Telling the truth: break US silence on Pakistan

Telling the truth: break US silence on Pakistan

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton delivered an especially blunt, if long overdue, message to Pakistan last week. Talking to reporters in Lahore, she said she found it “hard to believe" that local authorities did not know where key members of Al Qaeda had taken refuge. Her message set off another firestorm of criticism from both the government and the Pakistani press.

Though belated, Clinton’s remarks were entirely apt and, one hopes, mark a departure from US policy under former US president George W. Bush and, more recently, under President Barack Obama. Apologists for Pakistan in both administrations argued it was necessary to overlook the country’s unwillingness to be more forthcoming on counterterrorism operations because of the US dependence on Pakistan’s goodwill to supply the international security assistance force in Afghanistan. Though superficially correct, this reasoning overlooks the fact that Pakistan extracts significant rents for the use of its territory for this purpose and has also been the beneficiary of some $11 billion in American largesse over the past eight years.

Pakistan has helped the US seize a number of key Al Qaeda operatives on its soil. Nevertheless, the Pakistani security establishment, especially in recent days, has done little to place the remnants of Al Qaeda under a military anvil. Nor has it shown any willingness to disrupt and dismantle Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed—two anti-Indian terrorist organizations known to have significant ties to Al Qaeda. Instead Islamabad has relied on every possible subterfuge to protect them, such as asserting that evidence against the two groups is inadequate and placing Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leader under arrests and then releasing him. These organizations have been allowed to thrive despite Indian, US and international pressure.

The security establishment’s dalliance with these terrorist groups and unwillingness to hunt down the remnants of Al Qaeda might seem to be a puzzle. The Pakistani Taliban, which has close links with Al Qaeda, has been wreaking havoc across the country and has attacked key civilian and military targets with impunity in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Peshawar. These attacks have shaken many ordinary Pakistanis from their complacency and have contributed to a growing sense of urgency in addressing the country’s domestic security.

But the security establishment’s terrorist links are also logical. For several decades, Pakistan’s security apparatus has cultivated and worked with a host of Islamist militants to pursue its perceived strategic interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir. It remains unwilling to end this partnership. While it has finally mounted a military campaign against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, a loose umbrella group of tribal factions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the security force still believes it is capable of distinguishing among these various Islamist terrorist organizations as friends and foes of the state. More to the point, it remains unwilling to stop using these entities to pursue goals of installing a pliant regime in Afghanistan and sapping Indian resources in Kashmir.

Officials within the Bush and Obama administrations have been aware of these long-standing goals. Nevertheless, to elicit the Pakistani security establishment’s cooperation, however limited, they refrained from blunt, unequivocal public criticism. Now that Clinton has finally broken the deafening silence on the subject, the US needs to sustain the pressure. A high-level US official’s carefully crafted and deftly delivered speech can serve as a much-needed wake-up call. But it would be irresponsible on the part of the administration not to follow up this verbal volley with firm actions.

The US needs to hold the Pakistani security establishment to account. Despite the fanfare surrounding the current military operations in the tribal regions, foreign media coverage has been severely restricted. It is thus difficult to assess the vigour with which these operations are being conducted and to measure their effectiveness. Washington could insist on greater transparency to ensure that these operations are yielding meaningful results. This would include arresting and charging key leaders and shutting down their camps at Muridke, just outside Lahore. The administration should simultaneously insist that the Pakistani security forces finally launch an offensive against Lashkar-e-Taiba and not resort to sophistry to downplay its ties to Al Qaeda and its involvement with terror in Kashmir and other parts of India.

A failure to sustain pressure on the Pakistani security establishment would have widespread adverse consequences for the country, for the region and for the US. The costs of home-grown terrorism to Pakistan’s society have been more than apparent the past several weeks. The attack on the United Nations mission in Kabul last week while Clinton was in Islamabad underscored these dangers. Unless sanctuaries these entities have long enjoyed in west Pakistan are finally denied, the US-led effort to stabilize Afghanistan could be in serious jeopardy.


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