Saving Pakistan’s Heartland

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Saving Pakistan’s Heartland

In recent weeks, Washington has strongly urged Islamabad to expand counterinsurgency in Pakistan’s tribal areas. This encouragement is vital: Despite some military gains, a wide range of militant groups continue to enjoy sanctuary in northwestern Pakistan. At the same time, however, a spate of bloody attacks in major cities — such as a recent assault on a Shiite religious procession in Karachi — has underscored the Taliban’s growing presence beyond the border regions. The United States should not underestimate the strategic importance of countering the Taliban advance into key urban centers. In particular, Washington should increase the attention paid to Islamabad’s civilian counterterrorism efforts in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh.

The stability of Pakistan’s critical regions of political and economic power — cities such as Karachi in Sindh and Lahore in Punjab — is not only pivotal to the short-term success of the counterinsurgency in the northwestern regions, but it is also essential to the survival of the fragile, nuclear-armed democracy in the long run.

For one thing, Taliban chapters in major centers of economic activity are a significant source of revenue for the insurgency. Pakistan’s large urban areas are an ideal venue for criminal activity: Wealth is concentrated, while security and governance are weak. Last year, the Taliban’s Karachi chapter raised millions of dollars through extortion, protection rackets, kidnappings, and even bank heists. In effect, militants are adroitly exploiting the civilian security vacuum in the south to fund their war against the state in the north.

Pakistan’s major cities also connect jihadists to the world beyond Pakistan. Taliban leaders use poorly secured airports and ports to seek sanctuary abroad. In October, approximately 60 of the Swat Taliban’s second-tier leadership escaped to the Middle East through Karachi. Currently, other militants from Pakistan are relocating to countries such as Yemen and Somalia.

Rampant insecurity in urban areas also provides the Pakistani Army with leverage in its long-running political tug of war with the democratic government. Jihadists have dramatically escalated their attacks on noncombatants in recent months, killing more than 600 Pakistanis since October alone. From the public’s perspective, President Asif Ali Zardari’s government has been hapless in the face of the Taliban’s brazen aggression. By contrast, military spokesmen tout new figures of militants killed in the tribal areas on a daily basis, and retired generals on news channels routinely juxtapose the heroism of their soldiers with the inefficiency of the civilian regime. The more Pakistanis feel vulnerable, the more they will be willing to trade democracy for security.

In the long run, continued instability in the Pakistani heartland jeopardizes the state’s very existence. If the Taliban assault on the cities remains unchecked, Pakistan’s professional class, which is instrumental in delivering civil services and spurring economic growth, will seek opportunities abroad. The departure of the skilled middle class, the only people who can hold Pakistan together, may trigger state collapse.

Broadening the anti-militant campaign in the border regions without simultaneously securing major cities will not reduce the jihadi threat to Pakistan or the United States. If funding flows unimpeded from the south to Taliban bases in northwestern Pakistan, the insurgency will continue to fester. If militants avoid fighting the Pakistani Army, transiting through weakly protected cities to escape abroad, then the West will not be safer. And the destruction of every militant base in Waziristan today will be a Pyrrhic victory if Lahore and Karachi are lost to anarchy tomorrow.

Therefore, in conjunction with ongoing counterinsurgency efforts in the tribal areas, Islamabad must also develop a strategy that relies on Pakistan’s civilian law enforcement agencies to repel the Taliban infiltration of its big cities. Pakistan should start with bolstering its most important civilian security institutions, focusing on the Pakistani police. Although notoriously corrupt, the police have, in fact, gathered vital intelligence on militant plots and captured key Taliban leaders in the past. Better salaries that reduce the incentive for corruption and specialized counterterrorism training are critical steps to further strengthening the force.

The Pakistani legal system must also play a central role in countering the Taliban in urban centers. This will require the implementation of new laws: Increasing the power of civilian security institutions without providing clear guidelines for the investigation and prosecution of militants will yield ad hoc and counterproductive results. The Anti-Terrorism Ordinance 2009 — which identifies terrorism as a special crime, delineates specific punishments for terrorist acts, and sanctions pro-militant propaganda — is a move in the right direction. Going forward, Islamabad should establish clear legal mechanisms for the coordination and integration of counterterrorism efforts by multiple agencies across district and provincial boundaries.

While the onus is on Islamabad to develop an effective civilian counterterrorism strategy, Washington has an important supporting role to play. To its credit, by securing the passage of the landmark Kerry-Lugar bill last year, Barack Obama’s administration has already evinced an unprecedented commitment to the civilian government. The flow of funds, however, should be responsive to the changing realities on the ground. In particular, financial support for civilian security institutions continues to be geographically biased toward the border regions. Although such programs should be maintained, Washington should also broaden the scope of its assistance to encompass law enforcement agencies in key areas of Punjab and Sindh.

Helping Islamabad improve urban security might have one other payoff for Washington in the long run. It is conventional wisdom in Pakistan that the United States is only interested in killing terrorists in the tribal areas and that it is indifferent to the immense civilian deaths inflicted by jihadists flushed out from the border regions by military operations. However, by increasing its emphasis on the protection of Pakistanis — through its civilian aid program and in its dialogue with Islamabad — the United States may be able to weaken this anti-American argument.

Securing Pakistan’s cities from the Taliban advance will require a long, concerted effort by Islamabad. But the alternative — expanding military operations without improving the security of critical regions — will only yield tactical success at the potential cost of strategic failure. However, if Islamabad commits itself to defending citizens in its major cities, then with Washington’s help it may yet prevail against the jihadists that seek its destruction.

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 Foreign Policy Magazine on February 8, 2010:


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