There is widespread revulsion at Islamist violence in Pakistan. And yet the narrow way the United States has framed its counter-terrorism strategy has prevented it from establishing a common agenda with Pakistanis. Specifically, the United States has concentrated on fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in western Pakistan’s border regions; but Islamist organizations (some of which are allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda) also operate in other parts of Pakistan, notably in the Punjab.
The Unites States’ almost exclusive focus on infiltration from Pakistan into Afghanistan has served to obscure the threat Pakistani jihadi organizations pose, both domestically and to the West. “The real threat lies in the existence of groups, networks, and organizations that violate Pakistani law every day, that use criminal violence against citizens in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India,” said Samina Ahmed, the International Crisis Group’s representative in Pakistan. “The state must take action against those who violate the law regardless of their motives.”
In an interview with Network 20/20, Intizar Hussain, Pakistan’s leading Urdu fiction writer, commented that his four novels were all written in response to national crises, particularly partition and the separation of Bangladesh. Now, he said, at age 83, he was watching as Pakistan faced its “greatest crisis.” Asked what that crisis was, the writer replied, “Jihad.”
Hussain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States and a key political advisor to President Zardari, told us, “The people have basically voted against Talibanization, and that settles the question of the will of the people.” Opinion polls conducted before and after the February elections by Terror Free Tomorrow, a U.S. nonprofit, corroborate this claim, and we found concern about terrorism to be widespread. “Terrorism is the biggest problem,” a young man named Imtiaz told us when we approached him in the Salt Bazaar in Peshawar. “They want to destroy peace for their own interests and everyone is afraid that death is knocking.”3
Among liberal intellectuals there is a significant faction that, like the United States, sees Islamist violence as an existential threat. Jugnu Mohsin, editor of the Friday Times, an English-language weekly, asserted, “In an age when you can carry a nuclear bomb in a suitcase, we are all in this together.”
It is difficult for the Pakistani government to address the terrorist threat effectively, we were told, because the lines between civilian and military authority are not clear. “We have supported insurgencies in two key areas — Kashmir and the Taliban in Afghanistan — with no civilian input,” said Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author who has covered the rise of Islamist armed groups for decades. Rashid stressed the need for a public Pakistani debate on security issues: “The important question is, ‘To what extent is the army willing to share information and decision making with the civilian government?’”
The disconnect between the army and civilian politicians over security policy also weakens public support for the government, according to Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times and a supporter of security ties with the United States. “Many are now seeing our problems as internal, but not all in the army follow this,” he told us. “The Pakistani people are caught in the middle.”
3 For the polls by Terror Free Tomorrow, see http://www.terrorfreetomorrow.org/upimagestft/TFT%20Pakistan%20Poll%20Report.pdf and http://www.terrorfreetomorrow.org/upimagestft/PakistanPollReportJune08.pdf.