The deadly results of cooperation with terrorists.
By C. CHRISTINE FAIR
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.