August 2, 2007

August 2, 2007 | Commentary on Middle East

Pakistan: Facing Down Extremism

The wave of indiscriminate suicide attacks that have plagued Pakistan over the past two weeks have laid down the gauntlet between those who support a prosperous, strong Pakistan with international standing and those who want to turn Pakistan into a failed state. The scourges of extremism and sectarian violence have torn at the fabric of Pakistani society for over two decades. But the current campaign is cause for even greater alarm as it appears to have direct backing from the al Qaeda leadership and comes at a time when President Pervez Musharraf's public support is flagging and the Pakistani military is running out of options in dealing with the extremists at their base in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Musharraf has vowed to crack down on extremism throughout the country. He told the Pakistani public two weeks ago that the battle lines were drawn and that it was time to choose a path for the country's future. But the group of Pakistanis that needs to take Musharraf's comments to heart the most is his own security establishment.

For too long, powerful elements within the security and intelligence services have relied on supporting militancy and extremism as a way to counter archrival India and maintain influence in Afghanistan. Having nurtured extremists for so long, Pakistani security officials came to believe it was possible to placate some and eliminate others, dealing with the situation on a case-by-case basis without a wider strategy to tackle the overall problem.

There are signs that thinking within the Pakistani security establishment is beginning to shift, however. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher's comments on July 17 that Islamabad provided assistance in the recent capture and killing of three major Taliban leaders and Pakistan's elimination of Taliban commander Abdullah Mehsud last week indicate that the Pakistani government is breaking its ties with the Taliban. The confrontation at the Red Mosque also appears to have been a wake-up call for those who previously favored a policy of appeasement towards extremism.

Attacking the Problem at its Roots

Musharraf must now put teeth into his tough talk against extremists, especially those finding safe haven in the Tribal Areas. Recently a senior U.S. intelligence official noted that the best way to disrupt al Qaeda operations in northwest Pakistan was to pressure them and make them worried about "who was informing on them…and who was coming after them." These comments reveal that the peace deals made along the border last September backfired by reducing pressure on al Qaeda and Taliban elements located in the region.

Not only have the peace deals made it easier for terrorists to plan and train for global operations, they also have contributed to the corrosion of the foundations of the Pakistani state by fuelling "Talibanization" of the society. Now, having tried - and failed - to produce results from the peace deals, Pakistan has no choice but to go back on the military offensive in these areas. This means bringing forces out of their barracks, increasing patrols, and conducting raids when there is good intelligence. The US should support these efforts with any military equipment or resources needed to make the Pakistani operations successful. Focusing on minimizing civilian casualties and conducting targeted operations with good intelligence should reduce the chances that a new military offensive will fuel an all-out tribal rebellion.

Once the Pakistan military has asserted its writ in the tribal zones, the US should help stabilize the region with infusions of assistance to develop the economy and improve health, education, and social services. In fact, the U.S. Administration has already pledged $750 million over five years for development of the Tribal Areas, of which $150 million is to be released this year.

Building National Consensus

The Pakistan military needs the support of the Pakistan public to sustain a successful campaign against extremism. The reinstatement of the Chief Justice of Pakistan on July 20 removes a major irritant between the civil society and the Musharraf regime, although questions regarding the timing and conduct of upcoming elections still loom. There is an opportunity for mainstream political parties and the Musharraf government to close ranks and develop a unified front against the growing extremist threat to Pakistan.

The political parties should be aware that al Qaeda-backed extremists are trying to exploit political uncertainty in the country. Nearly 200 Pakistani civilians and military personnel have been killed in the past two weeks in attacks aimed at provoking chaos, exacerbating civil-military tensions, and weakening the Pakistani state. As Pakistan enters what could be one of the most turbulent times of its young history, its military and civilian leaders need to contemplate the consequences of allowing civil-military relations to plummet further. Musharraf and the mainstream parties need each other to successfully meet the larger national security threat from al Qaeda-backed extremists.

Some observers are comparing the current situation in Pakistan to that experienced just before the Iranian Revolution. It is a useful comparison, but it is the differences, not the similarities, that are most striking. Iran was an oil state where roller-coaster oil prices raised expectations and led to a huge flow of rural poor to the cities as a reservoir of support built around the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. Pakistan, on the other hand, has a more steady economy and no similar central radical religious figure. The Pakistani army - a professional, cohesive service considered to be the most stable institution in the country - would likely play a much more effective role than the Iranian military during any potential period of political and social upheaval. Pakistan also has experience with democracy that, however flawed, Iran lacked.

Washington's Role

Pakistan is not fated to be the next Iran. It can win the fight against extremism. Washington can help by following a nuanced policy that acknowledges the important role of the Pakistan Army in national security decision-making as well as the history of the democratic process in Pakistan that can help channel the energies of the polity. From Washington's perspective, the best possible scenario involves Musharraf remaining at the helm for a limited period of time in which he leads a crack down on the extremists as well as spearheads a smooth transition to democracy.

It is unfortunate that the U.S. Congress - after having approved assistance for the Tribal Areas - also decided to condition military assistance to Pakistan by requiring the U.S. President to certify that Islamabad is "making demonstrated, significant, and sustained progress toward eliminating support or safe haven for terrorists." The legislation is meant to be more symbolic than actionable and Congress expects the U.S. President to make the determination to allow $300 million in military assistance to be disbursed to Pakistan in fiscal year 2008 - in addition to over $400 million in economic and development aid. The legislation is ill-timed, however, and raises doubts among Pakistanis regarding the long-term U.S. commitment to the country, especially as they remember the abrupt U.S. aid cut-off to Pakistan in 1990. Washington now has an even greater challenge in demonstrating to the Pakistani people that it is not a fair-weather friend but rather a partner deeply invested in its long-term prosperity and success.

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

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the Pakistani weekly “The Friday Times”