A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India

The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan. Most observers in the West view the Afghanistan conflict as a battle between the U.S. and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on one hand, and al-Qaida and the Taliban on the other. In reality this has long since ceased to be the case. Instead our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional.

Within Afghanistan, the war is viewed primarily as a Pashtun rebellion against President Hamid Karzai’s regime, which has empowered three other ethnic groups—the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north—to a degree that the Pashtuns resent. For example, the Tajiks, who constitute only 27% of the Afghan population, still make up 70% of the officers in the Afghan army.


The Pashtuns had held sway in Afghan politics ever since the state assumed its current boundaries in the 1860s. By aligning with the Tajiks of the northern provinces against the Pashtuns of the south, the U.S. saw itself making common cause with the forces of secularism against militant Islam; but it was unwittingly taking sides in a complex civil war that has been going on since the 1970s—and that had roots going back much further than that. To this day, because the Pashtuns feel dominated by their ancestral enemies, many support or at least feel some residual sympathies for the Taliban.

There is also an age-old Pashtun-on-Pashtun element to the conflict. It pits Taliban from the Ishaqzai tribe, parts of the Nurzais, Achakzais, and most of the Ghilzais, especially the Hotak and Tokhi Ghilzais, against the more “establishment” Durrani Pashtun tribes: the Barakzais, Popalzais and Alikozais.

Beyond this indigenous conflict looms the much more dangerous hostility between the two regional powers—both armed with nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan. Their rivalry is particularly flammable as they vie for influence over Afghanistan. Compared to that prolonged and deadly contest, the U.S. and ISAF are playing little more than a bit part—and they, unlike the Indians and Pakistanis, are heading for the exit.


In the eyes of the world, never has the contrast between the two countries appeared so stark as it is now: one is widely perceived as the next great superpower, famous for its software geniuses, its Bollywood babes, its fast-growing economy and super-rich magnates; the other written off as a failed state, a world center of Islamic radicalism, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, and the only ally of the U.S. whose airspace Washington has been ready to violate and whose villages it regularly bombs. However unfair this stereotyping may be, it’s not surprising that many Pakistanis see their massive neighbor as threatening the very existence of their state.


For the Pakistani military, the existential threat posed by India has taken precedence over all other geopolitical and economic goals. The fear of being squeezed in an Indian nutcracker is so great that it has led the ISI to take steps that put Pakistan’s own internal security at risk, as well as Pakistan’s relationship with its main strategic ally, the U.S. For much of the last decade the ISI has sought to restore the Taliban to power so that it can oust Karzai and his Indian friends.

To achieve this goal, the Pakistani military has relied on “asymmetric warfare”— using jihadi fighters for its own ends. This strategy goes back over 30 years. Since the early 1980s, the ISI has consciously and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamic extremist groups. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid calculates that there are currently more than 40 such extremist groups operating in Pakistan, most of whom have strong links with the ISI as well as the local Islamic political parties.


Pakistan-watchers are unanimous that, while Kayani is mindful of the Taliban threat in his own country, his burning obsession is still India’s presence in Afghanistan. As I was told by a senior British diplomat in Islamabad, “At the moment, Afghanistan is all [Kayani] thinks about and all he wants to talk about. It’s all he gets briefed about and it’s his primary focus of attention. There is an Indo-Pak proxy war, and it’s going on right now.” 

Excerpts from the The Brookings Essay by historian William Dalrymple – highly recommended, but definitely not for bedtime reading.

Afghanistan is a Gaunt, Thorny Bush

Michael Yon just emailed the following:

Afghanistan is in a sad state. Some folks are worried about “disturbing trends” in Afghanistan. I was concerned about disturbing trends back in early 2006. But that concern is over. My concern is more grave; that we will completely lose the war if we set expectations too high. We should downgrade our expectations for Afghanistan, and what we are willing to invest there. The world is a big place and there are other problems at hand. Iran just launched a satellite to orbit, for example. Afghanistan is such a sorry place that it will require at least decades severe effort to become half-way presentable, and likely a century to bring to anything respectable.

In Iraq, the light at the end of the tunnel was always bright (except during the civil war), and now Iraq is already out of the tunnel and blinking in the light of a new day. But Afghanistan is a national Humpty Dumpty. The best I see is the very distant, very dim, twinkling of a star. Or maybe it’s just a phosphene and not a star at all. My humble recommendation is to downgrade all expectations for Afghanistan. Treat the patient as best we can, and concern ourselves with more important matters while striving not to allow Afghanistan to again become a launching pad for international terror. President Obama should not stake our national reputation on the idea that we will achieve our current more ambitious goals. Decrease expectations, and work on more important matters such as the world economy and other more serious military threats. Afghanistan is not worth so much effort when most of NATO has no heart and is virtually worthless. Eventually we’ll likely end up alone, or mostly alone, holding the bag, while Europe goes home to its wine and beer.

Please read: “Afghanistan is a Gaunt, Thorny Bush.”

Are You Connected?

Michael Yon emails

The outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections will have a profound impact on the war. Meanwhile, the day to day fighting continues. If Senator Obama is elected, I expect to spend a great deal of time covering the fighting. Judging by his words, Senator Obama must be watched closely or we might see some terrible decisions. I expect 2009 to be the worst year so far in the Af-Pak war, which has serious potential to eventually become far worse than Iraq ever was. If Senator McCain is elected, I’ll breathe easier in regard to the war.

And please don’t miss Michael’s latest Afghanistan dispatch.

Michael Yon: Afghan perspective on 2008 election

…The woman above was begging beside the highway. And she was not the only one. I was a passenger driving through Taliban country in a pickup truck when I took her photo. Car bombs detonate on that road all the time. Americans and others die there. And this woman, covered as most women in Afghanistan whom I see are, probably a widow, was begging just beside a police checkpoint, which, sooner or later, likely will get attacked. She might get blown to pieces by a car bomb. She apparently has no money, probably no family, nowhere else to go, and no other way to live. Still, she endures.

The world economy is having its problems, but it’s going to come back sooner or later. Meanwhile, those of us in America, and throughout the west, should count our blessings. We have our families. We have governments which, for all their flaws, at least are reasonably functional, or in many cases, highly functional. We have hope. Or at least we have reason to hope.


The Afghanistan that is not on the NYT front page

Don’t miss Michael Yon’s latest dispatch:

Afghanistan is like time traveling. Vast expanses of rugged landscape, mostly unadorned by man-made structures, all framed by stories of savagery and conquest, create a picture of forever. A sense that human and geologic changes occur at nearly the same pace. Many of the people remain arguably “pre-historic” in the sense that illiterate people do not chronicle their knowledge and experience into writing or durable art. Moving around the countryside, a man could half expect to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex come stomping over a ridge.

My friend Tim Lynch, a retired infantry officer who has lived four years in Afghanistan, had mentioned there are caves near Jalalabad, and when the sun sinks, bats take flight by the thousands. That sounded fun to watch; I did some caving (amateurs call it “spelunking”) in North Carolina and Tennessee, and was always amazed at the swarms of bats down in the bowels of earth. In Florida, I would sometimes venture onto the campus of the University of Florida, just as the squawking flocks of white ibis were settling into their rookery on Lake Alice. The night shift would come out and tens of thousands of bats would take flight right over my head, then over the lake, while the alligators began their evening hunt.

Wildlife watching is to war correspondence what a body massage is to a hundred lashes with a bullwhip. I was ready for a bat-adventure.

Before you leave Michael’s site, support the next dispatch.

Afghanistan: The Road to Hell

Tim Lynch and Shem Klimiuk: if you need to go somewhere in Afghanistan, these are the men to call. Unarmored, low profile. Dangerous.

Don’t miss Michael Yon’s latest dispatch. Excerpt:

The Wilds, Afghanistan

Since leaving the British embed, I’ve gone unilateral. I flew back and forth between Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, drove around and talked with people down south, then flew up to Kabul. In Kabul, I met Tim Lynch and Shem Klimiuk (a retired USMC and ex-Aussie paratrooper, respectively), and we drove in an unarmored truck east to Jalalabad. The canyon-filled drive would be dangerous even if there was no war, but there is a war – a rapidly growing one — and Tim pointed out burnt spots on the road where ambushes had occurred. I was unarmed, and counting on the military experience of my two guides as well as their combined seven years experience in Afghanistan. In the weeks that I would spend with Tim and Shem, we drove more than a thousand miles up and down Afghan roads without the slightest drama, except that Tim scares me with his driving. If you are rich and want the adventure of a lifetime, contact Tim Lynch. You might die. But if you live, you’ll come back with a new perspective on Afghanistan.

…As we drove along the road between Kabul and Jalalabad, Tim stopped the truck near Sarobi, where we could see the village in the valley below. Tim said that Sarobi is “HIG” country, and that it was actually HIG who killed the French. Not the Taliban. HIG, or Hizb-I Islami Gulbuddin, was founded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who hates the U.S. HIG is a terrorist group and a faction of Hizb-I Islami, all with ties to al Qaeda and Bin Laden. Hekmatyar offered homestead to Bin Laden more than ten years ago. Collectively, we call these groups (and others) “Taliban,” but that blanket term is not completely accurate. The Afghanistan/Pakistan insurgency is a complex, distributed and hydra-headed network of different people fighting for different reasons. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they don’t. If they “succeed” in kicking us out of Afghanistan, they will probably end up fighting each other. Some of the people we call Taliban are al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Others are local insurgents fighting for revenge, self-respect, or because they’re simple, ornery mountain folk who have traded in their spears and torches for AKs and RPGs. Iraq is a few decades behind the west; Afghanistan is practically on a different planet.

There are many incredible photos.

Michael Yon reports enroute to Afghanistan

Just received an email from Michael Yon from Bangkok:

I have just left Nepal and landed in Bangkok, en route to Kabul. My plan is to spend some time in Afghanistan, head back over to Iraq in late September, then possibly return to Afghanistan before the year’s end. In any case, I plan to keep my boots in Iraq and Afghanistan through the U.S. elections.

Meanwhile, Michael just put up a dispatch which begins:

By now, no credible person denies the dramatic success that continues to manifest itself in Iraq. No doubt, there will be years of political dramas ahead for that country, and when they occur, we will blame ourselves for them, as is our habit. Americans have a tendency to blame ourselves nearly everything from wildfires to genocidal wars on the other side of the globe. And what we don’t blame ourselves for, others will. Some might see our ability to take initiative and shoulder responsibility as naiveté. I think it’s one of America’s greatest strengths.

Many people around the world see America in decline. As someone who travels a great deal, I see the opposite. America is just getting started. Yes, we face enormous challenges and dangerous enemies. But the soul of our country, the initiative of our people, and the depth of the collective intelligence are all far stronger than our critics, and even many Americans, imagine. Al Qaeda thought that America would fall to her knees after 9/11. They were wrong. Today we hunt them like jackals.

Of course, the Iraq war has led some to think that the United States has committed a tragic imperial overreach. Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant, a truth widely accepted by the international community. Yet the international community can do little about evil tyrants. They leave that up to us, complaining when we do nothing and criticizing when we take action.

However history finally judges him, President Bush will be remembered for two decisions. In 2003, he invaded Iraq. And in 2006, he did not surrender.

Whether or not the first decision was right seems difficult to answer definitively without falling back onto ideological bias, partisan politics, or wishful thinking. Reasonable people likely will disagree about that decision for as long as the event is remembered. If Iraq falls apart or again becomes a tyrant state, then Bush was a brash, imperialistic President invading a sovereign nation without cause, who made things worse and spent lots of money and lives in doing so. If Iraq becomes a stable and prosperous nation even vaguely similar to the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, then most fair-minded people likely will judge Mr. Bush as a little-understood visionary who paid a moderate price to dramatically improve an important region of the world.

But few reasonable people who have been paying attention can disagree that the second decision was correct. In January 2007, one prominent Senator predicted that the Surge would only deepen the sectarian conflict in Iraq. “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there: In fact, I think it will do the reverse.”

Now it’s difficult to tell exactly what Senator Obama thinks about the Surge, for each remark he makes on the subject seems to veer in a different direction without ever actually going anywhere.

More… And please don’t neglect the “tip jar” or buying Moment of Truth — the only financial support Michael has for this mission.

Why have Afghanistan and Iraq been so difficult?

Military historians will likely say things like “the enemy always gets a vote”, and “wars almost always are punctuated by mistakes”. Both very true, but I have concluded that all of the NATO militaries need new missions and thus new structures. I believe that Tom Barnett got it about right in The Pentagon’s New Map — that to help the remaining “Gap” countries to join the globalized “Core” we need a structure that would substitute the “SysAdmin” force for very roughly half of traditional military spending.

For example, when the next generation of historians write objective histories of Afghanistan and Iraq, I speculate that they will argue that much of the the Bush Administration’s supposed ineptness is due to a nearly complete absence of SysAdmin-type nation-building forces. In the existing, traditional structure the SysAdmin function is supposed to be performed by the Department of State. Anyone following closely the post 9/11 efforts will have noted that “State” failed to show up for duty. Fortunately the U.S. military has learned and adapted to pick up some of State’s responsibility — else both Afghanistan and Iraq would have no chance of long-term success. But funding, training and promotion-incentives have all worked against that transition — so even after five years of learning the actual SysAdmin capability is much weaker than required.

For more, see this 2006 post, and these posts and articles on the SysAdmin function. For a short summary of the critical importance of this “Unified Action” concept, see this post on Austin Bay’s interview with Rumsfeld — excerpt:

…Undeterred, I decided to ask a question that goes to the heart of America’s ability (or inability) to win long-term, multidimensional 21st century wars.

My question: “Mr. Secretary, based on our experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the limited interagency and non-governmental organization (NGO) participation in that operation, how do you see ‘Unified Action’ evolving for future conflicts?”

Forgive the military jargon — at one time I was Col. Bay — but the question is essential. It also altered the luncheon ambiance. As I asked it, I saw our very steady chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Peter Pace, pass Rumsfeld a careful stare.

“I’ll tell you we’re better at it now than we were five years ago,” Rumsfeld replied. He acknowledged that “challenges remain” in achieving Unified Action and that effective Unified Action is critical to winning 21st century wars.

He’s right — we are better at it than we were. However, I know we aren’t as good at it as we need to be.

The politically deft SecDef finessed the question — and it was finesse, not dodge. The military jargon masked a heavy political hand grenade I was rolling toward the Beltway. You think Harry Reid’s land deal or Mark Foley’s messages are big stories? How about a stinging pre-election turf battle between Defense and the departments of State, Treasury, Justice, Commerce and Agriculture, complete with zinger accusations of who is or isn’t contributing to the war effort?

I know, that’s quite a claim, which is why I need to translate the mil-speak: Unified Action means coordinating and synchronizing every “tool of power” America possesses to achieve a political end — like winning a global war for national survival against terrorists who hijack economically and politically fragile nations and provinces.

People understand the role of soldiers and cops in a war, but in 21st century wars where economic and political development are determinative, an arborist at the Department of Agriculture and a Commerce Department trade consultant can be powerful contributors to “Unified Action.”