The Trump administration’s peace agreement with the Taliban has been flawed from the start, as it has ignored Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. Indeed, it has been a critical mistake by both the United States and Afghanistan to continue to include Islamabad in these negotiations, as Pakistan’s aim has been to try to turn Afghanistan into its Islamic satellite. The Trump administration even failed to remember the lesson from 2009 when Pakistan frustrated the Obama administration’s negotiations with the Taliban as Islamabad’s main concern was to safeguard and advance its interests.
Pakistan’s vision has always been simple: if peace negotiations fail, then Pakistan wins, as it continues to influence Afghanistan through the Taliban, and if the peace negotiations succeed, then Pakistan also wins, as its influence will extend to a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and a very weak Afghan government. An Afghanistan dominated by Pakistan, through either reality, is a safe haven for radical Islamic movements, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State, and from which they are able to launch attacks against the United States and Europe. But if the United States withdraws its personnel and infrastructure, it will have little leverage to influence that landscape, and it will be difficult to return, as Pakistan will not open a supply route and Russia is no longer an option.
While the war in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular with the American people, because of its devastating loss of life and the massive money spent, the incoming Biden administration needs to pull out of the failed agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, and stop supporting the intra-Afghan peace talks. Peace with the Taliban does not lead to a favorable outcome for the United States, and while the status quo is far from optimistic, the consequences from either an Afghanistan dominated by Pakistan or an Afghanistan without the support of the American military is far worse.
From the 1960s, the Pakistani Army has been influenced by the military doctrine of strategic depth, whose origin and justification is not in Afghanistan but in India. After the loss of its eastern wing, now known as Bangladesh, the Pakistani Army had to reconsider its strategy in respect to India. For Pakistan, Afghanistan thus became an area from where the Pakistani armed forces could withdraw, regroup and stage a counterattack. But this strategy would require a friendly Afghan government that would be willing to see its territorial sovereignty violated in case of a war between India and Pakistan.
The success of jihad and the mujahideen against Soviet troops in Afghanistan led the Pakistani army to use them against India in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s objective was to make those territories impossible to govern and to force the deployment of many Indian troops to combat a local insurgency, while reducing India’s capacity for a conventional conflict between both countries. These plans were put into effect in 1988, and in order to deny Pakistani involvement, the insurgents were trained in Afghanistan. But these plans required an Afghanistan that was friendly or at least incapable of confronting Pakistan.
Afghanistan has always viewed the Pashtuns in Pakistan as part of the same Pashtun nation. So, during the presidency of Muhammed Zia-al-Huq, Pakistan sought to control Pashtun nationalism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, along with implementing policies of Islamization. Then, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan became a gateway for the Central Asian energy markets. But the fall of the communist regime in Afghanistan, and the emergence of a civil war, frustrated those economic and political ambitions. Nevertheless, when the Taliban surged in Kandahar, the group became Pakistan’s best bet. With the Taliban, Pakistan finally obtained the means for the doctrine of strategic depth, even though disagreements about the Durand Line remained.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Pakistan was pressured to break its relations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and to support the Afghan government instead. But Pakistan has allowed the tribal regions on the border to become a sanctuary for thousands of Taliban militants. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence has also been involved in terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan, in particular against Indian interests. Pakistan has always perceived the Afghan government in Kabul to have a small chance of survival once it no longer has international support. And the increasing Indian presence in Afghanistan has led Pakistan to maintain a strong relationship with the Taliban.
While the doctrine of strategic depth has evolved and adapted according to the times, there should be little doubt that the Taliban are still a tool for Pakistan’s aspirations. It is clear that the Pakistani military considers Afghanistan an extension of their battle plans in its conflict with India, and it has been a grave mistake to involve Pakistan in the U.S.-led negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
While neither total victory or peace might be possible in Afghanistan, with U.S. forces still on the ground, Washington can forge an outcome more preferable to its interests and its security.
Carlo J.V. Caro is a researcher on U.S. foreign relations and terrorism. He holds masters degrees in both Security Studies and Islamic Studies from Columbia University.