US Stuck With Reluctant, Inept Partner in Terror War

Demands by US politicians and policymakers that Pakistan cooperate more closely with Washington in its "war on terror" fail to take account of both the Pakistani military’s strategic priorities and its incompetence, particularly in conducting counter-insurgency operations, according to a new study by an influential regional specialist.

The study, "Pakistan – Conflicted Ally in the War on Terror,” was released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) amid growing concern here and in other western capitals about the post-2001 reconstruction of al-Qaeda and resurgence of the Taliban both in Afghanistan and in the turbulent border regions of Pakistan itself.

The author, Ashley Tellis, argues that threatening Pakistan with strong sanctions, let alone unilateral US military intervention against Taliban or al-Qaeda forces based in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as urged by some Democratic as well as Republican presidential candidates, will "further intensify the resistance against effective counterterrorism operations and closer collaboration with the United States" in Pakistan’s national security establishment.

"Whatever Islamabad’s failings may be, the prospect of having to treat a large and precariously poised Muslim state, armed with nuclear weapons and with an unsavory record of proliferation, as a mortal adversary should give pause to even the most jaded politicians," according to Tellis, who most recently served as a senior advisor on South Asian affairs at the State Department and National Security Council.

Since last July, when the US intelligence community concluded that al-Qaeda had largely rebounded from its eviction from Afghanistan six years ago and reconstituted its central organization in safe havens in FATA, Pakistan has soared to the top of Washington’s foreign policy worries.

Its place there was consolidated by a series of domestic political crises, including President Pervez Musharraf’s attempted removal of the Supreme Court’s chief justice, the bloody denouement of the occupation by radical Islamists of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, and the six-week state of emergency that was directed primarily against his secular opposition.

The turmoil shows few signs of abating. Although Musharraf formally lifted the emergency last weekend, opposition parties have accused him of rigging next month’s parliamentary elections. Some analysts believe the elections may give rise to a new power struggle that could quickly spill over into the streets and risk destabilizing the country.

Tellis and other specialists here, however, believe that Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy will remain the exclusive domain of the army and the intelligence apparatus regardless of the election’s outcome and that Washington will be faced with the same problems in securing Islamabad’s cooperation in these areas as it has since 2001.

Those problems, according to Tellis, include the military’s reluctance to abandon its former clients, including the Taliban and anti-Indian terrorist groups that were previously focused on Kashmir; the army’s "ineptitude in counterterrorism operations" against Pakistan’s own predominantly Pashtun Taliban; and the political failures of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government and its US and NATO backers.

After the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Musharraf and the military adopted what Tellis calls a "selective" counterterrorism strategy. While it cracked down hard against domestic sectarian terrorist groups and al-Qaeda, its response to the Taliban and the Kashmiri groups which had served as "assets" by the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) in Islamabad’s long-standing conflict with India, was much more muted.

The reluctance to strike hard against the Taliban – both out of a sense of loyalty and out of fear of alienating Pashtuns on the Pakistani side of the border – eventually resulted in the creation of effective sanctuaries for both the Taliban and much of the al-Qaeda leadership in FATA, especially those areas dominated by tribes with "strong ethnic or ideological links" to both groups.

At the same time, according to Tellis, while the government formally outlawed some of the major Kashmir-oriented groups, their leaders began linking up with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, although to what extent the military and the ISID have supported or encouraged those connections remains unclear.

Meanwhile, the military’s incompetence in carrying out counterterrorism operations in FATA – coupled with US strikes from the Afghan side of the border that have killed civilians, as well as Taliban or al-Qaeda targets – has served mainly to strengthen Islamist forces in the region.

Trained and equipped for a conventional war against India, the army relied on tactics that have radicalized the local population and helped empower new religious leaders, or maulvis, at the expense of "the traditional authorities, the political agents and the tribal elders (maliks)" on whom Islamabad has traditionally relied both for maintaining order and collecting intelligence.

Moreover, the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force recruited from the local population to which the Pentagon has proposed directly providing equipment, training and even US advisers, is "[r]iddled with Taliban sympathizers" and "compromised by their close ties with the now irate and often radicalized tribes," according to Tellis.

Meanwhile, the ineffectiveness of the Karzai government in addressing corruption, unemployment, and inflation in Afghanistan and the limitations of the some 40,000 US and NATO troops charged with protecting it and extending its authority beyond Kabul are also contributing to the deteriorating situation in ways that are beyond Islamabad’s control, Tellis argues.

Karzai’s close ties with India, as well as his government’s persistence in questioning the permanence of the Durand Line that has defined the Afghan-Pakistan border, have added to Pakistan’s reluctance to provide full cooperation in the war against the Taliban, according to Christine Fair, a Pakistan specialist at the RAND Corporation.

In light of all of these factors, Washington should recognize that its leverage with the country’s military is limited, according to Tellis who nonetheless believes that the "majority of senior Pakistani military officers support the operations aimed at defeating terrorism" even if other considerations "prevent them from offering their cooperation more wholeheartedly."

.”..(T)he goal of US policy must be to convince these elites that the conclusive defeat of even their erstwhile clients is in their own enlightened self interest," he argues, adding, however, that Washington should also make clear that its "attitude toward Pakistan could change quickly – and in the direction of unremitting hostility – if a catastrophic terrorist attack on the United States was seen to have been made possible as a result of Pakistani negligence or connivance."

For now, he says Washington should "demand" that Islamabad start systematically targeting the Taliban leadership resident inside Pakistan, and also provide it with technology and training both to monitor border crossing points and carry out small-unit counterterrorism operations more effectively.

In addition, it should tie its roughly one billion dollars in annual military aid to Pakistan to the performance of specific tasks rather than reimburse it for bills presented.

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Jim Lobe

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.