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On al-Qaeda, fundamentalism and the threat of Pakistan

The world is in a state of flux. Even as a complex multi-sided war rages in Syria, the so-called Islamic State is slowly being ground into the dust by a coalition. The question then becomes, 'what next?'

The slow defeat of one organisation does not preclude the rise of another. The old enemy of Britain and the US, al-Qaeda is still intact in Pakistan, undoubtedly biding its time. It has proven to be both resilient and lucky. The core leadership including Ayman al-Zawahiri is likely beyond the reach of American drones while the war on IS has enabled it to slip somewhat under the radar. This dangerous situation is worsened by the setbacks in Afghanistan where al-Qaeda ally the Taliban look set to reclaim vast swathes of the country, following NATO’s drawdown. Preventing the return to prominence of al-Qaeda is vital, as it gains from the defeat of IS. The key to this is to find new ways to manage the ‘duplicitous’ so-called ‘ally’ of the West, Pakistan which harbours much of al-Qaeda. The US Senate recently held hearings on Pakistan in which it was labelled ‘duplicitous’ and a supporter of terrorism. This will form one of the key challenges for Mrs May and the likely winner of the US election, Mrs Clinton, in the coming years. No option must be taken off the table- al-Qaeda will certainly not be reticent to strike again.

The incubation of a host of dangerous terrorist groups by the Pakistani state has destabilised the region and the world. No longer can this be dismissed as merely a problem of India. The killing of the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour in Pakistan earlier this year simply underscores the reality of what the Indians, Afghans and a handful of outspoken American officials have maintained for years. The Pakistani Army has long given shelter and support for terrorist groups. The feared Haqqani network, an extremist organisation described as a mix of al-Qaeda and the Sopranos by US intelligence continues to operate out of Pakistan with impunity. It is allied to al-Qaeda and the Taliban and will certainly return the latter to prominence should it gain control of much of Afghanistan. It has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks on Western soldiers in Afghanistan. Even supposedly India centric groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba have begun to attack the West.

To be sure, American policy toward Pakistan is also at an inflection point. The possibility of declaring Pakistan a terrorist state and imposing harsh sanctions on it were publicly raised by the US Senate. In fact on September 21 2016 a bill to formally declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism was tabled in the American Congress. This is not a realistic option in the final two months of President Obama’s time in office. It will constrain his successor too much. However- she- will then have important decisions to make on handling the issue. Mrs Clinton has been outspoken on Pakistan in the past, expressing deep distrust of it.’ Her instincts are closer to that of the neoconservatives than that of either Barack Obama or her husband. The question of who in the Pakistani military knew of bin Laden’s location and helped him hide has never been made public. It is not unlikely that Hillary Clinton could opt for hot pursuit into Pakistan outside the tribal areas to eliminate groups such as Haqqani.

I worry sometimes that the impact of US-Pakistan relations on British society is not properly being factored in or considered. If there is another 9/11 type event in America traced back to Pakistan all bets are off. The US will demand to put troops inside Pakistan to secure it – whether Pakistan wants them there or not. Britain’s leverage over America in such an event would be close to nil. The use of American ground troops to collapse Pakistan would have significant repercussions on UK social cohesion and terrorism in Britain itself. Much more than British foreign policy is at stake here, and is far from just a remote danger. President Obama, not known as a right wing hawk, prepared a limited ground incursion into Pakistan in November 2011 to eliminate the Haqqanis, only pulling his troops back due to political considerations.

What does the future hold in terms of Pakistan? The world has tolerated the perfidy of the Pakistani state, having seen the disaster of the Iraq war unfold and with no desire to see it repeated again. Recent events suggest that this is unlikely to continue. The movement of the public across the West to the Right, culminating in the rise of the far right neo-Nazi AfD in Germany has given some insight into the political impact of Islamic extremism. Pakistan is one of the key centres of that extremism. There are a number of scenarios going forward which I envisage. The status quo could continue but that would not sit well with a public that is no longer willing to tolerate extremism. The US and the West could impose general sanctions on Pakistan, but by itself this will not yield the defeat of al-Qaeda. However sending ground troops into Pakistan would precipitate the nightmare scenario of Pakistan’s collapse followed by its’ nuclear weapons falling into the hands of extremists.

I believe there is a fourth option, not too risky yet significantly better than doing nothing. This is a hybrid of personal sanctions on Pakistan’s corrupt military elite and limited military action. The UK can play a very constructive role here – prevent Pakistan’s military men from being able to enter foreign countries with travel sanctions, freeze their bank accounts and deny their families the right to safe haven. The knowledge that they personally are being targeted will shake their confidence and make it greatly more likely that they will acquiesce – however reluctantly – to allow al-Qaeda and Haqqani leaders to be hunted by drones and Special Forces well outside the tribal areas. This can fatally undermine al-Qaeda central in Pakistan and its pernicious ideology- the same ideology which spawned IS.

The relationship between the West and Pakistan is teetering. Events from here on in will dictate the course of policy. Britain needs to be proactive in encouraging change in Pakistan, even by ostracism and sanctions. Al-Qaeda may not be deterred and will strike the West again from Pakistan, if only to displace IS as the number one jihadi ‘brand’, unless it is defeated as promptly as IS. The alternatives are frightening, with considerable repercussions for London. The fight against terrorism will be decided much more by what happens from now then what has happened up to now.

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