Hard Power

Why Pakistan is so difficult to work with.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the Pakistani government demanded that Washington end drone strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas and drastically scale back CIA operations. This followed a drone attack in North Waziristan that killed more than 40 civilians on the very day after* Pakistan released contracted CIA operative Raymond Davis, who had been arrested for killing two Pakistanis in Lahore. The Davis affair caused intense anger among ordinary Pakistanis. Americans, meanwhile, are furious at Pakistan for sheltering the leadership of the Afghan Taliban, who are fighting U.S. forces and the Kabul government in Afghanistan. Given this explosive situation, is it really possible for the United States and Pakistan to go on working together against terrorism?

The answer is complicated, but basically it is yes. The Davis affair has damaged the relationship between Washington and the Pakistani Army and military intelligence, but it is very unlikely to end it. Hard as it may be to swallow, the United States must go on cooperating with the Pakistani state, military, and intelligence services against terrorism directed against the West and not allow this relationship to be destroyed by Pakistan’s sheltering of the Afghan Taliban. In fact, the United States should accept and even welcome continued Pakistani military links to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the terrorist group alleged to be behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, while holding to the absolute condition that the Pakistani military uses these connections successfully to prevent further LeT attacks on India and, above all, the United States.

Although Pakistan’s protection of the Afghan Taliban has certainly been unacceptable, on other questions the Pakistanis do have a point. Some U.S. officials — especially in the State Department — themselves recognize that what happened to Davis is strong evidence that it is not, in fact, a good idea to have hundreds of Special Forces types, wired to the max but inadequately trained for intelligence work, wandering around Pakistan. The Davis case was bad enough; future incidents could be much, much worse. Equally, there is considerable private disagreement in Washington as to whether the killing of Taliban commanders by drone strikes is really worth the Pakistani anger caused by the killing of civilians.

Above all, though the Pakistani establishment and the United States differ greatly on Afghanistan, they are basically at one when it comes to preventing international terrorism against the West. This is in part because the Pakistani elites shop in the West, send their children to study in the West, and to a large extent actually live in the West. On any given day, a bomb in Harrods in London would be very likely to claim a Pakistani elite family among its victims.

More importantly, the Pakistani government and military know that a successful terrorist attack on the United States by a Pakistan-based group would inevitably lead to a U.S. response that would be extremely damaging to Pakistan. If the attack were carried out by members of one of the groups linked to the Pakistani military, such a response could be on a scale that would lead to the collapse of the Pakistani state.

There is therefore no reason to doubt the basic goodwill of the Pakistani state and military on this issue; indeed, British and U.S. intelligence officials have attested to the very important help that Pakistan has given against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Where this has been limited, it has been because of Pakistani incompetence and bitter divisions among Pakistan’s different intelligence and police agencies, not because of support for terrorists.

Pakistani authorities, however, have also given shelter to the top leadership of the Afghan Taliban and have allowed free passage to volunteers fighting the war against Western forces in Afghanistan. The Pakistani security establishment continues to calculate (in a somewhat paranoid fashion) that the festering Afghan civil war will continue to develop as the United States withdraws, pulling in India on the side of anti-Pakistani forces — basically the former Northern Alliance. Therefore Pakistan must keep strengthening its links to the Afghan Taliban, its only potential allies against India in the imminent proxy war.

This official policy takes place against a background of overwhelming sympathy for the Afghan Taliban among ordinary Pakistanis, at least to judge by my hundreds of interviews on the street in all four provinces over the past four years, including this March in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistanis do not necessarily support the Taliban’s ideological and revolutionary program. Rather, they see the Taliban’s fight against the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration as a legitimate national resistance struggle, just like the war of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets and their Afghan communist allies in the 1980s.

Most don’t, however, wish to be led by the Taliban. Militant rebels within Pakistan once garnered considerable sympathy from the perception that they were only acting as allies of this "defensive jihad" in Afghanistan against America’s stooges in the Pakistani establishment and were not aiming at revolution in Pakistan. This perception still exists, but fortunately it has been greatly diminished, both because of the Pakistani Taliban’s savagery against other Pakistanis and because it has become apparent to everyone who is paying attention that they are in fact aiming at power in Pakistan itself.

The Pakistani military and intelligence services are now waging a determined struggle against the Pakistani Taliban and its allies. In the district of Swat, formerly controlled in large part by the Pakistani Taliban, the struggle has been very successful, as attested to by the fact that there have been no terrorist attacks for more than six months. It has also been ruthless. To judge by my own interviews, a recent Human Rights Watch report on extrajudicial executions in the district was accurate, and these are still continuing, albeit at a diminished rate.

Casualties among the Pakistani security forces have also been high. According to official figures — which seem plausible, given the intensity of the fighting and the scale of terrorist attacks — more than 3,200 have been killed fighting the militants, including 85 officers of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). One of these was the famous "Colonel Imam" (Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar), a leading Pakistani ally of the Afghan Taliban. In a case that highlights the distance between the two Talibans, Colonel Imam was kidnapped by the Pakistani Taliban during a mission to Waziristan last year and then killed this January, despite appeals from the Afghan Taliban to spare his life. Another casualty was a senior police officer whom I interviewed in 2009 and greatly admired: Sifwat Ghayur, who led the police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa against the Pakistani Taliban and in consequence was killed by the militants last summer.

So there is no ambiguity in the Pakistani military’s struggle against militants who are fighting against Pakistan or the West. The deep and potentially fatal ambiguity comes in the military’s approach to militant groups that are not yet in revolt against their own country and have not yet conducted foreign terrorism outside of Afghanistan. The most important of these groups are the ones that were actually trained and equipped by the ISI to attack India in Indian Kashmir and elsewhere during the 1990s. Some of them, like Jaish-e-Mohammed, have split, with many of their members joining the Pakistani Taliban in rebellion.

But the most formidable of them remains loyal to the Pakistani state and is still closely linked to the ISI. This is LeT, whose public wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), runs an extensive network of schools, hospitals, and welfare organizations in Punjab and beyond. LeT is regarded by many Western counterterrorism experts as the most effective terrorist group in South Asia and even beyond. Its potential for international terrorism is greatly increased by the fact that much of the Pakistani diaspora in Britain comes from Pakistani Kashmir and — judging from my interviews — has deep sympathy with the anti-Indian jihadists. Because these people have British passports, they are a direct potential threat to the West.

So far, however, LeT has not planned or carried out any attacks against the West, even as its activists have gone to help the Taliban in Afghanistan and killed Westerners as part of the group’s 2008 attack on Mumbai. According to counterterrorism expert Stephen Tankel, some members of LeT/JuD did press the organization to revolt against the Pakistani government when then President Pervez Musharraf sided with America after 9/11, but their demands were rejected by the leadership and they left the organization to fight with the Pakistani Taliban against the Pakistani state.

The strategy of the Pakistani military seems largely responsible for LeT’s restraint. According to well-informed sources in Pakistan, the military has told LeT leaders that if they do not revolt against Pakistan and do not carry out terrorist attacks against India (for the moment at least) and above all the United States and Europe, then they are safe from arrest or extrajudicial execution. Incidentally, a leading JuD member told me in 2009 that despite its Islamist revolutionary ideology, the group would do nothing to destroy the Pakistani state "because then the Hindus would march in to rule over us."

On the other hand, so I have been told, the Pakistani military has told LeT/JuD leaders that they can go on sending their foot soldiers to fight in Afghanistan, both because it is in line with the military’s own Afghan strategy and because, in the words of one retired officer, "these boys joined up to fight, not to sit around in Lahore doing nothing. We cannot stop them [from] going to Afghanistan. After all, that is where the group first started fighting in the 1980s."

The military’s sympathy for LeT/JuD is reflected by Pakistani (or at least Punjabi) society as a whole. It was Pakistani courts, after all, that overturned both the government’s ban on JuD after the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the terrorism charges against its leader, Hafiz Saeed. This and many other such judgments have taken the shine off the notion that the Pakistani "lawyers movement," which helped bring down Musharraf, is a force for liberal progress.

As a military strategy meant to prevent terrorism against the West, Pakistan’s official approach to its homegrown jihadists is so far accomplishing its goals. Although it has not always been possible to prevent attempted attacks like Faisal Shahzad’s in New York from taking place, the strategy has disrupted terrorist networks enough to make them infrequent and poorly carried out. Yet Pakistan’s strategy carries with it not just ethical issues, but strategic ones as well. It depends on not taking harsh action against LeT/JuD for the Mumbai attacks or for its help to the Afghan Taliban. It also requires the continuation of close links between these groups and the ISI. This could prove very bad for Pakistan if LeT decides to disobey the injunction and resume terrorist attacks on India — possibly with the help of low-level ISI operatives who have developed close personal and ideological ties to the group.

In a far more disastrous scenario, if LeT members broke away to aid a successful terrorist attack against the United States, it is extremely unlikely that the U.S. response would distinguish between the breakaway members and LeT as a whole, or even between LeT and the ISI. The results could be catastrophic for Pakistan, but also for the United States. U.S. ground raids in the border areas or airstrikes on Pakistani cities could vastly increase support for terrorism in the Pakistani military as well as society in general.

Pakistan is not an easy country to do business with. It poses some tough dilemmas for U.S. policy, and Americans are justifiably angry about many things that Pakistan has done. Nonetheless, American policymakers need to remain focused on the most important U.S. goal — and the official reason that the United States is fighting in Afghanistan — which is to prevent terrorism in the West. As long as Pakistan cooperates sincerely and effectively in pursuit of this goal, the United States should continue to work with Pakistan and support the relevant parts of Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy. If Pakistan fails to do so, however, then all bets are off.

*Correction, April 25, 2011: The drone strike occurred the day after Raymond Davis’s release, not the same day, as originally stated.

Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a senior research fellow at New America in Washington. He is the author, among other books, of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.

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