Pakistan’s Priority Problem

U.S. coverage of Pakistan’s spotty effort to battle extremists is understandably U.S.-centric. So we hear a lot about what Islamabad should do to contain the FATA-based Taliban who are also feeding the Afghan insurgency. Since last November’s Mumbai attacks and the subsequent unveiling of the Obama administration’s regional strategy, there’s been a bit more attention paid to India’s concerns.

But what doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves is China’s concerns about Uighur separatist terrorist groups, and Iran’s concerns about Baloch separatist terrorist groups, both also using Pakistani territory as a safe haven (both via John McCreary).

In other words, when it comes to pressuring Islamabad to take some action against terrorist groups, you’ve got to take a number and get in line. Which suggests, for me, that Islamabad’s decision to target the Swat- and Waziristan-based Taliban has more to do with its internal security calculus than a desire to satisfy U.S. demands.

Which is why I still find the idea, most recently articulated by David Kilcullen (via Andrew Exum), that Pakistan faces the “potential for extremist takeover” hyperbolic. It seems more accurate to say the “potential for government takeover” of the zones that have always remained outside its writ is unlikely, despite all the fervent wishes of its neighbors. But when pushed beyond its comfort zone, Pakistan has shown that it is capable of pushing back, and forcefully.

As for outward-directed threats — whether targeting India, Iran, China or U.S. forces in Afghanistan — in order to address them effectively, without simply redirecting them inward, Pakistan would have to engage in a counterinsurgency campaign including governance and infrastructure development that I’m not sure it’s capable of. So if the will to rein these groups in doesn’t seem to be there, it could be because the ability might not exist either.

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