Among the many lessons the United States may have gleaned from the story of failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, the one that may be hardest to absorb, is that America’s Pakistan problem is getting worse, not better, on President Obama’s watch. Since he took office in January 2009, there is seemingly nothing the administration hasn’t tried in its effort to contain the threat of terrorism coming from Pakistan. It has tried anger, kindness, money and love. Its desperation is palpable, with Hillary Clinton once again left to be the bad cop, sternly warning Pakistan of "severe consequences" if a successful attack is ever traced to it.
Pakistanis may be forgiven for being unmoved. They have stared severe consequences in the face for nearly four years. The terror campaign of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—the group implicated in Shahzad’s training, according to US Attorney General Eric Holder—hit high gear in 2007. Since then, the economy has tanked, long overdue reforms have slowed (but, thankfully, not stopped) and social tensions have grown. Worst of all, TTP and associated terrorist groups have killed some 10,000 Pakistani citizens and soldiers. If anyone is more desperate for answers in Pakistan than Hillary Clinton and the US government, it is ordinary Pakistanis.
Drones from the sky and Pakistan artillery from below are fulfilling their mission to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda." But they are also creating a new, more decentralized and dispersed terrorist threat. Civilian deaths—"collateral damage" from US drones and Pakistani military operations—are feeding into a narrative that pins the primary responsibility for Pakistan’s troubles on America. That logic may be a fallacy, and Faisal Shahzad might be leading investigators astray. Emerging details about Shahzad’s radicalization, however, are revealing.
According to reports, his rage was sparked in part by civilian deaths from US drone attacks. "They shouldn’t be shooting people from the sky. You know, they should come down and fight," Shahzad told his Connecticut neighbor Dennis Flanner about a year ago. By the fall, Shahzad had quit his job and flown to Pakistan, where, during his five-month visit, there were thirty-one US drone attacks, almost all targeted at the North Waziristan sanctuary of the TTP, Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network. Interestingly, a drone strike on February 2—the day before Shahzad arrived back in the States—was the only recent attack that has caused a large number of nonmilitant, and possibly civilian casualties, according to the New America Foundation database.
Although by the end of 2009 the accuracy of the drones had been much improved, it has made little difference to mainstream opinion in Pakistan. There is frustration and anger and helplessness at being squeezed between the brutality of Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists and the clumsiness of Pakistani and US efforts to eliminate those terrorists.
Administration officials and US military commanders have for several years been pressing Pakistan to expand its operations into the North Waziristan region. If rumors of Shahzad having been trained in North Waziristan turn out to be true, it will matter little that he was one of the worst-trained terrorists on record. Pakistan will experience unprecedented pressure to scrap agreements with militant groups in the area and launch new military operations there—with potentially deadly consequences. Pakistani military boots-on-the-ground there, however, are even more reviled than US drone attacks. Military operations by Pakistan reportedly take a much larger toll on civilian life and property than the drones. They also exact much less damage on terrorists than the drones.
For more than 150 years FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), in North Waziristan and beyond, have been governed by a strange cocktail of tribal tradition, Pakhtun collective will and the corruption of British and, later, Pakistani bureaucrats. The Wild West ecosystem of FATA is what enabled it to be used as a staging area for the Mujahedeen as they brought down the Soviet machine in the 1980s. Today, the urgency to resolve threats from FATA to US and Pakistani lives is real. That urgency should not, however, cloud rational linear judgment. The mess in FATA has taken 150 years to create. It will not be cleaned up in accordance with the Obama administration’s midterm election priorities. Nor will it follow the timetable that Obama sets for Afghanistan.
Pakistani reformers have been talking for years about the need to bring FATA under Pakistan’s Constitution. They’ve talked about better anti-terror legislation and dramatically higher funding for police and prosecution services. They’ve talked about a judiciary that is as active on terrorism as it is on other injustices in Pakistani society. The United States has been trying to invest in projects that will help Pakistan, through education, infrastructure and a more robust economy.
US assistance is a good thing. But it is not the silver bullet that so many in the Obama administration think it is. It can complement Pakistani reform efforts, but it can’t substitute for them. Trying to buy reform in Pakistan with US taxpayer money is not buying reform at all. It is buying the acquiescence of the Pakistani elite to gingerly get on board Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s "clear, hold, build" counterinsurgency train. That train seems to be successful only in repeatedly clearing. Holding and building in FATA is a Pakistani responsibility. As long as the perverse incentives of money and General McChrystal’s loving embrace continue to drive the US-Pakistan relationship, the Pakistani military and political elite will continue to shirk that responsibility.