The Pakistan Dilemma

Fellow columnists (and friends) Alan Bock and Ivan Eland have recently written about Pakistan, so I hope readers will forgive me for piling on. But it’s hard to ignore Pakistan at the moment. On Saturday, a truck bomb killed more than 50 people – including two U.S. Marines and the Czech ambassador – and injured several hundred others in an attack on Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel. In Peshawar on Monday, Afghanistan’s top diplomat was abducted by gunmen (his driver was killed in the ambush). Also on Monday, Pakistani troops reportedly fired warning shots at two U.S. helicopters that flew into Waziristan from Afghanistan – just a few days after Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) proclaimed, "We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism." Pakistani Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas was a little more blunt: "In case it [a U.S. cross-border raid] happens again in this form, that there is very significant detection, where it is very definite, no ambiguity across the board, on the ground or in the air: open fire."

Clearly, Pakistan presents a dilemma for the United States.

On the one hand, the Pakistani government – previously under Pervez Musharraf and now under Zardari – claims to be an ally in the war on terrorism. Yet the government is either unable or unwilling (or a combination of the two) to seriously hunt down Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda leaders who flew the coop in Afghanistan and are thought to be hiding out in Pakistan. In fact, even though bin Laden and al-Qaeda were given safe harbor in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime, taking up residence in Pakistan – without the blessing of the Pakistani government – may be a better situation for al-Qaeda. The so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that comprise some 10,000 square miles (about the same size as Massachusetts) are inhabited primarily by Pashtun tribes that are fiercely independent and – for all practical purposes – not under control by the central government in Islamabad. So bin Laden and company are relatively free to take refuge in the FATA and likely have the sympathy (if not support) of many inhabitants.

Although the Pakistani government recently stepped up military operations against militants in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), public support for such action is less than overwhelming. Indeed, the Musharraf government was ousted – at least in part – because many Pakistanis viewed the regime as simply doing America’s bidding. So there are real limits on what any government in Islamabad can accomplish. But does that mean the United States should sit idly by, knowing that the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are alive and well in Pakistan?

Full-scale military operations are certainly out of the question. The last thing the United States needs to do is invade another Muslim country to lend credence to the claim that we are waging a wider war against Islam. But the kinds of military operations being staged are hardly helpful. To begin, over-reliance on helicopter gunships and Predator drones demonstrates the U.S. fascination with air power and high technology as solutions to every problem (it’s as if the U.S. military has seen too many movies and believes what Hollywood puts up on the big screen – such as the ending to Syriana). Yet these are exactly the wrong kind of weapons needed for what amounts to a good, old-fashioned, find-a-needle-in-a-haystack manhunt. As has been demonstrated in Afghanistan, air strikes – even if they are carefully targeted – all too often result in civilian casualties. The result is increased anti-American sentiment and more sympathy and support for al-Qaeda and its ilk.

The more appropriate military action is to conduct discrete commando operations against specific targets. Officially, Islamabad may not be able to openly sanction covert U.S. military operations in Pakistan. However, unofficially, such actions must be coordinated with the new Zardari government – even if they have to be publicly criticized and denounced by Zardari. But the key to conducting such operations is reliable intelligence. Just as air strikes that kill civilians are counterproductive, so are commando raids that hit the wrong target – such as the Sept. 3 raid in Musa Nika village in South Waziristan that resulted in 20 civilians killed. The incursion was in response to a rocket attack on a convoy in Afghanistan, but according to one Pakistani official, "By the time they got there the guy with the rocket had moved."

There are no easy and clearly satisfactory solutions to the situation in Pakistan. But this much should be clear: The United States must pay attention to Pakistan and craft a workable counterterrorism policy, because the terrorist threat to America there is real (for example, the UK plot to use improvised liquid bombs to blow up U.S.-bound airlines had links traced to Pakistan) – unlike the phantom menace of Iraq.


Another issue with Pakistan is the roughly $1 billion per year in military aid provided by the United States. The original intent of U.S. military aid to Pakistan – through a program called Coalition Support Funds created shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – was to reimburse Pakistan for the cost of military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, most of that money has been used to buy heavy arms, aircraft (including U.S. F-16 fighter jets), and other equipment ill-suited for counterinsurgency operations and more appropriate for a conventional war with India. This is déjà vu all over again. Previously, the U.S. funneled money to the mujahedeen to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan via Pakistan with very little oversight or accounting. The result was blowback in the form of al-Qaeda. Now we’re giving more money to Pakistan (with very few questions asked) intended to fight al-Qaeda, but al-Qaeda may be growing stronger in Pakistan because the money is being used to bolster Pakistan’s military strength vis-à-vis India.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.