As facts unfold in the Times Square incident, we quickly learn that terrorism training and execution has no geographical boundaries. Terror suspect Faisal Shahzad oscillated back and forth between the US and his native Pakistan for educational advancement, marital bonds, and bomb making skills, until he finally used his training to launch a foiled terror attack in New York City. Since the realities on the ground in the tribal regions of Pakistan directly impact US national security, we need to employ every possible tool to ensure their counterinsurgency operation is successful. As of yet, both the US and Pakistan are underutilizing a valuable resource in that effort.
The international community needs to form a strategic alliance with the traditional Muslim community as a bulwark to the terrorists. Specifically, it is the network of traditional mainstream Muslims known as the ASJ [an acronym for Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamā’ah] who are amongst the most respected community leaders, clerics and activists. They wield considerable influence, even in the troubled frontier, which is otherwise inaccessible to outsiders. For decades, the ASJ have been primary providers of social services and education throughout the country and are a vital resource for mobilizing the population at the grassroots level.
This influence on the ground in Pakistan is what can have a sustainable and long-lasting impact in thwarting terrorism on the ground in Times Square, London or any other critical city.
ASJ leaders are naturally positioned to counter radical ideologies but they need international support and recognition. Notwithstanding the disparate odds facing the ASJ, their various groups and leaders have come together to launch a campaign to save their districts from militants, and save Pakistan from disintegration. Recently, when the army launched offensives in Swat and Buner, it was the ASJ networks of leaders and clerics they turned to for support, knowing that they would influence grassroots public opinion in favor of military action. ASJ are also actively engaged in building pressure on the Pakistan government to get take concrete steps against the extremists.
As news reports surface that targeted killings have restarted in the Swat Valley, previously declared free of Al Qaeda/Taliban operatives, analysts everywhere ask themselves how the government can accomplish the Counter Insurgency (COIN) objectives to “hold and build” territory once military operations have “cleared” an area. The ASJ networks in Pakistan are particularly important for this purpose. Their institutions and their leadership are the most ideally placed. On one hand, given their institutional capacity and legitimacy in even the most remote areas, ASJ social welfare organizations are amongst the most effective providers of social services, particularly in post-crisis zones. On the other hand, as religious leaders, the ASJ can best counter extremist interpretations and ideologies while providing an authentic, alternative religious paradigm that is palatable to local populations.
Despite the atrocities committed by the Jihadists, previous analysts have failed to accurately recognize the link between the continuation of the conflict and the lack of support the ASJ receives from local and international players. Overlooked and underutilized as potential partners in countering radicalization and stabilizing the region, ASJ lack the resources necessary to compete with the well organized and well funded militant groups. When outnumbered and outgunned by the extremists, ASJ leaders either cede control of their social network or move out of the region. If they could be strengthened, they could curb the Talibanisation of Pakistan and prevent young men like Shahzad from going there to learn how to kill Americans.
Unfortunately, the ASJ is being weakened. The public attention and efforts to court “soft” Taliban groups in order to mitigate the violence and community support for the more radical Taliban factions will backfire in the long run. Though seemingly expedient in the short term, such support only further emboldens the extremists to oppress the more moderate ASJ leaders and to demand imposition of their draconian interpretations of shari’a law (sacred law of Islam) in areas under their hegemony. In other words temporary physical security is gained – but at the cost of freedom of expression, women’s rights and a future for Pakistan that is compatible with the modern free world.
A more effective counter-radicalization program is one that presents the Taliban recruits with an alternative religious paradigm rather than a mild form of the very dogma which was responsible for encouraging them into violence in the first place. Traditional ASJ Islam has increasingly proven to be the most effective and authentic, alternative paradigm.
We are witnessing numerous counter-insurgency operations not only in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, but in other countries such as Yemen, Somalia and even Thailand. The social-political circumstances in each case are strikingly similar, and require common elements for success: forging partnerships with the traditional, cultural and religious networks that until now have been ignored as part of the sustainable solution.
It is essential that U.S. policymakers learn the reality of what transpires in cities and villages across Pakistan not only to properly understand that particular country, but because our national security depends on it.