Robert Kaplan misses the plot

Any outside power in Afghanistan will be at loggerheads with Pakistan

In this month’s issue of the Atlantic monthly (linkthanks Anuj Tiku) Robert Kaplan argues that unless the United States addresses “what’s angering the ISI, we won’t be able to stabilize Afghanistan or capture al-Qaeda leaders inside its borders.” And “given these realities, you would think that the Bush administration would be coaching the Karzai government not to antagonize Pakistan unnecessarily by cozying up to India. Whatever coaching did happen has failed. The Karzai government has openly and brazenly strengthened its ties with India…(and) driven the ISI wild with fear and anger.”

So instead of “simplistic” talk of “sending more American troops to Afghanistan”, Mr Kaplan recommends “vigorous shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi to address India’s and Pakistan’s fears about Afghanistan.” Mr Kaplan doesn’t say what the diplomacy will be shuttled around, but judging by his argument that the ISI must not be angered, it would perhaps entail the United States asking India to scale down its relationship with Afghanistan.

Mr Kaplan is a self-described realist. But the problem is that his policy prescriptions are based on an incomplete analysis of the situation. For instance, he correctly points out that America’s “interests are now more or less aligned with those of the Soviets 20 years ago.” But he then abandons realism when he says, in the next sentence, “but rather than repeat their mistakes, we need to strive to prevent Pakistan from turning into the enemy of the American-backed government in Kabul”. Mr Kaplan fails to grasp the reality that any regime in Kabul—whether independent or backed by an outside power—will remain at loggerheads with Pakistan. It’s not only the Indian influence that the ISI is angry with. It is first the American influence. It is also the reason why Pakistan was a FATWAT and a backer of the Taliban at the same time for the last seven years.

So what does realism suggest for the United States? Well, as Mr Kaplan says, it should not repeat the mistakes made by the Soviets. One reason the Soviets lost that war was because they didn’t (and couldn’t) credibly threaten to attack Pakistan. The only way the United States can win the war is to create a balance of power in Afghanistan where the Pakistan—despite an angry ISI—cannot destabilise the Afghan government. And that is pretty much aligned to India’s interests too.

Related Posts: Nikolas Gvosdev and Joshua Foust get it.

Update: Pragmatic Euphony covers recent posts and articles on this theme.

15 thoughts on “Robert Kaplan misses the plot”

  1. Rather unsurprisingly, Sepia Mutiny’s Amardeep manages to miss the plot as well.

    Good to note that several commentators have attempted to educate him in the comments section at the post.

    With reference to your sub-title, IMO, all powers in Afghanistan will be at loggerheads with Pakistan, as long as Pakistan’s outdated obsession with strategic depth etc. continues.

  2. Nitin:

    Can you send Robert the latest issue of Pragati to educate him a bit? Or is it that he is looking for the US national interest while Nitin Pai is focusing on the INI!

    Although at one level, there is nothing wrong if US can get India, Pakistan and Afghanistan to work towards resolving the Pakistani conundrum. Only, unlike Robert’s prescription, ISI has to be considered as an integral part of the rogue/ jehadi elements, inimical to Indian, Pakistan, Afghanistan and US interest!

  3. BOK—I considered that qualifier. But decided against it. Because it might just be structural, as old Professor Vishnu Gupta from the Taxila School of Foreign Policy argued.

    Pragmatic—let’s hope that he reads this criticism, because he is known to have the ear of presidents. He might be looking for the US national interest, but he is wrong on this count. It is against US interests to try and accommodate Pakistan’s wishes, as the story of the last seven years shows rather too clearly.

  4. Kaplan, usually a good reporter and contemporary historian seems to have forgotten his history. The entire ISI project of incubating the taliban, injecting it into Afghanistan, using it to defeat the northern alliance and kill Ahmed Shah Massoud was to create a greater pakistan for the purpose of “strategic depth” against India in any future war scenario.

    9/11 laid to waste this entire grand strategy. What the pakis really fear now is an Indo-Afghan military alliance that can be utilized to open eight to ten new war fronts on its entire west wing stretch. If Indians manage to achieve this, it would be the greatest strategic accomplishment after 1971.

    I think we should go for it with all we have.

  5. Nitin:
    He might be looking for the US national interest, but he is wrong on this count. It is against US interests to try and accommodate Pakistan’s wishes, as the story of the last seven years shows rather too clearly.

    I dont know. I think it has been in US interests to let Pakistan get away with its support to Taliban and still be a FATWAT as long as it has been able to ensure that mainland US doesnt get attacked again. The reason things are hotting up for Pakistan is because the Taliban are clearly getting strong enough to be in a position to take over the whole of Afghanistan in the future and going by Taliban’s past record of allowing Al Qaeda to operate freely in its territory, it seems certain that handing over a whole country to them once more would be a template for another disaster.

    My point being, if Pakistan is able to calibrate Taliban’s take over of Afghanistan in such a way to guarantee preventing any attacks on US, then what Kaplan says might be applicable. Why should US continue to lose soldiers there. Then again, this depends on how much control ISI exercises over Taliban.

  6. As far as Afghanistan “cozying up to India” is concerned, that’s what happens when we pump $750M into it. India is the 2nd largest donor after the US. The Pakistanis, and the ISI in particular, should know from their own experience that big money always has big riders attached.

    Nitin, would be interesting to hear your ideas on tackling an ideological outfit such as the ISI where pragmatic calculations often suffer at the hands of leaps of faith. And where righteousness of actions flows from a Higher Authority.

  7. “unless the United States addresses “what’s angering the ISI…”

    That’s an amazing statement for Kaplan to make. I thought he was bit more knowledgeable than that.

    Doesn’t US already restrict what India does to keep the angry ISI and LoP pacified.

    Apparently few more bombing, Kaplan, unable to take ISI anger, will turn tail and walk or rather would want India to hand over J&K to pacify the angry ISI….

  8. Chandra,

    You are right. And this was anticipated, among other places, on this blog. See these two posts. For those of us who spent the weeks after 9/11 is sheer amazement, this should not come as a surprise.

    There is therefore a need to act to prevent some silly ideas from becoming policy.

  9. This extract from a link that I received in my email from one of you shows the importance of bringing about a US-Iran rapprochement.

    “What I want to know,” the struggling owner of a small factory said to me just this winter, “is why America is supporting Pakistan when Pakistan is working against America.”

    Beats me, I wanted to reply. I have always assumed that in the post-9/11 pinch, we simply carried over a Cold War alliance—blindly recalling the time when Pakistan was our partner in making Afghanistan a trap for the Soviet Union. But the equation is now so perplexing to Kandaharis that the vast majority of them are convinced the United States is secretly in league with the Taliban, in one of those convoluted and deceitful alliances that have plagued South Asian history.

    It is only now, as the Bush administration seems to be whipping up pretexts for war with Iran, that I think I may discern a further reason. Perhaps the Bush administration’s extraordinary gentleness with Pakistan—a terrorist state if there ever was one—fits into long-incubated plans for conflict with Iran. If the United States were to launch yet a third Middle Eastern war in less than a decade, it would be heavily dependent on Muslim allies in the region, critical among them Pakistan. And I suspect that Pakistan is opportunistically exploiting this American obsession with Iran, just as it has skillfully exploited the American obsession with al Qaeda, to pursue its own agenda in Afghanistan.[Boston Review]

  10. Here is Charlie Rose interviewing Husain Haqqani yesterday – I don’t know he is LoP ambassador to US now, and his wife, who is apparently an MP or senator some such thing in LoP parliament. The interview is about that NYT article and Charlie asks pointed questions about the so called proof delivered by CIA to ISI. Haqqani denies CIA actually gave proof – if not we would act, he says!!! The interview is 45 minutes and is a classic Gen Mush type talk – what else are they going to say.

    The lilliputs say they will control ISI and the army and also have kind words for Gen Kayani. In some ways the talk is understandable because he is part of govt of LoP now. But it’s the same old rosy picture of working together with everyone and what not. We will see how long it will continue before another general has a say.

  11. One other thing that deeply angered me about that Kaplan article was the astounding arrogance of suggesting President Bush “coach” Hamid Karzai on how not to anger the Pakistanis, as if Bush has a better understanding of either Afghanistan’s interests or regional politics than either Karzai or Singh. Even if we put him in power (which we did), we haven’t the right.

    Unlike Kaplan’s other insane ramblings about Special Forces, the Balkans, or the American Midwest, he has actually written coherently about Afghanistan. That he would write this kind of crap is just weird.

  12. To achieve strategic depth, etc. seems to be the desired end state of all the factions (From secular-liberal to jihadis and everyone in between) of politico military establishment in Pakistan.

    Realistically, the only force stopping them to actually achieve this is the presence of US troops in Afghanistan.

    In my view, the presence of American troops is justified (to American public) only as long as Al-Qaeda is operating in the area. Once 9-11 doers are eliminated, it will become harder for American politicians to justify the casualties to the public. Every soldier who dies after this will be a step towards a withdrawal. However, a nominal force may remain.

    If the above mentioned factions in Pakistan really want America out of the picture, it may actually be useful for them to help America find Al-Qaeda bigwigs. That this hasn’t been the case for the last decade goes on to show how much power the jihadis in the Army have over such policy matters. Some may argue that in continuing the current double game, Pakistn can milk the American cow, so to say. But looking at what they have managed to milk out so far, a few military toys, for all the spreading violence in the country; it seems like a bad deal for Pakistan.

    So any Al-Qaeda-Bad, Taliban-bearable type noises out of the LoP rulers in comming days may point towards a compromise between these factions in the military. Some would even suggest, maybe correctly, that the peace deals are a part of this routine.

    Such petty enemies we have who gamble the future of their countries for a few F-16s.
    For yes indeed the viper is the “pride n joy” of every Paki man.

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