Can the American and Pakistani Positions on Islamic Militancy be Reconciled?

In this article, the author delves into the relationship between the United States and Pakistan in context of the Islamic Militancy in the extended region of Afghanistan-Pakistan. 


By Camille Maubert, 10th April, 2012

In 2001, Pakistan allied itself with the US on the grounds that it would assist in the War on Terror’s effort to tackle terrorism. At the time, the two countries’ interests seemed to coincide, as they had a common target – Al Qaeda and foreign fighters. Yet, from 2003 onwards, the expansion of the American war against the Taliban and its increased pressure on Pakistan to act against the Islamic militants who use the Afghan-Pakistani border to provide the Taliban with safe havens put the Pakistani leadership in a difficult situation. The unpreparedness of Pakistan to answer the US’s demands to repress these groups led to the current diplomatic standoff whereby there seems to be no alignment of strategic interests, let alone coordination between the US and Pakistan, and their respective policies remain fundamentally adversarial.

The premise of this study is to challenge the current understanding of the situation, which is overwhelmingly based on perceptions and representations rather than real insight into Islamic militancy.

Islamic Jihad or Pakistani Nationalism?

Despite the consensus on the decisive role played by militant organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network in providing safe havens, logistical support and training to Taliban fighters, important questions like “who are the militants, who is supporting them and why?” are overlooked.

There is a strong argument that the reason why Islamic militants have such an overwhelming presence in the Afghan-Pakistani border region is because of the radicalisation of the population by madrassas and its sympathy for the jihadi ideology. Such an approach is flawed as it conveys a stereotypical understanding of the militant reality, and overlooks the deeper psychological and political fault lines underpinning it. Indeed, Islamic militants are fighting a revolutionary jihad for ideological purposes, to reform the state and impose a radical version of Islam. Conversely, most Pakistanis practice a more moderate version of Islam and thus do not support radical groups out of sympathy for their ideological agenda. Rather, those who join militant groups put forward reasons that stem from collusion, misinformation, support for the Afghan jihad and, mostly, Pakistani nationalism. Indeed, invasive American actions (drone strikes) have propped up support for militant groups out of patriotic sentiment. In other words, militant organisations have hijacked the nationalist concept of jihad as used during partition, and widely supported by Pakistanis, to justify violent action (against American infringements on Pakistani sovereignty and denounce the subordination of Pakistani leaders to American will (A 2009 Gallup Survey reveals that 59% of Pakistanis consider the US as the biggest threat, while only 11% chose the Taliban). As a result, support for Islamic militants spreads more easily through the various layers of Pakistani society, as they claim to act in the defence of the Muslim nation from external domination.

Therefore, it is the failure of Western analysts to make the distinction between ideologically motivated militants and nationalist Pakistanis that makes cooperation difficult. In the US, the post 9/11 environment and the need to mobilise people against terrorism promoted an unsophisticated understanding of what Islamic militancy is about by having the media “fuse shots of Osama Bin Laden, veiled women, (…) and riots in Kashmir and Palestine, thereby lending the visual impression that the West is confronted with a crazy, irrational faith” (Majid 2010:101). This securitisation of Islamic militancy is intrinsically flawed because it promotes an all-encompassing understanding that merges ideological and nationalist agendas into the same threat, making its targeting indiscriminate and, ultimately, counter-productive. Conversely, the Pakistani approach to Islamic militancy recognises that some elements – the Pakistani Taliban – do represent a threat, but it also acknowledges that it cannot crack down on those organisations as most jihadi groups historically enjoyed state sanction to wage jihad against the state’s enemies in the name of Islam and the Nation. Therefore, it is necessary to explore the relationship between the Pakistani state and Islamic groups in order to understand its reluctance to implement direct military action against them.

Islamic Groups as Pakistan’s Strategic Asset

Were the Pakistani civilian government willing to cooperate with the US, such commitment would only be a shallow promise if it proves to be unable – or unwilling – to convince the military and Inter-Services Intelligence to abide by its will. Not only is Zardari’s government unable to do so – given the historical weakness of Pakistani civilian governments – but it will not, as this would undermine the Pakistani strategic doctrine as a whole. Indeed, Islamic militants have been and remain the most reliable linchpin for Pakistan to project power where it matters; Kashmir. Since Partition, Islamic radicals and the army have teamed together to construct and secure Pakistan’s sovereignty and identity through the tactical use of guerilla warfare in Pakistan’s border regions.

Therefore, the reason why Pakistan does not – and will not – act against Kashmiri-based groups is that its whole foreign policy is founded upon issues of (Muslim) national identity, meaning that it uses militancy to challenge the Indian regional domination. Since this discourse informs Pakistan’s very identity narrative and exercises a powerful hold on the national imagination, it is impossible for Pakistani leaders to renounce it, especially as its influence has been reinvigorated by the fight for (Muslim) freedom in neighboring Afghanistan.

Similarly, Afghanistan is an aspect of Pakistan’s Indian policy. Indeed, Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan are determined by its entrenched fear of encirclement and the necessity to limit Indian influence at its Western flank. Successive governments have therefore maintained strategic links with Islamic groups in Afghanistan and supported a proxy war aimed at undermining Indian assets. Interestingly, the post 2001 security environment increased the links between Kashmiri and Afghan groups, thereby strengthening the legitimacy of local groups and undermining the ability of the state to identify and target specific individuals.

However, this apparent predicament serves Pakistani interests in the long term; Aware of the need to preserve strategic depth against India and a friendly government in Afghanistan, Pakistan has no interest in withdrawing support to Afghan Islamic militants and the Pakistani groups that prop them up.

Questions like “how much support these groups truly get from the army and the ISI, and how much of it is provided by independent individuals”, remains unanswered. Yet what is clear is that the problem to which Pakistan is confronted with regards to Islamic militancy is one of control. Pakistan is in a situation where the state created organisations on the basis of identity for (geo)political purposes but has lost control over them as they were reinforced by traditional values and developed a life of their own. In effect, not only are Islamic organisations attractive to some sections of the population, they also are ingrained in the state apparatus – they recruit retired personnel from and have relatives working for the army. Given the kinship base of the Pakistani society, this makes them extremely difficult to root out. Consequently, Pakistan understands that disarming the militants would cause more damage than turning a blind eye, as it may lead to an internal conflict of interests within the army between pro-Western and nationalist elements. Such situation, it has been argued, would provoke the collapse of the only strong institution able of holding the state together.

Furthermore, the areas in which militancy is highest are those where the state doesn’t exert authority or governance – North West Frontier Province, Balochistan, Kyber-Pukhtoonkhwa. In these areas, the pre-eminence of Islamic organisations is all the more important that they fill the power vacuum and provide the population with social services that the state is failing to supply. The most notable example is that of LeT’s charity wing Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD). After the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods, JuD provided immediate relief to the population and further integrated itself at the grassroots level. As a result, LeT has been increasingly able to act independently from state sponsor, another reason for Pakistan not to provoke any rupture. What is needed, therefore, is a solution that acknowledges the structural weaknesses of the Pakistani state, the strength of its society, and promotes negotiation rather than coercion.

A Path to Reconciliation?

The difficulty with both US and Pakistani positions is that they are directly reliant on the states’ narratives. In that sense, finding a solution implies that they would have to compromise on those narratives. This is unlikely to happen since, on one hand, the American demands are based on the deeply entrenched ideological principles of the War on Terror, and, on the other hand, the Pakistani reluctance to comply is rooted in the certitude that militants are necessary to its regional strategy – and to an extent its national identity.

These discursive incompatibilities are reinforced by the process of securitisation at play. By framing Islamic militancy as a security threat, the US – and some pro-Western Pakistani civilian leaders – has promoted a military solution, which limits are becoming more visible. The protests steered by drone strikes and the backlashes met by the Pakistani army in Federally Administrated Tribal Areas and North West Frontier Province demonstrate that the use of force is ultimately inefficient as it increases anti-Americanism, steers sympathy for militants, and further disturbs Pakistan’s unstable political landscape.

As observed above, the reason why cooperation has so far failed between the two allies is the mismatch of each other’s vital interests. While the US demands are informed by the short-term requirements of its Afghan strategy, the Pakistani position is determined by a long-term approach to militancy and regional security. In addition, the securitisation process has led to a situation where the US promotes an all-encompassing definition of the militant threat which pushes for the elimination of all organisations linked to Islamic militancy. But what it fails to understand is that Islamic militancy is deeply rooted in the Pakistani society and state apparatus and, as such, it cannot simply be isolated or suppressed.

Therefore, any solution to the problem posed by Islamic militancy would have to acknowledge that it is not only a security threat but rather a socio-economic and nationalist phenomenon. Additionally, it would have to recognise Pakistan’s structural weaknesses and its lack of capacity to impose its will on some sections of the population. Pakistan is a negotiated state, which means that coercive measures from the top-down are unlikely to be successful if they are not supported by local stakeholders. In finding a solution, Pakistan itself has a role to play, as it would have to acknowledge its need for a consistent strategy against its home grown militants – which it lacks so far – to ease cooperation with the US and start to positively engage the militants.

There is a growing understanding that soft power is ultimately more likely to successfully change militant behaviours and counter the growth of violent extremism as it impacts directly on the grass roots level. Indeed, long-term American engagement in issues like education and development would decrease its perception by the population as a security threat and help diffuse more positive representations. Tactical attempts have mostly proven to be successful, as shown by the American help in flood relief in 2010. However, this policy so far happens to be unsuccessful on the strategic level as its positive contribution in winning Pakistanis’ hearts and minds is outbalanced by the negative impact of drone attacks. Therefore, in order to decrease the scale of Islamic militancy, Pakistan would have to restore its sense of sovereignty, which means that the US would have to cease its activities across the border. At the time of writing, such evolution is yet to happen. This is due to the intense climate of mistrust that characterises the relationship between the US and Pakistan, whereby neither side seems to be willing to tone its rhetoric – and demands – down for fear of being thought to make concessions on its narrative.

Islamic militancy highlights the complexity of the US-Pakistan bilateral relation by confronting their intrinsically different strategic and identity narratives. One demands a rapid military solution, the other prioritises its long-terms interests, and both are informed by domestic pressure and ideological discourses. Only when those uncomfortable realities are acknowledged will dialogue be possible. Ultimately, the militant challenge puts the ability of the two allies to engage in a long-term partnership to a test as it will show whether conflicting demands can be complemented by common goals.

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