Combating Terrorism in Pakistan: Going on the Offensive

Report Asia

Combating Terrorism in Pakistan: Going on the Offensive

July 15, 2008 5 min read Download Report
Lisa Curtis
Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Lisa focuses on U.S. national security interests and regional geopolitics as senior research fellow on South Asia.

The advance of pro-Taliban militants in northwest Pakistan, fuelled by peace deals struck by the government three months ago, is contributing to the Taliban's ability to strike at coalition forces in Afghanistan, especially in the east just across the Pakistani border. Given heightening U.S. casualties in Afghanistan-nine American soldiers were killed Sunday by Taliban militants at a U.S. base in Kunar Province bordering Pakistan-Washington is less likely to acquiesce to Pakistani peace deals with militants and instead insist on military operations. Pakistan will have to confront domestic opposition and go back on the military offensive in the tribal areas, working closely with U.S. and NATO forces to control the Afghan-Pakistani border. Although such operations may be unpopular in Pakistan in the short-term, they are necessary if Pakistan wants to limit the chances of future U.S. unilateral military strikes that could lead to long-term destabilization of the country.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen's trip to Pakistan over the weekend was aimed at conveying U.S. impatience with Pakistan's lack of control over the border areas. In the past, Washington has listened to Pakistani explanations of their inability to control the militants in these areas and subsequently refrained from pushing the Pakistani leadership harder for fear of disrupting bilateral relations. However, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan-who are bearing the brunt of the Taliban/al-Qaeda sanctuary in Pakistan-now have a greater influence on U.S. policymaking toward Pakistan. These commanders insist the situation is untenable and that Pakistan's lack of an effective strategy against the militants in the northwest is directly undermining coalition efforts in Afghanistan.

Terrorist Surge

The Taliban and al-Qaeda's increased latitude in Pakistan's tribal areas has resulted in a surge of terrorist strikes throughout the region, including recent suicide bombings in Islamabad and in front of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

This flood of terrorist activity is also undermining U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, where attacks against U.S. and allied forces have spiked in recent months. For instance, U.S. casualties in Afghanistan were roughly equivalent to those in Iraq for the month of June, and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan say attacks have increased in eastern Afghanistan by 40 percent since Pakistan began pursuing peace deals in the region this past spring.

Domestic Instability

A highly unstable and unpredictable political situation in Pakistan is contributing to the lack of an effective policy against the growing militant threat in the northwest. Pakistan faces severe economic imbalances created by the unexpected high oil and food prices that are threatening to lead to a foreign exchange crisis in the next few months. Additionally, the two main governing coalition partners-the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League/Nawaz (PML/N)-are still squabbling over the restoration of judges deposed by Pervez Musharraf last year. There are signs the two sides may soon reach an agreement that would allow the PML/N ministers to be re-instated into the cabinet. Such an agreement would be a positive step forward and help bolster the government against the terrorism and economic challenges.

Anti-Americanism is also rising to dangerously high levels as Pakistanis blame the current instability in their country on Islamabad's counterterrorism cooperation with Washington. Continued American support for President Musharraf amidst a growing chorus of Pakistani voices favoring his resignation is also exacerbating Pakistani resentment of U.S. policies in the region. This sentiment was captured two weeks ago when several Pakistani commentators rebuked U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher for his remark that politicians should focus on economic and terrorism problems rather than on removing Musharraf from power.

U.S. Policy and Need for International Partners

U.S. policy toward Pakistan is at a critical juncture. Despite the threat from insurgents in the northwest, Pakistan's military leadership is resisting direct U.S. assistance, partly because of the political sensitivity of increasing cooperation when anti-American sentiment is running high in the country and partly because they remain suspicious of U.S. intentions in the region and fear jeopardizing their own supreme national security interests, which include denying India a firm foothold in Afghanistan.

Despite this resistance, the U.S. should assure the Pakistanis of our long-term commitment to their own security and convince them to perform joint operations involving closer coordination with U.S. special operations forces and better communication regarding Taliban cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan.

The U.S. also needs to assume a lower public profile on Pakistani domestic political issues, carefully avoiding the perception that we favor one leader or party over another.

Additionally, the U.S. should focus on recruiting international partners to help bring the situation in Pakistan under control. By working more closely with the Japanese and Europeans, the U.S. can prod Pakistan in a more positive direction without risking greater animus toward the U.S. The European countries face a significant risk from homegrown terrorists with links to Pakistan, yet the Europeans tend to view Pakistan as a "U.S. problem." We should work with our allies in developing a policy that aims at stabilizing Pakistan and bringing it into closer alignment with Western objectives in Afghanistan. It is critical that Pakistan understand the international community-not just the U.S.-has a stake in seeing terrorism uprooted from its tribal border areas.

The core of a new, coalition-based approach to Pakistan should include:

  • Recognition that events in Pakistan present a threat to global security. The international community wants to assist Pakistan in its battle with extremism and help it achieve political and economic stability.
  • Support for the newly elected civilian government with the understanding that the democratic transition is an important part of combating extremism and terrorism in Pakistan over the long term.
  • Commitment to bringing stable democracy to Afghanistan, which includes preventing the retrenchment of warlords, scaling back poppy production, and avoiding a return to the Taliban's repressive, extremist policies in any part of the country. Pakistan must play its part in denying the Taliban safe harbor on its territory by enforcing the rule of law in the tribal areas against any elements supporting terrorism or cross-border operations into Afghanistan.
  • Support for the appointment of a U.S. presidential envoy dedicated to the task of promoting better relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan that will also coordinate closely with allies.
  • Support for a multilateral balance-of-payments support package that helps stabilize Pakistan's economy in the short term but is conditioned on Pakistan taking specific steps to address longer-term economic imbalances.
  • Support for high-level strategic dialogue with Pakistan on regional security.

Re-orienting Pakistan's Strategic Perceptions

The frustration of U.S. officials with Pakistan's inability to control militants on its side of the border is understandable. But the U.S must weigh its options carefully, recognizing that unilateral military operations carry the risk of losing Pakistani partnership in the war on terror. For its part, Pakistan must shift its strategy against the militants in a way that demonstrates it is firmly on the side of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan can no longer afford to view the region from its own geo-strategic perspective and must understand that unless it pursues a zero-tolerance policy toward militancy, the government will almost certainly lead the country down a path of destruction and international isolation.

Washington can play a role in helping Pakistan re-orient its strategic perceptions by focusing on defusing tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as by stepping up diplomacy to help prevent the derailment of Indo-Pakistani talks following the attack on the Indian embassy in Afghanistan.

Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow on South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Lisa Curtis
Lisa Curtis

Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center