September 22, 2007

September 22, 2007 | Commentary on Middle East

Heritage Foundation: Leveling With Pakistan on Afghanistan

In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush has often asserted his intention to pursue America's terrorist enemies wherever they may hide.

Well, today we know where the terrorists are. Al Qaeda has retrenched in Pakistani tribal border zones. A recently foiled plot to kill Americans in Germany was traced to camps in Pakistan. A U.N. report indicates that 80 percent of the suicide bombings in Afghanistan originated in Pakistan's tribal areas.

In short, we have more than enough reason to target the terrorists operating from this region. The question is, how do we do it without destabilizing Pakistan?

The first step to uprooting the terrorists from Pakistan's tribal areas is to convince Islamabad to change its view of the Taliban's role in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has found sanctuary in Pakistan's border regions because of the support it enjoys from the Taliban, who share a Pashtun identity with the local population of the region.

Remarkably, in a statement made during the closing ceremony of the August peace jirga in Kabul, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said the Taliban is part of Afghan society and can be brought into the political mainstream.

While promoting an inclusive political system that provides adequate representation of Pashtuns is important to stabilizing Afghanistan, Musharraf's defense of the Taliban is alarming. Advocating a Taliban role affirms extremism as an acceptable ideology and undermines the establishment of pluralistic democracy in Afghanistan.

Many think that Pakistan is willing to allow the Taliban to undermine the government of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, who's seen as a close ally of India. But that's shortsighted. After all, when Pakistan launched a military operation against Taliban-backed extremists at the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July, they responded with a wave of terrorist attacks. These extremists threaten the stability of the Pakistani state as much as they do Karzai's government, especially since they know no borders. The most recent al Qaeda video declares war on Pakistan and praises the strengthening relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. Ultimately, support for the Taliban in Afghanistan -- tacit or otherwise -- seriously damages the security situation in Pakistan.

The Red Mosque crisis should have been a wake-up call for the Pakistani government to deal firmly with extremists. A sensible first step would be to confront the Taliban in Pakistan, especially in the border region, as well as Kashmiri groups that have received sanctuary and support within Pakistan because of their anti-India agendas. These groups plot with one another and support a pan-Islamic ideology.

Having nurtured extremists for so long to support their anti-India agenda and to maintain influence in Afghanistan, Pakistani security officials still believe they can placate some and eliminate others, while avoiding a comprehensive approach to tackling the problem. The confrontation at the Red Mosque reveals the fallacy of such assumptions.

Dealing effectively with the extremists also means Islamabad should work with the Karzai government, not against it. Washington, Kabul and Islamabad need to work more closely in tripartite military and intelligence operations that target Taliban and Al Qaeda heavyweights. The three countries also should devise a strategy to siphon off "guns-for-hire" that would be willing to shun pan-Islamic goals and join civilian society. Furthermore, the U.S. needs to continue efforts like the recent peace jirga that encourage Kabul and Islamabad to develop people-to-people, trade and economic links that will help change their strategic perceptions of one another. And for its part, Pakistan must take clear, pro-active steps to counter Taliban ideology.

Following the violence in Pakistan that has left hundreds dead since July, Pakistan's military has sent fresh troops to the border areas, reactivated military checkpoints and resumed limited military operations.

These are welcome steps, but they aren't likely to address the serious threat from the region. It goes without saying that any unilateral U.S. military action in the area would have disastrous consequences for the Pakistani state and the long-term effectiveness of US policy in the region.

A more effective strategy would bring U.S. resources and military strength to bear through joint Pakistani-U.S. military operations in the border regions. We need a combination of targeted military operations against hard-core terrorists and economic assistance programs to drive a wedge between the Pashtun tribal communities and the international terrorists. To this end, Pakistan should allow greater U.S. access to the region.

It's time for Washington to finally level with Pakistan on the future of Afghanistan, and for Pakistan to finally understand that our fight against extremism is theirs, too.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Middle East

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