Home inFocus Counterterrorism (Summer 2010) Playing with Fire in Pakistan

Playing with Fire in Pakistan

Jeff M. Smith Summer 2010

That a Pakistani-born U.S. national was responsible for the latest attempted terrorist attack on U.S. soil should come as little surprise. Pakistan has stood, almost unchallenged, at the epicenter of global terrorism for the post-9/11 era. Individuals or groups based in Pakistan have been involved in the majority of planned attacks on Western nations since 2001 and the country has played a critical role in the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Finally, nuclear-armed Pakistan maintains a network of Islamist militant groups focused on targeting India and is now host to a ferocious Islamist insurrection of its own; an insurgency that is now more deadly than those in either Iraq or Afghanistan. In short, no discussion of counterterrorism is complete without an examination of Pakistan and its role in Western terror attacks, the Afghan War, and its own attempts to combat domestic terrorism.

Western Plots, Pakistani Soil

The attempted car-bomb attack in Times Square by Faisal Shahzad, son of a senior officer in the Pakistani air force, has raised important questions about the attacker’s potential links to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Since its formation in 2007, the TTP, an umbrella group of Islamist Pashtun warlords and militants from Pakistan’s tribal regions, has focused on the singular mission of overthrowing the Pakistani state and imposing Sharia law nationwide. Last year, the group raised alarm in Washington when it began issuing threats against the U.S. homeland—threats that were dismissed as bluster until the Shahzad plot.

However, the planned attack is most valuable as a reminder of Pakistan’s centrality to global terrorism. There is, to be sure, no evidence the Pakistani government or military was linked to the failed plot. However, the Pakistani state is inevitably if indirectly implicated through its vast, historic, and enduring links to Islamist militant groups. Indeed, despite the mutual antipathy between the TTP and the Pakistani state, one of the jihadi groups created and nurtured by Pakistan, Jaish e Mohammed (JeM), has been found to have connections to the plot. Although officially “banned” by the Pakistani state in 2002, JeM, like Lashkar e Taiba and other government-supported jihadi groups, continues many of its operations unhindered. Shahzad’s accomplice on a trip last year to Peshawar, a center of militancy in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province, was a friend and JeM member.

It is not as if the Shahzad plot was an aberration either. Paul Cruickshank of the New York University’s Center on Law and Security writes, “In a majority of the serious terrorist plots against the homelands of Western countries since 2004, plotters were either directed or trained by established jihadist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.” In all, Cruickshank estimates eight major plots have been directed from Pakistan while 11 involved militants receiving training in Pakistan. These include the shoe bomber Richard Reid in 2001, the failed fertilizer bomb plot in London in 2004, the successful London mass transit bombing in 2005, the failed liquid bomb plot to down trans-Atlantic flights in 2006, the attempted attacks on German discos, pubs and airports in 2007, the attempted attack on Barcelona in 2008 (and the devastating attack on Mumbai, India that year), as well as the planned attack on New York subways in 2009 and the attempted attack on a Northwest Airlines flight last Christmas. The list also includes attempted attacks in Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, and Denmark.

Ironically, however, Pakistan’s poor record of preventing terrorist attacks against the West from being plotted or directed from its soil is broadly a story of sufficient will but poor intelligence and capability. No one in the Pakistani government or military welcomes the attention from terrorist plots that are traced back to its soil, and Islamabad has been generally cooperative in helping to uncover or investigate plots before and after they happen. Indeed, Washington has praised Pakistan for its ability to trace Shahzad’s footsteps and identify local connections during his stay there last year. Pakistan has made several arrests in the case and U.S. National Security Advisor General James Jones has deemed Islamabad’s cooperation as “excellent.”

In fact, Pakistan’s cooperation has been so good they have uncovered links between Shahzad and an active-duty major in Pakistan’s army. The arrest of an active duty officer under these conditions is rare in Pakistan but sadly, the connection between the military and Islamist extremists is not. Pakistan’s army has long been accused of hosting Taliban sympathizers in its ranks and former military officers are regularly outspoken in their support for jihadist activities. Military connections to Islamist extremists, though vehemently denied by Pakistan, have been identified and illuminated through a myriad of policy papers, first-hand accounts, intelligence intercepts, and investigations over the past decade.

In the end, Pakistan’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks on Western targets has been undermined by its support for a broad spectrum of militant groups and its inability to establish governance and a monopoly on the use of force in the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of the North West Frontier Province (now known as Khyber-Pakhtoonkwa). As Saudi Arabia has so painfully learned, it is virtually impossible to cultivate a culture of jihad and militancy and expect to narrowly channel the energies unleashed to serve specific interests. Anti-India groups too easily become anti-American and anti-Western groups as well, such as the JeM link to the Shahzad plot and the increasingly international profile of Lashkar e Taiba illustrate this point saliently.

Terrorism at Home

On the other side of the terrorism coin, Pakistan faces surging extremist activity at home and is intimately linked to the terrorist and insurgent campaign being waged in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan’s record on these two closely-related but seemingly incompatible fronts is lamentable, although over the past year it has shown belated signs of progress.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 then-president Pervez Musharraf pledged, over the objection of many Pakistanis, Pakistan’s assistance in the War on Terror and made a series of high-profile arrests of al-Qaeda members during the early stages of the Afghan War. However, Islamabad left its allies in the Afghan Taliban (AT) largely untouched. Consequently, the AT leadership was afforded time and space to regroup in Pakistan’s lawless FATA, and have directed a campaign against the Coalition in Afghanistan from that safe haven ever since.

Islamabad, under pressure from Washington and chastened by a handful of assassination attempts on President Musharraf, eventually adopted a counterterrorism (CT) strategy in 2002. However, the four-year campaign that followed proved a disaster. Islamabad launched nearly two dozen military operations in the FATA during this time, yet the operations, dependent on conventional forces and heavy artillery, were wholly ineffective. Until that point, conventional Pakistani forces had never conducted an operation in the FATA. Several offensives were repelled, others led to short-lived peace deals, and many more ended inconclusively. At times, troops from the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force drawn from locals and responsible for policing the FATA, deserted, defected, or simply refused to fight. Worse still, unsophisticated army offensives caused severe collateral damage and displaced hundreds of thousands—all while the level of violence in neighboring Afghanistan actually increased.

Indeed, in almost every respect, Pakistani CT operations during this period had the opposite of their intended effect. And the situation deteriorated further in 2007. That summer, Pakistan organized a raid against the Lal Masjid or Red Mosque in Islamabad, where radical preachers and a hundred armed militants famously holed up to protest Pakistan’s role in “America’s war.” The raid was a tactical success but a strategic catastrophe. Dozens of civilians were killed; a number vastly inflated by the Pakistani media, which portrayed the militants and their cause in a sympathetic light. Public opinion followed suit and the military and civilian government were lambasted for, in the popular narrative, killing fellow Muslims at America’s behest.

The Red Mosque raid combined with clumsy Pakistani offensives into the FATA helped precipitate the emergence of the TTP in December 2007. Over the next year-and-a-half, the TTP fought a fierce and largely unopposed campaign against Pakistan and its people, slaughtering tribal leaders who opposed them, killing thousands in marketplace bombings and attacks on government facilities, and ambushing military and logistics convoys. Rather than leading public opinion, Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders followed it, blaming “foreign agents” for the TTP’s deadly campaign while media commentators alternately fingered the U.S., Israel, and India for each bloody attack.

The TTP’s rampage reached a pinnacle when the group pushed into the strategic Swat Valley in late 2007. The Pakistani military inconclusively skirmished with the militants there for 18 months before signing a peace deal in February 2009. However, the TTP and their allies refused to content themselves with Swat and pushed into neighboring Buner province, just 60 miles from Islamabad. That proved to be the first major turning point for Pakistan. At the leadership level, the push into Buner crystallized the growing realization that the TTP posed an existential threat to the Pakistani state. As importantly, public opinion was undergoing a change of its own as outrage spread over the videotaped flogging of a 17-year-old girl by a Taliban foot-soldier. For the first time, Pakistani security forces waged a determined, comprehensive military campaign against the TTP in the Swat and, despite displacing as many as 2.4 million people, by summer they were clearing the TTP from the valley.

The offensive generated a virtuous cycle. With military victories in Swat came a spike in public support for the anti-Taliban operations and a long-awaited offensive into South Waziristan, a premiere militant stronghold in the FATA. Generous praise from Washington followed, including a historic five-year, $7.5 billion aid package in the form of the PEACE Act, and a pledge to provide Pakistan with a dozen unmanned aerial drones. Pakistan’s public discourse shifted. Suddenly the words “terrorist” and “extremist” entered the lexicon of Pakistan’s leaders and the Pakistani National Assembly – which had voted almost unanimously to cede the Swat Valley to the Taliban – was voting in unison to aggressively pursue the “war on terror.”

However, to date Pakistan’s decisive turn against the TTP has yet to translate into a broader philosophical turn against Islamist militants. For all the progress made, Islamabad still seeks to distinguish between the “good Taliban,” who focus their attacks exclusively on Afghanistan (and who Islamabad hopes will take power in Kabul after America’s eventual withdrawal) and the “bad Taliban” focused exclusively on destroying the Pakistani state.

In February and March of 2010, Pakistan provided a glimmer of hope with the arrest of a string of high-level Afghan Taliban officials. Working in concert with the CIA, Pakistani intelligence nabbed the AT’s number two commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as well as a handful of the group’s shadow governors and operational commanders in Karachi and elsewhere. Influential figures in Washington seized on the notion that Pakistan was finally determined to sever its ties with its former jihadi allies in the Afghan Taliban. However, revelations in the interim suggest the arrested Afghan Taliban figures were in the process of negotiating a settlement with the Afghan government anyway. In other words, Islamabad, determined to play kingmaker in Afghanistan, preferred to incarcerate its former assets rather than stand on the sidelines while Afghanistan’s fate was determined.

Today the Af-Pak dynamic is not altogether different from the period before the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban in 2007. Coalition forces in Afghanistan are still under siege from Pakistani-based militants – namely the Afghan Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network and al-Qaeda – and Islamabad is still resisting U.S. calls to crack down on these groups. Pakistan has cleared South Waziristan and is conducting operations in the neighboring districts such as Orakzai, but has refused to initiate large-scale operations in North Waziristan, where militants of all stripes have begun to coalesce.

The Scorecard

In sum, Pakistan’s record on counterterrorism since 9/11 is decidedly mixed. Islamabad has been willing to cooperate with the West on defusing or investigating terrorism plots launched from Pakistan. Islamabad has also done commendable work degrading the capabilities of the TTP, although how much praise an act of naked self-interest deserves is open to discussion. With regards to the Afghan Taliban and their allies, Pakistan’s record is far more disappointing.

Too many Pakistani decision-makers believe that maintaining connections to the Afghan Taliban is critical for retaining influence in Afghanistan and ensuring it does not become an ally of Pakistan’s arch-nemesis, India. The Pakistani military’s obsession with India, and its reluctance to transfer resources from the “eastern front” has also hampered the country’s will and ability to confront the terrorists in its midst, although to its credit, it now claims to have 150,000 troops committed to the fight against extremists.

Pakistan’s reluctance to decisively confront Islamist extremists also stems from the country’s fear of a strong and independent Afghanistan; one that could challenge the Durand Line (the unnatural, British-drawn border that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan) or make a bid for the loyalty of Pakistan’s disaffected Pashtuns. When adding to these factors both a general distaste for confronting and battling fellow “Muslim countrymen” and the existence of a strong contingent of Islamist sympathizers in the military and media, Pakistan’s half-hearted approach to counterterrorism becomes clearer, if no less forgivable.

Tactically, Pakistan has done itself no favors by relying on conventional forces and overwhelming firepower to dislodge pockets of militants embedded in large populations. Pakistan’s military has spent its entire existence preparing for conventional, large-scale mechanized battles with the Indian army and, viewing the current threat as a temporary insurgency, has shown no stomach for fundamentally altering its training regimes, field manuals, or basic military paradigm. Pakistan’s top brass have in many cases refused to adopt the counterinsurgency principles that have transformed American war-fighting in recent years, and instead remain committed to flattening villages with artillery, which the Taliban easily evade. Veteran journalist Ahmed Rashid, describing the Swat offensive in Spring 2009, highlights the Army’s shortfalls in this regard:

While what should have occurred was securing villages and towns one by one, combined with deep patrols in the mountains to keep the Taliban on the run, the army instead set up camps where it hunkered down, used excessive firepower that killed hundreds of civilians, failed to protect the local anti-Taliban tribal elders… and allowed the Taliban to dismantle or kill the local police force and civil administration.

Perhaps the most underrated dynamic at play in Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy (or lack thereof) has been the profound effect the media and public opinion have had either constraining or driving Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts. Time and again, Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders have been held captive to polling figures and public commentary. Pakistan’s chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kiyani, conceded as much in February when he said that “Public opinion, media support, army’s capability and resolve are fundamental to our war.” As the most popular institution in Pakistan it is peculiar that the military has put fears about its public image ahead of vital national security concerns, particularly when garnering public support would require little more than revealing the true nature of the enemy. Pakistan’s reluctance to do as much, in a miscalculated bid to retain extremist groups as foreign policy assets, has been its greatest counterterrorism failure to date.

Jeff M. Smith is the Kraemer strategy fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.