US cannot rely on Pakistan for counterterrorism operations

In CJ Radin’s recent Threat Matrix report on US counterterrorism (CT) strategy, one area that stood out was the Obama administration’s emphasis on partnering with Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and allied terror groups, as set forth below in the “National Strategy for Counterterrorism”:

Our CT efforts in Pakistan have far-reaching implications for our global CT efforts. Al-Qa’ida continues to capitalize on its safe haven to maintain communications with its affiliates and adherents and to call on them to use violence in pursuit of its ideological goals. Therefore, the operational dismantlement of Pakistan-based al-Qa’ida will not eliminate the threat to the United States, as we are likely to face a lingering threat from operatives already trained as well as from the group’s affiliates and adherents in South Asia and in other parts of the world. Disrupted terrorist attacks in 2009 and 2010–including al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s role in the failed December 25, 2009 aviation bombing and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan’s involvement in the May 1, 2010 failed attack in Times Square–suggest that the determination of an expanded and more diverse network of terrorist groups to focus beyond their local environments may persist even with the ultimate defeat of al-Qa’ida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

In Pakistan our efforts will continue to focus on a range of activities that are pursued in conjunction with the Government of Pakistan to increase the pace and scope of success against key al-Qa’ida and affiliated targets. It is unlikely that any single event–even the death of Usama bin Laden, the only leader al-Qa’ida has ever known–will bring about its operational dismantlement. Therefore, a sustained level of intensified pressure against the group is necessary. As such, U.S. CT activities are focused on working with our partners to ensure the rapid degradation of al-Qa’ida’s leadership structure, command and control, organizational capabilities, support networks, and infrastructure at a pace faster than the group is able to recover as well as on further shrinking its safe haven and limiting access to fallback locations elsewhere in Pakistan.

There is one major weakness in this strategy, and that is its reliance on Pakistan “to increase the pace and scope of success against key al-Qa’ida and affiliated targets.” The reality is that the Pakistani government has reached the limits of its cooperation with the US, and the relationship is only going to get worse in the near term.

For years, the Pakistanis have rebuffed US pleas to attack the terror camps in North Waziristan; and in the wake of the US strike in Mohmand on Nov. 26 that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, it is safe to say that option is now off the table. In fact, the US gave up pressuring Pakistan on North Waziristan months ago after years of unrealistic declarations by US policymakers that Pakistan would move against terror groups in the tribal area.

While some US policymakers have believed that Pakistan would eventually ‘come around’ and see the wisdom of eradicating terrorist sanctuaries in North Waziristan, we at The Long War Journal take a less sanguine view, and find it unrealistic to think that the incentives the US can provide to Pakistan, such as money, will sufficiently influence the fundamental ideological component of the Pakistani establishment to convince it to withdraw its support for jihadi groups.

And the issue of North Waziristan is not trivial. Numerous terror groups, including al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Group, the Turkistan Islamic Party, and a host of smaller terror organizations, as well as a plethora of Pakistani terror groups, are based there. The Haqqani Network, which Admiral Mullen described as a “veritable arm of the ISI,” and which threatens the Afghan state while supporting the host of terror groups, is headquartered in North Waziristan.

As long as the Pakistanis are unwilling to move in North Waziristan, these groups will remain entrenched. Drone strikes can keep these groups off balance, but are insufficient for defeating them.

And, as we’ve noted numerous times here at LWJ, al Qaeda and allied groups are not confined to the small drone target boxes designated in North Waziristan and in South Waziristan (another terrorist haven, where Pakistan has taken only limited action against just one wing of the Taliban). As shown by the killings of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and Abd al Moeed bin Abd al Salam in Karachi, and the capture of Younis al Mauritani in Quetta, al Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan is not confined to Pakistan’s tribal areas.

And again, as we at LWJ have pointed out many times previously, this merely scratches the surface of the alphabet soup of terror groups that operate in Pakistan, many with the support of the state, and cooperate with al Qaeda [see Pakistan’s Jihad, for instance].

While the current strategy is problematic, we acknowledge that most alternatives are also fraught with difficulties. There are no easy answers to the Pakistan problem. But, we should at least start with a realistic view of what we can expect from our relationship with Pakistan. Without that realism, we are more likely to just make a bad situation even worse.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.

Tags: ,


  • Punit says:

    US of america is fighting this war without an doesn’t matter how many they finish off,more will come because they have not yet even touched the real power behind these extremist ideology,which is spreading this hate ideology everywhere from indonesia to france donating petro $ for this cause.

  • mike merlo says:

    Having Pakistani’s at odds with themselves is not such a bad thing.

  • Keith says:

    While it is impossible to say what’s going on behind the scenes in US-Pak intel relations, disengagement from Pakistan and then movement to officially establishing the country as a terrorist state would apply a lot more pressure on Pakistan to shut down their terrorist bases than any cajoling from our government could ever do.
    With all we know about the Pakistan ISI’s connections with these terror groups, it would seem not much more than a formality to get the rest of the world to comply.
    The ISI is clearly an enemy of the United States and the people of Pakistan see the US as their enemy as well. Yes we can say that this is due to propaganda, but the citizens of Pakistan are not isolated from the rest of the world. They have chosen–willingly–to see us as their enemy despite all we have done for them. And they have been so willing to do so most likely because we are not Muslim.
    Any pain sanctions on Pakistan may cause the people should not in this case be seen as unwarranted. These are not voiceless occupants of a tyrannical government, as we normally see, but those who have made their decisions freely concerning their relations with the outside world.
    We should not think of Pakistanis as children. They have willingly chosen paranoia, bigotry, and nationalism–even a shocking degree of tolerance and collusion with terrorism–and as adults must now be ready to face up to the consequences of their decisions.

  • Devin Leonard says:

    The bottom line here is we can’t “kill” our way out of this mess. We have killed some 20,000 Taliban in 10 years of war and thousands of Al Qaida of various ranks. We have hammered our enemy and they keep coming. The biggest reason we can’t end this war is Waziristan. We need to go back to doing Spec Ops and drone attacks in those areas and knocking off Al Qaida, Taliban and Haqqanni leaders. If Pakistan doesen’t relent soon, simply cut off thier aid untill they come back and allow us to do what we need to do.

  • Paul D says:

    I agree the hateful ideology is from Saudi Arabia who the West rely on for their oil.
    It would be easier to overthrow the Saudi Govt than take on a mullah/miltary brainwashed population of Pakistan.
    Iran has another Govt need overthrowing before peace in the Middle East.

  • Charu says:

    The purpose of the GWOT was to prevent terrorists from operating with impunity under the protection of a state. This has clearly failed with respect to Pakistan, and yet our policymakers have no vision or solution for all the sacrifices that were made. Instead they put all their hopes on the Pakistanis and got taken to the cleaners. Worse, they will continue to pour money down this duplicitous cesspool.

  • gary siebel says:

    There are at least two Pakistans. The military one is leftover from Zia, and not to be trusted. The other side wants to change things, but has no clear way forward.
    The thing to do is try to drive wedges, but the only carrot is money. There is no stick, except depriving them of the carrot. Perhaps an old school approach, like we were thinking about preferring India via semi-obvious hints could serve as a stick.
    Otherwise, declaring victory and getting out (sort of – keep that drone potential alive, however) may be a good idea for Afpakistan, especially if we instead go with one of our biggest outsourcing partners as leverage.
    Remember, Obama has actually been to Pakistan.

  • Khalid Naeem says:

    Solve Palestine and Kshmir issues, Al-Qaida etc would be dead there and then.

  • Paul D says:

    The problem countries was never Iraq and Afghanistan.
    The problem countries were and are still Pakistan,Iran and Saudi Arabia.
    Also countries to watch out for Egypt,Yemen and Somalia.

  • TonyB says:

    One way to deal with double-dealing Pakistan is to replace all aid, including military, humanitarian,etc., with a shopping list of terrorists. With the billions that we save, we can afford to pay handsomely for terrorists they turn over to us, dead or alive.
    This way their military can become a profit center instead of an expense. They may even pull some their soldiers who are sitting on their butts on the Indian border to the Afghan border where they can learn how to fight while earning their pay.

  • Abdullah Pakhtoon says:

    Look, Pakistan army/ISI is the one who sold nuclear technilogy to N. Korea, Libya, Iran and Syria… Pakistan is very unstable and can fall in the hands of army/ISI/ radicals any moment. Can we (the world) take the chance to see the Pakistani nuclear arsonal in the hands of bullies and murderers who live to die? The right thing to do is to get rid of Pakistani nuclear arsonals in any way possible! weaken the Pakistani army! Divide Pakistan by 3-4 independet states! Do not help Pakistani army financially or otherwise! Declear ISI as a supporter of terrorisim as it is! Get serious world or you will be hostage in the hands of killers!!!!

  • Nic says:

    @ Keith: 1. Good writing. 2. The day that the U. S. is in a position to catagorize Pakistan as a terrorist state will be a most happy day. @LWJ: More articles about the land based logistics system that is being developed would be welcomed. There must be some good stories because the rail and road system goes through so many countries.

  • Charles says:

    Khalid Naeem
    Solve Palestine and Kshmir issues, Al-Qaida etc would be dead there and then.
    This was a talking point maybe as late as 20 years ago.
    You need to do a better of job of keeping up with the times. Its not enough just to pick up the latest gadget.

  • Eric says:

    I agree with so many comments above – they get straight to the point about the Saudi roots of the evil ideology, the hopeless state of public views in Pakistan, the endless stream of militants joining the fight in spite of all we have done, and most importantly: The Saudi and Iranian regimes will continue to fuel the movement of these ideologies with petrodollars and state support.
    We want to see regime changes that stop those powerful influences, we want to put consequences to the Pakistanis for their choices as a people to support organized terror networks. But under all of it is this empty void, where things will just cease to work.
    The Arab spring was this popular movement to get out from under the strong man, because mouths were not getting fed, and the exploding youth population could not find work. So the strong men got tossed, and mouths are still not getting fed, and the youth still cannot find work. Pakistan and Afghanistan are in the same shape – economic and governmental lassitude and an exploding youth population. The USA is following one huge mistake – the Failure Is Not An Option approach to warfighting in the Khorasan – with another equally huge mistake: Pakistan is Too-Big-(And-Too-Nuclear)-To-Fail and needs to be rescued from economic collapse. We are wearing kid-gloves right now, with ISAF supply shut off, and the Pakistani government indulging in a Re-Defining session. Because Obama is grinding through an election year. We would otherwise be looking at the right moment to take a very hard turn on Pakistan.
    2012 is shaping up to be the year of reckoning – the confluence of so many dramas across the middle east and south asia coming up against naturally occuring deadlines.

  • ali says:

    come on freinds, we all know that terrorists are in pakistan and operate under ISI. pakistan has no control over remot areas where all taliban having bases and madrasa

  • James says:

    Bill, (and anyone else so concerned), the answer to the problem with Pakistan and that entire region consists of one word, and that word is “India”.
    We need to work in unison and equanimity with India on the problem of terrorism in that region. This can be done [at least initially] in an in cognito (behind the scenes) fashion.
    If we can combine our intelligence assets with that of India’s (with respect to that region of the world), I honestly believe that we can still turn this thing around.
    Hopefully, the above strategy is already in progress.

  • bard207 says:

    come on freinds, we all know that terrorists are in pakistan and operate under ISI. pakistan has no control over remot areas where all taliban having bases and madrasa
    Pakistanis keep insisting that Pakistan should have it’s borders expanded (Kashmir) when the PA (Pakistani Army) is unwilling to assert control over land (Tribal areas) already inside Pakistan’s borders. The logic – reasoning for that mindset is flawed.
    If the PA is actually unable to take control of the Tribal areas, then the PA and the Zaid Hamid types should quit dreaming about the Red Fort.

  • Bowman says:

    Punjab state of Pakistan contains 90% of country’s population; all army, bureaucracy, politicians etc come from punjab. Baluchistan has been fighting for independance for decades. If Baluchistan becomes a separate country, all the nuclear weapons will be withdrawn from it. As other provinces separate, finally the nuclear weapons become confined to Punjab- a small landlocked country which can be persuaded to part with them. The fissile material can be then consumed in the nuclear reactors of the world to make electricity, like it happened with Russian missiles.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram