The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US sent shock waves around the world from which Pakistan has still not recovered. Indeed, Pakistan’s participation in what former president George W. Bush called the “global war on terror" has produced overwhelmingly negative consequences, as it thrust the country to the forefront of the international community’s attention at a moment when it was utterly unprepared to reconcile the world’s concerns with its own.

Banaras Khan/AFP

As the then president Pervez Musharraf said in his 2006 memoir, and in many speeches since leaving office, he could not have turned down the US request to join the fight against the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan. Musharraf allowed his country’s airspace to be used for launching attacks on Afghanistan. It made its road network available to US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) forces to transport supplies into its landlocked neighbour.

What Musharraf and his associates did not anticipate was that a large number of vanquished Taliban and their Al Qaeda supporters would slip into Pakistan. Among those who did was Osama bin Laden.

As the escapees developed sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal belt, from where they were soon launching attacks on US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, the pressure on Pakistan to use force to finish off these remnants of the fight grew. Pakistan claimed that it did not have the capacity to do so, and also implied that it was not in its strategic interest to turn all such groups into its enemies; it would need some of them to protect (and project) its interests in Afghanistan once foreign forces left the country.

Not surprisingly, these conflicting demands and positions created many disputes between Pakistan and the West. The US, in particular, wanted a more energetic Pakistani response. The souring of relations with the US when its commandos penetrated deep into Pakistan to kill bin Laden was the culmination of both countries’ mutual disappointment.

Of course, the US did send aid—roughly $15 billion over the past decade. But the bulk of these resources went to the Pakistani military. And, while US policymakers consider the amount of aid to be generous compensation for Pakistan’s help, Pakistani officials maintain that the economic losses from the spread of terrorism in the country are far higher. The government has calculated the losses at up to 5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), or $9 billion a year—six times the amount of annual US aid inflows.

Worse still has been the impact on Pakistan’s ethnic make-up. Fragments of the country’s Pashtun population organized themselves to carry out operations against Pakistani military and soft civilian targets. One group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), succeeded in attacking a number of military installations, including the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, and briefly occupied the district of Swat, only 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital.

The TTP also established an Islamist government in South Waziristan, one of the tribal agencies on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military later succeeded in expelling the TTP from both areas, but not without a great many casualties.

The Taliban reacted to these defeats by launching terrorist attacks in many urban centres, particularly in Punjab, killing more than 15,000 people over the last six years. The people of Punjab, the country’s largest province, accounting for 56% of the country’s population and 60% of its gross domestic product, regard the Pashtun attacks as a form of inter-ethnic violence.

Such violence is much in evidence in Karachi, where tens of thousands of people displaced by the ongoing warfare in Pakistan’s tribal areas have fled. During most of this summer, well-armed gangs representing the Muhajir community (the descendants of refugees from India who arrived in and around 1947, the year of Pakistan’s birth) and the Pashtuns have waged battles across the city. An estimated 400 people have been killed in this fighting.

So should Pakistan have refused to participate in the war on terror? No matter how it had reacted to the US request for help in eliminating the threat posed to its security by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, this fight would have arrived in Pakistan.

But the war could have been conducted in a way that minimized the cost for Pakistan. There could have been greater emphasis on negotiating a settlement with those in the Taliban who were prepared to work with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The measure of the chosen strategy’s failure is that how to reach such a negotiated settlement remains a relevant question to this day.

Burki is a former finance minister of Pakistan and vice-president of the World Bank, and is currently chairman of the Institute of Public Policy, Lahore.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.