Pakistan’s Strategic Culture and its Gordian Knot in Afghanistan

Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
AuthorAidan Parkes
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Pakistan’s Strategic
Culture and its Gordian
Knot in Afghanistan
Aidan Parkes1
A paradoxical element of Pakistan’s grand strategy exists in its approach to
Afghanistan. Pakistan’s instrumentalisation of Islamist groups such as the Taliban
has historically been the principal strategic method employed by the military to
minimise Indian influence in Afghanistan. However, this strategy risks jeopardis-
ing Pakistan’s strategic partnership with China, which is another method used by
Pakistan to counterbalance India. Beijing’s growing strategic interests in the region
require stability in South Asia, whereas Pakistan’s strategic method in Afghanistan
indicates a preference for instability. The destabilising effect of Pakistan’s support
for Islamist groups, and China’s desire for political and economic stability in South
Asia, indicate latent divergent interests in the Sino-Pakistan strategic partner-
ship. Therefore, this study factors China as a looming constraint on Pakistan’s
Afghanistan policy. This study also examines the psychological and strategic fac-
tors underpinning Pakistan’s support for Islamist groups in Afghanistan, and the
strategic constraints on this policy. Advancing the notion of a ‘strategic culture’ in
Pakistan’s military, this study canvasses the concept as an epiphenomenal explana-
tory factor of its Afghanistan policy, and more instructively, as a factor of strategic
Security, Pakistan, Afghanistan, strategic culture, military sociology
A growing tension between Pakistan’s support, on the one hand, for Islamist
groups such as the Taliban and its desire, on the other, to deepen its strategic
1 Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS), Australian National University (ANU), Ellery Cres, Canberra,
Corresponding author:
Aidan Parkes, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS), Australian National University (ANU),
Building 127, Ellery Cres, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
6(3) 254–274, 2019
The Author(s) 2019
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2347797019885728
Research article
Parkes 255
partnership with China presents a potential strategic dilemma in Afghanistan. In
2018, after enduring years of terrorism and instability, Afghanistan’s President
Ashraf Ghani found it necessary to offer the Taliban a comprehensive peace offer
and political recognition without preconditions. However, promoting the idea of
‘reconciliation’ with the Taliban in Afghanistan risks diverting attention from the
region’s broader strategic challenge: Pakistan’s geostrategic pursuit of influence
in Afghanistan through its instrumentalisation of Islamist groups such as the
Taliban (see Barfield, 2012; Farrell, 2017; Maley, 2009; Rashid, 2000, 2002;
Rubin, 1995; Saikal, 2004). Pakistan’s support for the Taliban insurgency is a
fundamental obstacle to stability in Afghanistan and to the success of the United
States’ counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign. However, Pakistan’s support for the
Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan also creates a stability paradox for China and
its interests in South Asia.
In a study of 30 COIN campaigns throughout history, the RAND Corporation
found that all insurgencies with cross-border sanctuary or support were successful
(Paul, Clarke, & Grill, 2010). Affirming the notion that COIN operations against
forces with cross-border sanctuary typically fail, experts widely agree that so long
as Pakistan provides support and sanctuary to the Taliban, peace will elude
Afghanistan (Byman, 2007, 2011; Lieven, 2011; Nawaz, 2009). As a corollary
implication for China, contestation in Afghanistan means stability in South Asia
is threatened. If China’s economic interests in South Asia in theatres such as the
China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are threatened, Pakistan faces a
potential dilemma between its support for Islamist groups and its desire to deepen
its relationship with China. This article explores the questions of what explains
Pakistan’s support for Islamist groups in Afghanistan and what are the strategic
constraints on this policy.
Pakistan has a long history of supporting the Taliban, albeit officially severing
ties after the September 11 attacks. However, experts widely agree that after 9/11,
Pakistan pursued a ‘dual track’ policy of ostensibly supporting the War on Terror
(WoT) while simultaneously harbouring and supporting enemy combatants in
Afghanistan (e.g., Gregory, 2007; Jones, 2007; Waldman, 2010; Weinbaum &
Harder, 2008). Pakistan’s principal intelligence agency, the Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, continues to support Islamist groups in Afghanistan
such as the Haqqani Network (HN) which has operated in various ways in
Afghanistan since the Cold War. Existing explanations of why Pakistan supports
these groups point to geostrategic competition with India, the pursuit of ‘strategic
depth’ and geographic influence (Parkes, 2019). Beyond these, cultural and social
forces such as pan-Islamism are arguably central aspects of the dynamics
underpinning Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. Some experts observe that a ‘strategic
culture’ based on Islamism and hostility towards India exists within Pakistan’s
military and explains its strategy towards Afghanistan (Fair, 2014; Haqqani, 2005).
This study expands on the ‘strategic culture’ notion, operationalising the
concept as one factor that explains Pakistan’s clouded Afghanistan policy but also
identifying it as a strategic constraint that prevents Pakistan from shifting its
Afghanistan posture. In addition to examining strategic culture as a constraint on
Pakistan–Afghanistan posture, this article posits that its strategic partnerships

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