Pakistan’s Failing War on Terror

Pakistan needs to rethink its strategy for defeating jihadi groups -- not just throw more troops at the problem.


Despite the shrill public discussion of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, the most important front of the war in South Asia continues to be Pakistan, which the world’s most dangerous jihadists call home. On this issue, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that U.S. President Barack Obama’s private deliberations on strategy have focused on Pakistan, coupling offers of increased military and economic assistance with warnings that Islamabad must abandon its habit of supporting Islamist proxy forces. The bad news is that al Qaeda’s radical pan-Islamic ideology is infecting militants long-supported by the Pakistani state, and Pakistan’s security services have not caught up with the problem.

Pakistan deserves credit for its recent offensive against tribal militants in Swat and Waziristan, but the Pakistani Army’s campaign is far from adequate. Pakistan has retained its long-standing balancing strategy of differentiating between pro- and anti-Pakistan militants, regardless of their collaboration with al Qaeda or support for violence against NATO troops in Afghanistan. This balancing strategy is coherent from a Pakistani perspective — it is self-interested, not evil — but it creates real problems for the NATO effort in Afghanistan and increases the chance of terrorism in the West. In the long run, it spells trouble for Pakistan as well.

Pakistan’s balancing strategy is evident nationwide, but it is particularly clear in Waziristan. When the Pakistani Army invaded Waziristan, it cut a deal with two Waziri tribal commanders, Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir, in order to limit the risk to its supply lines while targeting the most virulent militants in the region: tribal elements loyal to Hakimullah Mehsud (the successor to Baitullah Mehsud, who before his assassination in August was the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban coalition) and their Uzbek allies. On one level, this deal is logical. Both Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir have a history of animosity (see here and here for more) toward the Hakimullah Mehsud faction, and both have cooperated previously with Pakistani security forces. In 2007, Maulvi Nazir even went to war against the Mehsuds’ Uzbek allies. Moreover, the Mehsud faction is closely tied to al Qaeda and under previous leadership even claimed credit for a plot against the Barcelona subway.

By cutting a deal with the Waziri tribes, Pakistan smoothed its operation against the most dangerous threat. That counts as sound operational logic. So, what is the problem?

The problem is that both Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir still support anti-NATO violence in Afghanistan and have long-standing relationships with pro-al Qaeda groups. They are not the South Asian version of the Sons of Iraq (the Iraqi insurgents who supported U.S. efforts to find and crush al Qaeda in Iraq). Indeed, it was only April 2009 when Maulvi Nazir appeared in an al Qaeda-produced As-Sahab video denouncing the United States and Pakistan, and swearing to support Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.

The intensity of Pakistan’s recent offensive in Waziristan is laudable, and it’s certainly an improvement from previous campaigns in the region. But the increased intensity reflects an operational shift rather than a strategic one.

The balancing strategy is inadequate from a Western perspective, but it will slowly fail Pakistan as well. While Pakistan has negotiated among militias to gain operational advantage over its most worrisome enemies, al Qaeda has extended its ideological and political influence over larger segments of the Pakistani militant milieu. For Pakistan, the most worrisome development is the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) coalition between Pashtun tribal groups and Punjabi militias, including Sipah-i Sahaba, Laskkar-e-Janghvi, and Jaish-i-Mohammed.

The Pashtun and Punjabi groups were never enemies, but had little reason to collaborate — tribal militias fought mainly for autonomy, Punjabi groups pursued narrow sectarian and religious agendas, and Kashmiri groups targeted India. But the rash of bombings in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Lahore — many claimed by the TTP leadership in far-away Waziristan — indicate that the Punjabi groups have shifted their focus to more political targets, like cricket teams, Army headquarters, and police-training facilities. Militants that used to avoid confrontation with the Pakistani state are now facilitating bombings in Pakistan’s Punjab heartland. While Pakistan maneuvers for operational advantage, the strategic playing field is shifting against it.

The rationale for the origin and persistence of Pakistan’s balancing strategy is no secret: Jihadi militant groups are useful foils against India. (When your archenemy is four times as big as you and has six times as many people, you take help where you can get it.) But those useful-to-Pakistan jihadi militant groups justify their anti-Indian stance on ideological grounds that also demand opposition to the NATO force in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has used that opening to argue that Pakistan’s facilitation of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan makes the Pakistani state and its Army an infidel force attacking true Muslims.

Or, as al Qaeda ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi put it, "Pakistan has now become a stronghold in the nonbeliever alliance that is waging war on the religion of Islam. Her army, intelligence agencies, and police have now become a spearhead in the direct collaboration of tearing apart the connective tissues of the Islamic Nation … If these people … do not deserve combat to eliminate their overwhelming evil and rampant corruption in this life and in religion, who then, deserves it?"

Despite Libi’s rhetoric, Pakistan is not on the verge of collapse. The problem is that Pakistan’s continued pursuit of the same balancing strategy — albeit one that pursues anti-Pakistan militants with greater intensity — will continue to leave space for Afghan-focused militants to plan and train inside Pakistan. That will make successfully concluding the war in Afghanistan much more difficult. Moreover, leaving space for Afghan-focused militants almost certainly means leaving space for al Qaeda.

The Pakistani Army still seems to think it can manipulate the militant groups in its midst. Some in the Army may argue that a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would bolster Pakistani security because the Pakistani government will no longer be complicit with a Western occupation in Afghanistan, thus obviating al Qaeda’s argument for attacking it. After all, they will argue, Pakistan has managed instability in Afghanistan before, but did not suffer terrorist attacks in downtown Islamabad until the United States showed up across the border.

That mindset is outdated. Al Qaeda is the wild card because of its uncanny ability to co-opt other militant groups, either wholesale or piecemeal. The power that comes from the publicity and notoriety al Qaeda offers cannot be wished away and has proven infectious for Pakistan’s domestic jihadi groups.

Al Qaeda’s success in co-opting Pakistani militants has changed the face of the international jihadi threat. Although al Qaeda’s own operational capacity to conduct attacks is probably more constrained today than it was several years ago, that does not much matter if Pakistani collaborators such as Sipah-i Sahaba are attacking targets in Lahore while Lashkar-e-Taiba and Ilyas Kashmiri are linked to plotters in Denver and Chicago.

The immediate problem for the United States is that an Afghanistan strategy that does not improve Pakistani performance against its domestic militants will not dramatically mitigate the security threat to the United States from al Qaeda or its allies. But the longer-term issues are worse: increased instability in Pakistan, a festering Afghanistan, and more tension between Pakistan and India.

Even the strongest advocates of Obama’s new strategy understand it is a calculated risk. But Obama is right to try to reassure and cajole Pakistan into action. One rationale for putting more U.S. troops in Afghanistan is to bolster Pakistani will, and perhaps a demonstrated commitment to Afghanistan will shake up deliberations in Rawalpindi, the Pakistani equivalent of the Pentagon. Despite the obvious costs, this is an experiment worth trying because the consequences of failure in Pakistan are so disturbing.

When it comes to Western security, the impact of the new U.S. Afghanistan strategy on deliberations in Islamabad and Rawalpindi is more important than its effects on the ground in Kabul or Kandahar. To judge whether it has succeeded, Washington should watch for a strategic shift in Pakistani policy toward its militants, not just greater force employed in the service of an old, failing strategy.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola