U.S. Options Limited in Pakistan

In the event of a successful terrorist attack by Pakistan-based militants, U.S. actions toward Pakistan are limited, but the United States can help Pakistan intensify its fight against extremism, says South Asia security expert Bruce Riedel.

May 11, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The arrest of Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad in connection to the failed car bombing in Times Square has led to more U.S. drone attacks in the tribal area of North Waziristan as well as pressure on Pakistan to intensify anti-militants efforts. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned of "severe consequences" (CBS) for Pakistan in the event of a successful Pakistan-based terrorist attack in the United States. Bruce Riedel, who chaired a special interagency committee last year to develop President Barack Obama’s policy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, says there is "a very serious possibility that the next mass casualty terrorist attack on the United States will be postmarked ’Pakistan.’" In which case, he says, "a stiff diplomatic demarche is not going to satisfy anyone." But U.S. options to act against Pakistan are "severely limited," he argues. The best option is "to get Pakistan to do more now" in its fight against extremism, he says, by providing more weapons and technological aid.

What kind of consequences do you think Secretary Clinton was talking about in her warning?

More From Our Experts

The secretary is right, that there is a very serious possibility that the next mass casualty terrorist attack on the United States will be postmarked "Pakistan." We narrowly averted that in Times Square just a week ago. A stiff diplomatic demarche is not going to satisfy anyone should that happen. This administration and its predecessor have been pressuring Pakistan for years to shut down completely the jihadist Frankenstein that was created over three decades in Pakistan. This includes al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and a host of other groups. No Pakistani government has yet been willing to take on the entire network of terrorist groups. Secretary Clinton has raised questions about some in the Pakistani government still retaining links to these groups.

More on:


Terrorism and Counterterrorism

But the devil’s in the details here. Pakistan is a country twice the size of California with the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. Our options to do anything against Pakistan are severely limited. Military options are unattractive; this is a country with nuclear weapons and which is determined to defend itself. Economic sanctions are very limited as well, and one needs to bear in mind that more than three-quarters of the supplies that go to American and NATO forces in Afghanistan come via the port of Karachi in Pakistan. So Pakistan has a lot of leverage on the United States. Clinton is trying to signal to the Pakistanis, let’s not put ourselves into this shoe, take action now so we don’t face this conundrum of problems later on.

The Times Square event is a graphic reminder that Pakistan remains the epicenter of the global Islamic jihad.

But if there is another terrorist attack that is traced to Pakistan, what kind of options would the United States feel pressed to take?

The first option will be to press the Pakistanis to move into those parts of the country like North Waziristan, where these terrorists are still operating very freely and very openly. If the Pakistanis won’t do that, then there will be serious consideration about whether the United States needs to take unilateral action. But that’s very difficult to do; that would be infringing on Pakistani sovereignty; that would risk a conflict with Pakistan with all the difficulties I already described. And it would be a further strain on our already limited resources in Afghanistan and the region if we had to expand the area where our own boots were on the ground. There are no attractive options for dealing with this. The best option is to get Pakistan to do more now.

More From Our Experts

Since the Times Square attempt, there have already been three drone attacks in North Waziristan where Faisal Shahzad is said to have trained. Is this merely an indication of a more aggressive U.S. policy?

President Obama ordered, just a few days after he came into office in 2009, a stepped-up use of drones to go after al-Qaeda and other terrorists in the border regions, and I expect we’ll continue to see that. This year we’ll probably see over a hundred drone attacks. The drones are very effective technology; they have killed or wounded some senior terrorists. But they’re just a tactic, they’re not a strategy. You’re not going to close down Pakistan’s jihadist Frankenstein simply from 30,000 feet in the air. They can be a very good way to disrupt and sometimes dismantle terrorist activities, but they’re never going to defeat it by themselves. That requires Pakistani cooperation. That’s always been at the heart of why this is such a difficulty problem. We can’t eliminate the terrorist problem in Pakistan without Pakistan’s help. And yet, we’ve tried for decades now to get the Pakistanis to give us that help, and we’ve not yet found the cure to make that happen.

There seems to be a disconnect between what we’re hearing from the White House and the Pentagon. Attorney General Eric Holder says Pakistan was "intimately involved" in the Times Square plot, while U.S. Central Command Chief General David Petraeus says Faisal Shahzad was inspired by militants in Pakistan but didn’t necessarily have contact with them. Why is this?

I don’t know what explains the disconnect. Certainly, the attorney general is much closer to the investigation; he knows what’s going on in the interrogation of the suspect Shahzad. I think that it’s clear that the Pakistani Taliban provided at least inspirational support; the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for the idea of attacking the United States and has promised more such attacks.

More on:


Terrorism and Counterterrorism

This year we’ll probably see over a hundred drone attacks. The drones are very effective technology, they have killed or wounded some senior terrorists, but they’re just a tactic, they’re not a strategy.


What we’re seeing going on in Pakistan now is a very dangerous phenomenon. The ideology of al-Qaeda, the ideology of global Islamic jihad that all jihadists should focus on the United States as the ultimate enemy, is gaining ground with groups beyond al-Qaeda. We saw this in 2008 in Mumbai, when Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked Mumbai and attacked American and Israeli targets. Those are the targets of al-Qaeda and the global Islamic jihad. We’ve now seen the Pakistani Taliban try to launch an attack on the United States of America for the first time. This spreading of the idea of global Islamic jihad is very dangerous and as it gets deeper and deeper into the extremist groups in Pakistan it means we can expect more attacks like the one we saw at Times Square, and we can expect them to become increasingly sophisticated and more capable.

Is the Pentagon downplaying the Pakistani Taliban connection because of the recognition that the United States has limited resources and they prefer not to put boots on the ground in Pakistan?

I don’t want to try to assess the Pentagon’s motives, but I think the Pentagon understands that Pakistan is crucially important to the logistics to our war in Afghanistan; more than three-quarters of everything that we shoot, drink, and eat in Afghanistan arrives via Karachi. And second, that Pakistani cooperation against the Taliban, against al-Qaeda is absolutely essential. We cannot win this struggle without Pakistani support. So it’s bringing the Pakistanis onto our side 100 percent and that is the ultimate challenge here.

In February, three U.S. soldiers from the U.S. special operations forces were killed in northwest Pakistan. They were involved in counterinsurgency training as well as development assistance. What is the extent of U.S. military presence on the ground in Pakistan that’s kept quiet, and is there any possibility that we’ll see an increase in this?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

I don’t think we’ll see a substantial increase. The Pakistanis don’t want American boots on the ground. The Pakistani army is a very proud institution; it believes that it should do the job. What it wants from the United States is the weapons and the technology to do the job. And here there is a lot that the United States should do. The Pakistanis need air mobility to fight the insurgency and militants in their country. That means helicopters. They need dozens and dozens of more helicopters in order to be able to rapidly respond to militant attacks and to be able to move forces around quickly to deal with the militants. In that scenario, the Pentagon should be trying to do a lot more to give the Pakistanis the kind of air mobility that would allow them to deal with this problem effectively.

Is there anything the United States is doing to help Pakistan develop a more efficient counterinsurgency strategy? What more could it be doing?

We can’t eliminate the terrorist problem in Pakistan without Pakistan’s help. And yet, we’ve tried for decades now to get the Pakistanis to give us that help, and we’ve not yet found the cure to make that happen.

There’s a lot we’re doing and there’s a lot more we can do. We’ve given the Pakistanis the benefit of our experience in counterinsurgency; we’ve traded tactics with them, we’re trying to encourage more of their officers to spend more time in our training schools in order to benefit from our experience. We’ve also provided them with some very sophisticated avionics for their aircraft so they’re better capable to target military sanctuaries and hideouts. But there’s a tremendous amount we can still do. The one place we can do more is air mobility. As well as to be able to medevac soldiers who are wounded on the battlefield quickly back to hospitals in Pakistan.

Is the Times Square event going to restart a debate in the administration and a rejiggering of policy of how it should respond to Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorism?

The Times Square event is a graphic reminder that Pakistan remains the epicenter of the global Islamic jihad, [which] this administration has understood from the day it came into office. Changing the strategic direction of Pakistan from being a long-time patron state support of jihadism to being a fighter against the jihadist menace is difficult to do. It’s not going to come overnight. It’s going to take time, it’s going to take working with Pakistanis, especially those who understand the danger this poses to their own county. We’re on a long path. If there is a successful terrorist attack in the United States that is postmarked "Pakistan," we’re going to have to see that path move at lightning speed against the jihadists or the United States and Pakistan could be on the road to a very difficult confrontation.


Top Stories on CFR

Southeast Asia

Labor and Employment

The United States has long accepted hundreds of thousands of foreign workers each year, but the Trump administration has blocked many of these visas as unemployment among the domestic labor force has skyrocketed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Middle East and North Africa

New U.S. sanctions under the Caesar Act could compound the economic turmoil threatening to undo the Assad regime.