Pakistan’s Partial War on Terror

The deadly results of cooperation with terrorists.


The past week’s spate of suicide bombings in Pakistan and the siege of its military headquarters are again casting the spotlight on that country’s war on terror. Attention will—and should—focus in particular on Islamabad’s many failures to control militants on its own soil. Pakistan is now paying the heavy price for its earlier attempts to use terrorist groups as strategic tools.

For decades Islamabad has viewed and used terrorist groups as assets to be cultivated. Before the Soviet invasion, Pakistan used Islamist militants for operations in India and Afghanistan. Today, Pakistan aids the Afghan Taliban mainly in the belief that if U.S. and international commitment to Afghanistan wanes, it would be better to be friendly with a group like the Taliban that can keep Indian influence in the country at bay—the same logic behind Pakistan’s pre-2001 support for the Taliban.

At home, Pakistan has tolerated a raft of terrorist groups ostensibly linked to Kashmir, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for last year’s Mumbai massacre, continues to operate under various names. Its leadership roams free and its offices remain open. Jaish-e-Mohammad, responsible for several attacks in India and against international and domestic targets within Pakistan, is similarly unconstrained. Pakistan’s track record against so-called anti-Shi’a militias, such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipha-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan, has been equally lackluster despite vicious attacks against Shi’a who are perhaps one-fourth of Pakistan’s population. These varied groups are ensconced not in the unruly tribal areas, but in Pakistan’s most populous and militarized province: the Punjab. Punjab hosts six army corps, yet these groups proliferate and operate with impunity literally under the nose of Pakistan’s army.

Islamabad has long believed it could exploit these groups for strategic aims while preventing them from causing too much “unapproved” trouble. The government would have likely come to some modus vivendi with the Pakistan Taliban, had its leaders agreed to focus upon Afghanistan rather than Pakistan. Islamabad cracked down militarily on the Pakistani Taliban earlier this year only after it was clear that deal-making had failed. With respect to the so-called Kashmiri groups, Pakistan only sought to moderate their activities to prevent serious Indo-Pakistan crises and international pressure while maintaining their basic operational readiness.

Now it’s possible to see exactly how shortsighted and dangerous Pakistan’s strategy has been. First, all these groups are more interconnected than at first might appear, and in ways that make them much harder to control than Islamabad may believe. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi shares membership and resources with Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Pakistan Taliban. Both Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Mohammad facilitate the movement of persons outside of Pakistan into the terrorist sanctuaries in the tribal areas, provide suicide bombers to the Pakistan Taliban, and facilitate high-value operations throughout Pakistan. With the exception of Lashkar-e-Taiba, all support the Afghan Taliban and all are close to al Qaeda. They all share connections with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and some civilian leaders.

Some of these groups have now bitten the hand that once fed them. These groups are vexed by Pakistan’s support of the U.S. fight against al Qaeda, provision of logistical support for the Afghan war to undermine the Taliban, the state’s complicity in Washington’s use of drones in the tribal areas and Pakistan’s own military operations in the Pashtun belt.

It is unlikely the recent attack on the Army headquarters, perpetrated by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, will focus some minds in Pakistan on this complex problem. Pakistanis prefer to attribute their terrorism problem to blowback from the U.S.- and Saudi-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad, or to blame India for domestic attacks. Polls I have conducted suggest Pakistanis are unaware of both the activities of Pakistani militant groups operating on their soil and the long-standing ties between these groups and their security and intelligence agencies.

In reality, Pakistan needs to own responsibility for its mistakes and reverse course swiftly. Other countries, especially the U.S., can help, but so far have shown a worrying lack of interest in doing so.

Washington has largely failed to understand the problem of Pakistan’s militant landscape and forge appropriate policy. Since September 11, the U.S. has worked to secure Pakistan’s sustained fight against al Qaeda, yet the U.S. demanded Pakistani action against the Afghan Taliban only from 2007 onward. The delay happened in part because the Taliban was believed to have been vanquished. Even when the Taliban re-emerged in 2005, Washington was slow to prompt Pakistan to act for fear of compromising its cooperation against al Qaeda. Similarly, Washington has pressured Pakistan to act against the so-called Kashmiri groups only episodically, and only when their actions have sparked near-war crises between India and Pakistan. And Washington has tended to see anti-Shi’a groups as a domestic problem rather than the threat to regional security they really are.

During this period, the U.S. disbursed more than $13 billion to compensate or reward Pakistan for its cooperation in the war on terror even while it undermined the goals of the same. Congress is improving on this record. Late last month, the legislature proposed tying $7.5 billion of aid over five years to the strengthening of Pakistan’s civilian governance. The bill also proposes binding security assistance to Pakistan’s efforts to eliminate militant groups that have previously been viewed as state assets. The Pakistani army balked at these conditions because they would limit its ability to use terrorists strategically. But precisely for that reason, it’s a good move.

Pakistan’s efforts to fight the bad terrorists while protecting the good militants cannot be sustained. The latest string of attacks and bombings shows the high cost this policy is inflicting on Pakistan itself. Nor can the lackadaisical international response to Pakistan’s action and inaction in the backdrop of enormous financial largess be justified. Despite army balking, Washington should insist that Islamabad act against terrorism comprehensively as a condition for further security assistance. In the end, Pakistanis may benefit most from such steadfast commitment.

Ms. Fair is an assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.


Filed under Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, FATA, Pakistan, Taliban, Terrorism, war

13 responses to “Pakistan’s Partial War on Terror

  1. Pingback: Pakistan's Partial War on Terror « Pak Tea House | Global Security Blog

  2. The USA and Pakistan are both realizing that if you sow the wind you will surely reap the whirlwind!

  3. Hassan1657

    Before the Soviet Invasion, US policy makers were also supporting the appropriate candidate in Afghanistan. While it is generally believed that US acted after the Russian invasion, the bill was actually signed by Jimmy Carter in Feb 79.
    On the hypothesis of Pakistani support to Afghan Taliban, even if it is believed for a while that Pak policy makers have this insecurity from US, they are right in believing so, the very history of US-Pak relation speaks of the “sorry Buddy, its your mess” attitude. The rise of Indian Consulate activity right along the Pak-Afghan border speaks of the India-Northern alliance nexus.
    Pakistan Policymakers can not be termed as shortsighted. If time to time developments are the reasons for earning the label of being short-sighted then the entire American Line of Presidents can be termed as shortsighted. Why they did not see it coming when Reagan was President. Why George H Bush coerced Saudi Arabia for establishing US base, why George W Bush went into war with no evidence at all? Short sightedness of US policy makers is so evident in a case that just to win a war they tend to assist either Sunni or Shia Militia in the particular area and end up creating another enemy ….in the larger picture pushing a country further into civil war..
    Despite its fractured democracy, Pakistan is still not in position to trade lives for national interest as in case of US.
    Though the links existed between Pakistani Intelligence agencies and Taliban, but on this pre text Osama Bin Laden also had a close working relationship with Berzinsky and other NSA top shots. The relationship between Baitullah Mehsood and US agencies is also no secret. They had to kill him when he became a liability for them. Whipping Pakistani Intel agencies for not doing enough…enough like handing over almost all of High Profile Targets…?
    Pakistan owns the responsibility in terms of loss of lives and displaced persons. The count of Pakistani dead and injured in this conflict surpasses US loss in Afghanistan.

  4. karun

    freedom fighting ought to be done in a non violent manner, all armed freedom fighters are terrorists

  5. neel

    What Ms C Christine Fair is saying that, there is a difference between ” what the US should do” and ” what the US actually does” .

    Well, there is nothing new in that. The whole world knows that the US say good things for global consumption, but will do what ever suit their own interests, destruction of Iraq on fabricated intelligence is the most recent example.

    Quote – “Washington has largely failed to understand the problem of Pakistan’s militant landscape and forge appropriate policy” – unquote

    – absolute non sense, who is the author trying to kid ?

    Washington knows Pakistan better than most others, and what Pakistan does, always happens with the blessings of Washington.
    All this war on terror, civil-military tension in Pakistan is a huge hog-wash. The truth is the US-Pak evil nexus is at work to destabilize the whole region in order to strategically weaken Russia, Iran, China and India.
    The billions of dollars in reward goes to Pakistan, as a part of the contract.

    India seems to the immediate target of this dangerous game being played by the US.

  6. PMA

    Indrani Bagchi, TNN 8 October 2009, 05:06am

    NEW DELHI: Christine Fair, political scientist and South Asia specialist at Rand Corporation, is likely to be the new pointperson on India at the South Asia bureau in the US state department.

    Sources said she is likely to be appointed deputy assistant secretary for South Asia soon, a prospect that is already raising eyebrows here, despite her evident familiarity with the region and the complex dynamics of the India-Pakistan relationship.

    Fair is conversant not only with the languages and cultures of India and Pakistan but has also been travelling to this region for years to study current affairs and trends in the two countries. In her frequent travels here, Fair has also acquired a great deal of familiarity with the key players in this region.

    A scholar on South Asia, Fair has written extensively on Pakistan. In fact, she has spent a lot more time on Pakistan than on India. But when she has focused on India, Fair has often barked up the wrong tree. For instance, after the Mumbai attacks, she was quoted in international media as saying, “There’s absolutely nothing Al Qaida-like about it. Did you see any suicide bombers? And there are no fingerprints of Lashkar. They don’t do hostage taking, and they don’t do grenades.”

    However, on Iran, Fair has dissected India’s relationship on a broad canvas. Writing about India’s strategic relationship with that country, Fair suggested in a 2007 report that India should make itself relevant to US strategic interests by helping Iran join the mainstream rather than be a meaningful alternative to Tehran. It was a report that found huge resonance in the US Congress particularly during the debate on the nuclear deal.

    Earlier this year, Fair’s comment that India was deeply involved in Afghanistan went down well in Pakistan. “I think it is unfair to dismiss the notion that Pakistan’s apprehensions about Afghanistan stem in part from its security competition with India… Having visited the Indian mission in Zahedan, Iran, I can assure you they are not issuing visas as the main activity. Moreover, India has run operations from its mission in Mazar and is likely doing so from the other consulates it has reopened in Jalalabad and Qandahar along the (Pak-Afghan) border,” Fair had said.

    She even quoted Indian officials as telling her that India was involved in Balochistan. “Indian officials have told me privately that they are pumping money into Balochistan.”

  7. yasserlatifhamdani

    Christine Fair sounds like a breath of fresh air.

  8. Junaid

    Pakistan’s efforts to fight the bad terrorists while protecting the good militants cannot be sustained.

    And US efforts to fight terrorists while supporting dictators can also not be sustained.

    Christine Fair sounds like another fart from the US arm chair warriors.

  9. bonobashi


    To my admittedly partisan point of view, she sounds like she has already made up her mind. And without the intervention of facts, with the citation of mysterious, not for attribution sources in the Indian bureaucracy.

    If that were sufficient for any purpose, surely most of the Jehadi elements in Pakistan, specifically the main leaders of the movements and organisations in South Punjab highlighted by Ms. Siddiqa, would be behind bars by now. Surely the civilian government which is in residence now would have taken cognisance of the information culled from American as well as Indian sources and taken some action on the 26/11 killings.

    Her vapourings are as legitimate as much other information which has been discarded with cavalier levity by Interior Minister Malik, by Foreign Minister Qureishi and by Prime Minister Gillani. Either we go with scepticism regarding evidence which is evenly balanced, or we take into account the totality of information available and are willing to take action on it without quibbles and legal legerdemain, but not both.

  10. awaam

    By attacking various institutions of Pakistani state (in attacks of more symbolic value than otherwise), Taliban has thrown an open challenge to our nation. But is it really so? Don’t mistake it because it seems more a sign of desperation on their behalf because they clearly are surrounded and trapped.

    The recent attacks are more like a reaction of an animal that has been trapped and feels encaged and knows its time has come. These attacks are designed to create more psychological trauma and undermine the resolve of the people and state of Pakistan, than actually inflict any real measurable material damage.

  11. Hayyer

    I read your link. The gist is that the taliban types attacking Pakistani institutions are a minor problem compared to India and the partition killings. It suggests finding ‘Islamic’ solutions through categorization, and a great leader.
    It recalled to mind the solutions proposed in the early sixties to the problems of socialism in India, poor growth and increasing poverty. More socialism was advised.