This month’s talks with the Taliban have focused on preventing another “spring offensive.” But after two decades of U.S. and NATO military operations, we should be asking a more basic question: Why is Afghanistan still at war?
The answer is deceptively simple: Afghanistan’s conflict continues because, through the Taliban and other proxies, Pakistan’s military is still waging covert war against its neighbor.
When Osama Bin Laden slipped over the border into Pakistan’s Kurram Agency in late 2001, he joined thousands of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters already sheltering in madrassas, safe houses or training camps run by terrorist outfits across Pakistan.They received massive clandestine support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
In 2003, with the U.S., United Kingdom and others distracted by the invasion of Iraq, ISI proxies attacked aid workers in Afghanistan. In 2005, they set out to subjugate Afghanistan’s southern provinces.
Hardly a hunted man, Bin Laden lived in several Pakistani cities before settling into his comfortable compound at Abbottabad, on the doorstep of Pakistan’s West Point.
U.S. forces eventually pushed back the Taliban’s offensive around Kandahar. But Bin Laden’s “hosts” went on to become prominent in Pakistan’s “miltablishment.” Even after the al Qaeda kingpin was killed in 2011 on Pakistani soil, ISI proxies moved aggressively to re-take territory lost in Afghanistan during the Obama surge. Pakistan’s proxy war has been an open secret ever since.
Why, almost two decades after 9/11, is the ISI still waging this proxy war? For one, they are obsessed with India: for Rawalpindi’s zero-sum military planners, a Taliban-free Afghanistan would be a dangerous playground for their arch-rival.
Second, they are reprising a two-century-old drama: for U.S. cold warriors in the 1980s, as for pre-1947 British Raj strategists, interfering in Afghanistan was an old habit and an article of faith. By waging proxy war today, ISI is indulging colonial instincts and anti-Soviet reflexes.
In Pakistan, runaway military spending has undercut education and stunted growth: Per capita income has barely doubled since 2001, while in India it has more than quadrupled.
ISI’s proxy war inertia is now hobbling South Asia’s potential.
In any other country, tens of thousands of fighters, bomb-makers and assassins streaming across the border would trigger domestic outrage and international condemnation.
The real question is not why Pakistan’s military continues down this self-destructive path, but rather why they were not stopped sooner.
By the time ISI resumed full-scale proxy war, Washington was bogged down in the Persian Gulf. Once the full intelligence picture of Pakistan’s duplicity emerged, the will to act had vanished in the 2008-09 financial crisis, which turned the U.S. and NATO allies inward.
This drift continued even after SEAL Team Six found Bin Laden in 2011.
A reckoning is overdue. What is needed? For starters, consistency. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies face sanctions for invading Ukraine and murdering rivals. Iran and Syria are under embargo for a toxic mix of proxy wars, genocide and banned weapons. Boycotts are hitting China’s ruling party, as genocide and repression deepen there. Those directing Pakistan’s proxy war belong on this list.
It has cost 2,300 American and 1,200 other NATO lives, undoing years of progress on education, health and women’s rights.
By avoiding this issue, we have prolonged Afghanistan’s agony and emboldened the delusive few eager to notch another superpower defeat on their belts.
We have also given false comfort to Putin, Iran’s Khamenei, Turkey’s Erdogan and other dictators now pursuing destructive military adventures.
The facts of this proxy war are no longer in dispute, as my recent report notes. Action to end it would yield benefits well beyond South Asia, while restoring U.S. credibility and strengthening the alliances Washington is once again championing.
The quickest, most cost-effective way to bring peace to Afghanistan would not take more fighting or more troops: it requires only the political will to sanction this proxy war’s sponsors.
The U.S. and NATO should pledge joint political action to end this proxy war, which has killed our soldiers: all democracies should be making a strong, unified push for accountability.
Those in Pakistan still supporting proxy war in Afghanistan should face tough sanctions.
Pakistan should be on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklist. Afghanistan can only be portrayed as an “endless war” – a Vietnam-like sinkhole for lives and billions – by those who ignore this last major obstacle to peace. The only “forever war” has been ISI’s decades of aggression in Afghanistan.
After 20 years of hard effort, the path to a ceasefire and enduring peace in Afghanistan requires collective action, by the U.S. and its allies, to end Pakistan’s proxy war.
The article first appeared in [THE HILL] on March 27, 2021, and is authored by Chris Alexander who was Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan (2003-05) and deputy head of the UN mission (2006-09), as well as a Canadian MP, cabinet minister and author of “The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace” (2011). His new paper “Ending Pakistan’s Proxy War in Afghanistan” was recently published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @calxandr.