Tackling Pakistan’s Extremists: Who Dictates, Us or Them?

Moeed Yusuf
Moeed Yusuf South Asia Adviser

September 6, 2007

Two prominent Bush administration officials have threatened a US military incursion into Pakistan within the last month. These statements reflect the Bush administration’s belief that a politically vulnerable Musharraf- who is also battling a prolonged spell of extremist retaliation in the wake of the Red Mosque operation in Islamabad- would be more amenable to accepting the US plea to launch a concerted military drive against extremists in the tribal belt. Such optimism is misplaced.

The rationale for applying additional pressure on Musharraf at this point in time is two- fold: (i) domestic opposition to his rule in Pakistan has forced Musharraf to bank on US support for political survival, and thus he ought to be more inclined to oblige Washington, and (ii) the Bush administration believes that the recent wave of extremist violence in Pakistan has brought about a strategic shift in the perception of Pakistani policymakers regarding the danger extremists pose not only to the US, but also to their own country.

Indeed, recent discussions with various members of the Pakistani decision making enclave confirm that the current wave of extremist violence has created a sense of urgency to genuinely tackle the problem. However, to conclude that this sentiment will force Musharraf to fall in line with US demands to employ a vigorous military campaign is erroneous. From a Pakistani perspective, a strategic shift in mindset is not necessarily synonymous with a shift in tactics.

Pakistan will maintain the current heightened intensity of a military crackdown against the extremists only long enough to pacify the immediate threat. Ultimately, it shall return to banking on socio-political tactics as the foremost pillar of its strategy.

Consider that the Pakistanis have meticulously distinguished their own national interest from Washington’s since deciding to support the US campaign in Afghanistan. Wholehearted attempts to mitigate extremism have been made only where direct self-interest was considered to be at stake. The U-turn on the Taliban policy, the Red Mosque operation, and the ongoing crackdown on militants are all actions Pakistan deemed to be necessary for its own future, not America’s.

Islamabad is likely to behave no differently in the future.

At the moment, there is virtually no support for a massive operation against Taliban sympathizers in the FATA region. The Pushtuns- an overwhelming majority in the NWFP- view any military action against their ethnic kin as solely a function of American influence rather than an internal need. This does not imply that they necessarily support extremist causes in FATA. It simply suggests that any such move is understood as part of a battle that is not Pakistan’s, and if continued, may cause tremendous collateral damage, which mainstream Pakistanis are unwilling to tolerate.

Interestingly, the same Pushtuns, as well as a powerful majority of the urban and rural society in the hinterland, are highly supportive of taking those who threaten Pakistan per se, to task. The more than 85 percent approval rating for the raid on the Red Mosque and overwhelming opposition to suicide attacks among average Pakistanis revealed by the recent PEW global attitudes poll is indicative of such sentiments. Yet, Pakistanis continue to believe that imposing a military solution on the problem would create severe fissures within the society and perhaps even the armed forces, the results of which could be catastrophic.

But how does the government then reconcile serious opposition to a wholehearted military operation in FATA with the sense of urgency among the military top brass and the urban elite to act against those threatening the Pakistani heartland? The answer: do ‘more of the same’, but with much greater sincerity to neutralize the threat.

Once the ongoing spat of extremist violence subsides (for which the military has ratcheted up its operations), the military and intelligence agencies will be tasked to reopen communication channels through interlocutors to find new means to forge sustainable peace deals with the militants. Intelligence services will work to remove the kingpins among extremist ranks with greater intensity, and might quietly take a number of radical mullahs to task as well. Perhaps they would still tolerate those who pledge to lie low as long as they agree to share intelligence. Indeed, the military operation will continue at the tactical level, but not with the vigor the US would appreciate.

The US does not have the kind of leverage with Pakistan that will force the latter to fall squarely in line with its agenda. Retaining a maximalist approach that continues to call for outright military action as the only acceptable response contains a serious risk of Pakistani defiance, which could end up further reducing the effectiveness of military collaboration.

A more sensible option would be to exhibit patience and to forgo the urge for immediate, quick fix solutions in order to guarantee long term gains.

The US should work with Pakistan to develop a strategy which combines military and non-military tactics, but one that Pakistan would actually be willing to implement. As a quid pro quo, the US should nudge Pakistan to raise the level of intelligence sharing, to pursue known extremist elements and apprehend them through ‘head hunting’ missions more aggressively, and to act upon definitive US/Afghan intelligence on presence of militant hide outs within the tribal belt.

While any talk of an overt US military action in Pakistan ought to be silenced, America should privately communicate to the Pakistani leadership that its failure to tackle extremists could prompt the US to conduct covert surgical strikes (hot pursuits and air raids have been conducted into Pakistani territory without public knowledge in the past). While even covert operations can only be conducted extremely sparingly, Pakistanis are likely to take such a threat more seriously than any talk of overt military action. Meanwhile, military (not economic and social) aid to Pakistan could be made conditional on Pakistani performance in neutralizing the extremist threat.