Center for American Progress

The Next Likely Step for Terror Networks Is More Attacks in the Heart of Pakistan

The Next Likely Step for Terror Networks Is More Attacks in the Heart of Pakistan

Terrorist attacks in Pakistan are likely to escalate, and stopping them will require intelligence, police work, and government's efforts, write Brian Katulis and Peter Juul.

Children run across a square in Lahore, Pakistan. (CAP/Colin Cookman)
Children run across a square in Lahore, Pakistan. (CAP/Colin Cookman)

This week’s brazen attack at a police academy outside of Lahore, Pakistan, described in detail in this morning’s New York Times, may unfortunately be a preview of things to come in Pakistan. Just three days after President Barack Obama’s announcement of a new strategy, a group of terrorists stormed a police academy just outside of Lahore—a city of nearly over 10 million, roughly the size of the Chicago metropolitan area—and killed at least 12, including 8 police recruits and instructors, and wounded around 100 more.

This latest attack follows on the heels of the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team at the beginning of March. Lahore alone has seen nine major terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2008, and attacks in Pakistan have risen dramatically over the past two years: In 2007, the State Department’s annual terrorism report found that the number of deaths from terror attacks in Pakistan quadrupled from the previous year. Official Pakistani sources recorded 61 attacks in 2008.

So even before the announcement of the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan unveiled by President Barack Obama last Friday, Pakistan was already in the midst of a sharp increase in internal violence and terrorist attacks, particularly after former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf attacked militants who had seized the Red Mosque in downtown Islamabad in the summer of 2007.

The new U.S. strategy puts Pakistan’s problems back in the spotlight. While the increase of troops for Afghanistan grabbed the most media attention, Obama’s Pakistan strategy represents an even starker shift from the Bush administration’s policies. Instead of devoting U.S. funds almost solely to the security sector, the Obama strategy focuses on building democratic governance and economic development. Most notably, Obama called on Congress to pass a $7.5 billion, five-year program of development assistance sponsored by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN). Military aid will continue, but it will be conditional and more focused on counterinsurgency tasks.

This new strategy is a step in the right direction, away from the neglect experienced in the waning years of the Bush administration, which was fixated on Iraq. And while the increased focus on this part of the world is much needed, there are dangers ahead. One of the most likely dangers that could be easily expected throughout the rest of the year is a continued increase in attacks in the heart of Pakistan. A recent New York Times report from Afghanistan and Pakistan on the various elements of the Taliban closing ranks and standing and fighting the U.S. troops head on in Afghanistan may indeed be disinformation—spin from the Taliban and its allies while it seeks to recalibrate its attacks toward Pakistan.

For decades, various terrorist networks have taken the path of least resistance, and when squeezed they refocus their efforts elsewhere. In the 1980s, the early founders of violent Islamist movements were squeezed in Egypt and virtually eradicated by the end of the 1990s by the brutal military regime there. In 2003, when Saudi Arabia experienced a spate of deadly attacks at home, it acted to close down those threats. In Iraq, terrorist networks flooded in after the Bush administration created a new haven by invading and failing to plan for the post-war period. These groups then turned tail in 2007 and 2008 when local allies turned on terrorist brutalities. Similarly, it is easy to foresee that the threat posed in Afghanistan by various groups might migrate elsewhere—and in fact if the statistics about terror in Pakistan say anything, it may have already done so.

The risk in this analysis, of course, is simply lumping together a diverse range of groups that operate inside of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Center’s most recent report on Pakistan has a useful sketch of the main groups in Pakistan (p. 12-13). But it is probable that elements of the various groups that make up the Afghanistan-Pakistan insurgency will likely take the path of least resistance and step up their attacks in Pakistan’s major urban centers.

As more American troops head to Afghanistan to shore up the effort there, Pakistan is unfortunately likely to see more terrorist attacks in its urban centers. For example, Punjab—the province in which Lahore resides—can be expected to come under particular pressure given the roots domestic militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have there. The flow of militants from the Afghanistan border areas to “settled” areas of Pakistan, especially Punjab, will likely increase as pressure from added U.S. troops and more frequent Predator missile strikes necessitates a flow away from the Afghan front. The Pakistani government is apparently willing to give up large swaths of territory outside the tribal regions to militants, and there is no reason for the militants not to challenge a Pakistani government they would rationally see as weak—especially facing a renewed American push across the border.

So what does this mean for U.S. policy? First, it remains vitally important to avoid the types of arguments that imply some sort of false choice between stabilizing Afghanistan versus stabilizing Pakistan. This view is represented by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), who argues, “Increased military engagement against the Taliban in Afghanistan could push it further into Pakistan while aggravating the militant extremism that has spread to more and more parts of that country.”

While Feingold and others argue the United States needs “to address the insecurity in Pakistan before any decision to send significantly more troops to Afghanistan,” more troops are in fact necessary to address the security challenges in both Afghanistan and

Pakistan. The false choice view overly simplifies the relationship between the two countries and gives short shrift to the real problems of governance and development in Pakistan. As the attacks over the past two years demonstrate—especially the recent violence in and around Lahore—fewer U.S. troops doesn’t mean militant groups will take their eyes off Pakistani targets.

More troops are therefore required if the United States and its allies are to have any chance at stabilizing Afghanistan. And if Afghanistan does not achieve a modicum of security and effective governance, Pakistani militants will have a secure rear area in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. If this happens, the basic dynamic of the last seven years—a Pakistani safe haven for militants fighting the United States in Afghanistan—will be reversed, with an Afghan safe haven for militants fighting the Pakistani government.

Rather than taking a zero-sum view of the situation in which security gains in Afghanistan necessarily create losses in Pakistan (and vice versa), the Obama administration has rightly chosen to view the militancy problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single, unified challenge that can only be solved through coordinated action in both countries.

The United States can more directly address security in Afghanistan by adding additional military and civilian resources, but it does not have this option in Pakistan. Nationalist Pakistanis quite logically reject the idea of U.S. military “boots on the ground” in their country, and they are already incensed by the ongoing Predator drone campaign. American military personnel on the ground in Pakistan would create more political problems than they would solve—even leaving aside the operational aspects of any such campaign.

Increased economic assistance is not going to be much help in the near term, either. While increasing the standard of living Pakistan and reinforcing democratic governance are crucial for long-term success in Pakistan, their effects will not be seen for several years.

But intelligence cooperation is one area where the United States can have an important near-term and long-term impact. It went largely unmentioned during last week’s policy rollout, and understandably so. A week before the new policy rollout, new CIA Director Leon Panetta held high-level talks with Pakistani leaders in Islamabad. Panetta is only the latest in a steady stream of U.S. intelligence officials visiting Pakistan, from the deputy director of the CIA to the director of national intelligence. And these high-level visits are just the ones that have been reported in the press; lower-level intelligence cooperation is probably even greater, and other high-level visits have likely flown under the radar.

Because the problem of militancy in Pakistan’s core urban areas does not lend itself well to a military solution, targeted intelligence and police work are therefore even more vital to defeating Pakistani militants. It will be up to civilian law enforcement and domestic intelligence—and not the military—to break the back of the militant networks linking the Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad to the tribal areas.

Conservatives have long derided these extraordinarily important tools for defeating terrorist networks—just last summer, President George W. Bush warned against treating “terrorism primarily as a matter of law enforcement.” But increased cooperation between the CIA, FBI, and their counterparts in Pakistan will be critical to defeating terrorist networks in Pakistan—and achieving a successful outcome in Afghanistan. What’s more, this cooperation can be used to bolster democratic security practices, which are historically sorely lacking in the Pakistani security sector. U.S. cooperation with Pakistani intelligence and law enforcement should emphasize democratic control of the security sector as it works to defeat the militant networks that threaten Pakistan and the region. As the United States works with Pakistan to defeat the near-term threat of militant networks, it can simultaneously work to defeat them in the long term.

At the end of the day, the fate of the new U.S. Afghanistan-Pakistan policy is largely dependent upon two actors it cannot control and does not have complete influence over: the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The worse problem is in Pakistan, where elements of the security establishment continue to play a double game with militants and effectively undermine Pakistan’s own security. Meanwhile, Pakistani politicians are more concerned with power games than they are with governance. In this scenario, the best the United States can do is urge the Pakistani government to prioritize the fight against militants—especially on the democratic governance and development fronts—and target its assistance accordingly.

Building a democratic, economically developed, and stable Pakistan is in the interest of the United States, but there is only so much it can do to rescue Pakistan from itself. American leaders and policymakers must continue in their efforts to break the zero-sum mentality in Islamabad, and American aid must, as President Obama has outlined, be redirected toward improving the lot of the average Pakistani. But unless the Pakistani government does the hard work of tackling its militancy problem, quitting double games and political intrigue, and embarking on a long-term plan for the nation’s development, all the aid the United States can muster will be wasted.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress and Peter Juul is a Research Associate at the Center.

For more analysis from CAP on Pakistan, please see:

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow

Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst