Pakistan and the War on Terror: Conflicted Goals, Compromised Performance

By Ashley J. Tellis
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security, defense, and Asian strategic issues. He was recently on assignment to the U.S. Department of State as senior advisor to the undersecretary of state for political affairs. Previously he was commissioned into the Foreign Service and served as senior advisor to the Ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and served on the National Security Council staff as special assistant to the President and senior director for strategic planning and southwest Asia. Prior to his government service, Tellis was senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and professor of policy analysis at the RAND Graduate School. He is the author of India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (2001), and co-author of Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (2000). He is the Research Director of the Strategic Asia program at NBR and co-editor of Strategic Asia 2007-08: Domestic Political Change and Grand Strategy.


Understanding Pakistan’s Approach to the War on Terror
Explaining Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Performance
What Can the United States Do?


On June 24, 2003, at a Camp David meeting with his Pakistani guest, President George W. Bush declared that key al-Qaeda terrorists had been successfully neutralized thanks “to the effective border security measures and law enforcement cooperation throughout [Pakistan], and … to the leadership of President Pervez Musharraf.” Although Osama bin Laden was still at large, Bush nevertheless concluded that “the people reporting to him, the chief operators [of al-Qaeda], … people like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, are no longer a threat to the United
States or [to] Pakistan, for that matter.”(1)

Barely four years later, the Bush administration has been compelled to revise the president’s earlier, more optimistic, assessment. Faced with a dramatic resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and a steady reconstitution of the al-Qaeda network in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” asserted forthrightly that al-Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability, including: a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership.”(2)

That the rejuvenation of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is due in large part to their ability to secure a sanctuary in Pakistan has incensed many Americans across the political spectrum. Because Washington has provided Islamabad with almost $10 billion in overt security and economic assistance since 2002 and continues to compensate the Pakistani military for its counterterrorism efforts with roughly $1 billion in annual reimbursements, many U.S. leaders are beginning to wonder whether Pakistan is in fact doing its part in the war on terror.(3) The U.S. Congress, signaling its disenchantment with Islamabad’s counterterrorism effectiveness (and with Musharraf’s recent backsliding on democracy), has sought to condition U.S. aid to Pakistan and has withheld some military assist ance funding in an effort to prod more aggressive Pakistani milit ary operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Two Democratic presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John Edwards, have gone even further, declaring that U.S. military forces operating in Afghanistan and elsewhere ought to be employed unilaterally against terrorist targets in Pakistani territory if Islamabad fails to interdict them despite possessing actionable intelligence.(4)

The growing dissatisfaction in the United States about Pakistani performance in counter terrorism operations is premised largely on the assumption of Islamabad’s mendacity: that Musharraf’s regime, despite being well compensated and despite its habitual claims to be performing at par, is willfully neglectful of its commitment to root out al-Qaeda and Taliban cadres operating from its territory for a combination of strategic and ideological reasons.(5)The reality, however, is more complex. Although Pakistani performance in the war on terror has undoubtedly fallen short of what is expected in the United States, Islamabad’s inability to defeat the terrorist groups operating from its soil is rooted in many factors going beyond its admittedly serious motivational deficiencies in regard to combating terrorism.

This monograph seeks to provide an analytical understanding of the problems associated with Pakistani performance in the combined counterterrorism operations currently under way in the FATA and in Afghanistan. Such an understanding is essential if the United St ates is to avoid becoming locked into the paralyzing choices of either coercing Pakistan-with varying degrees of discrimination-as urged by many voices in the current political debate or standing steadfast through publicly uncritical support for Musharraf as the Bush administration has done so far. The discussion that follows underscores the fact that, although Pakistan is a convicted ally in the war on terror, it faces difficult counterterrorism challenges that cannot be overcome quickly for good reasons. The campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, accordingly, will be a long one requiring considerable patience on the part of the United States. Further, the analysis suggests that there are no easy choices for Washington, but it also emphasizes that Islamabad’s approach to defeating terrorism is sufficiently risky and could end up trans-forming Pakistan into an object of U.S. wrath should a major attack on the United States in the future reveal Pakistani origins, neglect, or, in the worst case, connivance.


1. “President Bush Welcomes President Musharraf to Camp David: Remarks by President Bush and President Musharraf of Pakistan in Press Availability,” Camp David, June 24, 2003, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/06/20030624-3.html.

2. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland,”
National Intelligence Estimate, July 2007, http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/20070717_release.pdf.

3. For details, see the excellent survey by K. Alan Kronstadt, “Pakistan-U.S. Relations,” CRS Report for Congress no. RL33498 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, October 18, 2007), beginning on p. 50 and table 1, Direct Overt U.S. Assistance to Pakistan, FY2001-FY2008, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33498.pdf.

4. For Obama’s st atements, see Dan Balz, “Obama Says He Would Take Fight to Pakistan,” Washington Post, August 2, 2007; for Edwards on Pakistan, see “John Edwards’ Speech on Terrorism,” remarks by John Edwards, Pace University, September 7, 2007, http://www.cfr.org/publication/14788/john_edwards_speech_on_terrorism.html.

5. The most cogent and persuasive articulation of this judgment can be found in Seth G. Jones,” Pakistan’s Dangerous Game,” Survival, vol. 49, no. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 15-32; and Barnett R. Rubin, “Saving Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 86, no. 1 (January/February 2007), pp. 57-78.


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