A public backlash against the Pakistani Taliban after a December attack in northwestern Pakistan that killed 134 children has raised hopes that the country’s government and military might finally muster the political will to tackle terrorism and violent extremism. U.S. Institute of Peace Director of Pakistan and South Asia Programs Moeed Yusuf considers the odds in the face of Pakistan’s deteriorating relations with India on the eastern border and a new, though divided government in a still-shaky Afghanistan to the west.

Haji Hazrat prays on the fringe of a makeshift camp in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Afghan refugees say they are being forced to return to their homeland after a terrorist attack on a school in Pakistan fueled a new wave of resentment against them. The New York Times/Andrew Quilty
Photo courtesy of NY Times/Andrew Quilty

Peace Predictions: USIP Experts Consider the Year Ahead

What has been the effect of the Taliban attack that killed those children at the Army School in Peshawar?

It’s a psychological game changer. I haven’t seen the Pakistani nation and state move in the way that they did after Peshawar. There have been many Peshawars before. It’s been a U-turn in the civilian government’s tone. They’ve been much more forthcoming – “We’re going to turn the corner here, this is going to be do or die now,” etc., which you never got from them before. And there is now a tremendous amount of pressure on the government and the military to actually see this process through to its logical conclusion.

Does this really mean that Pakistan’s government will turn its forces against terrorism or just those groups targeting the state?

I would argue the latter. It’s against the Pakistani Taliban. It’s against al-Qaida. It’s against any sort of presence of the group calling itself the Islamic State, though we don’t know much about their activities in Pakistan at the moment.

What kinds of tactics is the Pakistani government and military likely to use?

The next six- to eight months are going to involve a heavy-handed, concerted strategy going after the terrorists the officials think are coming after Pakistan and the Pakistani state. You’ve got military courts, you’ve got controversial constitutional amendments that have allowed the state much more space to take action than they’ve had before. They’re talking about regulating the media to exert more control over what officials would deem dangerous expression. It’s everything that bruised nations do as knee-jerk, emotive actions. You’re going to find much more use of military and law-enforcement power in Pakistan over the next six- to eight months. It is too early to tell if it will deliver, and it will not be easy by any stretch of the imagination.

Can Pakistan’s notoriously divisive civilian and military authorities unite in the face of this threat?

I think the civilians and the military will stay on the same page on this for the time being. Right now it is very difficult to actually have a dissenting opinion against what the state is doing. But we’ve seen this movie before. Pakistan went after the Taliban in the Swat Valley when the militants took over that region in 2008-2009, and the military cleared that area. All of what you hear now you heard then. But that was the first and last major operation than the General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Army chief of staff at the time, was able to conduct. I think the deal breaker will be significant terrorist backlash in Pakistani cities. If that occurs, you’ll see political leaders wanting to distance themselves from it while the military would want them to take the blame.

How helpful or harmful is Pakistan likely to be this year on developments in neighboring Afghanistan?

Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan has changed, but not because Pakistan has now decided that Afghanistan needs to be peaceful. It’s because Pakistan has won the tactical round so far, and it’s at a point where the Pakistan military feels it wants to be – not outside the room where decisions are made, and not feeling threatened either by an extensive presence of India in Afghanistan or by long-term American military bases there. The incentives for Pakistan to now try and work with Afghanistan for the first time align with Afghanistan’s interest in having Pakistan rein in the Haqqani network and the Taliban. This is also the first time they can truly talk bilaterally.

What is the U.S. role in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations at this point?

My understanding from Pakistan at least is that the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan have agreed on specific deliverables over the next six- to eight months from all sides, with certain timelines. The Pakistani intelligence chief has already been in Afghanistan several times. The Afghanistan security chief was in Islamabad for a meeting in which I think they really were talking specifics. It’s the best hope for these two sides to solve their problems. As for the U.S. role in the talks between the two sides, with Afghan and Pakistani authorities  now on a positive bilateral track, Washington has the luxury to be in the room,  mainly to ensure that any promises are realistic rather than taking on the lead role, which has often caused concerns in Islamabad.  

Does the government on each side of that border actually have the control it needs to make good on such deals?

I don’t really believe Pakistan has the clout over the Quetta-based Taliban to actually deliver them in a way the Afghanistan government wants. And Pakistan is still hedging on the Afghan Taliban in case Afghanistan collapses. Also, there’s a question about whether Afghanistan can actually do much more about the safe havens on its side of the border than it has to date. So I hope that they’re keeping their goals and expectations realistic. Unrealistic expectations are the single biggest danger for their current efforts.

What’s the likely direction of Pakistan’s relations with India this year?

India-Pakistan relations are deteriorating at a pace much faster than many expected. There have been two or three very troubling developments. The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have decided that local politics is more important than policy with Pakistan, so they are not going to give concessions such as what the preceding government initiated. Modi’s national security team is very hawkish on Pakistan. Secondly, the delays in completing the Most Favored Nation trade agreement between the two countries has given space for opponents of the accord in Pakistan, including the military. And finally, Pakistan is not showing any signs of moving in earnest against the anti-India militant groups on its soil. This combination doesn’t leave much room for optimism. I think you can expect these two sides to talk from time to time – but nothing more for the foreseeable future.

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