Policy Brief

Stumbling on the “Af-Pak” Border

by: Mosharraf Zaidi

NATO helicopters engaged and killed two Pakistani soldiers on September 30th. In response, Pakistan closed the Torkham border crossing, blocking NATO’s access to a vital supply line for its operations in Afghanistan. The US government apologized for the deaths. On October 9th, Torkham was re-opened. Though the chapter can be closed, the book on tense and fragile relations between the US-Pakistan relations remains wide open.

Background and Historical Context

The US war in Afghanistan is the longest military conflict in American history. The surge announced by President Barack Obama in December 2009[1] was designed to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan”. Ideally, the surge would have created a reversal in Taliban momentum, pushing back gains made by the Afghan Taliban, and enabling the US to dictate the terms of an end to hostilities. Any resulting political equation in Kabul in which US interests were well represented, would have allowed an American withdrawal that demonstrated at least a nominally neutralized threat from Al-Qaeda, and a stabilized Pakistan—in control of its nuclear weapons.

The surge was one of several instruments used to implement the overarching US policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, articulated in the Interagency Group White Paper of March 2009 [2]. This white paper fundamentally shifted the focus of US security concerns from Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and particularly to the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) that straddle the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The success of the military surge was predicated on stable, legitimate and competent governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Present Situation

Since the surge, two clear trends have emerged. The first is that increased American military pressure has not been able to diminish the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency, and minor gains aside, Southern Afghanistan—the home of the Taliban—remains largely outside the control of the central Afghan government in Kabul, and the US lead NATO/ISAF coalition.

The second is that, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially parts of Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, offers one of the key arenas through which Afghan Taliban insurgents can exit and enter areas seen to be safe havens for insurgents, militants and terrorist groups, including what most believe to be the residual elements of Al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Pakistan has engaged insurgents, militants and terrorists groups in direct conflict in most areas of the FATA, in collaboration with the US intelligence and military community. However, one area that poses a continued threat to both the military efforts of US lead NATO/ISAF forces in Afghanistan, and to the Pakistani military in Pakistan, is the sanctuary in North Waziristan. One of the areas of contention between Washington DC and Islamabad/Rawalpindi is the unfulfilled American request for a military operation to flush out undesirables from North Waziristan. Pakistan has not conducted operations in North Waziristan thus far because of a number of factors, including resource constraints, and troop rotations that have had to deal with massive flooding. Pakistan’s need to continue to maintain troop levels on its eastern border is also an important factor, where India sustains the bulk of its military attention. In addition, many Western and Pakistani analysts suspect that Pakistan continues to view at least some parts of North Waziristan to be occupied by friendly groups, including the Haqqanis.

The argument about North Waziristan is a microcosm of the US-Pakistan problem. The Pakistani side is correct to feel frustrated that it is sustaining troop casualties and civilian losses in a number of battlefronts, yet keeps being asked to stretch itself thinner, and thinner. The US side is also not entirely incorrect to nurse suspicions about the intentions of Pakistan, given its longstanding links to the Afghan Taliban, and the presence of known pockets of support for them in North Waziristan.

It is in this context that NATO helicopters breached Pakistani territory and engaged in hostilities on at least four separate occasions from September 27th to September 30th. In the most widely reported of these incidents two to three Pakistani soldiers were killed when missiles were launched by a NATO helicopter on a Border Scouts post in Kurram Agency. Expressions of regret by NATO[3], and the US military[4], included the US government expressing “our deepest apology to Pakistan and the families of the Frontier Scouts who were killed and injured,”[5] upon the conclusion of a swift joint investigation into the incident.

The Pakistani response to these events was the closure of the Torkham border crossing, effectively cutting off the most efficient supply line to Kabul and Bagram—both crucial locations for the US and NATO/ISAF military forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan continued to allow goods to pass through the Chaman border crossing. In addition, given the investments in the northern distribution network (NDN) supply corridor since 2009, NATO/ISAF can absorb temporary suspensions of supplies through Torkham without adverse consequences for its mission in Afghanistan. Still, the closure of Torkham—which finally ended on its tenth day, on October 9th—has financial and logistical implications for NATO/ISAF that cannot be ignored. Neither can the broader political economy of war in the “Af-Pak” region.


Pakistan’s interest in combating insurgents, militants and other terrorist groups on its territory is driven by three factors. The first is internal national security, the second is strategic interests beyond Pakistan’s borders, and the third are economic incentives or disincentives. Pakistan’s calculus should not be too difficult to predict. If it does not make sense for Pakistan to do something from its perspective of one or more of these factors, it simply will not do it.

Pakistan’s strategic calculus is complex. The Pakistani intelligence community, its military, and its political structures are not monolithic. Issues of national security, approaches to extremism, and definition of strategic interests are strongly contested within and across Pakistani state organizations and institutions.

Conventional notions of across-the-board Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban do not reflect the complexity of the relationship between Afghanistan’s different political and ethnic groups and the Pakistani state. Assessments of North Waziristan’s strategic value to Pakistan as a safe haven fail to take into account the losses sustained by the Pakistani military from militants operating out of that very area. Simply put, tactical and operational realities do not allow the Pakistani state to operate the alleged “double game” that frustrates US military and civilian leaders. The argument for US military operations that extend into Pakistani territory are driven by that misplaced frustration.

The Torkham border crossing was closed as an expression of dissent by Pakistan, against repeated NATO helicopter breaches of Pakistani airspace.

The real US frustration with Pakistan is not at the level of the minutiae of the US war in Afghanistan, but rather with the strategic realities, defined by geography, history and politics in the region.

Shared linguistic and cultural values across the Af-Pak border regions, as well as the porpous nature of the border should not be too difficult to understand for US policymakers. The US-Mexico border offers many of the same challenges as the so-called Durand Line. The most important international partner for Afghanistan invariably, is Pakistan. That strategic reality cannot be altered by force, by economic incentives, or by any other possible means.

NATO’s incursions into Pakistan and the Pakistani response highlight the operational and tactical challenges to the Obama surge—but the core strategic problems of the US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan remain concealed and obfuscated by these kinds of incidents.

Strategically, the US and NATO/ISAF cannot fully resource a classical counter-insurgency (COIN). This forces the adoption of a part COIN, and part counter-terrorism (CT) approach to the challenge posed by Al-Qaeda in the region. Most CT operations, however, such as clandestine special operations and drone attacks, while operationally effective, make the US unpopular in the region. The unpopularity earned by US CT operations undermines the essence of America’s COIN efforts.

The cost of US unpopularity impacts its partners in Pakistan most crucially. The Pakistani government, both the military and the elected administration, gain resources and international credibility, through their stated alignment with the US—but they lose popularity within Pakistan because of that visible alignment, and association with the US.

This internal contradiction within the Pakistani political space—where the government has economic and diplomatic incentive to be “pro-American”, but a political imperative to distance itself from the US—needs to be calibrated and balanced carefully.

NATO’s incursions into Pakistan and the Pakistani response have thrown this equation out of balance—and exposed more serious strategic problems for the US and Pakistan.

The Way Forward

The US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan sought to marry the diverse strands of American interests in the region—military, diplomatic and development—into one coherent whole. Conceptually, developing this coherence should have been relatively easy, given that these three strands correspond to the clear-hold-build COIN approach.

However, this coherence has been difficult to achieve—in part because the US policy does not reflect an appreciation of the limitations of US power—whether military, diplomatic or development. Most importantly however, the incoherence is because the instruments, timelines and goals of US military power, diplomatic/political power, and US development/economic power are all different. Combining them is inorganic and unnatural

The way forward for the US in Pakistan needs to begin with a separation of the disparate areas of military force, diplomatic and political power and economic and development potential—while recognizing the indelible impact one area can have on another.

The US must prioritize what it wants in Pakistan. If it wants to pursue Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan using drones, it must recognize the debilitating effect its drone strikes have on the political system in Pakistan. If it wants to strengthen governance in Pakistan, it must recognize that providing aid without assisting major reform initiatives, including the absorption of FATA into Pakistan’s “settled” areas, is counter-productive. Each choice the US makes in Pakistan will come with a price tag. If it wants to engage in cross-border hot pursuit of insurgents, it cannot expect any return on its investments in public diplomacy.

Most importantly, the US view of Pakistan must begin to allow for the possibility that inherent anti-Americanism is relatively limited—to the Pakistani far-right and far-left mostly. Instead, a lot of what is seen as being anti-American is in fact an expression of centrist Pakistani national sentiment around having a supposed ally violate its airspace, and in this instance, kill its soldiers.

US officials’ insistence on seeing mainstream Pakistani public opinion through the binary lens of “with the US or against the US” is myopic and dangerous. Invariably Pakistanis will, quite naturally, choose Pakistan, above all other considerations—no matter where it lands them in the calculus of US decision-makers. This unnecessarily antagonizes a complex and fraught relationship. The US apology for the deaths of the two Frontier Scouts is a good beginning in this regard. US equivalence for Pakistan’s territory with Afghanistan as one war theatre is also unhelpful and cause for anxiety in Pakistan. Supporting Pakistani efforts to secure the largely unmanned and open border between Afghanistan and Pakistan will also help avert border accidents as well as minimize room for insurgent crossings.

The most important and decisive role in reversing the direction of the US-Pakistan relationship however, is that of Pakistan’s. Nine years since the US war in Afghanistan began Pakistan has still not explicitly articulated its widely known preference for key groups among the Afghan Taliban, as a political force in Afghanistan.

The failure to express its preference openly creates suspicions about Pakistan’s intentions, and complicates perspectives about why and how Pakistani territory is misused by terrorists groups in FATA, and beyond.

Despite undertaking massive military operations in Swat, FATA and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the Pakistani state does not have a stated national security strategy, nor has it articulated a counter-terrorism strategy. The absence of a transparent and public policy on terrorism and how to fight it is a major black hole in Pakistani public policy. Without official documents, endorsed by parliament through a process of national consultation, suspicions about the Pakistani elite (military and civilian) among ordinary Pakistanis are magnified. This undermines the US policy of strengthening the Pakistani government, stabilizing the region, and ensuring the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan thus is not only an unpredictable ally to the United States, in its war against Al-Qaeda, it is unpredictable, as a state, to its own people. To become a state capable of delivering for its people, and capable of living up to its international obligations and commitments, Pakistan must immediately formulate comprehensive national security and counter-terrorism strategies endorsed by parliament and civil society. A clear articulation of Pakistan’s priorities and allegiances in these documents will mark a decisive turn, and offer the hope of better and more stable relations with Pakistan’s friends and neighbors.