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Buying into Islamabad's narrative might be the best way to get cooperation
Is Pakistan a victim of terrorism? On the face of it, the notion seems ludicrous. Osama bin Laden’s sprawling safe house was found in the shadow of the country’s premier military academy. Many now see Pakistan as the abettor, if not perpetrator, of terror.
Islamabad’s “double game”—the practice of arresting some terrorists while actively aiding others—has passed into popular parlance. Pakistan remains the likely home of some of the world’s most wanted fugitives, including al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar. About $20 billion of aid over the past 10 years has not been enough to buy the U.S. cooperation against the Pakistani army’s alleged protégés in the Afghan Taliban, or to slow down a rogue nuclear weapons program growing faster than any other in the world.
But browse Pakistan’s newspapers, or tune into the country’s lively news channels, and another story line emerges. President Asif Ali Zardari calls his country “perhaps the world’s greatest victim of terrorism,” and on this the majority of his countrymen appear to agree. Decoding this narrative of victimhood is crucial to any long-term victory in this central front of the war on terror.
As the argument goes, Pakistan is suffering the consequences of America’s strategic blunders. Had the Central Intelligence Agency not backed the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s and the U.S. not foolishly blundered into Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan would not be awash in blood today. Since 2003, Islamist militants of various stripes have killed more than 3,500 soldiers and policemen, and nearly 35,000 civilians. Last week, the Pakistani Taliban murdered more than 90 policemen at a training academy in the country’s northwest. The 2008 bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott hotel and a 2009 attack on army headquarters in Rawalpindi have seared themselves into the nation’s consciousness.
In Pakistan’s cities, these attacks have spawned heavily armed police at checkpoints, metal detectors in hotels and the gnawing uncertainty that comes with not knowing when the next suicide bomber will strike. Add to that Pakistani anger over drone strikes, resentment at hosting about 1.7 million Afghan refugees, and a sense that the U.S. has not shown sufficient gratitude for Islamabad’s help in nabbing hundreds of al Qaeda leaders—including the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, his co-conspirator Ramzi bin Al-Shibh and al Qaeda number three, Abu Faraj al-Libi—and the portrait of victimhood is complete.
To be fair, this version of events contains a grain of truth. The war against the Soviets, albeit logical in a Cold War context, did turn Pakistan into a magnet for would-be jihadists from across the globe. And many innocent Pakistanis have lost their lives in recent years.
Yet most of the mess the country finds itself in is of its own making. From the outset, Islamabad cleverly hijacked the anti-Soviet jihad and ensured that its favorites—such as the murderous Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—received the lion’s share of American arms and money. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistan army’s spy wing, continued to use jihadist proxies in its pursuit of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan while opening a second front in Indian Kashmir.
In recent years, Islamabad has failed to act against the Haqqani Network targeting NATO troops in Afghanistan, or against Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. LeT founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who recently led special prayers in Lahore mourning bin Laden, is widely regarded as a public figure above the law. To put it bluntly, Pakistan is a victim of terrorism the way Enron was a victim of poor accounting standards.
In the face of such reckless behavior, some may seek to punish Pakistan rather than reform it. Nonetheless, the international community actually has an interest in bolstering Islamabad’s bogus narrative of victimhood. While bigger sticks (stepping up drone strikes) and perhaps more carrots (support for democratization and military reform) will have to be part of the policy mix to extract greater cooperation from Pakistan’s feckless politicians and obstreperous generals, over the long term that may not be enough.
Given deep-rooted support for extremists in Pakistani society and widespread hatred of the U.S., Islamabad can’t realistically be expected to sustain a fight against terrorism without a compelling way to sell it to its own people. The victimhood storyline is, quite simply, the best available.
But for it to work, this tale of suffering must be retooled to encompass all terrorism, not merely direct attacks on Pakistan. It’s not only the Pakistani Taliban that threatens the country. The Haqqani Network’s atrocities in Afghanistan and LeT’s in India have alienated Pakistan’s neighbors and diminished its international standing. There’s no evidence to suggest that they’ve made Pakistan either safer or more influential.
On the contrary, in the long term, the global suspicion and animosity that Islamabad’s proxies generate cost its economy and ultimately its security—costs that may well be greater than those inflicted by the Pakistani Taliban. This would indeed make Pakistan a victim of terrorism, just not in the way its double-dealing generals suggest.
Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.
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