Originally posted December 2009

South Asia is a region in crisis — plagued by a set of interlocking problems that have deep and tangled roots. And Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is at the center.

The International Coalition — Support Eroding?

By fall 2009, the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan had turned ominous. The Taliban were gaining ever more strength in communities around Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal, head of the International Security in Afghanistan Forces (ISAF), the coalition force opposing the Taliban, expressed his belief that without changes, the war could be lost within a year.  In the meantime, the countries providing troops for the ISAF were losing resolve. The Italians declared their desire to leave, and the Germans wanted out. Even the Americans, whose commitment was crucial, were dithering as they considered the proposals. The generals wanted many more troops (as many as 40,000) while Vice President Joe Biden wanted fewer; prominent US Senators demanded a timetable for getting out, and some of them were ready to quit immediately. The British alone seemed confident about staying — they said so often, as if to keep up their resolve.

Meanwhile, the legitimacy of the Afghan government for which these forces had been fighting was deeply compromised by voting irregularities in the August 2009 presidential election. Corruption seemed to have trickled all the way down: local officials, underpaid and under protected, demanded cash and special favors to perform rudimentary services. And the illicit opium economy — involving countless numbers of people, both powerful and weak, and rural and urban — was generating nearly half the country’s income. General McChrystal’s broadly published judgment of the situation could not have helped the situation on the ground, for it reaffirmed what the Taliban had been claiming all along: They will be there when the Americans have left, and ultimately they will prevail. 

Afghanistan — A Fractured Society

What can the ordinary good people of Afghanistan do but reconsider their connections in such a climate? After so many years of war, they have learned how to survive. Dr. Alessandro Monsutti reports that the Hazara families situate their relatives on both sides of a conflict in order to ensure viable options, whatever the outcome; similar strategies must be in practice elsewhere in the country. This society, after so many years of conflict, is now composed of fragile alliances and agreements that can be invoked or ignored as circumstances require. These are the means through which people cope with the exigencies of internecine and intermittent war that grinds on for decades.

But when it comes to preferences, there is no doubt about the genuine wishes of the Afghan peoples: They want a government that responds to their circumstances, not, as currently, one that fails to provide services or protection, or one that, like the Taliban when they were in power, limits simple pleasures such as kite flying, music, and television. Scarcely 6% admit to wanting the Taliban back. Rather, they would like a democracy that works. Thousands of people — women as well as men — of every ethnicity, participated in the first national election. At that time, the voting booth-inked finger was a mark of pride. It is largely frustration with the current administration and a fear of the threats of the Taliban that reduced participation in the last election. The evident corruption of the process has deflated hope, but reportedly a few people still want to go through the election again.

Pakistan — A Conflicted State

Most of the talk among Americans is about what to do about Afghanistan while little is being said about the source of the Taliban problem: Pakistan. It was the Pakistani military which, in the mid-1990s, made use of a group of earnest, zealous schoolboys led by their Qur’anic teacher, Mullah Muhammad Omar, to create an organized, trained, and equipped, and essentially Pashtun, military force. After their defeat in 2001, the Taliban who escaped into Pakistan’s tribal areas found a supportive environment for reconstituting themselves, which reportedly they began to do as early as 2003. They could not have acquired their present sophistication without the help of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the agency that protected, trained, and provisioned the Afghan Taliban for the real agenda — the ongoing war against India. 

Because the real concern of the Pakistani military is the struggle with India over Kashmir, they consider radical fighting groups like the Taliban to be vital resources. As a Muslim state claiming the right to rule adjacent Muslim lands, the Pakistani military has allowed radical Islamist groups to form so that they can be deployed in case of war (i.e., in the continued war) with India. The most notable of those which the ISI fostered and supplied were the Jaish-i Muhammad, the group that captured and murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, and the Lashkar-i Taiba, who produced suicide bombers for Kashmir and masterminded the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 in which 173 people were killed. Owing to the tolerance of the ISI, Mullah Muhammad Omar, head of the original Taliban, has long had his headquarters in Quetta despite official claims that he cannot be found.

The reason for this policy is that Pakistan needs a friendly Afghanistan. Ever since the 1980s, the Pakistanis have recognized the importance of Central Asia to their future. Afghanistan must be a friendly state to Pakistan through which the resource-rich lands of the Central Asian republics can be accessed. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline, for example, which has been in the planning stage for years, is crucial to Pakistan’s future prosperity. For that, Pakistan, with China’s help, already has invested over a billion dollars to build a new port on the Indian Ocean at Gwadar. Another reason for Pakistan’s desire for a friendly government in Kabul is the perceived need for “strategic depth” in case of war with India.

In truth, Pakistan is a conflicted state. It is fighting a war with India while it claims to be helping in the “War on Terror” against al-Qa‘ida and the Taliban. While affirming friendship with the United States, Pakistan’s government regards Afghanistan as allied to India and thus an enemy regime. The Taliban, opposed to the Kabul government, are prized assets for the war with India. The contradiction in this policy came vividly to light in 2008 and 2009 when some of the Taliban began to push beyond the tribal zones where they had been based conveniently close to the Afghanistan border, establishing themselves in neighboring sectors of Pakistan. After taking over Swat, they announced their intention to impose their brand of “Islamic Shari‘a” there. But what finally aroused the Pakistani military was a prominent Taliban leader’s announcement that he and his followers were determined to impose Shari‘a throughout the country. The Pakistani army responded by attacking the Taliban of Swat; friends only a few weeks before, they instantly became mortal enemies. As a result of the fighting, more than two and a half million residents of Swat fled their homes, creating a crisis for the government.


The crisis in South Asia defies easy solutions, for the Afghanistan-Pakistan and the Pakistan-India conflicts intersect and crosscut each other. Here we find a scarcely legitimate state and a fractured society (Afghanistan), a conflicted state (Pakistan), a resolute opposition (the Taliban), a looming neighbor (India), and a foreign military force (ISAF) trapped in a conflict that they scarcely understand — this tangle of forces has challenged the creative abilities of all who have posed solutions. It should be no wonder that the principal actors find themselves in a quandary.