FPI Bulletin: Extremism in Pakistan Remains a Threat

April 19, 2016

In March 2009, President Obama warned that the region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan was “the most dangerous place in the world.” To confront the problems of extremism in Pakistan, he increased drone strikes and asked Congress to authorize “$1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next 5 years, resources that will build schools and roads and hospitals and strengthen Pakistan's democracy.” During Obama’s second term, Pakistan has become an afterthought, as the nation’s attention, and resources, have shifted elsewhere. Yet this is mainly the result of a worsening world situation, rather than any positive developments in Pakistan. Indeed, the diversion of American attention to other countries has facilitated the festering of problems that pose high dangers to American security.

The Downward Spiral of U.S.-Pakistani Relations

During its first months in office, the Obama administration strove to gain Pakistani cooperation in combating Al Qaeda in Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan. President Obama proclaimed that redoubled efforts in Pakistan were “indispensable to our efforts in Afghanistan, which will see no end to violence if insurgents move freely back and forth across the border.” The administration also worried that instability in Pakistan could allow the country’s nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of extremists. Thus, it attempted to woo the Pakistani government with a sizable increase in non-military aid and a proposed strategic partnership.

These efforts proved futile. The most important reason for their failure was Obama’s decision in December 2009 to put an 18-month time limit on the surge of American troops to Afghanistan, which convinced Pakistan that the United States planned to abandon the region as it had in the 1990s. In response, Pakistan felt compelled to ramp up support to the Afghan Taliban as a counter to the pro-Indian government in Kabul. The Pakistani military, which has long dominated Pakistani foreign policymaking, feared that India would use its influence in Kabul to encircle Pakistan strategically.

Doomed from the outset, the Obama administration’s effort at a strategic partnership was dealt mortal blows by popular opposition to the American drone campaign, the unauthorized intrusion of American forces into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden, and several other developments that sent American relations with Pakistan into an abyss. By 2012, almost three-quarters of Pakistanis viewed the United States as an enemy, a perception from which the relationship has scarcely recovered.

A Partial Recovery

U.S.-Pakistani relations are less overtly acrimonious today than they were in 2011, but improvements on matters of substance have been more modest. At the beginning of March, American diplomats met with their Pakistani counterparts as part of the sixth annual U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. According to press reporting, the two sides made little progress on key issues such as the Kashmir dispute, nuclear non-proliferation, or support for the Taliban. In particular, Pakistan refused to consider any of America’s requests to scale back or put limits on its nuclear weapons program. Nothing was said of the Kashmir dispute, at least in public, aside from a bland statement that Pakistan and the United States “emphasized the importance of meaningful dialogue.”

The Pakistani government reiterated prior promises to assist with the peace process in Afghanistan. Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s top adviser on foreign affairs, acknowledged for the first time that Taliban leaders were living inside Pakistan and thus susceptible to Pakistani influence. The United States has long hoped that Pakistan would use its influence with the Taliban to make them sign a peace agreement, and the Pakistani government has encouraged those hopes by hosting negotiations between representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government. Thus far, however, Pakistan has failed to deliver, and its continued support of the Taliban suggests that Islamabad has only paid lip service to negotiations in order to placate foreign governments. In one of the latest setbacks to negotiations, the Taliban last month backed out of negotiations that had been scheduled in Pakistan.

Islamabad’s Support for Extremists

Pakistan has done little to rein in the terrorist groups that pose the greatest threats to the United States and its allies, including the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, and Lashkar e Taiba. In contrast, Islamabad has cracked down aggressively on the Pakistani Taliban, which perpetrated the December 2014 massacre of 150 teachers and children at a military school in Peshawar. Unlike its Afghan cousin, the Pakistani Taliban seeks to overthrow the government of Pakistan.

While the Pakistani military has conducted operations in North Waziristan that have ostensibly been aimed at the Haqqani Network, they have been deliberately ineffective, intended to placate the United States. Haqqani Network leaders were tipped in advance and hence they moved to neighboring areas before Pakistani troops arrived. Both the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, moreover, continue to provide assistance to Al Qaeda. With Western counterterrorism efforts focused on ISIS, Al Qaeda has been able to rebuild in relative quietude inside Pakistan, as well as in several other countries.

The Islamic State has also made inroads in Pakistan since 2014. Established in January 2015, the Islamic State’s province of Khorasan (wilayat khorasan) encompasses both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus far, it is not clear whether the Pakistani government will treat the Islamic State as a threat, like it does the Pakistani Taliban. The Khorasan franchise is now competing with Al Qaeda and other extremist groups for the loyalty of millions of Sunni Muslims who are susceptible to extremist messaging. According to Pakistani officials, hundreds of Pakistanis have gone to Syria to fight for the Islamic State, and some have returned to Pakistan to recruit followers. Last May, the group claimed responsibility for the mass execution of 43 Shiites on a bus in Karachi.

Dispute over Sale of F-16s

In February, the Obama administration sought to improve relations with Pakistan via the sale of eight F-16 fighters for a total of $700 million. Secretary of State Kerry asserted that “The F-16s have been a critical part of the Pakistani fight against the terrorists in the western part of that country, and have been effective in that fight.” But such advanced aircraft are not necessary to fight extremists who lack any aircraft of their own and possess only rudimentary antiaircraft weaponry. India issued a protest at the announcement, asserting that Pakistan intended to use the aircraft against India, not terrorists.

In the Senate, Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a motion to block the sale of the jets, which the Senate voted down by a tally of 71 to 24. However, Paul’s initiative led Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)—the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—to agree that no U.S. funds would be used to subsidize the purchase until “there are behavior changes that take place in Pakistan.” Corker also said that the sale “maintains our leverage with Pakistan over the long haul,” noting that the jets will require 30 years of maintenance. While there is some merit to Corker’s argument, $22 billion of military support to Pakistan since 9/11 has not been sufficient to turn Islamabad away from supporting terrorists.


Simply providing American largesse to Pakistan is unlikely to buy either the gratitude or good will of Pakistanis or their government in the short term. Several measures could, however, improve the relationship.

First and foremost, the U.S. must vindicate its rhetorical commitment to Afghanistan’s long-term security. This could wean Pakistan away from the notion that its interests lie in supporting Afghan insurgent groups and their Al Qaeda partners. In addition, the U.S. and India could explore how they might be able to alleviate Pakistan’s obsession with India’s supposed strategy of encirclement.

Elsewhere, greater American assistance to Pakistan’s educational sector, especially at the university level, could help nip extremism in the bud, while helping to train a new generation of Pakistani leaders who are part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Investments in human capital may take many years to play out, but are essential and relatively affordable. In 2014, for example, only 5.4% of U.S. foreign assistance to Pakistan was dedicated to education, and less than half of that amount to higher education. It would be possible to double that amount without undercutting other U.S. programs.

Given the direct threat to American security that continues to emanate from Pakistan and Afghanistan, the next President and Congress should be prepared to take these steps to increase the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan while tailoring U.S. aid to Pakistan to make it more effective.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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