Salvador Dali, master of the surreal, would have felt a twinge of envy had he read the annual Country Reports on Terrorism 2009 released by the US State Department last week. The report, mandated by the US Congress, is supposed to present an authoritative assessment of the threat posed to the US by non-US terrorist groups as well as countries designated as “state sponsors of terrorism”. Instead, the report paints a curious picture that bears only the most tenuous link to reality.
Any report on terrorist groups is bound to suffer from some inaccuracies. Nonetheless, key sections of the report appear to whitewash not only some of the biggest threats to the US, but also to Washington’s counterterrorism efforts, particularly in Afghanistan-Pakistan. This is in stark contrast to the recent revelations made by WikiLeaks and is most apparent in the deftly crafted sections dealing with Pakistan.
While Pakistan is justifiably identified as a victim of terrorism, its state security apparatus, particularly the untouchable Inter-Services Intelligence, is absolved of any complicity in promoting terrorism through groups such as the Haqqani Network and Hezb-e-Islami. Similarly, Islamabad’s inability to crack down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba—even though it remains “a serious threat to Western interests”—and to keep its promise of sharing intelligence with India on the 2008 Mumbai attacks has been papered over. Instead, Pakistan’s inaction has been linked to the absence of peace talks between New Delhi and Islamabad last year. Even though the peace process has resumed, Pakistan remains intransigent, prompting British Prime Minister David Cameron to say that it cannot be allowed to “promote the export of terror”. In contrast, the response of the US report to Pakistan’s continuing obstinacy is almost a meek request: “It needs to take further action against this group…”
Against this backdrop, the branding by the report of Sudan as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (along with Cuba, Iran and Syria) is simply bizarre. Sudan has retained this dubious distinction despite cooperating with the US in counterterrorism efforts. As the report acknowledges, Khartoum “has also worked hard to disrupt foreign fighters from using Sudan as a logistics base and transit point for terrorists…” Indeed, the only rationale appears to be the presence of three banned terrorist organizations on Sudanese territory. By this logic, Pakistan—home to at least five of the banned terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, and consistently found wanting in its ability to rid its territory of these groups—would be an obvious candidate for that label. However, political expediency and logistics needs for the Afghan campaign have kept Pakistan out of this exclusive club for now.
The report also does itself injustice by not acknowledging the frailty of the Pakistani state, despite the fact that recession-beleaguered US taxpayers are footing a multi-billion-dollar bill to ensure its basic functioning. In the aftermath of the most devastating floods in a century, a sojourning president and a state structure that has relinquished relief operations to the very extremist organizations that it has banned have belied the hopes of US investment. It underlines the growing perception of an incredibly callous and absentee state unable or unwilling to serve its own citizens.
Pakistan can and should do more. And it should be possible for Washington to strongly encourage its oft-declared non-Nato strategic ally in this. This annual report could have provided that encouragement. Even the most benign interpretation that the State Department was blissfully unaware of Pakistan’s links with terrorism is troubling, especially as this was public knowledge even before WikiLeaks. Equally troubling is the report’s inability to offer actionable recommendations to improve counterterrorism efforts, particularly through regional strategic initiatives, which are currently non-existent in South Asia. While all of this might well explain the surrealist nature of the report, it cannot justify it.
W Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org