By Ryan W. French
Pakistan’s complex relationship with Islamist extremist groups poses one of the United States’ greatest foreign-policy challenges. Pakistan receives substantial military aid and development assistance from the U.S., which nominally obliges its armed forces and security services to hunt down terrorists within Pakistan’s borders. At the same time, the Pakistani government faces domestic political pressure to go easy on its domestic militant groups, many of which enjoy popular support – and some of which directly contribute to the difficulty American-led forces have faced in combating the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
It is a situation that leaves the U.S. with few good options. That reality was made abundantly clear to the Obama administration during its recent official review of its so-called “Af-Pak” strategy. “The bottom line is that Pakistan is a country where we have little influence, little access and little credibility,” an anonymous Obama aide told the New York Times last week. “And we’re still struggling with re-wiring the place so that their interests and our interests are aligned.”
The opinion that the U.S. should try to “re-wire” Pakistan is a broadly held view within the American foreign-policy establishment. (Curiously, even in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, the question of whether the U.S. is even capable of such re-wiring is sometimes overlooked.)
Not surprisingly, it’s also a view with plenty of detractors. Among them is Ikram Sehgal, the chairman of Wackenhut Pakistan, a security-services firm, and a board member of the EastWest Institute, a New York-based think-tank. Last week, Sehgal gave a talk at the Institute in which he argued that – contrary to the conventional Washington view – the Pakistani state fully understands that its interests are aligned with America’s. Sehgal also sought to counter the image of Pakistan as a failing state and an “exporter of terror.”
During his talk, Sehgal noted that the Pakistani military has sustained considerable losses in its effort to root out terrorist groups. The Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), an ally of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, has been a particular headache for the Pakistani government. TTP has fought an ongoing insurgency in Pakistan, a conflict that took on increased significance in December 2007, when Benazir Bhutto – recently returned from exile and looking to take power once again – was assassinated, most likely with TTP involvement. Headquartered in the impassable crags and cliffs of the western Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), TTP has used its knowledge of the terrain to shield itself from the Pakistani military. The conflict has been a costly one for Pakistan, which has lost 3,000 soldiers since 2003 to the counter-insurgency effort.
Although Pakistan once viewed Islamist extremists as a “natural ally,” Sehgal claims that their shift to domestic and international terrorism forced Pakistan to rethink the partnership. In Sehgal's view, although Pakistan has traditionally viewed India as the primary threat to the regime, there is a gradual shift underway within the military, policymaking, and diplomatic corps to focus more on the threat posed by terrorism.
Yet evidence of this shift isn’t exactly abundant. Indeed, in the wake of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai that killed 166 people, India was quick to pinpoint the source of the attack as Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group based in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. To this day, India alleges that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence provided logistical support and training to the militants who carried out the massacre, although no smoking gun linking the two organizations to the attack has been found.
Sehgal rejects accusations that the ISI would fund this kind of terrorism, claiming that most TTP attacks during the insurgency have been launched against Pakistani Army and ISI installations, and that most ISI staffers are Army personnel. Sehgal noted that he personally knows many Army officials who have lost sons in the counter-insurgency effort. “How and why, then, could the ISI support terrorism?” he asked. “If the ISI knew someone had supported Lashkar-e-Taiba, they would shoot them.” Sehgal also dismissed the idea that the ISI would have supported the Mumbai attacks. “What did Pakistan or the ISI stand to gain from the attack?” he asked.
(In an interesting side note, Sehgal pointed out what he sees as a double standard within the international community, in which Pakistan’s failure to reign in Islamist extremists is pilloried, while India's very aggressive approach to its domestic issues – including a Naxalite insurgency and ethnic unrest in the northeastern state of Nagaland – goes mostly unremarked.)
Sehgal conceded that Pakistan has had difficulty banning the dubious “charity wings” that many militant groups operate in order to gain sympathizers and recruits. Lashkar-e-Taiba, for example, seized upon the opportunity provided by the recent flooding in Pakistan, seeking to win “hearts and minds” by engaging in relief efforts. In the immediate aftermath of the floods, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s charity arm, operating under the dual aliases Jamaat-ul-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), deployed relief camps in some of the affected areas. “It is difficult for the government to oppose these groups,” Sehgal explained. “They are very well organized and very careful not to push the religious agenda,” he said, which makes the prospect of an enforced government ban on these groups unacceptable. Although such charity efforts increase the reach and popularity of extremist groups, Islamabad has begrudgingly allowed them to fill the relief void because the government itself has been unable to meet this role.
Whether one takes the conventional view that Pakistan’s inability to reign in domestic militancy is the result of a policy of intentional neglect (or even encouragement), or subscribes to Sehgal’s more forgiving analysis, one thing is certain: until the Pakistani government, military, and ISI make measurable progress toward countering extremism within their borders, accusations will continue that they are exporters of terror with an ideological bias toward extremism – or, at the very least, a cynical interest in allowing it to flourish.
Ryan W. French recently completed an internship at the World Policy Institute.
[Above: Pakistani soldiers participated in a 2006 ceremony marking the handover of the last operational American M.A.S.H. unit, in Muzaffarabad. Photo courtesty of Flickr user Travlr.]