A “United Front” on Terrorism? Not Since 1979…

by Joshua Foust on 4/9/2007 · 5 comments

Did anyone else LOL when they saw that Munir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times claiming the fighting in Waziristan was one part of Pakistan’s comprehensive anti-Taliban strategy? I certainly did. Let’s examine this further.

As the spring fighting season opens, Afghanistan faces many challenges: terrorism, the Taliban, Islamic extremism, drugs and criminals, warlords and factional friction, weak government and an inadequate national and international security presence.

This is a good time to put together a strategy to overcome those challenges. This strategy must build peace through a bottom-up approach – village by village, district by district – by offering incentives and disincentives to secure the support of local populations.

He’s referring, of course, to the Waziristan accord which, contra his own characterization, was “we leave you alone if you pinky swear not to cross into Afghanistan.” It was meant to fight the surging Pakistani Taliban. Of course, given the multiple, repeated, consistent sightings of just that, the accord can be said to have been less than effective.

Pakistan’s frontier regions have seen tremendous support for extremism during the three decades of conflict in Afghanistan. After the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001, thousands of Qaeda and Taliban fighters crossed into Pakistan. We are committed to eliminating their influence. This is essential for Pakistan’s goals of rapid modernization and increased trade and energy links with Central Asia.

Again, withdrawing for solemn promises of no militancy. Some commitment.

First, the Pakistan Army and intelligence services have captured more than 700 Qaeda terrorists and destroyed most of the group’s command structure on our side of the border. As Vice President Dick Cheney has noted: “We have captured and killed more Al Qaeda in Pakistan than any place else.” In this, we have paid dearly: In 90 operations, Pakistan has lost some 700 soldiers. But this has not deterred us. Al Qaeda is on the run. It will certainly not be allowed to regroup on our soil.

Second, we have captured more than 1,500 Taliban militants in the past three years, including a large part of the leadership. Of course, we can do only so much considering that the Taliban’s centers for recruitment, financing and command are in Afghanistan.

Notice the punt, and the complete neglect of the role Pakistan’s own extremist madrassas play in the rise of militancy. Throwing around numbers doesn’t work much, especially considering Cheney’s comment was meant as a warning to Pakistan that they considered it the problem, not the solution—an interesting use of selective quotation. It is indeed sad that Pakistan has lost 700 soldiers, but those are losses stemming from its decades of support for the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies—support that lasted until September 12, 2001. Blaming Afghanistan for hosting extremism that was and is nurtured in Pakistan (especially Karachi) is especially rich.

Third, Pakistan is making new efforts to control its difficult 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan. Today 80,000 Pakistani troops are deployed in the tribal areas and along the border. Some 1,000 border posts have been established. We are also starting stricter measures to regulate legal border traffic between Pakistan and Afghanistan – about 300,000 people cross each day – by, among other means, introducing biometric cards to improve identity checks. (I must note that it is not very helpful when border guards on the Afghan side cut up and throw away these cards.)

Of course, the movement of militants goes in both directions. Control of the border is a joint responsibility of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the coalition forces. The onus cannot be placed on Pakistan alone.

Again, this misses the point. Militants don’t calmly wait in line at border check points, and the Durand line simply cannot be sealed. Hell, the U.S.-Mexican border, which doesn’t have a tenth of the history and tribal issues the Durand line does simply cannot be sealed. It is a bandaid on the wrong bleeding artery.

Fourth, Pakistan will act shortly to remove any last basis for allegations about so-called “safe havens” for the Taliban in Pakistan. After crossing into Pakistan, Taliban elements often merge into the large population at camps for Afghan refugees.

To resolve this problem, we have reached an agreement with the Afghan government to move four large camps – Pir Alizai and Gidri Jungle in Baluchistan Province, and Jallozai and Kachi Garhi in the North-West Frontier Province – to Afghanistan. Pakistan will also repatriate the last of the 3 million Afghan refugees who have found protection inside its borders within the next three years. We have been their host for 30 years without any appreciable international assistance, which has placed a tremendous burden on our economy and contributed to the rise of militancy.

This is certainly a welcome development, but it’s way too little, way too late. Repatriation won’t solve the militant madrassas that indoctrinate the young men from these camps, nor will simply moving the camps across the border diminish their influence—especially when the border is so inherently uncontrollable. It’s the wrong solution for the wrong problem.

Finally, Pakistan has a comprehensive strategy to promote peace and progress in our frontier regions. The objective is to win over the local population and to isolate the militants. The agreement that the Pakistani government reached with tribal elders in North Waziristan last September was essentially an exchange of peace for economic development.

Contrary to the assertions of some Afghans, there is no proved relationship between that agreement and the rise of violent incidents in Afghanistan last year. Rather, the recent military strikes by tribal forces against Uzbeks and other foreign militants in South Waziristan should confirm the effectiveness of our approach. Pakistan has advocated a similar approach in working with tribal leaders on the Afghanistan side of the border, in which Kabul would reach agreements through local assemblies, or jirgas.

This was the bit that made me snort coffee all over my keyboard. Not a single thing in that passage is true, except that Pakistan has indeed tried to export its capitulation strategy. Karzai has expressed understandable skepticism, though he’s also explored the possibility—not a particularly welcome development, depending on how the talks proceed.

A key part of Pakistan’s effort is to create “reconstruction opportunity zones” in the tribal areas. Pakistan’s private sector will invest in industry and manufacturing, while Washington has promised special tariff- and duty-free access in the United States market for products from these areas. The European Union should provide such access as well. In turn, we would provide help to Afghanistan in creating similar economic zones on its side of the border.

The cooperative framework that has been established by Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, NATO and the international community will be vital for success. But we must insure that bond is not eroded by mutual recrimination or frustration with occasional setbacks.

And this is where my laughter ended. “Occasional setbacks” imply an intermittent slide bracketed by measurable progress. Six years of constant, unending setbacks, deteriorating security, rising cross-border violence, increased extremism and radicalism, balooning Islamism in unregulated and unmonitored madrassas, and now escalating violence throughout NWFP/FATA are not “occasional setbacks.” Though I recognize the requirements of an ambassador to publicly advocate his government’s policy, I find it hard to believe Mr. Akram seriously believes what he is writing, as it flies in the face of every media report from the tribal areas for at least half a decade.

Indeed, I get the opinion Musharraf has adopted Bhutto’s mid-90’s strategy: support or ignore the Taliban and ISI’s collaboration to establish a Pakistani puppet state next door, while lying to every westerner who asks for help in stamping out the extremism. Even when faced with disquieting reminders of what exactly those extremists stand for, Musharraf has proven impotent in combating it—precisely because the moderates and democrats won’t support him. As I’ve grown tired of pointing out, there is actually a very simple first step that can be taken in the course of this:

Vote. Islamists never do well in elections—anywhere—that’s why they don’t like to hold them. In Pakistan, there have been some worrying reports out of the International Crisis Group on the impact of their extremist madrassas, used to train not just Taliban and guerilla fighters in Afghanistan, but as staging points for al-Qaeda militants throughout the region (and Kashmir). These madrassas have become so militant, in fact, they’ve taken to the streets, harassing old women to read pre-written “confessions” of their own impiety.

The solution, according to Pakistani bloggers? Vote. Islamists do not have popular support in Pakistan. Give them their say, but keep it in proportion. A free and fair vote will probably throw Musharraf out of power. It might put Benazir Bhutto back in power. But even that will be better than the current stonewalling of Musharraf.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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jonst April 9, 2007 at 4:54 pm

Excellent post Joshua. The problem here is, one of them anyway, is there is a fairly steep learning curve for Westerners to grapple with when it comes to this area of the world. Me, I’ve been following this area since late 60s. So the names, political parties, and historical relationships don’t overwhelm me. Still, i have to squirm to keep up. Blogs like yours can really help with said learning curve. Thanks for the work.

As to the specific question here…..yes, I DID LOL when I read. Followed up with a bemused shake of the head. I concluded that he was writing it for no other reason than to provide the Admin with Pak talking points. Period.

One quibble with your analysis. I don’t think it is fair to say that Islamists don’t win anywhere. I think it fair to say they won in Lebanon, Algeria, back a ways, Turkey and in Palestine.

Joshua Foust April 9, 2007 at 5:06 pm

Thanks! But I think western attitudes are a big problem. The government thinks it can invade and remake parts of the world it doesn’t understand, and it refuses (I use the word deliberately) to develop the requisite regional, linguistic, and cultural skills among the diplomatic, military, and intelligence agencies.

As for the Islamists. The only real case of the ones you mentioned would be Lebanon, and even then Hezbollah didn’t win a majority (or even plurality). In fact, Hezbollah’s recent actions as a spoiler have turned large swaths of the populace against them, despite the destructive war with Israel. It is of course far more complex than that, but there it is.

Palestine doesn’t count because there’s no non-Islamic choice if you’re deciding between Fatah and Hamas. And in Algeria, the Islamic parties weren’t on track to win a majority in 1992, just a large enough minority that they could have conceivably formed a majority coalition—an outcome the government wasn’t going to tolerate so it cancelled the election. Ditto Turkey: that is one big shining example of an Islamist party marginalizing itself through Parliament wins, then moderating its stance. Its recent radicalization owes as much to Europe’s racist attitudes as to its own popularity.

(The above is from memory as i’m writing on someone else’s computer, I believe I got it right.) But especially in Pakistan, the Islamists are never majority popular. Hence, giving them their vote and forcing them into the democratic process is a key way of limiting their influence: just like in Turkey.

Aamir Ali April 9, 2007 at 9:46 pm

Your analysis is a goofy one with no solution. From where did you get the idea of “decades long support for alqaida/Taliban”? These are products of the mid 90’s. Additionally Islamists parties did well in 2002 because of 11 years of corruption and mismanagement by the mainstream parties in Pakistan between 1988 and 1999.

jonst April 10, 2007 at 4:09 am


While Joshua is more than capable of speaking for himself…..what would call the support for anti-Soviet activies started in 1979 by the Carter Admin in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? What would you call the Pak/Saudi/American support given to the creation of widespread Sunni educational system in the wake of revolution in Iran in 1979? This support led, indirectly, at worst, directly at best, to the establishment of the Taliban?

Joshua Foust April 10, 2007 at 4:59 am

Thank you Jonst.

But seriously, the Taliban became well known as a fighting force in 1994, but they existed years before that as – guess what – radical madrassa students (see the pattern?). Since their existence at the behest of Pakistan has spanned more than one decade, I feel safe saying Pakistan has supported them for decades.

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