The South Asia Channel

Scoring own goals in Pakistan

If there’s one thing that U.S.-led forces do better than their extremist foes, it is shooting themselves in the collective foot. That’s not to say extremists don’t also get things spectacularly wrong. In the past, those who say they are fighting to throw off foreign control and establish fair and just Islamic rule in Pakistan ...


If there’s one thing that U.S.-led forces do better than their extremist foes, it is shooting themselves in the collective foot.

That’s not to say extremists don’t also get things spectacularly wrong. In the past, those who say they are fighting to throw off foreign control and establish fair and just Islamic rule in Pakistan and Afghanistan have managed to horrify and alienate ordinary Muslims by – for example – beating young women and using cameras to capture their pain as well as the glee of the "holy warriors."

But the U.S.-led coalition’s own goals can be just as damaging, not just to its own interests in defeating al Qaeda, but also to hopes for a stable Pakistan free of extremist violence. The three incursions into Pakistani territory over the past week by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which killed three Pakistani paramilitary soldiers, are just such own goals.

Reports suggest that the ramping up of drone strikes inside Pakistan and the recent incursions are due to a U.S. effort to pressure al Qaeda ahead of the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy review later this year. Reports also suggest the drones were aimed at disrupting a plot to stage a "Mumbai-style" attack in Europe, as well as being a function of ISAF Commander Gen. David Petreaus’ desire to ramp up the pressure on safe havens. If that is true, chasing guerrilla fighters into Pakistani territory represents the triumph of short-term concerns over prospects for long-term success.

In fact, the long term, when it comes to Pakistan and Afghanistan, isn’t really all that far away. The repercussions of the ISAF strikes were beginning to be felt on Friday, hardly hours after the last reported incursion, when gunmen burned NATO fuel tankers on their way to Afghanistan. The Pakistani government had already suspended movement of the supply line for the second day after public outrage flared.

Public opinion matters when it comes to the future direction of Pakistan – and incursions like those of the past week ignore it to the peril of the security and safety of the people of Pakistan, the region and innocent civilians around the world. The NATO tankers were attacked in Shikarpur, which is in Sindh province and not considered Taliban country. Public hostility to the actions of international forces in Afghanistan gives those attacking NATO supply lines more potential sympathizers and collaborators.

The hostility of the Pakistani public to U.S. actions in the region is obvious. However, any Pakistani government, whether civilian or military, will have to cooperate with the United States while managing public anger towards its benefactor. This increases the chances of both governments being pushed into secret, backroom deals that are less open to scrutiny and more likely to compound difficulties when they are uncovered. It also pushes the Pakistani authorities into a corner where they are forced to undertake face-saving actions such as the suspension of the NATO supply lines.

Public opinion also matters when it comes to the army. In London a few months ago, I heard Anatol Lieven of Kings College answer a question about the likely outcomes of increased ISAF incursions into Pakistani territory by saying, "Two things are likely to happen; the Pakistani army’s rank and file may decide to sit on their rifles and disobey orders. Or, they may walk away with their weapons and decide to fight the intruders themselves."

My conversations with young, lower-ranking military personnel suggest that Dr. Lieven is probably right. Young officers feel the country’s political leaders have given away the independence they have sworn to protect and tarnished the national pride their institution is supposed to embody. Under these circumstances, a military government would feel the same pressure – perhaps even more keenly. As imperfect as the U.S.-Pakistani military relationship is, a fracture in Pakistan’s army serves no one, and repeats dark murmurings about the United States’ ultimate plans to dismember Pakistan.

Military action is achieving little in this conflict. And although it might provide useful measures for justifying the conflict to war-weary publics and legislators, the ill thought-out use of violence is counter productive. There are other ways.

The international community uses force in Pakistan and Afghanistan as if there is no other option, when, in fact, there are other largely untried levers. A public opinion survey conducted by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) shows that militancy has little organic support in the region al Qaeda has made its base, and that the United States’ image there is not beyond repair.

Defying even what most Pakistanis outside the area would consider logical, the 1,000 residents of FATA polled for the survey said they wanted education — for their boys and girls. Despite the Pakistani government’s dismal record on efficient justice, they did not want the Taliban’s version. For the vast majority (95 percent), the biggest problem was a lack of jobs. Three quarters opposed the presence of al Qaeda in their region and if Osama Bin Laden’s network or the Pakistani Taliban took part in a local election, they would only get 1 percent of the vote.

The survey found that even though there was massive opposition to drone strikes (which were thought to largely kill civilians) and 80 percent of the respondents opposed the "war on terror," these opinions were not based on general hostility to the United States. A majority said their view of America would improve a great deal if they saw the U.S. improving education and medical care in the area while withdrawing from Afghanistan or brokering peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

American aid worker Todd Shea’s celebrity status in Pakistan shows that hostility towards America is not written into the DNA of the Pakistani psyche. Which means there is little to gain and much to risk by further fanning existing hostility and undertaking short-sighted action such as the recent incursions.

So far, extremists have been winning the war of the flea they are conducting against the international community and the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s time to stop playing to their advantages. As reports of a recent plan to carry out attacks in Europe show, the stakes are too high to continuing making enemies of potential allies.

Amil Khan works in Pakistan for Radical Middle Way and writes as Londonstani on the Abu Muqawama blog. He is the author of The Long Struggle, a book about the history of extremist ideology published by Zero Books. 

Amil Khan is a former Reuters Middle East correspondent and author of The Long Struggle: The Muslim World's Western Problem.