City of Brass

City of Brass


linking Afghanistan and Pakistan?

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I am engaged in some rethinking of our Afghanistan policy, and trying to look at Obama’s proposed strategy with a fresh outlook. This is more challenging because I am generally a fan of Obama’s policies rather than a critic. As a starting point, Obama’s idea of linking Afghanistan and Pakistan policy together is predicated on an assumption that they are two halves of one problem:

The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan. In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al Qaeda’s leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe haven to hide, to train terrorists, to communicate with followers, to plot attacks, and to send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.

True, there are overlapping regions of tactical interest, and Al Qaeda does move between the two. But given that much of our strategy involves the fate and circumstances of the Afghans themselves, does that really make strategic sense? I think it’s worth reviewing some basic information about Afghanstan in order to evaluate it.

Using the CIA World Factbook, we see that Afghanistan’s average life expectancy is just under 45 years. Infant mortality is over 15% (1 in 8 babies do not live past 3). The median age is 17.6 years, ie 50% of the population is under the age of 18. Basic literacy (for adults aged 15+) is 28.1%, ie more than 70% of the adult population cannot read or write. These numbers alone give some sense of the profound challenge the average Afghani faces in just staying alive, let alone providing for a family. Comparing this information with Pakistan is illuminating – here’s a quick tabular comparison to drive the point home:

Afghanistan Pakistan
land area 647k sq km 800k sq km
population 33 million 176 million
average life expectancy 45 years 65 years
infant mortality 15.2% 6.5%
median age 17.6 years 20.8 years
basic literacy 28.1% 50%
unemployment rate 40% 7.4%
average annual income $800 $2600
urban population 24% 36%

There’s a lot here to mull over. Given these differences, I think that it makes more sense to talk of a Tribal policy or a Waziristan policy than it does of a Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. I don’t see why we really need to involve ourselves directly in Pakistan at all – a true partnership of the kind Obama is talking about would involve coordination of American efforts and Pakistani efforts, in Waziristan. Direct action by ourselves in Pakistan runs a risk of weakening Pakistan’s sovereignity, which is as dangerous if not more so than any outcome across the border. Unfortunately, the framework of a joint strategy seems to be encouraging more intervention deeper within Pakistan than just the border with Afghanistan.



  • http://Pakistan Samad

    I completely agree. And also, why are we putting more troops into Afghanistan when we should be pulling out. No one has ever won there. Those people are deeply conservative and do not like to be bothered. Thats the reason why all these nationalistic groups have popped up. we didn’t even have to go in to afghanistan we could have put pressure on pakistan to handle them.

  • Tim Stork

    A nice book to read on this is Achmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos.

  • http://www.deanesmay.com Dean Esmay

    Here’s the sad part about this:
    They’ll think you’re just being wonkish and throwing numbers around. As if those numbers really don’t mean anything, as if you’re just being a geek to bring them up.
    Dude. The average Afghan is under the age of 18, and cannot read or write. And his whole life has been war.
    His. Whole. Life. Has. Been. War.
    Oh, and has he got a woman in his life? Yeah, she’s probably aged 16 and has already given him 3 babies, maybe 2 of which have survived.
    That’s not a joke. It’s not a political point. It’s reality on the ground. You need to get that. I need to get that. We all need to get that.
    It’s not an academic point.
    If you have an opinion on Afghanistan, it needs to start with this: the average Afghan is 17 years old.
    The average Afghan is 17. Go.

  • http://marypmadigan.wordpress.com Mary Madigan

    I don’t see why we really need to involve ourselves directly in Pakistan at all – a true partnership of the kind Obama is talking about would involve coordination of American efforts and Pakistani efforts, in Waziristan.
    The Taliban and many other Sunni terrorist groups are supported and were trained by members of Pakistan’s Intelligence agency. Members of the Pakistani government and wealthy Pakistanis support terrorist groups in their continuing efforts to intimidate Hindus and various local separatist groups, to gain local influence, and, of course, to make lots of money dealing drugs, selling weapons, etc.
    It’s standard gangster/oligarch stuff. Like most Islamist Mad-Max states (Somalia, Sudan) Afghanistan is nothing but a playground for their more wealthy, educated,criminal neighbors. This situation is best fought by disempowering and dismantling criminal/politically extreme Pakistani organizations. If we had to choose between a focus on Afghanistan or Pakistan, we should concentrate on Pakistan.

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