If Pakistani terrorists strike America

Published: September 9, 2011
The writer is South Asia programme associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC

The writer is South Asia programme associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC

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.

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Reader Comments (34)

  • zubair shah
    Sep 9, 2011 - 9:55PM

    your assessment appeared nauanced and balanced and your optimism is well placed with your ambition and some career goals to achieve an aura of a respected scholar on Pakistan, however if Pakistani terrorists ever strike America, gods forbid, that would be end of Pakistani state as we know it. it doesn’t mean the US would obliterate Pakistan rather it would definitely tinker in Pakistani power structure in a way to dismantle the dubious Pakistani state as the West looks at it today.


  • Cautious
    Sep 9, 2011 - 10:09PM

    America’s response may depend on how much damage and who exactly was responsible. If significant American lives are lost at the hand of one of the groups that America thinks Pakistan is protecting – then all bets are off – Obama is running for election and doesn’t have the gumption to stand up to an enraged public.


  • Sinclair
    Sep 9, 2011 - 10:14PM

    What kind of people are you? You have no sense of shame that terrorists from Pakistan may attack America? All you think about is “bilateral relationship”. What about the people who will die in such an attack? Any attack could have been prevented if Pakistan put its own house in order instead of blabbering on about its strategic location, Islam is a religion of peace, and stop drone attacks. What a pathetic country!


    Sep 9, 2011 - 10:18PM

    The whole world including India and even the right minded Pakistanis are awaiting with abated breath change of policy on terrorism muted by late Zia some decades back, which were followed religiously by the successive govts , has put the country on the edge and also in the failed countries list. Recommend

  • Abbas from the US
    Sep 9, 2011 - 10:19PM


    At this point Tankel may be formost authority on the entity known as Lashkar e Taiyaba in the US, at least amongst those that are analysts and offer advice on a hopefully unlikely situation. But you will have to admit that the Obama administration can be very easily held hostage to pressures to react with the kind of force that would be advocated by the Right Wing politicians in an effort to outmanouver Obama specially in an approching election.

    Also Tankel in his article written yesterday surmises that the LET may still owe loyalty to the Pakistan State and will not attack Western interests. But again what is to hold back a splinter group within the LET to pursue the goals advocated by other extremists groups. An example is the motive to carry out the Mumbai attacks to damage any possiblity of the pursuit of reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Specially if the argument within the extremists to hurt American Pakistani ties manages to convince a rogue group vying for positioning within the LET.

    A senior Pakistani journalist Amir Mir tooday talks of “Pakistan, despite being a key US ally during all those years, is undergoing a radical change, moving from the phase of Talibanization of its society to the Pakistanization of al-Qaeda”.

    The Council for Foreign Relations as a think tank can volountarily dispense advise of the possiblities to the Administration but in turn the Administration may not necessarily choose to follow the suggestions mentioned in Tankel’s report.

    I seriously hope that should an undesirable situation arise, Presidenet Obama will be the transformative figure so necessary to avoiding an action that could have long term repercussions in South Asia. And Pakistan or the US disengaging from the alliance considered necessary by both American and Pakistani leadership earlier.


  • Abdul Rehman Gilani
    Sep 9, 2011 - 10:29PM

    Classic case of tum roothay hum chootay.

    Seriously, we are absolutely correct in supporting Haqqani Network. They defend our interests and so should we ourselves. Besides the anglophilic toadies, no one supports the US hegemony and barbarism in Afghanistan.


  • Balma
    Sep 9, 2011 - 10:55PM

    Dear Mike,

    Who funds Woodrow WIlson Institute?


  • Shock Horror
    Sep 10, 2011 - 12:51AM

    @Abdul Rehman Gilani:
    You will, of course, claim that you do not support terrorists!


  • Abbas from the US
    Sep 10, 2011 - 1:02AM


    The Woodrow Wilson Center is supported by philanthrophic, individual, foundations and corporations. A third of the funding for this organization is thru US Congress but nearly 70 percent comes from private donations.

    Earlier on I use to subscribe to the Wilson Quarterly which carries a very interesting perspective on international as well as US national issues and promotes democracy. It is not cheap but well worth the subscription. The original center was located and affiliated with the Princeton University in New Jersey, however I think Michael is affiliated to the center’s office and activities located in Baltimore.

    The 30% funding thru US goverment sources does not inhibit scholars, journalists and opinion makers from expressing views that may be contrary to any given current administration.


  • Basit Siddiqui
    Sep 10, 2011 - 3:11AM

    Stop drone attacks. Stop fuelling hatred. There will be no reason for anyone to attack.


  • sandy
    Sep 10, 2011 - 3:16AM

    Michael – when a problem gets classified as “too big to fail”, it only ends up encouraging those behind it to keep up the bad behaviour, in the hope that the threat of failure will enable it to extract more and more concessions each time, and ultimately get away with blue murder.

    For the last 10 years, the Pakistani Army has successfully played the US both ways, and led it up a merry-go-round, using America largesse to undermine American goals. That is what mindlessly privileging the bilateral relationship over all other concerns has essentially yielded for the US.

    Actions need to have consequences, and bad behaviour needs to punished, not rewarded. US policy now should be aimed at keeping a tight leash on the actions of the Pakistani state/army, while simultaneously also trying to change their mindset from within, so that they can see the sense of more moderate behaviour. Unfortunately, by advocating that no matter what Pakistan does, the US won’t ever shatter US-Pakistan ties, all you end up doing is make excuses for them.


  • Jawad
    Sep 10, 2011 - 3:28AM

    intelligently written, hope’s so nothing happened something like that…


  • Sep 10, 2011 - 4:54AM

    Both Tinkel and the columnist can not be more off base.Any one who thinks Americans are going to worry about Pakistan’s value to USA after an attack on American homeland does indeed in fool’s paradise.You heard it here,all bets are off,that was the last Mr Hallbrook conveyed to President Zardari and the sec of state retreated later.This election time,The president is already under enormous pressure on economy,any attack if he shows any weakness,it will be fatel,and more likely he is bound to react more radically than if he was reelected or the election s are over.It is not for nothing ,Pakistan so far as been very lucky and fortunate that some rouge actors have not come to spoil everything so far.Any attempt by any one to act recklessly would have very serious consequences,we do not know where how this will end,let us hope there is no joker in the deck of cards,but you can be sure of that.


  • Michael Kugelman
    Sep 10, 2011 - 5:57AM

    Thanks to all.
    @Sandy: What you say about “too big to fail” is accurate. Washington has likely concluded that the costs of breaking with Pakistan are simply too high, so it will tolerate (with teeth gritted, perhaps) all the headaches and stress of the bilateral relationship.
    @Abbas: Thanks for providing that info (it was almost fully accurate), and @Balma, you should feel free to pursue our website to get any more details you seek.
    I concur that Tankel is regarded as the foremost authority on LeT — which makes particularly striking his view that the TTP, and not the LeT, would be the most likely outfit from Pakistan to attack the USA. And I agree with him.
    @Hariharmani: I think Obama would exercise as much restraint as he could. However, as others (including Tankel) say, the actual response would depend on the type of attack and the number of fatalities.


  • Maulana Diesel
    Sep 10, 2011 - 8:39AM

    I think the most important thing should be that the US and Pakistani intelligence agencies work closely together in fighting terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If the FBI and CIA work closely on this issue the threat of terror on US soil would be minimised and if God forbid an attack does take place then the US government would at least know that they can work with the ISI to take the culprits to justice.


  • Sep 10, 2011 - 9:37AM

    @Abdul Rehman Gilani:
    You’re a selective reader, aren’t you? Afghans have a much larger problem and paranoia with Pakistan and it’s not because of the US, either. It’s all you. I’ve also seen plenty of support from the region when it comes to those who actually took a step into reality or has to experience the problems first hand seeing their own government won’t even protect them even support drones.

    You could say your words are worthless as the ones who do support it would look at you as a primary part of the problem and those in that category don’t end up with the luxury of acceptance to the extent that compromise becomes an option.

    Go right ahead and support Haqqani. If you think you can actually guard him forever after he has been killing Americans you’re insane. Right now it’s politics and priorities. If you actually have it in you to say what you just said to the US while being someone who matters, your defenses would just be a road bump.

    Once the priorities are dealt with and Haqqani remains, your stalling will not continue to work and if you get in the way, it’s not like Pakistan is all that formidable. You’ll be pushed to the side. Don’t bother with the nuke talk. The moment you fire one of those will be the last day Pakistan exists as anything more than a crater, and it won’t be the US alone involved in creating it. That’s the thing about nukes. If you’re a chaotic country and fire one of those things off added with the way world support for Pakistan barely exists as it is, it will be the last as you’ll go from “volatile” to “worldwide threat”


  • Zalim Singh
    Sep 10, 2011 - 11:06AM

    its just when and not if…..


  • Feroz
    Sep 10, 2011 - 12:47PM

    An attack from elements based in Pakistan on American territory has fortunately been avoided. This stroke of good luck may not continue forever and the question is not “IF” but “WHEN”. The sheltering of OBL in Abbotabad and disinclination of the ruling dispensation to discover who protected him has cruelly exposed the Establishment. The response from the US to an attack on it from the country will take into account this reality. Time for action is running out and if the relationship is not repaired before any attack, the consequences would be debilitating.


  • Parvez
    Sep 10, 2011 - 1:35PM

    Interesting read. Tankel has made a valid point but would America do the right thing if faced with a situation or will they overreact again ? It’s anyone’s guess.
    One thing is clear the bad guys know which button to press and exactly how America will respond – so who’s smarter ?


  • M
    Sep 10, 2011 - 1:42PM

    News flash for the author: 9/11 was an inside job. Have a nice day.


  • Sep 10, 2011 - 2:38PM

    Feeble attempt at manufacturing consent. It is not Muslim world which is running out of resources to run an empire. Sept. 11 was nothing but a war against Muslim countries to plunder their resources.


  • Sep 10, 2011 - 2:39PM

    @R S JOHAR:
    Zia was following US policy maker policies. Re-check your facts.


  • malik
    Sep 10, 2011 - 2:58PM

    One more attack on America with Pak footprint…and that will give enough incentive for US to declare Pak as the Terrorist State and impose sanctions. Don’t dream that US will continue mollycoddling Pakistan ‘doing everything to keep the relationship afloat.’

    The consequences can be disastrous.Don’t even think about it.


  • Zulfiqar
    Sep 10, 2011 - 3:05PM

    What kind of person are you? Clearly not very bright. Has it occured to you that “Pakistan getting its house in order” also requires the US, Afghanistan and NATO to get their houses in order? How exactly is Pakistan meant to clean things up when the TTP can easily establish sanctuaries in all the parts of Afghanistan essentially left vacant by US and ISAF Forces? You lot have been howling for years that Pakistan needs to do more, well, in quite the same way you need to do more to clean up the mess you have created in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Drone strikes are just example of the kinds of blunt instruments you want to use – you clearly have little or no sense and even less information.


  • Maulana Diesel
    Sep 10, 2011 - 5:06PM

    @malik — if the US declare Pakistan as a terrorist state then how would it transport billions of dollars of equipment through Pakistan? How would it expect Pakistani security agencies to provide it intelligence on terrorists? And finally when they want to leave Afghanistan are they going to leave via Iran? I think NOT sir!

    Declaring Pakistan a Terrorist state is only beneficial to India not to the United States of America.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 10, 2011 - 7:11PM

    After what pakistan have done for them still a bad actor of the movie after losing therty finr
    thousand of lives for them after losing sixty billions $ worth of economy after loss of all
    foriegn investment in the country still do more i think if we had present turkish leadership
    than mush we might be in better position…………..( ghar of aag lagi apne hi chrakh se.Recommend

  • malik
    Sep 10, 2011 - 7:41PM

    @Maulana Diesel:

    US has already declared that they are going to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. By end of 2012, the drawdown strategy would have begun. After that, US does not require NATO route and US does not require the help of Pakistan. And there is no need to transport equipments either. Reg intelligence on terrorists, US has never relied on Pak intelligence reports.

    So, the Terrorist State status is linked with Afghanistan drawdown. I don’t think US will be bothered about whether this benefits India or not. All US senators are waiting for the day when the US will not have to depend on Pakistan for the NATO route to Afghanistan. They are hoping that a day will come when they don’t have to pay money to Pakistan to buy their cooperation.

    That day, will be a game changer in the history of Pakistan.


  • Abdul Rehman Gilani
    Sep 10, 2011 - 10:04PM


    Hmmm……. we dont need to do anything. Just close that NATO supply line passing through Pakistan, and the foreign soldiers there in Afghanistan will starve to death…… besides the anglophilic toadies(in the form of pseudo-intellectuals and intelligentsia) and their master the west, no one will have a problem with that! The second stage is to separate ourselves from this war, and openly declare our relations with all legitimate parties in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.


  • Balma
    Sep 11, 2011 - 2:02AM

    Mark and Abbas from wherever,
    So 30% that comes from the US government – is that under State Department’s budget?


  • Balma
    Sep 11, 2011 - 2:06AM

    I meant Mike, not Mark.


  • Michael Kugelman
    Sep 11, 2011 - 5:06AM

    @Balma: I suggest you check out the Woodrow Wilson Center website. I believe it will answer your question. Our U.S. government funding (which is very modest) comes from a congressional appropriation.


  • harkol
    Sep 11, 2011 - 1:08PM

    USA may not want Pakistan to fail, but if it sees a clear indication that there is no other alternative, then it’d assist a ‘managed collapse’ of the Pakistani state. i.e. pretend to help Pakistan while working towards draining Pakistan of all its economic capability forcing it to breakup under a international oversight.

    If Pakistan doesn’t get control of its own army; so called Non-State actors, there may not be many countries in the world which would oppose such a ‘managed breakup’.Recommend

  • Tony Singh
    Sep 11, 2011 - 4:09PM

    Dear Author, But why would any right minded Pakistani do that? Is not your “IF” a big “IF”?


  • Ray
    Sep 12, 2011 - 7:46PM

    @Mark, lol you are a case of a typical American. Pakistan is right to continue to support the Haqani network, even if it kills Americans. If they stop the innocent killing of our civilians, black water, and planned suicide bombings, then I might think otherwise. Recommend

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