REVIEW: Article

Overcoming Extremism in Pakistan: Challenges and Opportunities

As Ambassador to Pakistan, I am often told that the United States has a single interest here: counterterrorism. But supporting Pakistan’s institutions and its democracy so that its government is more responsive to its people is critical to American counterterrorism policy. Pakistan, with our assistance, is capable of rolling back growing extremism by pursuing security and development simultaneously, particularly in the tribal areas. The United States is beginning to support these efforts by focusing on economic development, good governance, and improving health and education. To defeat extremism, we must make a long-term financial and political commit¬ment to Pakistan and engage more intensely with Pakistan’s growing middle class. 

Terrorist groups based in Pakistan continue to threaten the United States. Al-Qaeda uses tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border as shelters and training grounds. Osama bin Laden and the top al-Qaeda leaders are probably hiding somewhere in the border region. An attack on the United States, if it were launched from Pakistani soil, would be catastrophic for US-Pakistan relations. The Taliban and their supporters also are using the tribal areas to launch attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. 

The western media often portray Pakistan as a country populated by nuclear-armed, Taliban-style militants. In fact, the majority of Pakistanis are politically moderate but socially and religiously conservative. Pakistan’s ruling class is dominated by a feudal elite that supports a secular, more democratic Pakistan. This elite spurns the notion of strict Sharia law, yet most secular politicians are willing to work with religious parties in Pakistan’s parliament. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are under the secure control of its secular armed forces. Five years of seven percent economic growth, record levels of foreign investment and remittances from Pakistanis living overseas have led to significant progress in reducing poverty. Annual per capita income has risen to $925, slightly higher than India’s. But much of the population stills lives in dire poverty. 

Pakistanis are uncomfortable with the idea of military action by Muslims against Muslims, even when they are faced with militant extremism. They continue to believe in the power of compromise, either through tribal councils in the frontier or political negotiations in the capital. Until recently, the growing middle class in the cities and the Punjab heartland believed that extremism was largely confined to the tribal areas and did not threaten them or the major population areas. 

There now seems to be a growing rift between secular elites, who want to see the government “crack down” on extremism, and the general population, who do not believe this is their fight even though violence has increasingly spread from the tribal areas. In July 2007, the government’s agreements with tribes near the Afghan border and local militants broke down because of continuous violations. Extremist militants battled Pakistani security forces at the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in the heart of Islamabad. Suicide bombings, a relatively new phenomenon here, are on the rise—mainly against military, law enforce-ment and other government targets—including an attack against the army compound in Rawalpindi. 

Pakistanis tell us repeatedly that today’s extremism is the product of the 1980s fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when the United States and other nations funneled millions of dollars of support to the anti-Soviet mujahedeen through Pakistani intelligence and security forces. Government officials describe the mujahadeen war as having “polluted” Pakistan by introducing a culture of guns, drugs and religious extremism. This, of course, is only part of the story, as a series of Pakistani leaders have encouraged religious extremism for political purposes. Pakistani governments historically have a weak record in delivering basic services and law and order, making the poor more susceptible to religious extremism. Many of the “extremists” in the Red Mosque were social outcasts who were exploited by charismatic religious leaders.

There is also widespread anti-Americanism in Pakistan. The sanctions imposed in 1990 as a result of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program remain a painful reminder of what Pakistanis see as fickle US foreign policy, and they remain wary of repeating this experience. Pakistanis are less likely to support steps against extremism because these measures are identified with the United States. Mid-grade army officers were cut off from US training for 11 years. There is a loss of English language ability in Pakistani’s middle class due to a poor public education system, which the government is trying to address. In the new class of Pakistani foreign service officers, not a single one has been to the United States. American outreach in Pakistan is constrained by security concerns, which prohibit dependents and discourage Americans from locating here. This has reduced the personal relationships that an expatriate business and NGO community and a large American embassy would naturally encourage. We are working to change this: 500 military officers will train in the United States this year and 220 Pakistani scholars will participate in our largest Fulbright program in the world. But it will be a challenge to convince Pakistanis that we are committed to a stable relationship and that today’s battle against extremism is not just America’s fight. 

President Musharraf and his government recognize the troubling implications of Lal Masjid and the creeping extremism from the tribal border areas into the settled areas. Consequently, Pakistan moved the Army back into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and is working to enhance the size and capabilities of local forces in the region. Since September 11, 2001, over 1,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives in the fight against terrorism, and Pakistan has apprehended hundreds of al-Qaeda leaders and operatives. Pakistanis, particularly the army, chafe at Washington’s suggestion that they “do more” to fight terrorism. 

But the reality is that Pakistan and the United States must both “do more” to fight terrorism, and we must do it more intelligently than we have in the past. This battle cannot be won only by military force; it requires an approach that encompasses political, economic and social development as well as a strong military component. To succeed, this initiative must be fought and won on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border. 

Success will not be cheap or quick. Communities in the FATA have a fiercely independent Pashtun tribal culture and some of the worst economic and social indicators in the world. The female literacy rate, for example, is an astonishingly low three percent. Historically, these tribes have been ruled since Pakistani independence by a 1901 colonial-era political structure; before 2001, the Pakistan military rarely ventured into the FATA. When they did enter in force, the Punjab-led Army learned it needed to adapt doctrine and tactics designed for a land war with India to one of Pashtun-led counter-insurgency in the FATA.

Since the 1980s, tribal elders have lost political power and prestige to mullahs who now use suitcase FM radio stations to preach against government initiatives to bring education and health benefits to the FATA. The militants’ influence is spreading to areas of the Northwest Frontier Province and further into Pakistan—whether through instruction in extremist schools, militant recruitment and training, or organized campaigns to shut down girls schools, music and video stores and barber shops.

But we do have some plans that over the long run should help. Pakistan has already adopted a nine-year, $2 billion Sustainable Development Plan to counter extremism and creeping Talibanization. The United States has pledged $750 million over five years to complement and support Pakistan’s approach. Our support will focus on three areas: security, development and infrastructure. 

Pakistan is enhancing the size and capacity of the Frontier Corps, Frontier Constabulary and Tribal Levies as security forces that patrol borders, enforce law and order and combat militants. The United States is providing training and equipment to support improved communications, intelligence and combat capabilities for these civil armed forces. These are local men who have ties with the population. To extend the government’s writ into the FATA, Pakistan is expanding the number and scope of political and administrative entities that will deliver education, health care, jobs and business development. The United States is tailoring its employment, health, education and media programs to build the capacity of these FATA-based institutions and deliver services through them. We also are using anti-narcotics, Department of Defense and USAID programs to build roads, border security posts, schools and hospitals. Our goal is to make the FATA less hospitable to terrorists and extremists.

Success in Afghanistan depends on success in Pakistan and vice versa. Many of the tribes and developmental challenges are the same on both sides of the border. Recognizing this, we also are asking Congress to approve Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) to be located in Afghanistan and in Pakistan along the border. Once enacted, the ROZs will attract investment and create jobs by granting duty-free entry in the United States for many locally-produced goods. We were pleased that President Musharraf and President Karzai made the August 2007 Peace Jirga a success, and we support the Jirga’s proposals for follow-up coordination on efforts to eradicate illegal drug production and smuggling, combat terrorism, and encourage bilateral economic development. We will continue to support US-Pakistani-Afghan cooperation on military operations and repatria¬tion of Afghan refugees. 

Last, the United States supports free and fair elections in Pakistan. We are encouraged by the growth and vibrancy of the media, which openly criticizes the government. We welcome the development of NGOs devoted to improving human rights, religious freedom and social welfare. And, we are impressed by the new-found independence of Pakistan’s judiciary. These are all welcome signs of a more robust civil society and stronger institutions, essential features of any functional democracy. In the long run, a stable, democratic, prosperous and politically moderate Pakistan is the best defense against extremism.

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United States Ambassador to Pakistan