Australia/Israel Review

Pakistan’s Conflicted War on Terror

Oct 27, 2009 | Clifford D. May


By Clifford D. May


I picked an interesting moment to visit Pakistan: four terrorist attacks in less than a week. The first was at the World Food Program office in the capital: five killed. The second was in the Khyber Bazaar in Peshawar: more than 50 killed. The third was at the military’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, where Taliban insurgents, armed with automatic weapons, grenades, and rocket launchers, fought for 22 hours. According to government spokesmen, a brigadier, a colonel, and three commandos were killed. More than two dozen hostages were taken, but most reportedly were saved when a would-be suicide bomber was shot and killed before he managed to detonate his vest.

A couple of days later, terrorists attacked a military convoy, killing about 40 near the Swat Valley – territory only recently liberated from the Taliban by Pakistani military forces following a difficult and costly battle.

If you look closely, you’ll see a message written in this blood: “You, Pakistan’s so-called leaders, can’t provide food for the hungry or security for the marketplace. Your soldiers and officers can’t even protect themselves. You are useless and weak. You will submit. Or we will destroy you.”

Pakistanis can be remarkably nonchalant about terrorism: They have suffered 129 terrorist attacks in the two years since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Since September 11, 2001, at least 5,000 Pakistanis have been killed in acts of terrorism.

But the assault on the GHQ seems to have shaken people up. Hitting the Pakistani equivalent of the Pentagon is, as a headline in the daily newspaper Dawn puts it: “audacious”. The military is the country’s strongest, proudest, and most durable institution. Retaliation is expected, probably in Waziristan, where the Taliban seems to have made recent gains. 

I was invited to Pakistan by the US State Department under a “US Speaker and Specialist” program intended to improve the dialogue between Pakistanis and Americans.

I have been speaking at universities; meeting with journalists, government officials, religious leaders, and think-tank scholars; and doing radio, television, and newspaper interviews. People seem eager to talk to me, to tell me what they think, question me, argue about terrorism – how to define it, what causes it, how Pakistanis and Americans should respond. 

There are not many Americans and Europeans running around Pakistan these days. That’s a victory for the terrorists. Last month, a Greek aid volunteer, Athanasius Lerounis, was kidnapped. He had been in Pakistan for 15 years building schools, water-supply systems, and clinics. The Taliban wants US$10 million in ransom plus the release of some of their comrades from Pakistani jails in exchange for letting him go.

Pakistan is a nation of 175 million people – the third largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Since last year, it has had a democratic government – but not a particularly popular one. Before that, it had a military dictator; he had even less support. Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons – al-Qaeda says it intends to acquire them in time; the Taliban will help if it can. The Kerry-Lugar bill, passed by the US Congress and soon to reach US President Barack Obama’s desk, calls Pakistan “a major non-NATO ally and a valuable partner in the battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” 

But it is a conflicted ally and a fragile partnership. As recently as last May, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced the suspicion that within the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency are those who “play both sides” – who have sympathies for and links with various militant jihadi groups. 

America has not won many hearts and minds in Pakistan. A recent Pew Research Centre survey found that almost two-thirds of Pakistanis describe the US as an “enemy.” Kerry-Lugar would triple aid to Pakistan yet it has been greeted by many in the military, the opposition parties and the media as an insult to Pakistan’s sovereignty and dignity. Why? Because of its “conditionalities” – in large measure because it tries to make sure that money given to Pakistan will be spent only for purposes Americans intend and approve. 

I find people admirably hospitable. Many are friendly. But on the campuses, in particular, mixed in with hard but fair questions, is a large measure of anger and resentment. The grievances cited include: The US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, US support for India and Israel, US drone attacks against militants in Pakistan (which allegedly kill many innocents – though both US and Pakistani officials deny that), Vietnam, Hiroshima – the list goes on. 

I meet with a group of religious leaders. They are remarkably diverse in their views. One refers to “moderate Islam.” Another says: “There is no such thing as ‘moderate Islam.’” I ask what term he would use for the Islam of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. “Oh, that’s not Islam at all,” he says. “So they are heretics?” I ask. “If we call them apostates and they call us apostates, where does it get us?” he replies. I respond, “What do you do instead? Ignore those around the world slaughtering innocents in the name of Islam and hope that someday they might see things differently? Why would that happen?” He thinks hard, but does not come up with an answer.  

Many Pakistanis view the Taliban as an enemy. But others will tell you that there is a “good” Taliban and a “bad” Taliban. If that is meant to imply that some groups that call themselves Taliban don’t really buy into the ideology and are therefore “reconcilables” – fine; I have heard that also from senior American military officers in Afghanistan. But sometimes it seems to be implied that the “bad” Taliban attacks Pakistanis, while the “good” Taliban attacks Americans. And there are those who condone the “bad” Taliban as well. Their thinking goes like this: The Taliban attacks the World Food Program because it supports the Pakistani government, which supports the US government, which supports India and Israel. So you have to cut them some slack. 

On a television program, Breakfast with Dawn, the interviewer reads a passage from one of my columns and asks me to defend it. I’m puzzled. I have written that al-Qaeda’s central leadership is based on Pakistani soil. I ask her what requires defending. She says I can’t prove that al-Qaeda is here and Pakistanis doubt it is true. 

Ironically, Pakistan is awash in conspiracy theories lacking even the most flimsy evidentiary basis. There are those who contend that 9/11 was a CIA operation, probably in league with the Mossad. What, I ask, would be the motive? To have an excuse to invade Muslim countries, comes the reply. On another television show, Islamabad Tonight, an otherwise smart and well-traveled panelist tells me that President Obama wants to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan. “You really think Obama wants that?” I ask incredulously. “Yes,” he says. “It’s not a matter of the personality. It’s big-power politics, the Great Game.”

America is criticised for “occupying” Afghanistan. America also is faulted for having abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, after working with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to support the Afghan insurgency against the Soviets. The result of that abandonment: anarchy leading to the rise of the Taliban. My response becomes: “So there are just two things you insist Americans must never do: leave and stay. What third option would you recommend?” This generally gets a laugh. Pakistanis are not without humour.

At the University of Karachi, I debate these and related issues, one after another. I say I find it curious that no one ever mentions the genocide of black Muslims in Darfur, the brutal oppression of protestors in Iran, the plight of the Chechens and the Uighurs. But no one does – not even after I’ve said that.

As for terrorism, I propose that we agree that whatever your grievances, it is wrong to address them by killing other people’s children. Most in the audience seem to find that sensible – at least in theory. At the end of the conversation, I receive polite, even warm applause. But one young man, clean-shaven and in western dress, throws his shoe at me. It misses, more because of his lack of pitching skill than my agility. Almost everyone else in the room appears mortified. Apologies are repeatedly proffered, even from students who had asked hostile questions. The student is thrown out of the classroom. I learn later that he then limped on down to the local press club. The next day, the shoe-throwing incident is reported on the front-page of major newspapers.

At Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, a professor of international relations responds to my remarks by instructing: “Injustices and terrorism are two sides of the same coin.” I reply that the world has never been – and I’m afraid never will be – free of injustices. But by his reasoning, we not only must accept terrorism – we should give it licence. If I decide to address the injustice of 9/11 – or of Darfur – by blowing up this university, would that be okay with him? Just two sides of the same coin? He doesn’t concede the point, but at least he keeps his shoes on. And others tell me they think I’m right and he’s wrong.

Pakistan is having a historic debate and it is having it in the midst of a civil war. Pakistan is a front-line state in a global conflict. For a while we called it the War on Terrorism; now we can’t even agree on a name. I’m persuaded that the majority in this country is on the right side of the debate, the civil war, and the global conflict. But among history’s lessons is this: When moderate majorities face radical and determined minorities, there is no guaranteeing the outcome.


Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. © National Review, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.


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