Winning the Third War in Pakistan

March 4, 2014

From an American point of view, two campaigns have defined the conflict in Afghanistan – which the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel describes as the “two wars.” For most Americans, the one in focus is ISAF’s counterinsurgency campaign, which represents an extension of the initial revenge-seeking gut reaction against the September 11 attacks. This campaign produced most of the direct costs to Americans – over 2,300 American casualties and a half trillion dollars spent by the American taxpayer in the past twelve years. The second conflict is the CIA’s special operations “shadow war” in the mountains and valleys of Pakistan, a low-visibility war by intelligence services and special operators.  This conflict sought the “knockout blow” against Al Qaida senior leaders while, in actuality, pursuing a strategy of incremental symmetric defeat of the Al Qaida and Taliban organizations through drone strikes and frequent nighttime raids.

Yet, another war – a third “war” between the Pakistani state and a metastasized jihadist network – threatens the viability of the Pakistani state.  Essentially an insurgency fought principally between Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pakistani security services, this conflict, although linked to the first and second wars, remains almost entirely out of sight of most Americans.  According to the BBC and some Pakistani officials, the conflict has claimed upwards of 3,000 Pakistani military and 30,000-35,000 civilian lives since 9/11.  In addition, the Pakistani finance ministry assessed in 2011 that this war has cost the country $67 billion, noting that massive expenditures on displaced people, and the halving of investment-to-GDP ratio from 22.5% in 2007 to 13.4% in 2011.  Threats to infrastructure, such as pipelines, further exacerbate the effect in an energy-poor country such as Pakistan.

It is necessary to understand this ‘third war’ to fully comprehend the risks of the U.S.’ seemingly inevitable disengagement from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan’s internal war, and the potential for militants to trigger a regional escalation, threaten not only Pakistan’s stability, but also the gains made in Afghanistan and the security of the volatile South Asian region. It is within this larger regional context, not a narrow context focused only on terrorism, that U.S. policymakers should consider the consequences of  disengagement from the region.

Pakistan’s response to the emergence of the “jihadist Frankenstein” has varied over recent years and has included efforts at political accommodation, negotiation, police action and outright military offensives.  Historically, Pakistan has selectively targeted some groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban, but has been slow to confront other militants, such as those associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network.  Indeed, this legacy of working with militant groups, as well as the failure to identify and arrest Usama bin Laden, suggests to some that Pakistan is neither interested in countering terrorism nor intent on addressing broader regional security problems.  U.S. policymakers, potentially disenchanted with Pakistan after the bin Laden raid, have appeared wary of engaging with Pakistan.  As evidenced by C. Christine Fair’s article “Ten Fictions,” the Beltway’s policy community approaches Pakistan with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Whatever American perceptions may be, the extent of Pakistani offensives over the years, including the one that is currently developing in North Waziristan, and the mounting domestic costs of war, which include Pakistan’s economic well-being, present a picture of a country at war with itself.  The Pakistani commitment to counterterrorism appears to be genuine, but, unsurprisingly, is also dependent on Pakistan’s capabilities and interests. There’s no simple “switch” for the Pakistani military, which appears to be factionalized and compromised to some degree, to “shut off” the militant jihadist groups and end all terrorism in the region.  Moreover, the status of Kashmir remains a central concern for Pakistan, especially in light of the “rise” of India.  As demonstrated by India’s actions in 1971 and its repression of Kashmiri separatists following 1988 and 2010 Kashimiri uprisings, India is a great power willing to exert power and force in the pursuit of its interests, and Pakistan’s leaders know this.

Rather than an outright state sponsor of terrorism, then, Pakistan appears to be a troubled state at war with itself, with a multiplicity of political factions vying for power through all means, and caught in geopolitical crosscurrents with limited options.

In this context, U.S. policymakers should recognize that Pakistan is deeply engaged in a war against violent jihadists and that downplaying Pakistan’s security concerns is not an appropriate approach given the region’s history, as those concerns reflect truths of the region’s power politics.

The attitude of U.S. policymakers toward Pakistan is particularly important given the imminent wind-down of the first and second wars in South Asia.  The planned U.S. withdrawal will reduce American political leverage as well as its intelligence and military capability in the region.  Whether President Karzai or his successor signs the Afghan-U.S. Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the freedom of action and scope of support provided by allied forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 will be significantly curtailed.  Provided that the BSA is signed, the first war will give way to a training and assistance mission, while the prosecution of the second war will likely be impeded by constraints imposed by limited basing, Afghan sovereignty, and further adaptation by the enemy to the tactics of the drone war.  The “zero option” would further curtail both U.S. and Afghan capacity to combat extremism.  Although I personally believe that the U.S. withdrawal, at least at the scale proposed under the BSA, is ill-advised, it is clear the first two wars will likely come to an end.  The United States will lose significant capacity to pressure the jihadist network that holds hostage the politics of the region.

Yet, the motivations, conditions, and consequences of U.S. withdrawal should be understood through the philosophy of Carl von Clausewitz, who, in Chapter 7 of On War, asserted that war exists as an extension of policy, and that the attainment of a political object should govern the conduct of war.  In other words, the value of the political object determines the policy, strategy, and outlay of military effort against a military object consistent with the strategic aim.  In the case of Afghanistan, rather than attainment of a strategic outcome, the value of the political object declined with time and investment of political capital, treasure, and blood.  Thus, while potentially questionable from the standpoint of power politics and strategy, disengagement of U.S. forces from Afghanistan represents a legitimate ascendance of a domestic policy prerogative.

In this vein, it’s worthwhile to note that Clausewitz also reminds us that, whatever their conclusion, wars also have consequences.  Clausewitz observes that the “ultimate outcome of war is not always to be regarded as final.”  Applied to the first and second wars, it means that a withdrawal, which will be the end of the war for most Americans, nonetheless leaves intact conditions that remain conducive to the enemy and threaten regional security and U.S. national security. Although the proverbial ship has sailed with respect to withdrawal, the coupling of withdrawal with a lack of constructive engagement in the region, but particularly with Pakistan, runs a risk of turning our back on the enemy, with severe consequences for the region and globe.

If current conditions don’t provide sufficient impetus for caution and precaution, it should be recalled that the U.S. effectively “cut sling” on Afghanistan and Pakistan after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union’s forces in the late 1980s.  In the early 1990s, as U.S. policy towards Pakistan re-focused from backing a Pakistani play for power in Afghanistan to focus on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons status, the disengagement from the fate of Afghanistan contributed to conditions that exacerbated the civil-military divide in Pakistan and gave rise to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban as a stabilizing element in Afghanistan.  The U.S. effectively retrograded in terms of policy, and U.S. engagement in the region became reactionary, as manifested by the crisis diplomacy that took place during the 1999 Kargil War (which was about as close as the post-Cold War has come to the possibility of nuclear war).

The question for policymakers today is: what to do next?

Ignorance and reductionism clearly should not be the response, although there’s a tendency in the U.S. policy community to want to “cut bait” on Afghanistan and Pakistan or to view the security situation as simply a counterterrorism issue.  Historical dynamics reinforce the concern about the potential for the combination of regional geopolitical tensions and terrorism to lead to escalation: India and Pakistan veered towards nuclear confrontation no less than four times in the twenty years prior to 9/11, and once again in 2002.  Militant groups, whether operating under the control of the Pakistani military or engaging in a freelance effort to escalate the conflict, have played a role in each escalation.  Recent security dynamics suggest that  fundamental regional conflicts and power contests will continue rather than abate, as Pakistan has continued to develop tactical nuclear weapons while at the same time struggling increasingly with the threat from militants and with the challenges of developing a consistent, strong civil-military relationship.  The status of Kashmir remains unresolved, and serves as a rallying point for conservative Pakistanis and Indians.  The prospect of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power in India, with Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as the leading candidate for prime minister, further raises prospects for miscalculation and conflict.

From a U.S. military perspective, as the armed services rush to defend their budgets through the articulation of what could be considered budget-satisficing threat perceptions, it would be advisable to take a step back and closely examine the risks and consequences of the termination of the first two wars in Afghanistan for the region.  The U.S. and NATO leave behind a fragile Afghanistan and a Pakistan at war with itself, in a region fraught with strained geopolitical relationships and no regional institutionalized framework – such as a NATO or EU – to manage collective security and interests.

The third war could certainly develop into a wicked problem with a broad range of military challenges.  Military strategists should contemplate the questions associated with the likely risks: what capabilities can we and our allies put on the table to ameliorate the consequences of state failure in Pakistan?  How can we moderate the tensions between Pakistan and India that will likely result from the third war and continued insecurity in Afghanistan? How are we postured to deal with a major conventional conflict in South Asia that has the potential to go nuclear?   Will the current efforts to counter anti-access/area denial threats and renewed emphasis on global strike provide us with the necessary range of options for diplomatic leverage in South Asia, power projection, or a massive peacekeeping operation in the wake of a nuclear exchange?  In short, to all military planners and strategists, I advise: “check six.”

Policymakers’ attention should be clearly focused on the risks and threats in the region that will result from the United States’ disengagement from the first and second wars.  The robust third war in Pakistan represents a clear threat not only to the stability of Pakistan but also to the retention and consolidation of gains in Afghanistan.  The capacity of militant groups to set the stage for regional escalation needs to be clearly understood and made a priority as the U.S. moves on from sustained combat operations.  In other words, as NATO forces are set to exit Afghanistan, it is not enough to ask whether or not the Afghan government is perceived as legitimate, or whether the Taliban is vanquished, but whether the efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have established conditions for security, prosperity, and relative peace in the region.  At the risk of assuming too much of American power, I am not arguing that the U.S. should or could establish security and peace in the region, but rather that these are the conditions with which the U.S. should be concerned, as they are the same exact structural conditions that gave rise to Pakistani extremist groups and the Taliban in the first place.

This is not the time to whistle our way out of the graveyard, ignoring consequences and acting blindly in face of the third war that appears, at times, to be consuming Pakistan.  The emphasis on exiting combat forces from the region should not eclipse the real security issues that remain.  Furthermore, the United States should not repeat the sort of disengagement from the region that characterized the early post-Cold War period.  The period following withdrawal should be one in which we address salient risks to U.S. national security and explore constructive efforts at regional engagement, while also addressing threats to regional security, keeping in mind the geopolitical realities facing our South Asian allies.  This also means avoiding the problems of the recent past, particularly de-contextualizing terrorism from broader political and socioeconomic issues, and developing policies that support security with justice, good governance, and positive development.


Jason Turse is a serving U.S. naval officer with deployed experience with naval aviation and special operations units at sea, Iraq, and multiple tours in Afghanistan between 2007-2009.  He is currently a Navy Politico-Military Fellow and a student at the School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University.  He appreciates Mr. Eric Gunn’s review of this article. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect policies or positions of The Johns Hopkins University or the U.S. Navy.


Photo credit: Secretary of Defense

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