January 19, 2008

January 19, 2008 | Commentary on Asia

Don't make provocative statements

If the U.S. has good, actionable intelligence against Al Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas, it should certainly act on it - in coordination with the Pakistani leadership. In fact, we have already seen at least two targeted attacks against suspected hide-outs of Al Qaeda deputy Ayman Zawahiri in Bajaur, one in January 2006 and another in October 2006. These attacks demonstrate that when actionable intelligence is available, it will be acted on.

While I agree that eliminating the burgeoning terrorist haven in Pakistan's borderlands should be Washington's No. 1 counter-terrorism goal in 2008, I disagree, Brian, on the best way to achieve this goal. Taking precipitous U.S. unilateral military action on Pakistani territory could backfire and worsen the global terrorist threat emanating from South Asia. Such action could lead to a revolt within the Pakistani military, thereby destabilizing the Pakistani government and tipping the balance in favor of Islamist extremists. It could be just the sort of destabilizing event Al Qaeda needs to make a run at controlling Pakistan and its nuclear assets.

Barack Obama overlooks the fact that the Pakistanis are already cooperating with the U.S. against Al Qaeda targets, having captured and handed over several senior Al Qaeda leaders, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Obama also fails to take account of the close coordination that exists between U.S. and Pakistani forces in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas. Although there may not be U.S. forces stationed on Pakistani soil, they operate just over the border in Afghanistan and communicate regularly with their Pakistani counterparts. Pakistan has about 100,000 troops stationed near the border with Afghanistan.

One problem with statements like Obama's is that they come across as direct threats to the Pakistani public and create a sense of insecurity about the U.S. role in the region. Instead of making threatening statements, we should focus on convincing Pakistanis that these terrorists pose a direct threat to their own national security interests and on developing a joint strategic approach to addressing the problem. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden recently made this point when he commented that the turmoil in Pakistan over the last few weeks has deepened U.S.-Pakistan cooperation and highlighted our mutual interests.

Besides getting Pakistan onboard with a strategy that pools our intelligence and brings U.S. military resources to bear on the situation in the tribal areas, Washington also needs to persuade Pakistan to proactively undermine the Taliban/Al Qaeda ideology and break entirely with Islamist militancy. Remaining sympathies and links between elements of the Pakistani security establishment and Islamist militant groups that previously fought in Kashmir or with the Taliban in Afghanistan hamper Pakistan's ability to gain the upper hand against the extremist threat.

Last July's showdown at the Red Mosque was a turning point in Pakistan's battle with extremism. Most of the suicide bombings over the last six months, which have targeted Pakistani security forces, are retaliation for the military operation at the mosque. The situation in Pakistan is fluid and delicate and requires strategic diplomacy, not provocative statements.

I disagree with the idea that publicly conditioning U.S. assistance on "performance and outcomes" will serve U.S. counter-terrorism objectives in Pakistan. It will only feed the perception that the U.S. is using Pakistan to achieve its own goals, rather than demonstrate that the U.S. and Pakistan are partners in the battle against extremism.

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: Asia

First appeared in the LA Times Online