This coming October marks the 10-year anniversary of the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan. The resulting war has had major implications not only for Afghanistan and the countries comprising the 150,000-strong international coalition force, but also for Afghanistan’s neighbors—and especially Pakistan.
A new book by Riaz Mohammad Khan, a former Pakistani foreign secretary and Wilson Center Pakistan Scholar, chronicles the Afghanistan conflict from Pakistan’s perspective. Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity focuses in particular on the roots of Pakistan’s policy of supporting the United States while simultaneously identifying and empathizing with the Afghan Taliban. It also examines what Khan describes as the intellectual confusion and crisis of governance in Pakistan, and highlights the international community’s missed opportunities in Afghanistan.
The book’s concluding chapter lays out two major challenges moving forward: stabilizing Afghanistan and improving U.S.-Pakistan relations. Khan discussed these themes at a July 27 book launch organized by the Asia Program and co-sponsored with the Middle East Program.
Khan noted that 150,000 coalition troops—and a similar number of Afghan army forces—have “not been able to neutralize” 20,000-30,000 Taliban fighters. Such military failure crystallizes the importance of a political solution to the stabilization challenge in Afghanistan. Consequently, the book recommends a gradual drawdown of international forces. “The U.S. military presence,” Khan opined, “adds imbalances and is not a catalyst for stabilization.”
A political solution entails reconciliation. Afghanistan and Pakistan advocates for an Afghan-led process, with Washington and Islamabad also playing major roles. Pakistan’s participation, according to Khan, is particularly important. This is because three times more Pashtuns—the ethnicity of the Afghan Taliban—reside in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. Consequently, he stated, Pakistan must assume an assertive role in pressuring the Taliban to agree on a power-sharing compromise. Khan rejected the notion that the Taliban, if brought back into the government fold, could once again take control of Afghanistan. In his view, the organization succeeded in taking over in the 1990s largely because of the country’s isolation from the world. With the international community to remain focused on Afghanistan for years to come (even after a military withdrawal), the nation will not soon revert to its previously isolated state.
Khan worries that reconciliation could be jeopardized by the troubled state of U.S.-Pakistan ties, given that relations between Washington and Islamabad are closely linked to events in Afghanistan. The bilateral relationship has always been a rocky one, with the two sides sparring over everything from the Pakistani decision to pursue stronger relations with China in the 1960s to Pakistani policies vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban in the post-9/11 era. Historically, even when the two states have gotten along relatively well, interactions have been confined to government leaders and other elites. Until recent years, institutional dialogue—between the nations’ media, think tanks, and financial institutions—was nonexistent. Ultimately, Khan attributed the relationship’s struggles to an “imbalance” of expectations. America, he said, does not understand that Pakistan is too large to be asked to act according to “other powers’ designs.” Pakistan, meanwhile, does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics (and subsequent demands) of powers such as the United States.
Khan predicted that the United States will not “walk away” from Afghanistan. Nonetheless, he insisted that Pakistan and Afghanistan must share chief responsibility for stabilization. One opportunity lies in settling the issue of the Durand Line, the disputed border dividing the two nations. Given that checkpoints and commerce zones already dot the frontier, Khan argued that it is high time for both sides to accept it as a “functional border.”
To purchase a copy of Khan's book, please visit the Wilson Center Press site.
By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
- Former Wilson Center Pakistan Scholar