Two major terrorism plots in the last six weeks highlight the central role that Pakistan plays in addressing global terrorism — a role that could become larger and more successful if officials in Washington and Islamabad make the right moves.
One of these plots — a plan to blow up airline flights mid-air between the United Kingdom and the United States — was successfully thwarted because British, American, and Pakistani security agencies worked together. The other — a series of bombings July 11 that killed nearly 200 on commuter trains in Mumbai, India — has been linked by Indian officials to a terrorist group operating in Pakistan. Investigations into both plots continue and will require full Pakistani cooperation and follow-up.
Early revelations related to the airliner plot indicate that the would-be terrorists likely received direction, training, inspiration, and/or funding through sources located in Pakistan. Reports emerged last week that one of the main figures involved in the plot — British citizen Rashid Rauf, who was arrested in Pakistan earlier this month –- had previously been a member of a Pakistan-based terrorist group that operates in Indian Kashmir, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM). The other suspects — also mainly British citizens of Pakistani origin — presumably conducted meetings, operations, and fundraising efforts in the U.K. and possibly other countries. Of course, their links to Pakistan do not directly implicate the state. In fact, U.S. and British officials have praised Pakistan for its assistance in preventing the attack.
Pakistani cooperation in the War on Terror has been critical in helping to degrade al Qaeda’s ability to plan and execute catastrophic acts of terror. Over the last four years, Pakistan has arrested several key al Qaeda leaders and conducted military operations in tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, making it increasingly difficult for al Qaeda and Taliban elements to operate in the region. Hundreds of Pakistani soldiers have died in these military operations, which is why Pakistani officials chafe when Western media reports discount their country’s contribution to the War on Terror.
A Critical Partnership
Even so, the two latest terrorist plots should prompt U.S. policymakers to think more critically and creatively on how to work with Pakistan to address the increasingly dangerous problems of extremism and militancy in that country. No quick-fix solution exists, but the level of urgency we attach to tackling the problem now will determine how successful we are over the longer term in fighting global terrorism.
First, we must convince Pakistan to condemn the use of violence to achieve political objectives and to disrupt the operations of groups involved in terrorism, including those operating in Kashmir. Pakistan has officially banned groups like JEM and the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LET, now referred to as Jamaat ul Dawa) but has taken little concrete action to stop their activities. These groups continue to operate in Kashmir and to promote extremist ideologies in the country. JEM is an offshoot of an organization that kidnapped and later killed American citizen Donald Hutchings and four Europeans in 1995. Several recent reports have linked these Pakistan-based groups to al Qaeda. Although JEM and LET focus primarily on militancy in Kashmir, the groups’ long-term pan-Islamic objectives and anti-West views closely mirror that of al Qaeda.
President Pervez Musharraf, the victim of at least two assassination attempts, should understand the danger radical militant groups pose to his country. He continues to distinguish, however, between radical groups fighting in Kashmir and al Qaeda, in the apparent belief that his country’s interests are better served if he tackles domestic militant groups gradually. Unfortunately, time is not on his side. The longer these groups exist, the more support they attract, the more radical they become, and the greater the threat they pose to the international community.
Pakistan’s August 9 arrest of LET leader Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed is a step in the right direction, but the government must keep pressuring these groups by restricting their funding sources, confiscating their weapons, and destroying their ability to propagate their extremist, violent message. Firm action against the LET would also help defuse tensions with India, which has repeatedly raised its concerns about the group and suspects it may even be linked to the Mumbai bombings. In his August 15 Indian Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called on Pakistan to take concrete steps to prevent cross-border terrorism, and noted that “terrorism anywhere is a threat to peace and prosperity everywhere.”
The same holds for Pakistan’s treatment of remaining Taliban members in the country. In a televised national address last month, Musharraf vowed to crack down on extremism and warned that Taliban elements were trying to threaten Pakistan’s moderate, progressive society. The key question is whether Musharraf will follow his words with action.
Second, to improve Pakistani public opinion toward America, we need to structure our assistance programs in a way that demonstrates the U.S. supports improving the lives of average Pakistanis, and isn’t merely trying to buy regime support for counterterrorism cooperation. U.S. economic assistance to Pakistan since 9/11 has focused largely on debt relief and direct budget support to the government and to a lesser extent on education, health care and development projects. We need to steer more assistance toward projects that touch the grassroots of society and fortify democratic institutions. Opening the political playing field in Pakistan through free, fair and participatory elections next year would help limit the influence of anti-West, pro-Taliban parties.
Let’s Not Wait for another Disaster
The robust response of the U.S. government to the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan on October 8, 2005, shows how our assistance helps shape attitudes toward Americans. A poll conducted by the nonprofit organization Terror Free Tomorrow indicates that the number of Pakistanis with favorable views of the U.S. doubled from 23 percent in May 2005 to 46 percent in November 2005. Yet it shouldn’t take a natural catastrophe for the Pakistani people to understand that the U.S. cares about them and their future prosperity. We need to think more carefully about ways to influence public opinion through our multi-year, multi-billion dollar aid program.
Radical groups like LET also assisted the earthquake victims and helped in early rescue efforts even before the Pakistan military or international aid workers were able to reach some of the far-flung areas. Pakistani observers noted at the time that these extremist groups reestablished their credibility through their relief efforts and warned that Pakistan’s government would need to ensure their resources were not used to promote terrorism. The recent reports that earthquake-relief funds collected in the U.K. were diverted to the airliner plot — if accurate — wouldn’t be surprising and would emphasize the need for close scrutiny of the private relief funds collected in the U.S.
Third, we need to be more creative in our diplomatic efforts with the Pakistan government to encourage President Musharraf to take actions that may be politically challenging. We should leverage our influence more effectively, especially given the Bush administration’s landmark decision to sell F-16s to the country for the first time in 16 years. This is a significant demonstration of U.S. support for Pakistan and its long-term security and gives Musharraf ammunition in responding to critics who question the benefits of an expanded relationship with the U.S.
Additional successes in the global War on Terror, like the foiled airliner plot, will require continued robust engagement with Pakistan on numerous fronts, as well as creative initiatives to deal with the complex socio-religious dynamics in the country. The plan to develop “Reconstruction Opportunity Zones” (ROZs) in the underdeveloped Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas to promote trade and economic opportunity represents one such innovative approach.
More importantly, long-term success in the War on Terror will require that Pakistan not only focus its efforts on al Qaeda, but also crack down on domestic groups that propagate violence, undermine values of peace and moderation, and provide support and legitimacy to the destructive and hateful ideology of al Qaeda. Without taking a broader view of countering terrorism, President Musharraf will not achieve his goal of an enlightened, moderate Pakistan — and the civilized world will be more likely to suffer further acts of mass murder and destruction at the hands of terrorists seeking to impose their totalitarian ideology.
– Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.