Efforts in Pakistan to address the internal threat from insurgents are repeatedly undermined by the absence of a national consensus on who the enemy is and a lack of capacity to implement solutions even where agreement exists, according to Moeed Yusuf, USIP’s director of South Asia programs.

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“The civil-military disconnect and the disjointed policy space seems to hinder every attempt at overcoming the problem,” Yusuf said during a recent panel discussion at the Institute on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in Pakistan and South Asia. “The challenges keep growing, while the state keeps trying to put its house in order.”

The argument forms the basis of a recently published book edited by Yusuf, Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Challenge (Georgetown University Press). The volume presents insights from policy experts on Pakistan’s ability to address violence by Islamist groups.  Yusuf discussed the issues and another book, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in South Asia (USIP Press), on a panel last week with former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, ex-Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Lavoy and General John Allen, the former commander of U.S. - and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.

“The growth of extremism, terrorism and insurgency in Pakistan is one of the most alarming developments in the past 10 years in that particular region,” Allen said. “It could possibly be the most alarming development globally.”

On a regional level, authors of the counterinsurgency book explored non-violent approaches to preventing, mitigating and resolving conflict in four South Asian countries – India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The researchers found little indication of holistic approaches in any of the countries. Yusuf also said that talks between government authorities and insurgents don’t seem to succeed unless a clear winner is apparent.

But the threat in Pakistan remains severe. USIP Vice President for South and Central Asia Andrew Wilder cited findings from the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies to illustrate the impact of such violence.

“Militant insurgents and violent sectarian groups carried out a total of 1,717 attacks across Pakistan in 2013,” Wilder said at the April 23 event. The attacks “claimed the lives of 2,451 people and caused injuries to another 5,438.”

In response to this threat, the government of Pakistan released its National Internal Security Policy in February, the first strategy of its kind aimed at consolidating bureaucracies within the country’s national security architecture to more effectively target the extremist threat. Yet the debate over military engagement in the insurgent hub of North Waziristan and elsewhere continues to rage, as does the dispute over whether Pakistan should focus more on the potential threat from its historical adversary India.

“Pakistan lacks a shared national vision as to who threatens the state and society and what state and society should do to address this,” said Lavoy, who served until earlier this year as assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific and now is a partner at the consulting firm Monitor 360. “Each of the state institutions has differentiated and poorly coordinated guidance and laws and regulations that allow it to act.”

A key factor in Pakistan, as elsewhere in similar situations, is the benefit that elites derive from the perpetuation of the extremist infrastructure or militancy, Lavoy said.

“Extremism, militancy and terrorism often do serve elite interests in many countries,” Lavoy said. “Certainly that is the case in Pakistan.”

However, the most crucial finding among the authors in the counterterrorism book is that the lack of capabilities in the Pakistani institutions that do exist “is now so overwhelming that, even if all the other pieces were in place and Pakistan were going for all of the militant groups that exist on its territory, you don’t have the capacity at this point to target them simultaneously, whether through a military operation or other broader policies,” Yusuf said.

Yusuf specifically cited agreement among the experts that Pakistan’s police and criminal justice system could be “the No. 1 game changers” for a sustainable peace. It has become clear, especially in the country’s northwest that, beyond military operations, “if you don’t have police and the criminal justice piece in place, you’re not going to get to sustainable peace,” he said.

Likewise, Pakistan’s internal policy debates have also been compounded by lingering uncertainty regarding how the drawdown of US and NATO troops will play out in the Afghan theater, and what impact international disengagement will have on the future stability of the region.

The border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan is beset by an “increasingly capable syndicate operation” involving three main militant groups – Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), the Haqqani network and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Allen said. He warned that the toxic combination in this operational environment will be “especially dangerous” for Afghanistan as U.S. draws down its forces by the end of this year.

Moving forward, Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from October 2013 to July 2012, urged that policymakers “demystify” views of Pakistan and determine with whom American leaders can work to develop a more coordinated and longer-term agenda in the region.

Disagreement over the approach to Pakistan in Washington over the years has hampered the ability at both ends to shape an effective strategy, the speakers at the USIP event agreed, leaving policy makers with a disparate and uncoordinated strategy and Pakistan at odds with violent military groups.

“We need to reassess what is possible in the post-2014 period,” Munter said. He called for realistic goals that do not “overburden” institutions and that are more focused on long-term impact, including engaging regional players such as India and Saudi Arabia.

Still, Lavoy highlighted points of progress in Pakistan. He argued that the military has successfully fought the insurgency in western Pakistan and that it has begun to integrate military technology against militants for more decisive operations, including using F-16s with night radar capabilities. Likewise, Pakistan has also made major improvements to its policing and legal infrastructure.

Ultimately, “throughout South Asia and all of these countries, the underlying patterns of incomplete nation building projects, weak states, fragile democracies and the primacy that governments put on conflict with other states over an emphasis on prosperity and peace” have created a unique climate for terrorism in South Asia, he said. This legacy will be reversed when South Asian states prioritize peace and prosperity over conflict, he said.

Amy Calfas is an administrative assistant in USIP’s Center for South and Central Asia.

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