Center for American Progress

The Pakistan Challenge: The United States Cannot Fail Here

The Pakistan Challenge: The United States Cannot Fail Here

It’s time to turn the tables on Al Qaeda and the Taliban through deployment of diplomatic and military assets, writes Brian Katulis from Karachi.

Pakistan strongman Pervez Musharraf this weekend will lift martial law in prelude to what promises to be a chaotic political campaign in the run up to national elections early next month. The coming three weeks in Pakistan will be a vital test case for whether the United States and other global powers can make a clean break from the past and shift toward a more pragmatic and effective set of policies for fighting the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Pakistan today exemplifies the failure of the Bush administration’s insistence that Iraq is the "central front on the war on terror." In fact, there is no "central front” in this struggle. Guerilla insurgencies and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban always shift away from superior military forces to those places where they see weakness and opportunity. The United States and its allies must respond in kind, but with more than military force.

Serious stakes hang in the balance, with Pakistan at the nexus of the most pressing security challenges: nuclear weapons, international terrorism, religious extremism, endemic poverty, and political reform. Pakistan directly affects international efforts in Afghanistan, with the Taliban and Al Qaeda finding safe haven in the lawless border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet hardly anyone knows what to do about Pakistan, including our most experienced national security hands.

For decades, the U.S. approach to Pakistan has suffered from ad hoc, reactive, and short-term thinking, and the coming year will present even more difficult choices for U.S. policymakers. The way forward in Pakistan, especially in the coming weeks, requires coordination and resolve on all fronts. And it requires a retreat from past mistakes. Here are the four steps U.S. policymakers need to take.

Stop Blindly Supporting Dictators and Autocrats

For all of President Bush’s talk about a freedom agenda in which the forces of democracy would defeat the forces of terrorism, his policies haven’t matched his rhetoric. The world sees the hypocrisy. When President Bush said last month that President Musharraf “truly is somebody who believes in democracy” after Musharraf imposed emergency rule, shut down free media outlets, sacked judges, and jailed thousands of lawyers and civil society activists, some people here in Pakistan wondered if Bush was talking about their President Musharraf. In the span of eight years, Bush went from not even knowing Musharraf’s name to not knowing who he is as a leader.

The problem here is not just Pakistan. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the United States backs repressive regimes, looking to individual leaders to seal the deal and advance our interests. Better the devil we know is the myopic and self-limiting argument for a policy that offers a narrow false choice between authoritarianism and chaos. But beyond the moral problems with unquestioned support for repressive governments, there are two practical reasons why the United States should move beyond its addiction to dictators.

First, as Princeton Professor Alan Krueger argues in his latest book, countries that suppress civil liberties and political rights are more likely to be countries that produce international terrorists. Repression—not poverty or illiteracy—is a key factor behind breeding support for terrorists.

Second, supporting unpopular autocrats does the United States no favors in gaining cooperation and support from people in other countries who suffer from this repression. In a late afternoon discussion in Karachi with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, an Islamist political party that has participated in elections and the parliament in Pakistan, one top leader asked, “Why is the United States standing by silently while our judges are in jail and the police are being used to rig this election? This is turning more and more people against the United States.”

His sentiment was echoed by secular human rights activists and lawyers during the past week—people fighting for fair elections and human rights who thought we were with them and now feel like we’re against them. That’s no way to win the allies necessary to squeeze the terror groups.

Start Building Credible and Functioning Institutions for Security and Prosperity

Of course, this is easier said than done, but the main point here is that holding elections is not nearly enough. Elections are just a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. To defend against the threats posed by non-state terrorist groups, states needs to have the resources and capacity to get the job done.

In addition to holding elections and having a strong army, other ingredients are necessary, among them effective police and intelligence agencies as well as competent and clean judges and civil servants. All of these elements require sufficient public funding and resources to attract the skilled personnel to serve the public.

Yet much of the conservative narrative on terrorism is narrowly centered on conventional military action – perhaps typified by former Bush advisor Karl Rove’s statement that, “Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers,” and conservatives prepared for war. This bluster from Rove shows the emptiness of a conservative movement that has its head stuck up its empty talking points when it comes to terrorism.

The conservative line of argument that centers on conventional military action ignores two key fundamentals. First, non-state terrorist groups use asymmetrical warfare and media campaigns as a primary means to advance their agendas. The notion that the United States might launch conventional military strikes in this crowded city of 18 million to ferret out small groups of terrorist cells that operate here is preposterous. Yet, that’s what mainstream conservative rhetoric would have you believe is the most effective route.

Second, some of the most important assets in the struggle against terrorist organizations are the intelligence operatives, police officers, judges, and lawyers that help build a strong fabric to defend against terror groups. The latter two groups—judges and lawyers—are under siege from the Pakistani president, yet the U.S. president says little more than empty words about his counterpart being committed to democracy.

Stop Ignoring the Interests of Other Countries and the Leverage They Can Bring

All too often, the debate in the United States focuses on our own actions and what assets the United States can bring to bear in meeting what is essentially a common global threat. In Pakistan, numerous other countries are playing a role in shaping internal dynamics here, particularly countries in the Middle East. As I argued in a piece for the Middle East Bulletin, several Middle East countries are working to assert their interests here in Pakistan, and this naturally has an impact on whether the environment is favorable or unfavorable to terrorist groups.

To craft the most effective strategies for places like Pakistan experiencing internal turmoil and threats from terrorist groups, the United States needs to take stock of the actions other countries are undertaking to assert their interests. In other words, the U.S. debate over next steps in Pakistan and how it impacts efforts to address terrorism should not look at the situation in a vacuum or in isolation of what others are doing.

Start Investing Resources in a Comprehensive, Integrated Counterterrorism Strategy

Although the United States has done a better job at attracting the talent necessary to implement a robust strategy of engagement to meet the threat posed by terrorism, it has much work to do to rebalance resources and get qualified personnel in key positions—particularly intelligence agents, law enforcement personnel, economic development specialists, and diplomats who can speak foreign languages.

The United States must begin dedicating more resources to revive civilian agencies that can work with governments of other countries around the world to turn lawless zones of conflict into areas of stability and prosperity. This means a complete overhaul of agencies like the State Department to attract and retain the talent necessary to help other countries advance their self-interest in addressing the common threats posed by terror groups. It also means moving beyond personal relationships and building cooperative relationships between our government’s institutions and the institutions of other governments.

Remaining locked in a short-term strategy of supporting individual leaders at the expense of strengthening institutions such as an independent judiciary will only come back to haunt us in places like Pakistan. With national elections about to begin, taking these four steps will be crucial for the United States to help ensure we can win the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These are also, not surprisingly, the same four steps we need to take build allies and support for defeating extremist terrorist networks around the world.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

This piece was drawn from posts he made during his trip at

To read his comprehensive reports on terrorism and the Middle East please go to the National Security page on the Center for American Progress Web site.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow