“According to the bilateral security agreement, the United States “shall regard with grave concern any external aggression or threat of external aggression against the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity” of Afghanistan. And yet Washington wouldn’t want to formally side against Pakistan, a nation with which the United States seeks a workable relationship.”
MICHAEL KUGELMAN — Afghanistan and Pakistan are in a dangerous stalemate, with no resolution in sight.
Fortunately, all-out war is unlikely. Afghanistan’s army is in no position to take on its superior Pakistani counterpart; Afghan analysts have admitted that their military lacks sufficient long-range weaponry.
However, limited conflict—additional cross-border shelling from Pakistan coupled with possible retaliatory strikes from Afghanistan’s highly disciplined Special Forces—is highly likely in the future for two reasons.
First, repositories of goodwill are scarce in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, which are tense for reasons that go well beyond cross-border terrorism. At the core of the dispute is Afghanistan’s refusal to recognize their disputed border, known as the Durand Line. Kabul also resents alleged discrimination against Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Second, recent efforts at reconciliation have failed, heightening the political risks of extending new olive branches.
The crisis in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations raises uncomfortable questions for the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. If Pakistani shelling resumes and intensifies, Kabul may invoke the bilateral security agreement that governs the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and call on American forces to help defend against Pakistani strikes. The agreement is not a defense pact that requires U.S. forces to come to Afghanistan’s aid, but it does feature an “external aggression” provision that stipulates that “in the event of external aggression . . . the Parties shall hold consultations on an urgent basis to develop and implement an appropriate response, including . . . available political, diplomatic, military, and economic measures.”
Such a scenario would present a policy conundrum for Washington. U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan to help Afghan forces, and according to the bilateral security agreement, the United States “shall regard with grave concern any external aggression or threat of external aggression against the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity” of Afghanistan. And yet Washington wouldn’t want to formally side against Pakistan, a nation with which the United States seeks a workable relationship.
Additionally, Kabul may call on India, a friend to both Afghanistan and the United States, to scale up military support. New Delhi has long hesitated to provide weaponry to Kabul for fear of provoking Pakistan’s ire. However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has telegraphed a willingness to be bold. In 2014, he signed off on a deal to send several Russia-manufactured fighter helicopters to Kabul—the first time India transported offensive weaponry to Afghanistan. And Afghanistan’s army chief visited New Delhi last summer to request additional lethal hardware.
In Pakistan, many observers contend that India is backing the Afghanistan-based terrorists attacking Pakistan. Stepped-up India-Afghanistan security cooperation—or mere perceptions of it—could prompt a piqued Pakistan to intensify its shelling in Afghanistan.
Washington faces the alarming prospect of an escalation in cross-border tensions involving three countries in a nuclear-armed region housing nearly 9,000 U.S. troops. It’s high time the White House announced a new policy for Afghanistan and broader South Asia—one that addresses not only U.S. troop levels but also the rising regional tensions that threaten to engulf a dangerous neighborhood. This policy should position the United States as a formal mediator in the Afghanistan-Pakistan dispute—thereby affording Trump an opportunity to help broker an accord to ease bilateral tensions. This would be a challenge, to be sure, but a challenge that Trump—who prides himself on his dealmaking prowess—should relish.
Last month, Pakistan suffered its deadliest spasm of terrorist violence since 2014. Over a period of four days in February, militants struck all four Pakistani provinces and three major urban spaces. The bloodshed culminated on February 16 with an assault on a revered Sufi shrine that killed nearly 90 people. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on Pakistani soil since a school massacre in the city of Peshawar that killed 141 people, most of them students, in 2014.
This killing spree has dangerous implications, not only for Pakistan, which has enjoyed a relative respite from terrorist violence over the last two years, but also for the broader region. Pakistan’s already tense relationship with Afghanistan has been plunged into deep crisis, with conflict a very real possibility.
The attacks in February were claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Pakistani Taliban faction; Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian extremist group; and a local chapter of the Islamic State known as ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K). These are arguably the most active and lethal terror groups operating in Pakistan today. And according to Pakistan, they are all based in Afghanistan.
Islamabad has insisted that Kabul crack down—a demand that’s grown louder ever since the Peshawar school attack. That tragedy was staged by another Afghanistan-based terrorist entity, the parent Pakistani Taliban organization. In fact, most terrorist assaults in Pakistan over the last two years—many of which have targeted the border province of Baluchistan—have been perpetrated by groups now based in Afghanistan. Many militants fled there to escape a Pakistani counterterrorism offensive launched in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency in 2014.
For Pakistan, the bloodshed last month may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Soon after the February 16 shrine attack, Pakistan closed two major border crossings. It gave Afghan officials a list of 76 “most wanted” terrorists on Afghan soil and demanded that Kabul deal with them immediately. Then, on February 17, the Pakistani military started shelling what it described as terrorist ecampments in Afghanistan. On February 19, Pakistani media reports claimed that the artillery shelling had destroyed “nearly a dozen” training camps and hideouts and killed “over a dozen” terrorists.
Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry denounced the shelling as “an act of aggression.” The Afghan army, warning that “Afghanistan will not allow any country to conduct any kind of military intervention on its soil,” threatened retaliation. Meanwhile, on February 20, the Afghan Foreign Ministry delivered to the Pakistani government another list, this one of more than 30 terrorist camps and nearly 90 Taliban operatives allegedly on Pakistani soil—and demanded that Pakistan take action against them all.
MICHAEL KUGELMAN is the Senior Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. His original article can be accessed on Foreign Affairs website.
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