No Shortcuts for Pakistan on Counterterrorism

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

No Shortcuts for Pakistan on Counterterrorism

On April 5, the Obama administration delivered a stark evaluation of Pakistan’s counterterrorism campaign to Congress, stating that “there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency” festering in the country’s northwestern regions. Over the past decade, militants have killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and wreaked devastation on the country’s fragile economy. And since 2001, 2,575 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. Why, then, have Pakistan’s leaders failed to develop a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy?

It is true that Pakistan has made important progress against militancy in recent years. Starting in mid-2009, the army began a series of full-scale military offensives. Today more than 147,000 Pakistani troops — many of them repositioned from Pakistan’s eastern border with its historic rival, India — are fighting militants in the border areas.

But military gains are being squandered by the country’s dysfunctional political system. Although democracy returned in 2008 after a decade of military rule, it is far from consolidated. The absence of settled rules of political contestation encourages fractious conflict between military and civilian institutions and among civilian representatives. Too busy undermining each other in the pursuit of short-term political advantage, Pakistani leaders have yet to focus their strategic attention on the militant challenge.

Pakistan’s contradictory attitude toward extremism does not help either. Elements of the country’s intelligence services view some terrorist organizations — such as the Haqqani network, based in North Waziristan — to be strategic assets that can protect Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials distinguish between these networks and other insurgent groups that target Pakistan itself, and Islamabad has launched military campaigns only against the latter group. This distinction has blunted the overall impact of the state’s counterinsurgency operations.

Finally, militant groups and hard-line Islamist political parties have hijacked the country’s public discourse. Outspoken critics of religious fanaticism have been repeatedly attacked and killed. Salman Taseer, the late governor of the country’s richest province, was murdered in January for his opposition to a law that permits discrimination against minorities. Voices clearly condemning the murder were few and far in between, while hundreds of clerics signed a statement condoning Taseer’s assassination. Intimidation has silenced moderates, reducing the political space for an honest national conversation about how to respond effectively to terrorism.

The fires of jihadism will not be extinguished until Pakistan’s leaders set aside their self-defeating rivalry, forge a shared ideological consensus against all militant groups and develop a long-term counterterrorism strategy. This will take time. The challenge for the United States, however, is that Pakistani terrorist sanctuaries are fueling insurgency in Afghanistan and endangering the American homeland right now.

Washington has long tried to persuade Pakistan to act more robustly against terrorism. But if few countries are more central to U.S. national security than Pakistan, in almost no other society is Washington’s ability to influence events so sharply limited. Polls consistently demonstrate that anti-American sentiment inside Pakistan is among the highest in the world, and pernicious conspiracy theories alleging that the United States is hostile to Pakistan pervade the country’s popular media. To make matters worse, Pakistani institutions and leaders often stoke anti-American sentiment in order to push back against U.S. policies or to extract strategic concessions from Washington. The result is a mutually distrustful relationship that has seriously undermined the United States’ capacity to function as a strategic interlocutor.

The Obama administration has made efforts to alter the toxic dynamic of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. Economic aid to Pakistan is designed to show Pakistanis that the United States has a long-term interest in their country’s security and prosperity. But many Pakistanis view foreign assistance as an entitlement rather than an incentive, given the costs in blood and treasure incurred by the country in the war on terror. While American aid bolsters the Pakistani government’s capacity to fight, it neither increases Islamabad’s underlying willingness to do so nor reduces Pakistani distrust of the United States.

Since carrots have had a limited effect, should the United States use sticks? Punitive measures could be designed to compel Pakistan to act more vigorously. They might include strong diplomatic censure, the conditioning or curtailing of economic aid, economic sanctions and even U.S. ground operations inside Pakistan against militant sanctuaries.

The problem with taking a harder line is that it would hinder the development of a nationwide anti-terrorism consensus in Pakistan. Even if the United States were able to force Pakistan to undertake short-term counterterrorism operations, compellence would be unlikely to yield long-term gains. It is not enough for Pakistan to simply do more; Pakistan has to want to do more. But if Pakistanis erroneously believe that their fight against jihadism is based on U.S. interests, they will be less inclined to fight extremism. Pakistanis need to assess the extremist peril on its own terms, not through the lens of their conflicted relationship with the United States.

Instead, the United States should strive for a minimalist, diplomacy-oriented strategy. Although Washington cannot transform Pakistan’s leaders, it can generate political conditions that encourage more-constructive behavior. American diplomats should work behind the scenes to stabilize the country’s chaotic politics, encouraging civilian leaders to work together and warning the military to avoid interfering in the democratic process. Reducing tensions between Pakistan and its immediate neighbors on its western and eastern borders will also encourage the state to focus on internal problems rather than external threats.

Ultimately, however, Pakistan itself must take the first steps on a new path. The country’s leaders have to spark an honest national conversation about the causes and consequences of home-grown militancy; state institutions must work in concert rather than in opposition; and the entire society has to be mobilized against extremism. The United States can play a supporting role, but Pakistan must do the heavy lifting. There are no shortcuts on the long road ahead.

Ahmed Humayun is Senior Analyst at Georgetown University’s Emerging Threats Project and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).

This article was published by World Politics Review on April 12, 2011. Click here to read 

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