The United States must now accept the fact that we failed to meet our objectives in Afghanistan and, upon withdrawal, the best outcome we can expect would be a new U.S. regional strategy that prevents our adversaries from benefitting from that failure.
Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the epicenter of Islamic extremism and has always been an ally of China. The China-Pakistan Axis sees U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as an essential first step towards regional domination of South Asia, which would be a long-term strategic threat to the United States. Without an American military presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. must take measures to strategically disrupt Chinese-Pakistani regional ambitions through traditional containment policies and exploiting the nation-state, ethnic and religious fault lines within the region.
Pakistan, Not Afghanistan, is the Origin of Islamic Extremism in South Asia
Pakistan was created as an Islamic state out of the partition of the British Indian Empire in August 1947.1
Islam – especially adherence to its supremacist political-legal-military code known as Sharia – is the societal “glue” that holds Pakistan together, an otherwise artificial state composed of ethnic groups that never interacted in any significant way.2
Islamic militancy has long been one element of Pakistan’s foreign policy. As early as the 1950s, it began inserting Islamists associated with the Pakistan-based Jamaat-e-Islami into Afghanistan.3
In 1974, then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto set up a cell within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to begin managing dissident Islamists in Afghanistan.3
Since the late 1970s, under President Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988), Pakistan pursued a policy of aggressive “Islamization” with the proliferation of religious schools “madrasas” and religious political parties, resulting in a society that became ever more extreme and intolerant. Ethnic separatism was suppressed and Islamic fighters were found to be useful proxies for the Pakistani military and the ISI, particularly against India and Afghanistan.2
The evolution of Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan is complex, but their use as an instrument of Pakistan’s foreign policy is obvious.
The Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the radical Deobandi anti-Shia organization, was formed in the wake of the Iranian revolution to counter Shia influence in Pakistan. When SSP proved insufficiently militant, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) broke away and, from them, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami (LeJ-A) was created, which, over the last 18 months, has claimed responsibility for several bloody atrocities in Balochistan. One of its leaders, Shafiq Mengal,4 is considered the head of the Islamic State in Pakistan. Mengal is believed to control a Jihadi recruitment network in Pakistan and Afghanistan according to the confession of a Pakistani teenager who was captured moments before carrying out a suicide attack.5
The growth of radical Deobandis in Pakistan is only exceeded by the Saudi-funded Salafis, the extremism of the latter differing from that of the former in terms of the literal interpretation of the Islamic texts. Ahl-e-Hadith, is the Pakistani equivalent to Saudi Wahhabism. It is the ideology of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which has been named as the perpetrator of the savage 2008 Mumbai attack, and its “charitable” front organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). Both have long been considered operational elements of the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI. The JuD, believed to have up to 500,000 “volunteers,” has recently launched a new political party in Pakistan called the Milli Muslim League.6
It is an undisputed fact that the Taliban were created by the ISI beginning in 1994 as a means to intervene in the Afghan civil war to influence the outcome in favor of Pakistani national interests. Since its founding, the ISI and the Pakistani military have never stopped providing financial, logistical and military support to the Taliban7and the tens of thousands of madrasas have offered a fertile recruiting source for the Taliban. Between the time of its founding until the overthrow of the Taliban government by U.S. and NATO force in late 2001, the dominant nationality among Taliban fighters was Pakistani.8
Pakistanis fighting for the Taliban is not ancient history. During the August 2018 attack in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, 70 of the 400 Taliban killed were Pakistani nationals, whose bodies were returned to Pakistan.9
There is much concern about the growth of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which actually originates in Pakistan.
Members of the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, which opposes the Pakistani government, began migrating to Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province as “refugees” in 2010 after Pakistani military operations against them in Orakzai and Khyber Agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.10
It was those “refugees” who provided a foundation for the Islamic State. That base support was augmented by thousands of Pakistanis who fought for The Islamic State in Syria and returned to Pakistan beginning in 2013. In January 2015, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) was declared with former TTP commander Hafiz Saeed Khan of Orakzai as the leader, whose 12-member Shura had nine Pakistanis. An ISKP support zone was set up inside Pakistan adjacent to that of the Haqqani Network.10
Although the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attack on the U.S. was led by Osama bin Laden and conducted by Saudis nationals, the origin and planning were predominantly from Pakistan.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), son of a Deobandi cleric and often referred to as the “architect” of the 9/11 attacks is Pakistani.11
Ramzi Yousef is KSM’s nephew and one of the main perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434. He was a co-conspirator with KSM in the Bojinka plot, which included the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II while he visited the Philippines and planting bombs inside twelve United and Delta Air Lines flights out of Bangkok. Although he was born in Kuwait, Ramzi Yousef is Pakistani. His mother is KSM’s sister.11
Adel Anonn, aka Adel Bani, who had an Iraqi passport and is believed to be Ramzi Yousef’s twin brother, was arrested in the Philippines in 1995 as part of a suspected terrorist cell.11
Abdul Qadir Mehmood, Ramzi Yousef’s older brother, is wanted in connection with a 2015 terror attack that killed 45 people traveling on a bus from the Safoora Chowk area of Karachi, Pakistan.11
Best known as a provider of financial and material support for terrorist attacks, Abdul Qadir has reportedly switched allegiance from al Qaeda to the Islamic State and is hiding in Wadh, Pakistan, presumably under the protection of IS leader, Shafiq Mengal, a former Pakistani intelligence asset.11
Ammar Al-Baluchi, cousin of Ramzi Yousef and maternal nephew of KSM, is a Pakistani citizen in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Charges against him include facilitating the 9/11 attackers, acting as a courier for bin Laden and plotting to crash a plane packed with explosives into the U.S. consulate in Karachi.11
Al-Baluchi’s former wife, Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani militant, was convicted of shooting at U.S. soldiers and is incarcerated in the United States.11
Pakistan Sees China, Not the United States, as Its Long-term Strategic Partner
Pakistan’s duplicity has continued for over seventeen years. While accepting billions of American dollars in military and economic aid, Pakistan has been slowly bleeding the U.S. to death in Afghanistan through its support of the Taliban, Haqqani Network and other terrorist groups.12
Shortly before his death in 2015, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI, a committed Islamist and known as the “godfather of the Taliban,” explained Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan in an Urdu language television interview:
“One day, history will say that the ISI drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan with the help of USA and another sentence will be recorded that says the ISI drove the USA out of Afghanistan with the help of the USA.”12
The Pakistani audience roared with laughter and applauded in approval.
It is Pakistan’s role to force the U.S. and NATO out of Afghanistan to pave the way for regional dominance of its closest ally, China.
China seeks global domination. One vehicle to achieve it is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a collection of infrastructure projects and a network of commercial agreements designed to link the entire world directly to the Chinese economy through inter-connected land-based and maritime routes.
The guarantor of that soft power approach is the hard power of Chinese military expansion.
China plans to establish a naval base on the Jiwani peninsula,13 just west of Gwadar and within easy reach of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. That military facility will complement China’s already operational naval base in Djibouti located at another strategic chokepoint, the entrance to the Suez Canal.
One element of that effort is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an infrastructure and development 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 former located adjacent to the planned Chinese Jiwani naval base.13
Pakistan has always viewed Afghanistan as a client-state, a security buffer against what they consider potential Indian encirclement and as a springboard to extend their own influence into the resource-rich areas of Central Asia.3
With China’s growing geopolitical strength, Pakistan now has significant strategic and economic incentives to exclude Western countries from maintaining any influence in Afghanistan.
An extension of CPEC to Afghanistan would benefit both China and Pakistan, whose economic goals include exploiting the estimated $3 trillion in untapped Afghan mineral resources. The withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO from Afghanistan would allow China to reap rewards from the reconstruction of the war-torn country, possibly as a quid pro quo for mining rights.3
A U.S. presence has always been an obstacle to Chinese ambitions to incorporate Afghanistan into CPEC and BRI as well as a number of other China-centric economic and military pacts, so, together with Pakistan, Beijing could dominate South Asia.
The increased Chinese presence in Pakistan and China’s growing influence in South Asia has changed the strategic dynamics of the region, largely rendering the U.S. Afghanistan policy obsolete. Not only does China maintain enormous leverage over Pakistan, financially and militarily, Beijing has been conducting its own secret negotiations with the Taliban for over a year.
Current U.S. Status in Afghanistan Relative to the China-Pakistan Axis
Now that U.S. policymakers are slowly coming to the realization that there will be no military victory in Afghanistan, it is critical to understand why we were defeated because it provides a foundation to formulate a more effective strategy.14
We were fighting the wrong type of war.14
In the face of clearly contradictory facts, the Pentagon insisted on pursuing counterinsurgency operations confined geographically to Afghanistan while the generals in Islamabad were using the Taliban to conduct a proxy war, launching attacks against American, NATO and Afghan forces from safe havens in Pakistan.14
There is no combination of U.S. conventional, CIA or special operations assets that can defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban infrastructure and support network in Pakistan remains invulnerable.12
Unlike 2001, the Taliban are not exposed in Afghanistan but sheltered in Pakistan, where there is a Taliban network of education, recruiting, training, financial and command and control centers. It is also no secret that the ISI employs local individuals and groups as “cut-outs” to facilitate the movement of Taliban fighters and supplies across the porous border.12
By controlling the operational tempo and the supply of our troops. Pakistan could always do just enough to prevent us from winning and protect the Taliban from losing by providing sanctuary.
The United States should have known that — even before we put boots on the ground. Pakistan is an ally of China, has never shared U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and began obstructing those objectives within days of 9/11.12 It is no longer a question of whether the United States will leave Afghanistan. Rather, it is a question of under what conditions.14 Will it be a repeat of the chaotic withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 and America’s subsequent timidity in the pursuit of our national interests? Or will it be simply a segue to a more successful regional foreign policy?14
Since the U.S. has agreed to direct talks with them, the Taliban have increased attacks on Afghanistan to further undermine the Kabul government and raise the pressure on the U.S. to reach an agreement for rapid withdrawal.
The negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban to the exclusion of the duly-elected Afghan government, stimulated non-governmental Afghan politicians to meet with the Taliban, again in the absence of the Kabul government.15
More recently, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan suggested that an interim government be formed, a statement echoed by a number of non-governmental Afghan politicians, thus further undermining the legitimate Afghan government’s role as a participant in the peace process.15
The Afghan Presidential election has already been postponed twice, now scheduled for September 28, 2019.
There is now significant momentum behind the formation of an Afghan interim government, which would postpone that election indefinitely and create a power vacuum in Afghanistan, which will undoubtedly be exploited by U.S. adversaries. That would present a significant challenge to the achievement of a negotiated outcome satisfactory to U.S. interests.
U.S. Strategic Options
In strategic terms, although they will influence the outcome, it is not the Taliban nor Pakistan alone with which we should be concerned. And the problem does not reside solely in Afghanistan.14
The threat is from China in the form of the Chinese-Pakistani alliance. China’s aim is to dominate South Asia, first economically based on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and then militarily using its alliance with Pakistan to establish military bases, particularly on Pakistan’s coast, in Balochistan, Pakistan’s southwestern province.14
Those bases would provide a critical link between China’s military facilities in the South China Sea and its naval base in Djibouti at the entrance of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.14
Chinese naval and air bases on the Balochistan coast would control the vital sea lanes of the Arabian Sea and northern Indian Ocean and threaten another strategic chokepoint, the Strait of Hormuz. A successful implementation of the Chinese-Pakistani plan would mean the isolation of India, which is not at all advantageous to the international order.14
Nowhere has Chinese ambitions been more clearly and publicly articulated than in a June 2018 China Daily article by former Pakistani diplomat, Zamir Ahmed Awan, who works for the Beijing-controlled Center for China and Globalization [author’s clarifications and comments in brackets]:17 Since that article was published, China has offered to extend CPEC to Afghanistan; China will build a military facility in and deploy Chinese troops to Afghanistan; Afghan military personnel will be trained in China; and members of the Afghan Parliament have recommended that the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the U.S. and Afghanistan be cancelled, presumably to be replaced by one with China:17
New [Chinese] initiatives for peace in Afghanistan are welcome, and may change the scenario in the whole region. I believe American think tanks and leadership, especially military leadership, [have] already realized that this war cannot be won. The only option is withdrawal, the sooner the better.
Pakistan can play a vital role in a sustainable solution to the Afghan conflict [by controlling Afghanistan as a client state]. Complete withdrawal and an Afghan-led [i.e., Taliban-led] solution is the only permanent way out. Pakistan can facilitate an honorable and safe passage for U.S. withdrawal.
Peace in Afghanistan will allow economic activity between Central Asia, Russia, China and the Arabian Sea…It can change the fate of the whole region. Chinese projects like the Belt and Road Initiative and the objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] … At the recent SCO summit, the Afghanistan president was invited as a guest and observer. Hopefully, the country will soon join SCO. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor may also be extended to benefit Afghanistan in the near future if there is peace.17
Clearly, Chinese success in South Asia is absolutely critical to Beijing’s drive for global hegemony.
Even a partial restoration of an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan by the participation of the Taliban in an interim government would empower Islamic extremists and create a magnet for global jihadists. It could lead, not only to clashes with or between Islamist groups, but to a wide range of conflicts based on opposing national, ethnic and religious interests.18
That is a complicating factor for the China-Pakistan Axis. They have already begun to address the issue by recruiting Afghan politicians not presently in the Afghan government to join the Taliban as a moderating influence in a pro-Pakistani, pro-Chinese coalition. At the same time, it would completely eliminate the influence of the U.S. and the current Afghan government from any future political arrangement. In the short term, the U.S. should resist any attempt to form such an interim government and further postponement of the Afghan Presidential election.
The only bargaining chip the U.S. has in peace negotiations is our presence in Afghanistan. The “presence” argument is clearly unsustainable. Between now and the beginning of a withdrawal, the U.S. should be identifying new forms of leverage, in the short term, to bolster our negotiating position, and, in the long term, as a basis of a new South Asia strategy.18
Framing and Adopting a New U.S. South Asia Strategy
That new strategy for South Asia should focus on disrupting Chinese-Pakistani plans for the domination of the region using all the elements of U.S. power – diplomatic, informational, military and economic – where Balochistan and the Arabian Sea become a center of gravity.
The recent efforts to strengthen diplomatic and military ties with India are steps in right direction, ones that should be expanded.
From a politico-military standpoint, two approaches, operating in parallel, are required, neither of which would require deployment of U.S. forces to new areas of operation.
First, we should adopt a traditional containment policy, applying diplomacy and augmented naval and air power projection to counter Chinese attempts to box-in U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf area and outflank the U.S. naval base at Diego Garcia.19
Second, in order to maintain a balance of power, we should use strategic disruption, not of China directly, but of its plans to dominate the region. Tactically, that would involve managing and, when necessary, exploiting the inherent conflicts in South Asia including state-to-state disputes, the Sunni-Shia divide and ethnic separatism.18 The last could include the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement in Pakistan’s
Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the independence insurgency in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan.
In particular, an independent, secular and nuclear-free Balochistan could have the following positive effects in regards to U.S. national interests. It would:
1. Block China’s ambition for economic and military domination of South Asia, including planned Chinese military bases on the Arabian Sea and the isolation of India;
2. Provide Afghanistan with a friendly neighbor and access to the sea thus solving one of Afghanistan’s key sovereignty and stability issues based on its geography and dependence on Pakistan;
3. Reduce significantly Pakistan’s extremist and terrorist population (e.g. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-ul-Adl), including two active Islamic State affiliates operating in the Turbat and Mastung areas of Balochistan;
4. Put pressure on Iran because there is a large ethnic Baloch population in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan;
5. Enable an independent Balochistan, which has been traditionally secular and tolerant, to drive a stake into the heart of radical Islam.
It is late, but there may still be time to defeat Chinese ambitions “on the beaches.”
The views expressed in this white paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire Committee on the Present Danger: China. Nothing in this paper is intended to aid or hinder the passage of any bill or influence the election of any candidate.
1. The Commonwealth, http://thecommonwealth.org/our-member-countries/pakistan/history
2. Sellin, Lawrence, “The strategic truth about the war in Afghanistan”, Daily Caller, August 22, 2017.
3. Sellin, Lawrence, “Why Pakistan wants the US to lose in Afghanistan” Washington Examiner, May 18, 2017.
4. Sellin, Lawrence, “ISIS is growing in Pakistan” Daily Caller, September 26, 2017.
5. Sayeed, Saad and Hassan, Syed Raza, “Would-be suicide bomber sheds light on suspected Pakistani militant web, Reuters, August 7, 2017.
6. Sellin, Lawrence, “Pakistan could become China’s South Asian North Korea” Daily Caller, August 9, 2017.
7. Giraldo, Jeanne K. (2007). Terrorism Financing and State Responses: A Comparative Perspective. Stanford University Press. p. 96.
8. Maley, William, The Afghanistan Wars. Palgrave Macmillan (2009), p. 288.
9. Habibzada, Mohammad, “Afghanistan, Pakistan at Odds Over Ghazni Assault Claims” Voice of America, August 16, 2018.
10. Johnson, Casey Garret, “The Rise and Stall of the Islamic State in Afghanistan” The United States Institute of Peace, November, 2016.
11. Sellin, Lawrence, “Trump is right about Pakistan” Daily Caller, November 19, 2018.
12. Sellin, Lawrence, “The post-9/11 shock and awe in Afghanistan would not work today” Daily Caller, August 21, 2018.
13. Sellin, Lawrence, “Don’t be alarmed but China could be building a military base in Pakistan” Daily Caller, January 1, 2018.
14. Sellin, Lawrence, “Salvaging America’s defeat in Afghanistan” Daily Caller, January 2, 2019.
15. Gul, Ayaz, “Taliban, Afghan Opposition to Meet in Moscow; Kabul Not Attending” Voice of America, February 3, 2019.
16. “PM Imran Khan’s Afghan interim government statement backfires” Daily Times – Pakistan, March 27, 2019.
17. Sellin, Lawrence, “Afghanistan is un-winnable” Daily Caller, September 15, 2018.
18. Sellin, Lawrence, “What happens after the Taliban win” Daily Caller, January 11, 2019.
19. Sellin, Lawrence, “The U.S. needs a new plan to address Chinese power in South Asia” Daily Caller, June 5, 2018.
This report was originally published at the Committee for the Present Danger: China
The views expressed in CCNS member articles are not necessarily the views or positions of the entire CCNS. They are the views of the authors, who are members of the CCNS.