With the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks just a day away, fears about another assault on the homeland weigh heavily on American minds. When an earthquake shook Washington late last month, many here initially assumed a bomb blast, not a tectonic shift. These concerns about terrorism on US soil invariably involve Pakistan. Pakistani-terrorists-in-our-midst anxieties already engulf the American imagination; a popular television series, Covert Affairs, recently featured an episode in which Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives are pursued in the United States.
One understands what drives such fears. Over a period of less than two years, a Pakistani-American attempted to blow up Times Square after reportedly training at a terrorist camp in Pakistan; a Chicago taxi driver of Pakistani origin claiming to know the late Ilyas Kashmiri allegedly discussed bombing an American stadium; two Pakistani-Americans from Virginia were detained in Pakistan for planning attacks on US troops in Afghanistan; and, most recently, a Pakistan-born Virginia resident was charged with providing material support to the LeT by creating a propaganda video on the group’s behalf. However, this all conveniently ignores a notable fact: very few successful attacks on America have been planned or perpetrated by Pakistanis or Pakistani-Americans, or by anyone based in Pakistan. (These include a 1993 attack on CIA headquarters carried out by a Pakistani gunman and 9/11, which involved several hijackers who were housed and trained in Karachi, according to the 9/11 Commission Report.)
Perhaps, a more likely country to be associated with a future strike on America is Yemen. It is the sanctuary of US-born cleric Anwar alAwlaki, who has been linked to the 9/11 hijackers, the gunman who waged a shooting spree on Texas’ Fort Hood army base, and the infamous ‘underwear bomber’ (who attempted to blow up a US-bound airliner). Additionally, Washington identifies the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a greater threat to Americans than the network’s Pakistan-based central leadership. Nevertheless, terror talk continues to centre around Pakistan. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned that an attack on the United States “traced to be Pakistani” would inflict a “very devastating impact” on the bilateral relationship. Some observers, in fact, have identified this scenario as the one contingency that could topple the troubled relationship altogether.
Or maybe not. Consider a new report by the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, which assesses how the US government should respond to this contingency. What emerges from the study is not a raft of punitive policy recommendations, but rather a relentless emphasis on doing all that is necessary to keep the relationship afloat, even if subjected to its toughest test. Washington, writes the report’s author, Stephen Tankel, “must ensure that responses do not cause irreparable harm to relations with Pakistan or destabilise it in ways that are harmful to US interests”. The report declares that a rupture in relations is not an option and insists that the harshest possible measures — isolating Pakistan, expanding drone strikes, executing ‘direct action raids’ — be treated only as a last resort.
What constitute US measures of first resort? They include demanding that Pakistan launch crackdowns against the responsible militants, if known (according to Tankel, they would most likely represent the Tehreek-i-Taliban); cooperate with the FBI; and authorise an increased presence of US Special Forces in Fata — not exactly unprecedented demands from Washington. Under a worst-case scenario — in which ‘official culpability’ is determined — the report calls not for an ending of ties, but simply for ‘a purge’ of the relevant entity. Another telling recommendation is that Washington impresses upon New Delhi its preference that India should not try to capitalise on the situation. The takeaway from this report is clear. No challenge — even a potential game changer — can be allowed to derail, much less destroy, the bilateral relationship. This conclusion crystallises an argument that may well carry the day in Washington in the months and even years ahead: Pakistan truly is too big to fail. So while the threat of a Pakistan-linked attack on US soil may be exaggerated, the assumption that such a strike would shatter US-Pakistan ties may be an even greater overstatement.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2011.