Pakistan’s American Problem

The United States is struggling with Pakistan. The problem is manifold, encompassing a resurgent al-Qaeda, a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan with bases in Pakistan, and Islamist militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province.

But most damaging of all for the United States is that people in Pakistan overwhelming see the United States as the problem.

Al-Qaeda’s Persistence

Seven years after the United States and its allies attacked Afghanistan and al-Qaeda leaders fled into Pakistan, the group continues to take refuge in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior most U.S. military position, told The Washington Post that “Al Qaeda is resurgent there, lives in the FATA. The leadership’s there; we know that. They’re planning against us and they present a clear and present danger to the United States of America based on what they did before and what they are still trying to do.” Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the most likely near term attack on the United States will come from Al Qaeda via these safe havens.”

The New York Times reported in June that “Officials say the new camps are smaller than the ones the group used prior to 2001. However, despite dozens of American missile strikes in Pakistan since 2002, one retired CIA officer estimated that the makeshift training compounds now have as many as 2,000 local and foreign militants, up from several hundred three years ago.”

These camps have grown despite the promise to crack down on al-Qaeda from General Pervez Musharraf who ruled the country until the election of a democratic government in February this year. The United States paid heavily for this promise. In June 2008, a Congressional Research Service analysis reported that the United States had given Pakistan nearly $11 billion in military and economic aid since 2002. Over 70% of this money was for military-related programs. Independent analysts who first revealed the scale of U.S. financial aid to Pakistan as part of the so-called “war on terror” argued that the $11 billion “has likely been matched, if not exceeded, by additional classified funds provided towards intelligence and covert military action.”

The Taliban’s Resurgence

The concern for the United States is not just the reconstitution of al-Qaeda and what that might mean for another attack on the United States. Of equal importance is the linked problem in Afghanistan of the Taliban fighters who come across the border to fight and return there when pursued by U.S. and NATO forces.

Monthly U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are now at the highest level since the U.S. invasion in 2001. More U.S. and NATO soldiers have been killed in the past two months in Afghanistan than in Iraq. There are now 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the largest number since the invasion, and President Bush says “We’re going to increase troops by 2009.” There are reports that the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln is now moving into position to add great airpower to support coalition forces in Afghanistan.

With the future of Pakistan in the balance, the United States is at a loss for a strategy. They had bet on General Musharraf and his fellow generals and lost. President Bush is reported to have told journalists that the biggest challenge for the next president will be Pakistan, not Iraq or Afghanistan. The temptation will be to use yet more force, to reach further and more often across the border, and attack al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan even harder. But this will only serve to strengthen the perception that the United States is at war with Pakistan and inevitably inflict more civilian casualties.

Anti-Americanism on the Rise

A poll conducted at the end of May 2008 by the Pakistan Institute for Public Opinion for the U.S. groups Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation revealed the intensity of public opposition to American policies. The poll found that 60% of Pakistanis believe the U.S. “war on terror” seeks to weaken the Muslim world, and 15% think its goal is to “ensure US domination over Pakistan.” About one-third of Pakistanis now have a positive view of al-Qaeda, twice as many as think positively of the United States.

The poll revealed that 44% of Pakistanis believe the United States is the greatest threat to their personal safety (India is a distant second at 14%). The Pakistani Taliban, who are now organized into the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Taliban Movement of Pakistan) and by some estimates have up to 40,000 fighters, are seen as a threat by less than 10%. Al-Qaeda barely registers as a threat, slightly surpassing Pakistan’s own military and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).

Similarly, when asked who was most responsible for violence in Pakistan today, the poll found that over 50% of Pakistanis blame the United States. About 10% blame respectively India and the Pakistan army (and ISI). The Pakistani Taliban was blamed by less than 5%.

In April 2008, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center reported that Pakistan suffered 1,335 fatalities from terrorist attacks in 2007; other estimates are higher. Half these attacks came in FATA. In 2008, these attacks have continued and spread across the North-West Frontier Province. One attack in January killed over 50 people and wounded almost 150 while they were praying in a mosque. Taliban fighters have captured towns and villages and threaten Peshawar, the provincial capital. They have sought to enforce their version of Sharia law, setting up courts, carrying out public executions, blowing up girls’ schools, harassing women, destroying video shops, and even threatening barbers who offer shaves.

Pakistan’s elected government is struggling to deal with a crisis that it has inherited from the past seven years of U.S. policy and military rule. It has tried to talk to and fight the militants at the same time. But the repeated breakdowns of cease-fires negotiated with various militant groups and the bombing in the heart of Islamabad on the anniversary of the siege of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) show that this strategy is not working. There are also suspicions that elements within the Pakistan army and ISI are still sympathetic to the militants.

A way forward is not clear. But the first step must be for Washington to consider how its policies in the “war on terror,” in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan have failed and now feed public animosity in Pakistan toward the United States and support for the Islamist militancy. For its part, Pakistan needs to have a national conversation on what kind of future it wants, whether it wishes to become the kind of savage and ignorant society that the Taliban offer, and if not, how to confront the Islamist threat.

Zia Mian, a Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) columnist, directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.