The Best Defense

The seven steps of American officials dealing with the puzzles of Pakistan

By Tom Lynch
Best Defense department of dysfunctional diplomacy

Recent comments by Senator Kirk from Illinois exemplify a familiar pattern by senior U.S. political, military and diplomatic officials struggling to understand the devilish intricacies and deep challenges of South Asian politics through the constrained access portal of experience in or focus on Afghanistan. This struggle all too frequently takes the pattern of a seven-step process of "discovery learning" regarding the complexities of South Asia security by Americans first introduced to Afghanistan without background in the wider region. That process goes something like this ....

STEP 1 - MEET Afghans, find them engaging, look for the quick way to help them with a "hand up," ignore the vexing, decades-long regional security dilemmas underpinning their plight.

STEP 2 - DISCOVER Afghans suffer from multiple internal and external challenges -- take the (northern) Afghan viewpoint that theirs is all a problem of Pakistan's making.

STEP 3 - BLAME Pakistan for all Afghanistan's ills and despair of American engagement with Pakistan or Afghanistan, throw out the "I" word suggesting that more India in Afghanistan would "teach" Pakistan a lesson (and presumably save some cash).

STEP 4 - DISCOVER Pakistan already believes there is an Indian under every rock in Afghanistan - and that threatening a quicker Coalition departure and greater Indian involvement won't faze Pakistan.... Rawalpindi will move more quickly to bolster its Afghan Taliban allies for a proxy war.

STEP 5 - DETERMINE that India isn't really interested in bailing out the Coalition (or American politicians and diplomats) on western terms, has its own regional objectives and timetables, and isn't much responsive to boisterous American rhetoric accelerating the timelines on a Pakistan-India proxy war in Afghanistan. That proxy war may come, but India will work to prolong its onset as long as possible.

STEP 6 - RECOGNIZE that a rapidly-accelerating proxy war between two nuclear-armed nations encouraged by a precipitous withdrawal of US/Coalition forces before some political mechanism in place to limit the possibilities for that war is irresponsible, an approach that is all too similar to America's walk away from Afghanistan and Pakistan back the early 1990s that led to a proxy war in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan before both were fully tested nuclear-armed states.

STEP 7 - RESOLVE either to remain engaged with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India for a lengthy and challenging diplomatic-military process (including some level of non-trivial economic and military aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan for some time); or, SUCCUMB to the personal frustrations of it all and quit the field, making room for the next nouveau American to start the process at STEP 1.

Tom Lynch is a research fellow for South Asia & Near East at NDU. A retired Army Colonel, he was a special assistant focused on South Asian security for the CENTCOM Commander and later the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during 2004-2010. The opinions here are his own.

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