President Trump would quickly approve an increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to between 14,000 and 20,000, shoring up the 300,000 Afghan government soldiers. At the same time, the U.S. would pressure Pakistan to scale down its support for its Pashtun brothers in the various Taliban forces. If China does the same thing, it will be very difficult for Pakistan to resist, and it might rein in its support for the Taliban and other groups.

This dual strategy would not only roll back some of the Taliban’s recent gains and improve security, but also strengthen the hand of the government in any political negotiations. Without sufficient forces, it is unlikely that the Afghan government will feel strong enough to sit down with the Taliban to arrive at a political settlement. Improving security will also allow the economy to grow. In fact, the drawdown of U.S. forces may have also led to an increase in poppy production, giving the Taliban additional financial resources.

If the number of troops does not increase sufficiently, the Taliban will be further emboldened

The second scenario is potentially disastrous for all concerned. If the number of U.S. and NATO troops does not increase sufficiently to realize a “push back and deter” strategy, then the Taliban will be further emboldened and Pakistan will gain motivation to support them. This would likely result in major attacks against big cities, incrementally increasing the Taliban’s territorial control and further undermining the confidence of the Afghan national army. It would also take a toll on the economy, while the Taliban would reap bigger profits from the poppy trade.

A political settlement in this scenario is unlikely, and it may simply lead to India playing a more overt role in Afghanistan. This would be a very dangerous turn of events, as Pakistan (and possibly China) would be unlikely to stand by while New Delhi gained influence. A fragmented Afghanistan would, moreover, provide fertile ground for hatching and exporting terrorist plots to other parts of the world, particularly in the Pashtun-controlled border region.

Given the volatile nature of foreign policy decision-making in the current White House, it is still unclear which way President Trump will veer, especially given his aversion to foreign entanglements. However, with Secretary of Defense General James Mattis advising him, and with the Pentagon clearly favoring a surge, the first scenario currently looks like the most likely outcome.

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