Rethinking the South Asia Strategy—Addressing the Root Causes of Afghanistan/Pakistan Tensions

By: Doug Livermore, Columnist

Photo Credit: Reuters

The recently announced US South Asia Strategy represents one of the Trump administration’s first comprehensive, whole of government approaches to global affairs. The most prominent aspect of the strategy noted by foreign affairs observers was the transition to a “conditions based” approach for assessing progress and appropriate troop levels for Afghanistan.[i] Previously, the Obama administration pursued a “time based” approach in which troop commitments were decreased based on a set schedule. However, the strategy also focused on—and was quite heavy-handed towards—Pakistan, which most experts believe is deeply invested in its decades-long support to the Afghan Taliban movement.[ii] The South Asia Strategy, as currently written, seeks to correct Pakistan’s destabilizing behaviors through punitive actions that do not address the underlying causes that motivate Pakistan’s behavior in the first place. By tackling the root causes that drive Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and other groups, the US could fundamentally alter the course of the conflict and increase the likelihood of arrival at an acceptable and durable political arrangement.

Pakistan’s historic support of destabilizing activities in Afghanistan stems largely from a deep-seated concern for its own territorial integrity. No Afghan government since Pakistan’s independence in 1947 has recognized the validity of the “Durand Line”, which Sir Mortimer Durand first negotiated in 1893 between Afghanistan and then-British India.[iii] The internationally-recognized boundary divides the various Pashtun ethnic tribes that make up a large portion of both Pakistan and Afghanistan’s populations. Even Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president installed through the 2001 US invasion, advocated for a unification of all Pashtuns under Kabul’s governance.[iv] Successive Afghan governments in Kabul have unanimously questioned, and in some cases forcefully contested, the legitimacy of this border. In addition, Afghanistan has recently improved its relations with India, Pakistan’s greatest regional rival with which it has waged three major wars and numerous smaller conflicts.[v] Fearing strategic encirclement by India and threats to the integrity of its borders, Pakistan has continuously supported efforts to keep these various Afghan governments destabilized through a variety of methods—including terrorism. Pakistan’s ongoing support to the Afghan Taliban is simply a continuation of this long-standing strategy to keep its border with Afghanistan secured.

This strategy took root in force during the Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was a stalwart ally in the pursuit of US objectives in Afghanistan during this period.[vi] The ISI served as the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) conduit to the various mujahedeen fighters (including Osama bin Laden) who waged a merciless guerrilla campaign against the Soviets and their Afghan proxy troops. Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the CIA ceased its involvement, but the ISI continued to support various destabilizing groups that hastened the collapse of Najibullah Ahmadzai’s Soviet puppet regime and, later, the transitional Afghan government. Pakistan first supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-I Islami group, which broke from the rest of the mujahedeen and tried to seize control of Kabul in 1992. The other factions quickly rallied and ousted Hekmatyar, who then negotiated a settlement and joined the new interim government.[vii] Realizing that Hekmatyar would never be able to unilaterally control Afghanistan under a friendly government, the ISI shifted its strategy and was instrumental in creating the Taliban movement within the Afghan refugee community in southern Pakistan in 1994. Beholden to and heavily supported by Pakistan, the Taliban swept north from Kandahar and seized control of Kabul from the interim government in 1996.[viii] As a client state, Afghanistan under the Taliban did not pose any significant threat to Pakistan’s territorial integrity.

In response to the September 11, 2001 al-Qa’ida attack against the United States, an international coalition toppled the Taliban regime and installed a new government under Hamid Karzai which no longer deferred to Islamabad’s guidance. Since then, each US-backed Afghan administration has challenged the legitimacy of the Durand Line.[ix] In response, the Pakistanis have supported the Taliban and other terrorist groups that keep Afghanistan domestically destabilized and internally focused. While Pakistan vehemently denies this support, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows that the Pakistani government continues to provide critical support to the Taliban and other groups.[x] On several occasions, violent skirmishes and cross-border artillery fire have erupted between Afghan and Pakistani troops along the shared border.[xi] For all its other merits, the US South Asia Strategy fails to address Pakistan’s well-founded concerns regarding its border with Afghanistan. Rather, the strategy imposes stiff economic sanctions and ties US military aid directly to Pakistan’s curtailing of support to terrorists such as the Taliban. The folly of this strategy is that it forces Pakistan to choose between better relations with the US and its existential security interests.

Instead, the US South Asia Strategy should address the underlying motivations for Pakistan’s continued support to terrorist groups that destabilize Afghanistan. By addressing Pakistan’s reasonable security concerns, the United States and its international allies can fundamentally alter the geopolitical landscape that has, thus far, created a seemingly intractable scenario. Thanks to over 16 years of steadfast support, the United States has ample means of influencing Kabul to officially and unequivocally accept the legitimacy of the Durand Line. Multilateral negotiations between Kabul, Islamabad, and the partner nations offers the best hope for resolving this underlying friction from which Pakistan’s destabilizing activities stem. Through its multifaceted means of exerting influence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States can rigorously enforce any resultant agreement to satisfy Pakistan’s concerns. With the Durand Line then secured, the motivation for Pakistan to continue supporting the Taliban and other groups will likely wane. The strategy of admonishing and punishing Pakistan for its support to the Taliban has not worked—it is time to actually address the underlying reasons for Pakistan’s behavior.

[i] “Afghan president outlines U.S. strategy for Afghanistan,” CBS News, September 20, 2017, accessed October 21, 2017,

[ii] “Pakistan’s Support of the Taliban,” Human Rights Watch, accessed October 21, 2017,

[iii] Joseph V. Micallef, “Afghanistan and Pakistan: The Poisoned Legacy of the Durand Line,” accessed October 21, 2017,

[iv] Ahmad Bilal Khalil, “’Pashtun Diplomacy’ in Afghan Foreign Policy,” The Diplomat, March 11, 2017, accessed October 21, 2017,

[v] Annie Gowen, “India already gives Afghanistan billions in aid. Now Trump says India must ‘help us more’,” Washington Post, August 22, 2017, accessed October 22, 2017,

[vi] Peter Bergen, Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, New York: Free Press (2001), 68.

[vii] William Maley, The Afghanistan Wars, New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2002), 193.

[viii] “The Taliban” from Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, July 15, 2016, accessed October 21, 2017,

[ix] “Afghans won’t compromise on Durand Line: Hamid Karzai,” The Nation, September 8, 2015, accessed October 21, 2017,

[x] Joseph V. Micallef, “Why Pakistan Supports the Taliban,” April 25, 2017, accessed October 21, 2017,

[xi] Tushar Ranjan Mohanty, “Afghanistan-Pakistan: Border Disorder – Analysis,”, Eurasia Review, May 23, 2017, accessed October 21, 2017,

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