If Pakistan Prospers, al Qaeda Will Not

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

July 25, 2007

Publication of the US National Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion that al Qaeda is reorganising in north-western Pakistan brings attention to an overlooked reality. For all the justified international focus on Afghanistan, the most pressing terrorist challenge comes from the other side of the border.

It is in Pakistan that Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders are hiding and plotting, in Pakistan that the Afghan Taliban are receiving weapons and sanctuary, and in Pakistan that British and other extremists are getting guidance, training and finance.

The recent breakdown of an at­tempted deal between Pervez Musharraf’s regime and the tribes of north Waziristan increases the prospects that Pakistani forces will move in and try to deal with the problem. (Under the deal the tribes would have denied sanctuary to foreign terrorists and the Pakistani army would have ceased operations there.)

Some in the US already say that if Pakistan refuses to do so, George W. Bush, the president, must order “targeted strikes or covert actions by American forces”, in the words of an editorial in The Washington Post. The administration has made it clear that no options are ruled out, “including striking actionable targets”.

There can be no doubt that al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan must be disrupted and one can only hope that Gen Musharraf proves willing to get serious about the problem. In the past, even while the Pakistani government was sending in forces to fight them, other branches of the military establishment were actively supporting the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan from coming under US and Indian influence.

The breakdown of the tribal deal—spurred by Gen Musharraf’s assault on extremists at the Red Mosque last week—may at last prod Islamabad into a wholehearted anti-terrorist campaign.

In the long run, however, military force cannot solve this problem. US military actions—in a fiercely nationalistic, enormously complex and potentially unstable country—would only make it worse.

The al Qaeda presence in north-west Pakistan takes the form not of large, identifiable “camps” that could be easily targeted with air strikes, but of relatively small groups of individuals dispersed across a vast, mountainous region. They receive support and protection from the local population.

While the US should support, and even continue to pay for, Pakistani military actions against the militants, a more effective long-term US approach would focus on efforts to help Pakistan become prosperous, secure and democratic—and less likely to support extremism in the first place.

A first step would be for Washington to complement its military aid to Pakistan with more economic and humanitarian assistance. Greater US and western openness to imports from Pakistan, financial support for its failing public education system (as an alternative to madrassas) and job-creating development assistance would do more to wean Pakistan’s large youth population away from extremism than any amount of diplomatic pressure or the threat of military force.

Equally important, the US must not let its desire to support Gen Musharraf obscure its long-term interest in a transition to democratic rule. Mr Bush has forcefully argued that US support for dictators in the Muslim world is the primary cause for extremism there. Yet he fails to see that dynamic taking place today.

In discussions with Pakistani students, journalists, politicians and experts on a recent trip there, I found almost no one willing to support the increasingly authoritarian general and much anger directed at the US for backing him. In the past few months a genuine democracy movement has developed, stimulated by Gen Musharraf’s crackdown on the media and judicial system, which has led to violent clashes with government forces.

This is precisely the type of explosive situation that Mr Bush has argued produces “stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export”—and that his democracy-promotion doctrine was designed to avoid.

Some fear that democratically elected leaders would be less ready to support the US. That fear is not entirely misplaced, but it misses the point that in the long run repression will create more terrorists than the government could arrest or kill. Islamist parties in Pakistan have never done well in free elections and would not win today. But if Gen Musharraf ends up clinging to power through repression, support for Islamic extremism could rise.

Finally, the US should use the current period of relative calm between Pakistan and India to launch a diplomatic effort on the disputed region of Kashmir. A deal in which the “line of control” in Kashmir becomes a recognised border between India and Pakistan, and the Muslim areas of Kashmir constitute a special zone within India, could form the basis for peace between the two nuclear neighbours. It could also help make it possible for Gen Musharraf to shut down the many Pakistani extremist groups for which Kashmir is the raison d’être.

In the short run, the US should encourage Pakistan to get serious about fighting the militants within its borders and provide it with the support to do so. In the longer run, however, helping the country overcome its vast domestic challenges and giving its people a more hopeful future would do more for the war on terror than any attempt to defeat extremism with military force alone.