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Nightmare scenario

August 28, 2011

IF you’re a Pakistani, your nightmare scenario could be one of an infinite number of developments depending on your politics, social class, religious sect, gender etc.

You could fear assassination, kidnapping, death by suicide bomb attack, gang rape, blasphemy accusations, flash floods, or the collapse of your small business owing to extortion rackets and electricity shortages.

If you’re not Pakistani, your nightmare scenario vis-à-vis Pakistan centres primarily on one event: a successful terrorist attack by Pakistan-based actors on the US homeland or against American targets. There are two reasons for this: firstly, a successful attack of some magnitude would indicate that no authority — the ISI, the Pakistan Army, CIA — has the power to control the actions of Pakistan’s militant groups. Secondly, the US response would probably make the situation more dire. A disproportionate US response could lead to a schism in the Pakistan Army, popular revolt, or the collapse of the civilian government, with regional and international consequences.

For many months, I have used this space to argue that Pakistan is toeing the dangerously fine line between engagement and containment. In case of the former, the international community, led by the US, will continue to invest in the promise of the Pakistani state and its people. This means ongoing economic assistance, diplomatic support, capacity building, and patience with the Pakistani establishment as it sorts through internal challenges.

In the latter case, Pakistan joins the notorious ranks of places like North Korea and Iran that are diplomatically and politically isolated. Rogue states can be subject to unilateral strikes as well as sanctions that would make it impossible for Pakistan to stabilise its economy. A successful terrorist attack by Pakistan-based actors could tip the balance from engagement to containment, a reality that is the subject of a new report from Washington.

Until June this year, I was based in the American capital on a research fellowship. During my time there, I engaged in many discussions with US government officials and policy analysts about the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship and its importance to both countries. The conversations were primarily — if not exclusively — upbeat: there was interest in improved people-to-people contacts, better US public diplomacy efforts to calm tensions, thoughtful initiatives to help Pakistan become economically and politically stable. Even discussions about terrorism, intolerance and corruption eventually strayed to positive topics.

Occasionally, the issue of containment or cutting aid would arise. But these were often seen as counterproductive. Come August, though, and the Centre for Preventive Action (CPA) at the Council of Foreign Relations has published a report detailing potential US responses to a Pakistani terrorist attack on US territory. The report, authored by Stephen Tankel, emphasises the need for the bilateral relationship to survive such an incident, and consequently for the US response to be restrained. But the subtext is equally clear: this will be increasingly difficult to do depending on the scale, audacity and human toll of the attack.

To its credit, the report is not alarmist — it acknowledges the depleted power of Al Qaeda, and notes that links between the ISI, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network make it unlikely that these groups will target western targets soon. Tankel instead points out that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan would be the most likely perpetrator of an international terrorist attack given its stated ambitions and antagonism with the Pakistani state. That said, Tankel does state what Pakistanis fear to: that these groups may collaborate and collectively succeed in launching a successful attack abroad.

Tankel then outlines a range of US responses, depending on the severity of the attack. These include a combination of unilateral and diplomatic measures such as insistence on a military operation in North Waziristan or a crackdown on the LeT; demands for public Pakistani cooperation with US investigations and intelligence; arrests of key operatives and known militant leaders. Interestingly, even in the event of official complicity in the attack, the report recommends a purging of security ranks rather than outright severance of bilateral ties.

Unfortunately, the report also includes recommendations that would be anathema to Pakistan, such as increased US counterterrorism initiatives with India to control Pakistani militants. Rather than produce a thoughtful debate that can help Pakistan manage a future nightmare scenario, such recommendations could provoke a nationalist firestorm that demonises the US instead of addressing urgent ground realities.

The fact is, the onus to prevent a shift from engagement to containment lies on Pakistan alone. The CPA report illustrates the US can deploy a variety of policy tools to respond to an attack, but that the severity of its response will depend upon Pakistan’s official reaction. Tankel suggests that Pakistani cooperation in the wake of such an attack would be essential to prevent the bilateral relationship from deteriorating further towards isolation and containment.

The Raymond Davis and Osama bin Laden episodes have demonstrated how woefully ill-prepared Pakistan is to diplomatically handle a nightmare scenario. Our politicians can be counted on to shoot from the hip and then backtrack on their statements as a result of populist kowtowing or military intervention. If American think tanks are making contingency plans for an attack, Islamabad too should be preparing the civilian government’s response in such an eventuality. More importantly, Pakistan’s security establishment must clearly think through the realistic parameters of cooperation in the wake of such an attack, balancing Pakistani interests, strategic imperatives, and regional stability.

Even better, Pakistan’s leadership should think through the awful cost of letting such an attack occur in the first place.

Preventative action — here entailing improved joint counterterrorism initiatives and a paradigm shift by Pakistan’s security establishment — is certainly better than damage control.

The writer is a freelance journalist.