Pakistan and the 'War on Terror': The Current Situation

The US-led 'War on Terror' has resulted in serious implications for Pakistan, with the Taliban and extremism posing a continuing threat to the country's stability. The Pakistani Government's efforts to rid the country of the threat of such extremism are seen to have fluctuated in the past, but are regaining strength to combat Taliban rebels.

By M. Nasrullah Mirza for

The US involvement in Afghanistan has resulted in a dramatic impact on neighbouring Pakistan. An influx of millions of Afghan refugees (many of whom took part in the mujahedeen against the Soviets) resulted in small arms proliferation, drug trafficking and increased sectarianism. Furthermore, foreign militants have been able to infiltrate through Pakistan's porous borders. In addition there has been an increase in the number of religious madrassahs in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Many would argue that the US has implemented controversial and perhaps misguided policies during the War on Terror; overthrowing regimes in Kabul and Baghdad, and waging war against the so-called 'Al-Qa'ida in Iraq' and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Consequently, since Pakistan joined the US coalition in the War on Terror, the country has faced a Taliban rebellion across and within its own borders, threatening its very survival. Moreover, the failure of the US, NATO and ISAF forces to control the situation in Afghanistan has aggravated the problems in the FATA and the NWFP.

Until late April 2009, it appeared that Pakistan was succumbing to an onslaught of Taliban groups which had occupied large chunks of territory in the northwest, especially in the Swat valley, and were launching suicide attacks all over the country. The approval of a 'Sharia-for-peace' deal in Swat reinforced the view that Pakistan lacked the will or capability to fight religious extremists. There were a limited number of targeted military operations conducted, resulting in a number of Al-Qaida and Taliban leaders being killed or captured but they lacked crucial popular support.

The state has achieved a comeback

However, encouragingly, in the last five months the state has regained the initiative. The Pakistani Army launched a successful offensive in Swat and Malakand to resume control over most of the affected areas. This has been followed by a campaign to increase intelligence-sharing and limited air and ground operations in South Waziristan hitting a number of high-value targets including Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who was reportedly killed in a drone strike on 5 August.

While many observers still view Pakistan as a country entangled in jihadist militancy, the government's counterinsurgency campaign has taken centre-stage. This does not mean that the extremists are no longer in a position to pose a security risk. They are and will remain a significant threat for the foreseeable future, but the state has gained the upper hand in the struggle. It can now be argued that, contrary to the general assessments of the West, the Taliban will not be able to seize power, Pakistan will not disintegrate, there will not be another military coup, nuclear weapons will not go astray and Sharia will not become the law of the land.

Triggers for Pakistan's new counter-insurgency strategy

The most important question regarding Pakistan's progress is how the government turned the situation around, given the complex historic relationship between the country's security establishment and militant groups. They helped create the militant groups to wage a Jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan as a proxy for the US during the Cold War. This relationship, along with unfavourable public opinion, has long prevented the state from launching all-out military operations, even in the face of a growing threat to Pakistan's integrity. The Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 brought Pakistan and India near to war, at a time when the former was also facing a rampant insurgency at home.

The dual security threats from domestic insurgents and foreign jihadists, coupled with political and economic instability, created intense pressure on Pakistan. This pressure led to a consensus within the civilian and military establishment that regaining control over the militants was critical to the survival of the country. While Pakistan was trying to fulfil its obligations in the US-led War on Terror to tackle religious extremists, a number of elements moved into Al-Qa'ida's orbit.

The first challenge for Pakistan was to deal with renewed pressure from the US and defuse tensions with India in order to avoid war. This required going after the groups Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) and the Pakistani Taliban. However, the state's pre-occupation with the crisis triggered by the Mumbai attacks and consequent focus on the LeT/JuD problem provided the Pakistani Taliban time and space to further entrench themselves in the FATA and in Malakand in the NWFP.

'No alternative' to fighting Taliban rebels

Pakistan was able to ward off the threat of war with India but, in the process, the Pakistani Taliban assumed a more menacing posture. Islamabad had begun to realise that there was no alternative to fighting the Taliban rebels. Clearly, Islamabad was not capable of waging an all-out assault against the entire rebel movement, which entailed battling multiple groups in a number of theatres. A lack of consensus within the state and minimal public support meant that any all-out military offensive would only make matters worse.

Moreover, there was the risk of aggravating the situation in cases where Taliban groups that were not fighting against Islamabad could align with Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah's groups. The fear of pushing more Pashtuns into the Taliban's orbit served as a major obstacle, preventing the state from taking meaningful action beyond limited successes achieved by selective military and Frontier Corps-led security forces in the FATA's Bajaur agency. These considerations, and the need to buy time, led to negotiations with the Taliban group in Swat, resulting in the peace deal known as the Nizam-e-Adl Regulations establishing a Taliban brand of Sharia.

Excited by their victory in the Swat region, the Taliban group decided to move forward, sending its fighters into other districts of Malakand and demanding that Sharia be imposed in the entire country. The Nizam-e-Adl regulations were violated in April 2009, immediately after they were negotiated. The Taliban quickly moved to capture more territory in the adjacent area of Buner. The movement's spokesman, Muslim Khan, proclaimed that Pakistan's capital Islamabad would be captured soon. Despite this, the Pakistani army remained indecisive, because public opinion was largely against the use of military force.

At this point, however, Sufi Mohammed, a leader of the Swat Sharia movement, provoked a backlash by declaring that democracy and Islam were incompatible; that the Pakistani Constitution was un-Islamic; and that those who opposed Sharia were Kafirs (non-Muslim). He condemned the courts and accused Pakistan's other right-wing Islamic parties of being puppets. These comments did not go down well with the mainstream Pakistani Muslim population. 

Meanwhile, the suicide-bombing campaign of the Mehsud-led Pakistani Taliban targeting both the security forces and the general public in major cities like Rawalpindi and Lahore, generated widespread public anger. Both factors changed public opinion in favour of action and strengthened the military's will to launch an all-out offensive against these extremists.

'Operation Rah-i-Rast'

Consequently, in late April, the government embarked on Operation Rah-i-Rast with the goal of eliminating the Taliban's stronghold in the Swat region. Though the offensive was limited to Swat and its adjacent districts, the state took advantage of growing public opinion against the Taliban and launched a major media campaign against 'Talibanisation' that proved extremely useful. It was also very timely, as more than 2.5 million residents of the greater Swat region vacated the area, facilitating military operations.

Within a couple of months, the army successfully cleared Taliban militants from the region. Indeed, the so-called 'Swat Taliban Network' was disrupted and its war-making machine destroyed to the point where it no longer has the capability to regain control. However, the leadership is still at large, which means a low-intensity conflict will continue to simmer for sometime. Security forces are likely to remain in the area, where reportedly there are plans to build a permanent military garrison in Swat.

Alongside the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Swat and Malakand, the army's operation is being extended to South Waziristan. A large-scale offensive like that of Swat would be difficult in this area because of the nature of the terrain, coupled with its status as an autonomous region. However, selected joint air and ground attacks are continuing and are suited to eliminating the remaining hardcore of Taliban and Al-Qa'ida elements. Meanwhile, in coordination with the CIA, Pakistan's army was able to eliminate Mehsud, under whose command the Pakistani Taliban had been able to launch a broad insurgent movement throughout the FATA, large parts of the NWFP, and in parts of the core province of Punjab. Mehsud's death has badly damaged the command structure of the Pakistani Taliban.

The Way Ahead

The retaking of Swat and its subsequent benefits has meant that Pakistan has gained an important edge in its struggle against the Taliban. Though the Swat Taliban have been damaged, they have not been entirely defeated. This cannot happen until their leadership is captured or killed.  As IDPs return to the region, a massive amount of reconstruction and development work is necessary to prevent unrest that the Taliban could exploit. Restoring the authority of the state entails the re-establishment of political administration and enforcement of law and order in the region.

No doubt Mehsud's death has wounded the Taliban, but they are very much entrenched in the Waziristan region, along with Al-Qa'ida and other transnational allies. Any counter-insurgency campaign in the area is going to be more difficult than the offensive in Swat. The challenge is how Islamabad re-asserts state control over areas on its side of the border and addresses the accusations of cross-border infiltration.

Pakistani public opinion has largely turned against the Taliban, but some pockets of social and political support continue. This will require a social and political strategy aimed at the de-Talibanisation and de-radicalisation of society, winning the hearts and minds of the people. Pakistan's ability to advance ahead successfully depends on the intertwined objectives of being able to contain political instability and to improve fragile economic conditions. Although the judicial crisis ended with a promising independent judiciary, political stability remains elusive because of the country's fragmented political landscape and the weakened state of civilian institutions, including Parliament. The recent Supreme Court decision to declare former President Musharaf's November 2007 emergency decree unconstitutional has shifted responsibility for holding Mr Musharaf accountable under Article 6 of the Constitution to Parliament. Domestic political instability and external interference to save Musharraf has set off intense political polarisation in the country, which is very dangerous to the continuation of the present political arrangement. Moreover, the fragile economic condition of Pakistan presents a very gloomy picture. A loan from the IMF has helped Pakistan avoid bankruptcy, but it will not be possible to return to normality unless economic conditions begin to improve to the point where Islamabad is able to meet its chronic financial obligations. Pakistan claims the loss of $40 billion dollars for fighting the War on Terror.


Against all odds, Pakistan is trying to eliminate extremist elements from its soil and contribute as much as it can to the War on Terror. However, the main obstacle is the atmosphere of mistrust that exists between Pakistan and the West. Though this may have historical roots, it is more appropriate to attribute this to Washington's controversial policies and the very high expectations placed on Pakistan.

Many allege that the Pakistani Army and intelligence agency (ISI) are maintaining links with Al-Qai'da and Taliban militant groups to manage Afghanistan and to counter Indian influence in the region. Such claims are vehemently denied by Pakistan. Pakistan believes that it has been discriminated vis-à-vis India over civil-nuclear technology which will disturb the balance of power in the region; Indian and pro-Israel lobbies in the US are being given a free hand to defame Pakistan; its all-out efforts of counter-terrorism are being taken for granted and the US is not listening to its concerns about Indian involvement in fomenting insurgency in Balochistan.

Until this element of mutual mistrust is addressed, and Pakistan's concerns are dealt with effectively, Pakistan's commitment to eliminate terrorism and religious extremism from the region remains a distant goal. The launch of a successful military operation in Swat and Malakand is not the ultimate solution to growing extremism in the region; there is a need to devise and implement a multi-pronged social, political and economic strategy to de-radicalise society, promote political culture and stabilise the fragile economy. Pakistan's ability to move forward successfully depends on international support vis-à-vis its concerns about India, long-term commitment and sustainable engagement to improve its fragile economic conditions and strengthen its national institutions.

M. Nasrullah Mirza, PhD, teaches Defence and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad and currently he is working as Pakistan Fellow at RUSI in Whitehall, London. The write-up is based on his discussion at the FCO, London on August 25, 2009. The author can be contacted at:

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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