Why We Shouldn’t Take the State Department’s Terrorism Report on Pakistan at Face Value

Pakistan Humanitarian Aid

We know that Washington is very worried about Pakistan’s terrorism problem. This is clear from public statements, intelligence estimates, and travel warnings.

And yet the State Department’s latest annual global terrorism report is remarkably muted in its expressions of concern about Pakistan. Generalists—and non-Pakistan specialists—may conclude that all is not so bad in the militancy-ravaged country after all.

Alas, that would be the wrong conclusion. Pakistan’s terrorism problem remains very serious indeed, and the report understates this seriousness. In particular, it minimizes the threat of Pakistan’s sectarian violence, and it minimizes Pakistan’s troubled record on law enforcement responses to terrorism more generally.

Minimizing the threat of sectarian violence

References in the report to this form of terrorism—violence directed against Pakistani Shias, Christians, Hindus, and other religious minorities—are relatively limited in number and subdued in tone. The focus is largely on other forms of terrorism—mainly violence directed against the state. In the report’s main Pakistan section, we are told only that terrorist groups have “engaged in sectarian violence” (with a few passing references to terrorist attacks on religious minorities). The only time Pakistan’s sectarian terrorism is discussed with any great urgency anywhere in the report is in a “Key Terrorism Trends in 2013” box. Global terrorism, it says, “was increasingly fueled by sectarian motives, marking a worrisome trend, particularly in Syria, but also in Lebanon and Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s sectarian terrorism is more than “worrisome;” it is downright terrifying. Religious minorities are routinely targeted at home and at work, at their centers of worship, in marketplaces and recreation centers, and on public transport. The nearly 700 sectarian killings in 2013—the year covered by the report—marked a 22 percent increase from 2012. Last year, prominent Pakistani commentators even described the anti-Shia Muslim dimensions of sectarian terrorism as “genocide.”

Sectarian militancy enjoys broad reach in Pakistan. Its most vicious practitioner, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, has staged attacks in all four Pakistani provinces. Unlike the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is neither degraded by counter-militancy offensives nor undermined by internal fractures. Additionally, Pakistani public opinion demonstrates considerable support for the underlying views of sectarian extremists. In a recent poll, more than 40 percent said Shias are not Muslims.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani state has institutionalized sect-based discrimination. The country’s second constitutional amendment explicitly states that Ahmadis, another minority sect of Islam, are non-Muslims. Not surprisingly, few laws protect religious minorities; instead, blasphemy laws are used to persecute and prosecute them (last summer, when a Pakistani Christian was sentenced to life in prison for denigrating the Prophet Mohammed, he became one of nearly 40 Pakistanis sentenced to death or life in prison for alleged blasphemy). For all these reasons, to simply say that terrorists “engaged in sectarian violence” misses the bigger story.

Minimizing Pakistan’s troubling record on law enforcement responses

There is another bigger story that the report misses: Pakistan’s ineffective state response—on a law enforcement level—to terrorism more broadly (and not just of a sectarian nature). Consider this curious comment: “Pakistan continued to arrest terrorists and initiate prosecutions throughout 2013.”

This is not inaccurate; Pakistan was indeed arresting and prosecuting terrorists last year—including Malik Ishaq, the leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Yet the statement is misleading, because it fails to note that so many terrorists who get arrested and/or imprisoned are eventually set free. Last year, Pakistan’s government admitted that it has freed nearly 2,000 terrorists since 2007, and that more than 700 of them rejoined terrorist groups (Ishaq, in fact, was released from prison last month). Of course, other terrorists in Pakistan—including Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafeez Saeed—have spent little, if any, time behind bars. In 2013, Saeed spoke at public rallies and even gave an interview to the New York Times.

Why is Pakistan’s justice system so lenient toward militants? The report correctly cites intimidation against witnesses, police, lawyers, and judges. Yet it neglects to mention another key factor: ideological sympathy from those inside the system. To be sure, many brave Pakistani lawyers and judges defend the most vulnerable and pursue the most dangerous. Nonetheless, this is a nation where radicalization is spreading through society like wildfire. Predictably, some legal professionals sympathize with the very militants they are meant to go after. Pakistani lawyers have garlanded Mumtaz Qadri, the man who assassinated the governor of Punjab province in 2011, during court appearances. A photograph recently circulated on Twitter purportedly shows Qadri being warmly embraced by a lawyer who is now an Islamabad High Court judge (in recent days, however, some have insisted that this lawyer in the photo is actually someone else, and not the current Islamabad judge).

Another disturbing law enforcement trend not mentioned in the report is the tendency of Pakistani police officers to literally stand by as vulnerable citizens are attacked, often fatally. This happened most recently last month while a woman was bludgeoned to death by her family outside—of all places—the Lahore High Court building. And it happened last year as a marauding mob rampaged through a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, burning down homes and seizing valuables.

To be fair, the report is no whitewash. It mentions uncomfortable facts, including the wide range of Pakistani terrorist organizations and their targets. It also highlights the militants from around the globe who continue to converge on Pakistan—even as media reports last year focused on Syria as the newest destination of choice for the world’s jihadists. The report levels criticism on the government in Islamabad as well—from its slow progress in implementing national security reforms and in countering terrorist financing, to its lack of action taken against the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network. Additionally, “portions of” the tribal areas and of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces are described as terrorist safe havens. Still, these amount to relatively modest critiques.

A Desire for Tactfulness

It’s easy to explain the kid-gloves approach. The report was produced by the U.S. government’s chief diplomatic agency, which understandably prefers to speak of Pakistan as a partner and ally. Contrast this with elected officials on Capitol Hill, who in recent years have likened Pakistan to a “rat hole,” or with Defense Department leaders, who have openly described the Haqqani network as “a veritable arm of the ISI,” Pakistan’s main spy agency.

The State Department has no desire to ruffle feathers in Islamabad—particularly this year, with Washington in great need of Pakistan’s cooperation as it attempts an orderly military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, cooperation with Pakistan is a common theme throughout the report. The Pakistan section lists various joint counterterrorism initiatives, from efforts to safeguard the U.S. embassy and consulates in Pakistan to meetings on regional security. There’s also a separate section called “Support for Pakistan”—a feature that has made consecutive appearances in the report over the last few years. It details Washington’s military and economic collaborations with Islamabad, including a five-year civilian assistance package—authorized by Congress in 2009 and known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill—that expires at the end of this year.

This all makes good strategic sense. Washington would be silly not to pursue cooperation with a populous, volatile, nuclear-armed nation that straddles the Middle East and Asia, and that counts Beijing and Riyadh as chief backers. Likewise, provoking Pakistan about its terrorism problem wouldn’t make for good politics.

Still, given the threat that Pakistani and Pakistan-based terrorists pose to Americans and their interests abroad, a fuller and more accurate picture of Pakistan’s terrorism environment would have been useful—and particularly for generalists. In the interest of the truth, it sometimes pays to be a bit undiplomatic.


Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.


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