Pakistan's Madrassa Attack

Though military force demonstrates Pakistan's resolve to its Western allies, it is not always the best course of action for weakening jihadists.

Pakistan launched its helicopter attack Monday on a madrassa after the clerics there ignored a directive from Islamabad to shift its operations from jihad training to Islamic education. Faced with this direct challenge, the Pakistani government might have looked the other way-as it has done with similar parts of the terrorist infrastructure-with this madrassa, which was run in the village of Chingai in the Bajaur agency of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (BATA).

But in this case, there would be the diplomatic cost of refusing to use U.S.-provided intelligence regarding the use of the "school" for jihadi training. And the attack can be seen as a response to extensive criticism of the Pakistani "peace treaty" in Waziristan that has left the Taliban and Al Qaeda free to devote more resources to cross-border attacks. Still, using military force this way may have been counter-productive. What would be more effective-though less kinetic-is the more difficult task of tracking down and ending Pakistani training, recruitment and financial operations for jihad within Afghanistan. The United States and NATO must make clear to Pakistan that it must take effective-if less dramatic-moves to close down the infrastructure of terrorism in that country.

The attack on the madrassa follows other high-profile uses of the Pakistani military in the war against terror, including the commitment of troops to Waziristan against the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies, which led to the widely criticized Waziristan "peace treaty". These actions give the Pakistani government something to show Washington and its NATO allies: its troops are also fighting and taking casualties. But the reported deaths of 80 would-be Kalashnikov-carriers did little to contribute to security in Afghanistan-even though fugitive cleric Maulana Liaquat Hussain, who operated the madrassa to train cross-border terrorists and dispense Islamic indoctrination, was among them. Another Pakistani religious radical leader, Fakir Mohammed, reportedly narrowly avoided the attack. Al Qaeda number two, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was said to be a frequent visitor. But attacking the leadership through air attacks can only be a small part of what is needed from Pakistan. 

The refusal of Liqauat Hussain and his allies to challenge the Pakistani government rather than accommodate it shows that the terrorists that Islamabad has allowed to wage a cross-border offensive into Afghanistan are not interested in a deal with Pakistan-either on the question of a single madrassa or on broader peace treaties, such as in Waziristan. Such treaties at least give Pakistan the chance to quietly reassert its control of a region and, indeed, a similar agreement for the Bajaur Agency had been reported to be imminent before the attack.

To be effective, Pakistan does not need to emphasize high-intensity military operations. In some cases, as in the Pakistani army's move against narcotics cultivation in 1987, military action has proven effective. But information rather than firepower is critical if backed up by understanding and the willingness to use it. The Pakistani army's deployment to Waziristan proved less effective than using the process by which Pakistan, like the British, had indirectly kept control.

Most often, in the short term it is the quiet game played between reasonable yet ruthless men-involving offers of subsidies and whispered threats of humiliation-that will prevail. In the longer term, it is including tribal areas in the recreation of civil society and democracy that will consolidate authority from Islamabad. It is also important to show the inhabitants of this region a picture of success across the Durand Line in Afghanistan as a model, with fellow Pushtu-speakers able to live in a multiethnic country that reconciles democracy and Islam and enjoys the support of the international community.  This is one of the reasons why the backers of transnational jihad need to prevail in Afghanistan.

"You cannot harness a snake" goes a Pathan proverb. By tolerating and using terrorists in its Afghanistan policy, the government of Pakistan was trying to do just that. That policy has failed spectacularly time and again over the past decades, since it is difficult-if not impossible-to harness a force that would just as readily strike out at the government in Islamabad as in Kabul.

David C. Isby is a Washington-based author and consultant on national security and foreign policy issues and a frequent visitor to South Asia.  Books he has written include: Russia's War in Afghanistan, War in a Distant Country, and Afghanistan:  The Russian Empire at High Tide.