Strategic Dialogue: Counterterrorism in South Asia

This is part of a strategic dialogue on Pakistan and counterterrorism. See Fouad Pervez’s initial argument here and Sharad Joshi’s argument here.

Fouad Pervez

Sharad and I disagree on the methods by which to achieve improved stability in Pakistan, but we do agree that it’s crucial to effectively counter militant elements within the state. We both think that the Pakistani state help in the struggle more than they have, but we clearly think there are different ways to accomplish this task.

Sharad conflates all the militant groups in the area as part of the same movement, something they most certainly are not. While leadership of the various major groups might all use some common rhetoric, most of them have different political goals. Some groups are bent on restoring the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. Some are concerned primarily with the Kashmir conflict. Others oppose the Pakistani government for a variety of reasons. Putting these groups under one umbrella is a strategic mistake. Targeted policies can help pull supporters away from particular groups, leaving only hardcore militant fanatics. Not everyone participating and supporting these various groups falls into this category of extremist. However, if we group them all together, we combine all their political causes together as well.

In general, Sharad supports a military solution as the only way to stabilize the region. This might work in the short-term — although I’m not sure it will — but I think this policy will ultimately fail. He mentions increasing the NATO presence in Afghanistan. I think more troops could be beneficial, but history tells us that bringing in more foreign troops to Afghanistan, of all places, isn’t the way to go.

Instead, I would argue that the United States needs to create a regional coalition to help stabilize Afghanistan. These states are in close proximity to Afghanistan and have a real interest in stabilizing that nation. More importantly, troops won’t matter if the political chaos in Afghanistan isn’t dealt with. In addition to the scant U.S. resources devoted to Afghanistan, the Karzai regime has hardly been a source of inspiration. Its ineffectiveness in governing, largely due to its own corruption, is a major reason why the neo-Taliban movement is gaining strength. Villagers are siding with them because they provide them security, something Karzai hasn’t been able to do.

Sharad notes the difficulty Pakistani military and political leaders have had in breaking with the Taliban. Why is that the case? It has a lot to do with simple power politics. With a far more powerful India next to it, Pakistan needed an ally in Afghanistan so as not to have to worry about that border. The Taliban provided just that. Also, the arbitrary borders drawn in the region separated ethnic Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a fact that plays a major role in many Pakistani military officers being reluctant to use force against these populations. While these factors aren’t easy to solve, at the very least, they should be mentioned to provide some additional context to the situation. Without them, it appears that Pakistan’s support of the Taliban is based in ideology, which isn’t true.

Sharad notes the problem of negotiating with the Taliban, something that the Swat deal also underscores. The various militant groups are indeed negotiating from strength right now, but a major reason they’ve gained strength is the U.S. military campaign. Instead of turning villagers against these groups — a process that was moving along, albeit too slowly, before the U.S. drone attacks started — the military strikes have united them with those groups. The military solution has played a major role in weakening the government.

He also dismisses the Kashmir issue too easily. Part of this is because he conflates the various militant groups. Yes, the groups helping the Taliban in Afghanistan won’t necessarily care about progress on Kashmir. But that issue would make a huge difference to many other militant groups. He adds that because Indian militant groups won’t accept realistic solutions to the Kashmir issue, it shouldn’t be pursued. I don’t understand that point at all. Why should we give in to Indian militants completely, on an issue that could help normalize relations between two nuclear powers, while we pursue primarily a military policy against Pakistani militant groups?

Ultimately, we differ on the larger point of strategy. Whereas Sharad favors a military assault on all groups, I am far more optimistic about isolating the most radical elements. This isn’t something that will happen in days or weeks. Short-term Cold War-like thinking serves us no good here. We need to become a real ally to Pakistanis, something that will require addressing the many problems the country faces. Militant groups are low on that list. My paper discusses a few of these issues briefly, and other articles I have written go through these in greater depth.

Foreign powers won’t stabilize the situation in Pakistan. Only Pakistanis can solve these problems. The military approach Sharad advocates makes that possibility very remote. Instead of bringing people against the militants, his approach would further heighten perceived Pakistani fears of the United States, and increasingly, their own government. In my opinion, that would make success against militant groups, something he and I both believe is a necessity, far more unlikely.

Will a military response “set the stage for a meaningful political solution” as he suggests? In the short term, it very well could. However, we might destroy the country in the process. We absolutely need Pakistan as an ally, but in order to do so, we must also be an ally in return, something we have neglected for most of the past 60 years. I fear the military solution that Sharad and most Western analysts advocate could end the relationship for good and create a level of heightened level of instability that lasts for a prolonged period of time.

Sharad Joshi

Fouad Pervez’s contribution to this strategic dialogue is an interesting approach to the problem of terrorism in the region. Indeed, Pakistan is crucial to the success of the Obama administration’s Af-Pak approach, and so there has to be a firmer alliance between the United States and Pakistan on counterterrorism. However, there are some fundamental problems with the recommendations put forward in his article.

Regarding the airstrikes conundrum, the best scenario would obviously be for the campaign to end, especially since they incur substantial human and political costs. The tribal areas in Pakistan remain breeding grounds for terrorist and insurgent violence. Ideally, the Pakistan military should permanently roll back bases belonging to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Unless such bases are neutralized, the Taliban will continue to expand the territory under its effective control and intensify strikes on both sides of the border. But since the Pakistan military is incapable and unwilling to take decisive measures, airstrikes remain integral, despite the obvious costs.

Admittedly, airstrikes do reduce the Pakistan’s government’s internal credibility. But to strengthen the same credibility, it also has to demonstrate to its people that it’s willing to take firm measures against the Taliban in the face of increasing terrorist strikes within Pakistan. Airstrikes come into the picture due to Islamabad’s distinction between “good” and “bad” jihadis, and its unwillingness to apprehend the leadership of militant groups. Recent news reports have only further revealed the continued links between the Pakistan military and their favored Taliban elements. The fact that Islamabad is unwilling to neutralize the leadership of the Afghan and Pakistan variants of the Taliban (as opposed to combating lower-level militant followers) contributes to a need for air attacks.

This highlights the main theme of the article — that every actor in the region is at fault except the Pakistani political and military establishment. Doubtless the Afghan government’s immense corruption hardly helps matters. But even if all these secondary factors were satisfactorily addressed, the biggest problem would remain: Islamabad’s belief in the strategic importance of groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Airstrikes do have their negative consequences, but they have also eliminated scores of al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents and terrorists, which has been confirmed by recent news reports.

Further, Fouad’s article discusses the need for negotiating deals with villagers in western Pakistan to end their support for the Taliban. There is nothing objectionable in that, except that Islamabad has focused more on striking deals with Taliban groups in the region, which the author neglects to mention. These deals give away large amounts of territory to the Taliban without obliging them to lay down their weapons or forswear violence. It only allows the Taliban to dictate terms from an even stronger position so that they can more effectively strike back at the Pakistan military. How can villagers be expected to resist a strengthened Taliban that has sought to decimate their traditional tribal structure in recent years? Negotiating with villagers in western Pakistan thus has to be differentiated from conceding to the Taliban. Concessions in any negotiating process are necessary. But deals such as the Swat Valley agreement are a surrender, not a tactical concession.

Fouad’s emphasis on economic aid and non-military aspects of cooperation are crucial and the Af-Pak policy does well to focus on them. But his suggestions amount to an end to all military operations in the face of a resurgent Taliban. Are we to suppose that the Taliban leadership will examine the Obama administration’s economic package for the region and then decide whether to step up their offensives? Hardly. That’s why a military strategy, especially one involving an increase in ground troops in Afghanistan, is an essential complement to non-military initiatives.

The India section, which is replete with tangential clichés, also provides plenty of room for disagreement. A key element of a comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy has to be firm action against all groups and not a “protect your favored jihadi group” strategy. Extraneous issues such as the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement and the IPI pipeline are attempts to justify Islamabad’s unwillingness to snap links with various militant groups. After all, what is the exact connection between these foreign policy initiatives and terrorist violence emerging from Pakistan?

Agreed, the Pakistani establishment’s threat perceptions do matter. But so does reality. And some factual evidence is worth recounting. For instance, the ISI continues to maintain links with various terrorist and insurgent groups in southern Asia. And regardless of the actual intentions of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement and the IPI pipeline rethink by New Delhi, there is no justification for such a relationship to continue. Like any emerging power, India has to establish closer ties with influential states, and therefore, New Delhi’s foreign policy cannot remain hostage to Islamabad’s threat perceptions.

Second, the revisionist actor in South Asia is not India, but Pakistan. Islamabad’s paranoid threat perceptions vis-à-vis India would have some credibility if New Delhi’s strategic thinking included annexing Pakistani territory. India’s coercive postures, such as after the December 2001 parliament attack, are a consequence of terrorist attacks directed from elements in Pakistan, rather than any territorial agenda. Islamabad’s threat perceptions (from both internal and external actors) can only be alleviated by cracking down on internal terrorist networks and a realization among its policymakers of the violent blow-back suffered by Pakistan from its policy of state sponsorship of terrorist groups.

Moreover, the close links between militant groups, the ISI and the Pakistani political, religious, and military establishment are hardly a recent development. Therefore, it is disingenuous to bring up extraneous issues such as the nuclear agreement (which was first announced in 2005, more than 15 years after the commencement of Islamabad’s sponsorship of various terrorist and insurgent groups).

In his analysis of the Mumbai attack, Fouad’s focus is again on diversionary aspects. Agreed, this particular attack might have had some lower-level logistical support from individuals within India. But as has been demonstrated conclusively even by Pakistani investigations, the planning and execution of the attack was solely the responsibility of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants based out of Pakistan. The key question is: Why are such attacks allowed to get to the planning and training stages in the first place (activities that took place within Pakistan as confirmed by Islamabad’s investigations)? Under pressure from the international community, Islamabad did apprehend some top LeT leaders, but others such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar remain at large, despite his recorded presence in Pakistan in recent years. Given the longstanding connections between the ISI and the LeT top brass, it is difficult to believe that planning for this attack went unnoticed in Islamabad.

Regarding the connection with the 2002 Gujarat riots: Yes, they did help create an environment in which some elements of the Indian Muslim community became more susceptible to radical views. And it’s indeed a shame that riot investigations have proceeded at such a slow pace, while the main culprits remain free. However, Pakistan-based groups saw this as an opportunity and decided to exploit this anger for their own violent ends — something that has been established in numerous investigations over the years. Are we to assume that if the Gujarat riots had not taken place, groups such as LeT and JeM would not have carried out attacks in India? Once again, the timeline is crucial. If we go by 1989 as the beginning of Pakistan-sponsored violence in Kashmir, Islamabad’s sponsorship of terrorist groups predates not just the Gujarat riots but also the Babri Mosque demolition by right-wing Hindu groups in 1992. Thus, the LeT and its ilk are a legacy of Pakistan’s decision to employ militant groups as part of its strategic agenda, rather than developments in India that took place much later.

The prescriptions suggested in the final section are again an exercise in diversion and say nothing about what the Pakistani security establishment needs to do. The onus seems to be only on external actors. Fouad asks for security guarantees for Pakistan. But against what or whom? The key threat to Pakistan is from within, from the radical Islamist network that includes the Taliban and the LeT. Any coercive moves by India and/or the United States are a consequence of Islamabad’s ambiguity over terrorism, which has a direct impact on regional security. Within Kashmir, apart from combating armed militant groups, clearly there is a legitimate political process underway as evidenced by the high turnout in the 2008 state assembly election. Just because this doesn’t fit into Pakistani objectives does not detract from its legitimacy.

The usual argument from Pakistan is that it has committed immense military resources to combat the Taliban and other groups. But Islamabad’s action against these groups has been restricted to lower-level militants, i.e., the foot soldiers. Unless the top leadership of the LeT, the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistan versions) and other groups is neutralized, any steps taken by Pakistan will be merely tactical. It’s unclear why Islamabad hasn’t been able to apprehend Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar and Baitullah Mehsud, to say nothing of the LeT and JeM leadership. It likely still believes that these militant leaders are long-term strategic allies, despite the havoc effected in Pakistan by their followers. Changing this attitude in the corridors of power in Islamabad is therefore imperative.