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Pakistan’s Security Situation

Author: Esther Pan
March 2, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Pakistan is facing a tenuous security situation. Armed militants are clashing with government security forces in several provinces. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are resurgent, posing problems for neighboring Afghanistan. The suicide car bomb attack that killed a U.S. diplomat and four others in Karachi on March 2 underscored concern about domestic terrorist threats. President Bush's visit to Islamabad will attempt to shore up the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, while highlighting the security challenges faced by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government.

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What is Pakistan’s overall security situation?

Quite serious, some experts say. "The security situation in Pakistan has worsened very significantly over the last nine months to a year," says Mahnaz Ispahani, adjunct senior fellow for south and west Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She cites a litany of concerns for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government, including armed clashes between insurgents and the government in the Waziristan tribal area; tribal unrest and conflict over energy resources in Balochistan province; massive anti-American and anti-Musharraf demonstrations in the Northwest Frontier Province; the resurgence of the Taliban; the violent demonstrations over the European cartoon controversy; and increasing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. In addition, Pakistan has a continuing rivalry with India and a complex relationship with another country on its border, Iran. "The Pakistani government is in a difficult position," says Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow and Southeast Asia expert at the Brookings Institution. "The country's more insecure than it's been for a long time."

"The country's more insecure than it's been for a long time," says Stephen Cohen.

How is Pakistan handling these conflicts?

Experts say Musharraf's choice to join the U.S. war on terror has placed him in direct opposition to the tribal leaders who control the provinces mostly outside government control near the Afghan border. "Through millennia, there's been a tradition of tribal leaders being fiercely averse to any kind of government control over their territory," says Anupam Srivastava, director of the Asia program at the University of Georgia's Center for International Trade and Security. The historical agreement in these areas was that if there was any kind of security problem, the Pakistani government would approach the tribal leaders and let them handle it. Now, however, Pakistani troops are stationed in the region searching for Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders pushed out of Afghanistan by U.S. troops. A recent U.S. air strike against a village suspected of harboring al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri further inflamed passions in the region and brought threats of retaliation by tribal leaders. Tensions—and fears—are high across the country. "There is an insurgency building across Pakistan in isolated parts," Srivastava says, and Pakistanis are increasingly saying the situation is unwinnable. "Either Musharraf antagonizes the jihadis, or he's seen as a stooge of the United States," he says.

How has Pakistan handled the search for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members?

Bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda leaders are widely believed to be hiding on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. Experts say U.S. officials are intensely frustrated that bin Laden—after four years of an international manhunt and with a $27 million U.S. bounty on his head—is still at large, and are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. "The recent missile attacks by the U.S. don't demonstrate a lot of confidence about the ability of the Pakistani army to get the job done," Ispahani says.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan Many U.S. officials also suspect that catching bin Laden is not a priority for the Pakistani security services, many members of whom—especially in the border provinces—may be sympathetic to the al-Qaeda leader. "Osama is very popular in those regions, where [the security services] have had very little success in the last three years," Ispahani says. While Pakistani security forces have helped arrest half a dozen key al-Qaeda operatives, "the continuing presence of its leaders in Pakistan indicates that al-Qaeda has a congenial place to relocate itself, close to its former bases in Afghanistan," terrorism expert Peter Bergen wrote in the Washington Post.

Cohen says the effectiveness of Musharraf's forces in the northwest is limited. "Huge sections of the region are not under the control of the Pakistani government and never have been," Cohen says. William Milam, a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, agrees. "They're trying to control an area that's almost uncontrollable," he says. "People just don't understand how difficult it is," pointing out that Pakistan has lost significant numbers of troops in fighting in the region.

How does Pakistan handle extremism within its borders?

Experts say Pakistan is severe against foreign fighters, but much less so when the militants are Pakistani. "I do think the Pakistanis go after foreign militants as much as they can: Moroccans, Egyptians, and Arabs. But they really don't want to go whole-heartedly against local Taliban—that is, Pakistani Pashtuns," Ispahani says. Cohen says the Pakistani government's own past policy of supporting extremist groups makes it difficult to clamp down on them now.

What’s Pakistan’s role in security in India?

Indian officials have long accused Pakistan of trying to destabilize India by supporting armed militants who launch attacks against it. For example, the December 13, 2001, attack on the Indian parliament that killed twelve people brought a furious round of accusations by India that Pakistan was responsible. Ispahani says militant groups are using Pakistan as a base to attack India, and if Musharraf's government is "not encouraging them, they're not tamping it down, either." Milam says it is possible "the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, a branch of the Pakistani military intelligence] has been meddling in India, but I don't think there's any coordinated plan to destabilize India." Cohen says, however, that Pakistan still feels vulnerable to India militarily, and will urge the United States to pressure New Delhi to respond to one of its many proposals for talks on the disputed province of Kashmir, which both countries claim.

Milam says it is possible "the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, a branch of the Pakistani military intelligence] has been meddling in India, but I don't think there's any coordinated plan to destabilize India."

What role does Pakistan play in security in Kashmir?

Pakistan has long supported Islamic militants who oppose the Indian presence in the disputed territory of Kashmir. India remains concerned about this support, which experts say has lessened—but not stopped—in recent years. The militant camps are still in the province, Cohen says. "That's a force [Pakistanis] can turn on [against India] whenever they want to," he says. Milam describes the Kashmiri jihadis as "creatures of the ISI," which supplied them with weapons and looked the other way as they crossed the Line of Control to launch attacks on Indian-controlled Kashmir. And, Ispahani says, after the devastating earthquake in Kashmir last fall, Musharraf inadvertently helped increase the militants' status by appealing to them to help with relief efforts. "The [militant groups] became a very big player in post-earthquake reconstruction," Ispahani says.

What is Pakistan doing to affect security in Afghanistan?

Experts say Pakistani leaders have historically felt it was important to be involved in Afghanistan. This policy of "strategic depth" led them to encourage—or at least, not put down—groups of Pashtuns in Pakistan that had strong ties to their fellow Pashtuns in the Afghan Taliban. There are millions of Pashtuns in the Pakistani "Pashtun belt," which stretches across a wide swath of territory from China to Iran. The common Pashtun sentiment in this sparsely populated region has made it a haven for the resurgent Taliban, Cohen says. However, the Taliban's resurgence may also be a result of policy; after 9/11, despite his cooperation with the United States, Musharraf "wanted to maintain the Taliban as a strategic option in case Afghanistan dissolved into civil war and chaos again," Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote in the Washington Post.

Recently, U.S. and Afghan officials have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Pakistan for a wave of suicide attacks that has hit Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan in recent months. More than thirty attacks have killed some 100 people—including U.S. soldiers, a Canadian diplomat, and NATO peacekeepers—as well as dozens of Afghan civilians. Members of the resurgent Taliban in Pakistan are blamed for the attacks. Experts say the Taliban has developed, quite openly, an infrastructure in Pakistan that includes recruiters, trainers, safe houses, and people who arm suicide bombers. "The suicide bombers are being recruited in [the city of] Karachi, not just the rural areas," Ispahani says. They are then trained in safe houses in Quetta and Chaman in Balochistan, Rashid writes. During a state visit to Pakistan in February, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave Musharraf detailed dossiers on suicide bombers and trainers and asked for help in stopping the attacks against Afghanistan.

How is the relationship between the United States and Pakistan?

Some experts say the relationship has frayed recently. After the unprecedented closeness of the post-9/11 alliance, a series of events have lessened confidence on both sides. These include the failure to catch bin Laden, the continuing attacks on Afghanistan, and the revelations in early 2004 of A.Q. Khan's illicit nuclear network. Khan, Pakistan's most prominent nuclear scientist, operated a secret a nuclear network that sold sensitive nuclear expertise and technology around the world. The revelations rocked the international community and raised serious questions about the Pakistani government's role in the network. Pakistani officials placed Khan under house arrest but have denied the United States access to him—a continuing source of frustration to U.S. intelligence officials.

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