October 26, 2006 | Backgrounder on Asia
The recent upsurge in Taliban attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan and continuing links of global terrorist networks to groups based in Pakistan are leading many in the United States to question Islamabad's commitment to fighting the global war on terrorism. Washington should review Pakistani efforts to deny terrorists safe haven and its overall policy toward Pakistan, which is at the center of international anti-terrorism efforts.
Pakistan has made invaluable contributions to combating al-Qaeda over the past five years by capturing scores of key leaders and helping to foil numerous deadly plots. However, Islamabad will need to adopt a more comprehensive policy against violent extremism to fully deny groups and individuals the use of Pakistani territory as a base for global jihad.
Pakistan has traditionally relied on violent extremists to accomplish its strategic objectives in both Afghanistan and India. Although President Pervez Musharraf has articulated his desire to turn Pakistan into a moderate and modern Islamic state, his government has taken little concrete action to make the country inhospitable for individuals and groups seeking to destabilize Afghanistan or India and plotting international acts of terrorism. Reports of links between those involved in the foiled London airliner bomb plot in mid-August and Pakistani terrorist groups that traditionally operate in Jammu and Kashmir demonstrate the dangers of not cracking down on violent extremism in Pakistan.
Washington needs to strengthen its policy toward Pakistan in ways that both demonstrate long-term U.S. commitment to the relationship and press Pakistan to expand its efforts against violent extremists. The best chance for success against violent extremism in Pakistan lies in a strategy that prioritizes economic and democratic development and the pursuit of better relations with neighboring countries, namely Afghanistan and India. Washington should support these objectives and encourage greater economic interdependence among these three South Asian countries.
Pakistan and the Taliban
Before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Pakistan supported and recognized Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Although Pakistani officials largely disagreed with the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islam, they viewed the Taliban as their best chance to achieve their own strategic objectives in the region and believed that the international community would eventually accept Taliban rule in Kabul as inevitable. Pakistan continued to support the Taliban into the late 1990s, long after Osama bin Laden took refuge there in 1996 and despite the growing problems that it created in Pakistan's relations with Washington. Pakistan's high-stakes policy vis-à-vis the Taliban derived from its aims of denying India, as well as Iran and the Central Asian countries, a strong foothold in Afghanistan and ensuring a friendly regime in Kabul that would refrain from making territorial claims on Pakistan's Pashtun areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The 9/11 attacks and their impact on U.S. foreign policy quickly changed Pakistan's earlier calculations on the benefits of supporting the Taliban. President Musharraf broke off official ties with the Taliban, supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and contributed substantially to breaking up the al-Qaeda network in the region. Pakistan has captured and turned over to the U.S. scores of senior al-Qaeda leaders and has helped to disrupt terrorist plots that would have resulted in hundreds, possibly thousands, of deaths.
Despite the official break with the Taliban, Islamabad has failed to crack down forcefully on Taliban leaders or actively disrupt their activities in Pakistan. Officials of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate maintain relationships with Taliban leaders and may see benefits in keeping good ties with the Taliban in the expectation that the Taliban might again play a role in Afghanistan's politics. Taliban leaders apparently roam freely in Quetta, Baluchistan, and Taliban fighters shelter in Pakistani border areas after attacking coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's lax attitude toward the Taliban has contributed to renewed Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, but other factors are also facilitating instability. U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte says the Taliban is exploiting local grievances on issues such as corruption and poor governance to attract recruits and reestablish its power base. He also attributes the recent increase in Taliban attacks to more NATO operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Although Pakistan is not solely responsible for the increased Taliban attacks, it could help to stem them by denying Taliban forces rest and safe harbor on Pakistani soil. Washington should therefore make the issue of denying terrorists safe haven in the border areas a focal point of its partnership with Pakistan. The importance of denying terrorists safe haven as part of an overall counterterrorism strategy is well documented. In its July 2004 report, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States highlighted the need to develop a "realistic strategy to keep possible terrorists insecure and on the run." The March 2006 National Security Strategy says that "we must prevent terrorists from exploiting ungoverned areas," and the 2005 State Department counterterrorism report indicates that "[d]enying terrorists safe haven plays a major role in undermining terrorists' capacity to operate effectively, and thus forms a key element of U.S. counterterrorism strategy."
Musharraf's Tribal Areas Deal: Curtailing or Emboldening Terrorism?
Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which consist of seven semi-autonomous tribal agencies along the border with Afghanistan, constitute one of the most dangerous terrorist safe havens in the world today. According to the 2005 State Department counterterrorism report, the FATA has been "a safe haven for al Qaida and Taliban fighters since the fall of the Taliban in December 2001." The lack of central government authority in this region and the fact that the local population shares a Pashtun identity with the Taliban make it a particularly attractive location for the Taliban and its al-Qaeda supporters to hide.
Since 2004, the Pakistan military has deployed some 80,000 security forces to the area to disrupt the terrorists, but these military operations have also damaged traditional tribal institutions, increased radicalism in the region, caused the deaths of several hundred Pakistani soldiers, and met with increasing opposition from the broader Pakistani population. Public opposition to the military operations in the FATA spiked in late August following the Pakistan military's unpopular assassination of an elderly Baluch politician who had spearheaded a rebellion in Baluchistan province.
Because of the growing problems with the FATA military operations, President Musharraf on September 5 announced a "peace deal" with tribal leaders of the North Waziristan Agency that includes an end to offensive Pakistani military operations in exchange for the tribal rulers' cooperation in restricting Taliban and al-Qaeda activities. The Pakistan government wants to restore the traditional form of governance in the region and co-opt the tribal elders and political representatives through an infusion of economic assistance for new roads, hospitals, and schools. The U.S. supports Pakistani efforts to bring more government services to the region and to turn it into a regularly administered province. Washington is also providing assistance to help Pakistan control the region by equipping Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps, funding the construction of more than 100 border outposts, providing high-tech equipment to help Pakistani forces better locate terrorists attempting to cross the border, and funding an air wing with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
The next several months will be crucial in determining whether Musharraf's Waziristan deal will advance U.S. interests by denying safe haven to terrorists or enhance Taliban and al-Qaeda influence in the region, making it easier for terrorists to plot, organize, and train. Although President Musharraf denies that the pact was made with the Taliban, reports that scores of Taliban militants were recently released from Pakistani custody are worrisome.
To make the pact effective, Islamabad will have to enforce its terms strictly, which means coming down hard on any elements that are found protecting or sheltering Taliban or al-Qaeda. This may require Musharraf to punish lower-level individuals within his own intelligence and security services who have helped Taliban leaders evade capture by U.S. forces in the past. This is a tall order for Musharraf, given the deep institutional links between the intelligence and security services and the Taliban. He has already faced at least two assassination attempts because of his counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. Although the U.S. sees an urgent need to deny safe haven to terrorists along the Pakistan-Afghan border, President Musharraf carefully calculates each counterterrorism step that he takes to ensure his own survival.
If, as Musharraf claims, the Waziristan pact is aimed at increasing cooperation from the local tribes against the terrorists, Pakistan should find it increasingly easier to close in on Taliban and al-Qaeda hideouts. The U.S. will need to monitor the situation closely and judge the merits of the pact based on whether it results in fewer cross-border attacks into Afghanistan and more information on Taliban/al-Qaeda activities and hiding places. Washington needs to focus all of the tools and resources at its disposal on dealing effectively with this troubled region. Failure to do so will further destabilize Afghanistan and make it easier for terrorists to plan and execute their next international attack.
Tripartite Meeting: A Step in the Right Direction
The recent tripartite meeting of Presidents George W. Bush, Hamid Karzai, and Musharraf in Washington is a first step in defusing tensions between the Afghan and Pakistani leaders resulting from the increased Taliban attacks. It is now widely acknowledged that the fate of Afghanistan is closely linked to Pakistan and the policies that it pursues over the next several years. Therefore, the U.S. needs to continue these high-level three-way meetings to bring the countries into greater alignment and to build economic and security linkages between their governments that will make them increasingly interdependent and interested in their mutual stability and security.
The Administration is already moving in this direction with the pursuit of reconstruction opportunity zones (ROZs) in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, which would allow products produced in these remote areas to receive trade preferences in the U.S. The U.S. Congress would need to pass legislation to implement the ROZ program. The Bush Administration and the next U.S. Congress should work together to fast-track implementation of the ROZs so that Afghan and Pakistani leaders will immediately begin to benefit from working cooperatively on peaceful trade-related projects.
During the tripartite meeting, Presidents Karzai and Musharraf also agreed to establish tribal jirgas (gatherings) of Pashtun local leaders from both sides of the border. President Karzai has commented that he hopes the jirgas will provide assurances to both Islamabad and Kabul that each country's peace and prosperity is good for the other.
Links Between Kashmiri Militancy and International Terrorism
Links between Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant groups and international terrorist incidents further demonstrate the need for Islamabad to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward violent extremism. Reports surfaced in mid-August that one of the prime suspects in the London airliner bomb plot had family ties to Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM), a radical Kashmiri terrorist group. Indian security forces captured Azhar in Kashmir in the early 1990s and then released him in 1999 during a hostage swap to free 155 passengers on a hijacked Indian plane that flew to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Indian government also released two other suspected terrorists- British-born Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar-to end the hijacking crisis.
The JEM had apparently made an earlier unsuccessful attempt to free Azhar by kidnapping five Western tourists, including American citizen Donald Hutchings. One of the tourists was beheaded, and the others were never found and are presumed dead. Pakistan officially banned the JEM in 2002, but Azhar has never been formally charged with a crime.
The JEM has also been linked to the kidnapping and brutal murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in January 2002. Pearl's kidnappers demanded the release of Pakistani prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, an immediate end to the U.S. presence in Pakistan, U.S. delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, and the release of Mullah Zaeef, the former Afghan ambassador of the Taliban regime to Pakistan. Omar Sheikh later confessed to Pakistani authorities that he masterminded Pearl's kidnapping. Sheikh was also involved in the kidnappings of Westerners in India in 1994 that were aimed at freeing Masood Azhar. In July 2002, Sheikh was sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan.
The JEM has roots in the Afghan war against the Soviets, and its cadres trained at Taliban camps in the late 1990s. The JEM (then called the Harakat-Ul-Mujahideen) reportedly suffered several casualties during the U.S. strikes on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 1998 in retaliation for al-Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Terrorist Attacks Jeopardize Indo-Pakistani Talks
Indian allegations of Pakistani involvement in the July 11 Mumbai train blasts, which killed nearly 200 people, are severely straining Pakistan-India relations. On September 30, the Mumbai police commissioner told a news conference that the authorities had finished their investigations into the Mumbai blasts and had concluded that the attack was planned by Pakistan's intelligence service and carried out by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LET) and their operatives in India. He also said that the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had assisted in the attacks. India has said that it will test Pakistani resolve in countering terrorism through a joint mechanism agreed to by the Indian and Pakistani leaders in Havana, Cuba, in late September. President Musharraf has so far been reluctant to take concrete steps to rein in jihadists that fight in Kashmir, mainly because his government believes the militancy is Islamabad's only way to keep pressure on India and to force New Delhi's hand in negotiations over the contested territory.
The U.S. considered labeling Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism for its support to militant groups fighting in Kashmir in the early 1990s. Although the Kashmir militancy erupted indigenously in Srinagar-the Muslim-dominated summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LOC)-over grievances related to political representation of the Muslim community, Pakistan quickly took advantage of the situation and provided support to Kashmiri militant groups.
The U.S. again pressured Islamabad on its support to militants fighting in Kashmir during the 2001-2002 military crisis between India and Pakistan, in which a total 1 million troops were mobilized on both sides of the border. To defuse that crisis, then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage secured a commitment from President Musharraf in early June 2002 to end the infiltration of militants across the LOC, which divides Kashmir. Armitage conveyed the Pakistani pledge to Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee, who subsequently agreed to pull back Indian forces, ending the military standoff. Despite reduced military tensions, India did not agree to resume official dialogue until 18 months later in January 2004.
President Musharraf would find it politically challenging to pursue a broader crackdown on domestic terrorists that strike in India and abroad. The religious parties would label such a crackdown as a surrender to India over Kashmir. However, he could draw support for such a crackdown from other parts of Pakistani society, such as the secular political parties, the business community, and Pakistanis who have been involved in people-to-people exchanges with Indians over the past few years.
A more serious dialogue on Kashmir between India and Pakistan and deeper engagement by the U.S. would help to give Pakistan confidence that its viewpoint has been taken into account. The U.S. should not try to involve itself directly in resolving the dispute, but it should continue to talk about the issue separately with both sides and inject ideas into their dialogue process. President Musharraf is clearly hedging in talks with India by allowing Kashmiri militant groups to continue to operate. The U.S. needs to convince Musharraf to instead put his faith in the India-Pakistan dialogue.
A genuine peace process between New Delhi and a wide spectrum of Kashmiri leaders that addresses political grievances and human rights issues would also help to temper the Pakistani public's emotional reactions to Kashmir and widen public support for a genuine crackdown on violent groups. Encouraging travel back and forth across the LOC (started by the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus link) and greater interaction and cooperation between officials from both sides of the LOC will widen the constituencies for peace and help to isolate violent extremists.
Weakening Extremism by Promoting Democracy
Promoting a more open and transparent political process in Pakistan will also help to curb the influence of extremist groups, thereby reducing support for terrorism. Before the 2002 elections, religious parties that backed the Taliban traditionally received less than 8 percent of the popular vote and had been marginalized in the 1988, 1990, 1993, and 1997 national elections. In the 2002 elections, however, the religious parties performed well in the areas bordering Afghanistan and increased their total vote share to about 11 percent, partly because of changes in election rules that favored them over the secular parties and partly because of anti-American sentiment in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border provinces. The secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which is led in exile by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhuto, grabbed about 25 percent of the popular vote in the 2002 elections.
The full participation of the main secular democratic parties, including the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), in the 2007 elections would provide more political choices to Pakistani voters and instill greater confidence in Pakistan's democratic process. Charges of corruption leveled against Benazir Bhutto and her husband have tainted her personal reputation, but the PPP as a party continues to attract individuals who support secular-based policies. The PPP recently led efforts in the Pakistani parliament to repeal the controversial Hudood ordinances that discriminate against women. The Musharraf government has since put efforts to repeal the controversial ordinances on hold as a result of pressure from the religious parties.
The Pakistan military's pervasive involvement in civilian affairs has stifled the development of civil society and the establishment of democratic institutions. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for over half of its existence. Even during periods of civilian rule, the military has wielded tremendous power over decision-making. Although the military is unlikely to submit fully to a civilian government in the near term, Washington should set benchmarks that begin to restrict the military's role in Pakistani politics. U.S. legislation prevents Washington from providing assistance to a government put in place by a military coup, but the Bush Administration has permitted assistance to Pakistan since 9/11 under a waiver to this law. The annual recertification of this waiver should be tied to free and fair elections in 2007 and a return to civilian rule.
The Role of U.S. Assistance in Countering Extremism
Carefully targeted U.S. aid programs can also help to counter anti-American sentiment and limit the influence of radicals who use hatred of the U.S. to mobilize political support. A visible U.S. aid presence in the country will reassure the Pakistani population that Washington is committed to average Pakistanis, not just to the military leadership. U.S. assistance programs that focus on building institutions and promoting human rights and democracy would also show that the U.S. is committed to Pakistan's success as a stable and prosperous country and deflate extremists' arguments that Washington is interested only in exploiting Pakistan for its own purposes. Washington must work to overcome the suspicions of Pakistanis who remember when the U.S. abruptly cut off its large-scale aid program because of Pakistan's nuclear program in the early 1990s.
Polling in Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world has demonstrated the significant impact that U.S. humanitarian aid has on peoples' perceptions of America. A poll by Terror Free Tomorrow, a U.S. nonprofit organization, indicated that favorable attitudes toward America doubled following the U.S. response to the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. The U.S. should search for ways to emulate the kind of humanitarian programs that were employed following the earthquake on a more permanent basis and to publicize more effectively the assistance that Washington has already provided. Regrettably, security concerns have forced the U.S. to limit the size and scope of its assistance projects in the country. Most U.S. assistance to Pakistan over the past five years has been in the form of budgetary support and debt relief, which has helped Pakistan's macroeconomic indicators but has limited the direct impact of U.S. aid on the broader Pakistani population's attitudes toward America.
What the U.S. Should Do
To strengthen U.S. policy toward Pakistan and to press Islamabad to address the roots of violent extremism, the United States should:
Stability in Afghanistan and in South Asia more generally is closely linked to the policies that Islamabad pursues over the next few years, including actions that limit the Taliban's ability to operate on Pakistani soil, peace efforts with neighboring India, exploration of trade and investment opportunities in the region, and a return to democratic politics. The U.S. needs to pursue these objectives with equal vigor to help Pakistan address the roots of violent extremism and begin to contribute to greater stability and peace in the region and beyond.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.