August 30, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East
Two major terrorism plots in the last few weeks highlight Pakistan's central role in addressing global terrorism -- a role that could become larger and more successful if officials in Washington and Islamabad make the right moves.
One of these plots -- a plan to blow up airline flights midair between the United Kingdom and the United States -- was thwarted because British, American and Pakistani security agencies worked together. The other -- a series of bombings July 11 that killed nearly 200 on commuter trains in Mumbai, India -- has been linked by Indian officials to a terrorist group operating in Pakistan.
Pakistani counterterrorism cooperation since September 11, 2001, has been critical in helping to degrade al Qaeda's ability to plan and execute catastrophic acts of terror. Islamabad has arrested several key al Qaeda leaders and conducted military operations in tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Pakistani soldiers.
Even so, the airliner plot and the Mumbai bombings, both linked to Pakistan-based terrorist groups, should prompt U.S. policymakers to think more critically about how to work with Pakistan to address the increasing dangers of extremism and militancy in that country. Tackling these problems now will determine longer-term success in fighting global terrorism.
The U.S. must convince Pakistan to condemn use of violence for political objectives and to disrupt Pakistan-based groups that operate in Kashmir. Reports have emerged that one of the main figures involved in the airliner plot -- British citizen Rashid Rauf, arrested in Pakistan two weeks ago -- had been a member of a Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant group, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM). Pakistan has officially banned domestic terrorist groups like JEM and the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LET, now referred to as Jamaat ul Dawa) but has taken little concrete action to stop their activities.
President Pervez Musharraf, victim of at least two assassination attempts, should understand the danger radical militant groups pose to his country. He continues to distinguish, however, between radical groups fighting in Kashmir and al Qaeda, in the apparent belief his country's interests are better served if he tackles the Kashmir groups gradually. Unfortunately, time is not on his side. The longer these groups exist, the more support they attract, the more radical they become, and the more they merge their ideology and operations with those of al Qaeda.
Pakistan's Aug. 9 arrest of LET leader Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed is a step in the right direction, but the government must keep pressuring these groups by shutting down their training camps, restricting their funding sources, confiscating their weapons and destroying their ability to propagate their extremist, violent message. Firm action against the LET would also help defuse tensions with India, which has repeatedly raised its concerns about the group and suspects it may even be linked to the Mumbai bombings. These moves will no doubt be politically challenging for Mr. Musharraf, but the Bush administration's landmark decision to sell the country F-16s is a significant demonstration of our support and gives Mr. Musharraf ammunition to respond to critics who question the benefits of an expanded relationship with the United States.
To improve Pakistani public opinion toward America, we need to structure our assistance programs in a way that demonstrates the U.S. supports improving the lives of average Pakistanis, and isn't merely trying to buy regime support for counterterrorism cooperation. U.S. economic assistance to Pakistan since September 11, 2001, has focused largely on debt relief and direct budget support, rather than on development projects that touch the grass-roots of society and democratic institution building.
The robust response of the U.S. government to the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan on Oct. 8, 2005, shows how our assistance can help shape attitudes toward Americans. A poll by the nonprofit organization Terror Free Tomorrow indicates the number of Pakistanis with favorable views of the U.S. doubled from 23 percent in May 2005 to 46 percent in November 2005. Yet it shouldn't take a natural catastrophe for the Pakistani people to understand that the U.S. cares about them. We need to think more carefully about ways to influence public opinion through our multiyear, multibillion-dollar aid program.
To achieve more successes in the war on terrorism like the foiled airliner plot, the U.S. must continue robust, high-level engagement with Pakistan. One of the chief purposes should be to get Pakistan to crack down on domestic groups that propagate violence, undermine values of peace and moderation and support the destructive and hateful ideology of al Qaeda.
Without a broader view of countering terrorism, President Musharraf will not achieve his goal of an enlightened, moderate Pakistan -- and the civilized world will be likelier to suffer further acts of mass murder and destruction.
Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times