America’s Perennial Pakistan Problem

Why Washington Failed to Win Over Islamabad—and Prevent a Taliban Victory

By Daniel Markey

September 9, 2021

In Karachi, Pakistan, February 2019 Akhtar Soomro / Reuters

The U.S. failure in Afghanistan also reflects the failure of Washington’s approach to Pakistan. Islamabad has been the Taliban’s most important foreign sponsor: it helped birth the group in the 1990s, then worked against the United States to enable its survival and resurgence. Today, prominent members of Pakistan’s security establishment are cheering the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Despite billions of dollars in aid and high-tech military equipment from Washington, they remain convinced that their unwavering commitment to the extremist Islamist group was a brilliant strategic gambit.

How could the United States have failed so completely to engineer a change in Pakistan’s behavior in Afghanistan? Why couldn’t Washington convince or coerce Pakistan to join its side?

These questions are even more urgent following the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. With its client established in Kabul, Pakistan remains deeply entangled in its neighbor’s politics. Future solutions to the threats posed by a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan—including the potential resurgence of al Qaeda or similar terrorist groups—will likely run through Islamabad. Recent U.S.-Pakistani dialogues on these issues show signs of friction: Pakistani officials have downplayed the extent of the Taliban’s …

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