The Endgame in Afghanistan: How Do We End the Proxy Wars?

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Afghan security forces are seen near the building which was occupied by militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday Sept. 14, 2011. The 20-hour insurgent attack in the heart of Kabul ended Wednesday morning after a final volley of helicopter gunfire as Afghan police ferreted out and killed the last few assailants who had taken over a half-built downtown building to fire on the nearby U.S. Embassy and NATO compounds. (Photo: Musadeq Sadeq / AP)

When top U.S. military officer Adm. Mike Mullen described the Haqqani Network as a “a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence [spy] agency,” to the U.S. Senate on Thursday  you could almost hear the ‘I told you so’ chorus echoing all the way from Afghanistan. Mullen accused the ISI of fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan, and said that the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA had directly contributed to a series of attacks on U.S. and other targets over the past few years.

Just a few weeks ago, Hanif Atmar, the former Afghan Minister of Interior, told me in an interview that if I were really seeking a solution to Afghanistan’s problems, I would do well by looking over the border at Pakistan. “I think this is absolutely well understood that the Afghan terrorists with support from ISI and al Qaeda are purposefully  and deliberately targeting Afghan politicians, government sites and foreign forces.” What he didn’t understand was why the U.S. wasn’t doing anything about it.  Where are the diplomatic sanctions, he demanded. Why not shut off the aid spigot? What about drones and raids? “If Osama bin Laden could have been targeted in his safe haven, why are these other terrorist groups that are killing innocent Afghans and foreign troops and Afghan troops not targeted in that same safe haven?” he asked.

(SEE: Photos of the U.S. embassy attack in Kabul.)

American lawmakers, it seems, are just now starting to pose the same questions.  Not long after Mullen’s testimony, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein requested that the State Department list the Haqqani network as a Foreign Terrorism Organization. “There is no question that the Haqqani network meets the standards” for joining the list, she said in a statement. “It conducts attacks against US targets and personnel in Afghanistan, and poses a continuing threat to American, Afghan, and allied personnel and interests.”

Doing so, of course, risks categorizing Pakistan a state sponsor of terror, with all the concomitant repercussions. And while that may satisfy many fed up with Pakistan’s double game, it would do very little to solve the problem at hand. No matter how many drones or sanctions we use against Pakistan, they will do very little to change that country’s views about Afghanistan: that a situation there friendly to Pakistani interests is the only thing saving Pakistan from annihilation by arch enemy India.

Whether India actually has an interest in further destabilizing its semi-failed, nuclear-armed, terror-wracked neighbor is another issue. What matters is that Pakistanis, and more importantly their military leadership, believe that India seeks an end to Pakistan. To their mind, the only solution is a friendly, and pliant, government in Kabul. Until Pakistan and India sort out their differences (not least the contested territory of Kashmir, over which the two countries have fought three wars), Afghanistan will continue to be the place where Pakistan plots its regional dominance.

To be sure, this is not a new role for Afghanistan. In the 1980’s it was the center of the United State’s proxy war against the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan saw gain in influencing the fight, and pitched in. But when the Soviets withdrew and the Americans lost interest, Afghanistan’s other neighbors, including India and Iran, vied for regional dominance via militia proxies in a devastating civil war that destroyed the country and saw the rise of the Pakistan-backed Taliban. With the withdrawal of international forces in 2014 looming, a return to civil war is not just a possibility, but a potential catastrophe. “This is a bigger, bolder, better and more expensive game this time around,” cautions Candace Rondeaux, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group. “There is more money involved, there are more weapons involved, and much more at stake.” Not least the reputation of the United States, who led the international coalition into Afghanistan in the first place.

With the recent assassination of Afghan peace envoy to the Taliban, Burhanuddin Rabbani, it has become clear that reconciliation is not a strategy that will lead to a stable Afghanistan anytime soon. Pakistan will attempt to influence negotiations, but so will Russia and India. The Afghan military, while getting stronger, can’t deliver security, and certainly not when groups in Iran (or the Iranian government itself) provide weapons and explosives to insurgent groups, while the Taliban leadership, the Haqqani network and other anti-Afghan government groups take refuge in Pakistan. India, for its part, tends to focus on soft power investments, but its visible presence in Afghanistan does little to assuage Pakistani concerns. Neither Iran, China nor Russia want to see a long term U.S. presence in their back yard; they too will attempt to wield influence.

It doesn’t matter how many troops we surge in Afghanistan, how many we train, and how much money we throw at the place. We are still going to fail unless we rope in the neighbors, says Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan and author of Cables From Kabul, a damning account of the West’s missteps in Afghanistan. “Frankly, the problems of Afghanistan won’t be solved until all the regional powers are actively engaged in a search for a solution.” What is needed, he told me over the phone, is “robust American diplomacy,” something he describes as currently “missing in action. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not doing the necessary to bring the regional actors—Pakistan, India, Russia, the ’Stans, China, Turkey, even Iran— into a standing collective dialogue.” A regional settlement is not expensive in terms of  resources, but it requires a single-minded focus on solving one of the world’s most toxic international disputes, one that is nearly as old as the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Only in the case of Pakistan and India, both are demonstrated nuclear powers. “There is still time,” says Cowper-Coles, “but there is still the open question of whether America has the will to do right by Afghanistan. If America doesn’t do this, if U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doesn’t drive the effort to broker a political solution, that will mean the sacrifice of all our soldiers’ lives, and of Afghan lives, will have been largely in vain.”

MORE: Photos of the massive floods in Pakistan.

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