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Catch- 22 in Afghanistan

January 8, 2018

Lawrence Sellin

The conventional wisdom in Washington DC and Islamabad states that the U.S. cannot win in Afghanistan without the assistance of Pakistan. This rationalizes a policy that, at best, can only produce a perpetual stalemate. This policy will continue to fall short because of divergent American and Pakistani desires and interest. Pakistan doesn’t want the US to win in Afghanistan; instead, it wants a client state as strategic depth against its archrival, India. The US, on the other hand, wants a stable, independent, democratic and terrorist-free Afghanistan.

It is the classical paradoxical situation, similar to what Joseph Heller described in his 1961 novel Catch-22. Roughly defined, it is - you can’t get out of the Army unless you are crazy and, if you want to get out of the Army, you can’t be crazy.

President Trump, in a New Year’s Day tweet, threatened to cut off American aid to Pakistan if the Pakistani government does not do more to restrain the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, both of whom operate from safe havens in that country.

That tactic of persuasion has been tried before and everyone knows that it won’t work, which is why, ironically, the President’s advisors have recommended to him a course of action which also won’t work, namely more of the same counterinsurgency and nation building In essence, the US does not determine its policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan does.

Pakistan controls the operational tempo of the war through its Taliban and Haqqani Network proxies and maintains a stranglehold on the supply of U.S. troops in landlocked Afghanistan. In other words, no matter what tactics the U.S. employs in fighting the war in Afghanistan, the strategic conditions give Pakistan the ability to regulate the level of success, leaving the U.S. with a dismal choice between stalemate and ignominious withdrawal.

So, if the U.S. really wants to achieve its stated objectives in Afghanistan instead of simply maintaining it as a playground for military careerists and theorists, the Trump Administration should be developing policies that more directly address the strategic environment. Simply increasing troop levels will only increase U.S. reliance on the Pakistani supply route without decisively altering the tactical situation in Afghanistan.

If policies are in place to affect the strategic conditions, then the status quo requiring low U.S. troop levels is acceptable in the short term. Nevertheless, even in the short term, alternative supply routes not running through Pakistan need to be identified.

An ideal solution for changing the strategic conditions would be stronger civilian control of a less militant and more secular Pakistani government. That seems doubtful while the Pakistani military foments a constant state of internal and external crisis to maintains its iron grip on power. Until the policies being pursued by the Pakistani military are discredited, there is little chance for a change of course.

In order of importance, Pakistan has only two strategic cards to play, nuclear weapons and terrorism, the latter being mostly a regional threat without the former Given Pakistan’s history of playing fast and loose with nuclear proliferation, the highest priority should be given to plans for securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal for any plausible eventuality. It is especially urgent due their expansion of a tactical nuclear warhead program.

I have previously outlined a series of relatively mild measures that can be taken to counter Pakistani intransigence including; reduction in aid, cancellation of Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) status, Congressional declaration of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, and questioning the Durand Line on which Pakistan depends for its geographic identity. Those are unlikely to have much long-term impact. Pakistan does, however, have two major potential pain points, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and ethnic separatism.

First, Pakistan has significant economic incentive to exclude western countries from maintaining any influence in Afghanistan. CPEC, which is part of China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative aims to connect Asia through land-based and maritime economic zones. In Pakistan, it is an infrastructure project, the backbone of which is a transportation network connecting China to the Pakistani seaports of Gwadar and Karachi located on the Arabian Sea. The Chinese are reportedly planning to build a naval base near Gwadar on the Jiwani peninsula, capable of influencing maritime traffic at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. That would complement an already existing Chinese naval base in Djibouti at the entrance of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal creating two critical strategic choke points. Disruption of CPEC is a potential opportunity to alter the strategic conditions.

Second, Pakistan is the Yugoslavia of South Asia. Probably the greatest of all potential Pakistani pressure  points is ethnic separatism, which is an existential threat. Pakistan was founded on the religion of Islam and is composed primarily of five ethnic groups that never coexisted, the Bengalis, Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis and Baloch. Pakistan’s Islamic nationalism program was specifically designed to suppress ethnic separatism, an effort that eventually led to the proliferation of Islamic terrorist groups within its borders and their use as instruments of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Exploitation of ethnic separatism within Pakistan, such as in Balochistan, remains an option. That is, fight the Pakistani-sponsored insurgency in Afghanistan with an insurgency affecting its own vital interests. Internal instability is a concern not lost on the Chinese and a factor that could determine the outcome of China’s investment in CPEC.

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


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