I served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. During my first deployment in 2009, I was the Chief of Plans for ISAF Joint Command working under U.S. General David M. Rodriguez. During my second tour in 2010, I assumed command of combined Team Uruzgan, a diverse force of coalition soldiers from ten countries, including Australia, Singapore, France, New Zealand, and the United States (see: “Shades of Gray in Afghanistan”).
These two deployments in the country revealed to me the extent to which fear of Pakistan permeated all Afghan discussions pertaining to national security and that such a pervasive angst had the potential to undermine our joint efforts in combating Taliban insurgents. Here are two brief examples.
In October 2009, the Afghans were in the process of training and equipping their sixth Afghan National Army Corps, the 215th Corps. With the support of ISAF and NATO, this major combat unit represented a significant increase in combat capability. The unit was designed to help bring security to the southern and eastern regions in Afghanistan and serve as a counter balance to the Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. The deployment location and mission of the 215th Corps was a critical strategic decision worthy of significant analysis and debate at the highest levels in Kabul.
After exhaustive analysis which examined the Taliban disposition, Afghan National Army force allocation, and a review of critical information associated with the most pressing threats to the Afghan government, the recommendation of the Afghan Army staff, supported by ISAF, was to station the 215th Corps in the vicinity of Helmand Province. This decision was made to relieve the hard pressed 205th Corps in Kandahar and double the Army’s effort in the most threatened area of Afghanistan. Eliminating the Taliban presence in Kandahar was seen as essential to the success of the over-all mission. Establishing a major Army headquarters in Helmand with the new 215th Corps would enable to 205th Corps to concentrate its forces on the most critical region.
The plan as designed was approved and executed, achieving dramatic results in Kandahar. After two years of fighting with the 205th Corps focused in Kandahar and the 215th focused in the adjacent Helmond province, the Taliban had largely been eliminated from Kandahar. Yet, the plan as briefed by the Afghan Army staff was approved only after heated exchanges and pointed discussions centered on whether the Corps should be focused on Taliban insurgent activity or against a potential armored attack from Pakistan directed at seizing Kabul.
The deep seeded mistrust and historical animosity between Afghan and Pakistan leaders directly influenced the planning for critical Army unit mission assignments and could have prevented what turned out to be a substantial gain against the Taliban.
In August 2010, Provincial Governor Khoday Rahim was holding a district wide Shura the isolated village of Chora in southern Afghanistan. This was his first visit since the accidental death of the district governor, Rosie Khan, and it turned into what seemed like a giant episode of the “Jerry Springer Show.” Rosie Khan’s son, Mohammad Dawood Khan, had taken over as the district governor and the provincial governor was going to discuss challenges to local security and economic growth. At the Shura, the tribal elders and other leaders of the district met with the governor and other Afghan and Coalition leaders, including the police chief, Brigadier General Gul, the army commander, Brigadier General Hamid, and the National Directorate of Security chief, General Zakaria. The pointed discussions lasted four hours in the shade of the district center building in temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Chora’s leaders raised issues about Taliban influence, water sharing agreements, the need for education and health care requirements. The Provincial Coalition leaders — myself included — received these points, offered updated information and pledged to do everything possible to help the city improve to the maxim extent possible.
The most memorable comment came from an older leader, who looked to be in his eighties. As is the custom, he got up from his seated position on the floor to address the assembled Shura. He began by stating that the source of all problems in Chora stemmed from Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, he asserted that the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence agency was responsible for the Taliban, created all internal challenges with the Afghan government and was at the heart of problems with development and governance throughout Afghanistan. After a 45-minute monologue, he concluded with the conviction that the only reason Pakistan had nuclear weapons was to use them on Afghanistan prior to an all-out invasion and occupation.
The distrust of Pakistan permeates discussions and drives decision making from the outer districts like Chora to the highest levels of government. The accusations regarding Pakistan’s support to the Taliban, ISI support and manipulation of critical Afghan functions, and long standing territorial disputes are forefront in the minds of political, military and citizen thinking.
President Ashraf Ghani attacked this notion head on. Prior to assuming the presidency of Afghanistan he recognized that peace and stability in Afghanistan was only to be achieved with full cooperation with the Pakistan military establishment as well as the civilian government. His landmark visit to the Pakistan Minister of Defense in November 2014 exemplifies his dedication to reversing the friction between the two Central Asian countries.
Ghani has made several additional visits to Pakistan. He has empowered his ministries to engage closely with their Pakistani counterparts. Working to bring a regional approach to economic development as well as military cooperation against both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are at the forefront of his aspirations. Reducing the 16 day transit time for fresh produce to get from Kandahar to Karachi; approving long term multi entry visas; improving the transshipment process and border crossing point operations; capitalizing on Afghanistan’s vast mineral and agricultural opportunities; and improving cooperation on implementation of the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA 1000), the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Natural Gas Pipeline (TAPI) Project, and the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) among others, are all on the president’s economic high priority list.
On his military priority list, he has pledged to work with Pakistan on reducing the Taliban’s safe havens on both sides of the border. He must eliminate or at least reduce the influence and perception of influence of the ISI. The cooperation between Afghan and Pakistani militaries has improved dramatically but needs to be expanded to the Haqqani network and other insurgents who are not yet targeted. Leaders of both countries acknowledge these challenges and pledged to work toward mutually beneficial solutions.
During a recent trip I took with the EastWest Institute to Islamabad, senior leaders at the ministerial and presidential level confirmed the necessity and the commitment to move forward together to improve cross border cooperation against common enemies and to make demonstrable progress toward regional economic cooperation. Much work needs to be done. Each Pakistani ministry recognized that the window of opportunity opened by Ghani would stay open only so long. They all understood that the Afghan President had taken significant risks in reaching out to both Pakistani military and civilian leaders. These risks must be rewarded quickly by concrete and verifiable actions that could be used as compelling evidence of Afghan and Pakistani cooperation in both military and economic terms.
The Pakistani ministries and senior political leaders are committed to achieving increased cooperation with Afghanistan and taking advantage of the excellent opportunity afforded them. Afghanistan’s patience and Ghani’s political capital are not infinite. Cooperation across the border is a vital component to long-term regional security. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan need to demonstrate commitment to mutually beneficial actions by achieving tangible results quickly.
Colonel James L. Creighton is chief operating officer of the EastWest Institute. He served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army for 30 years.