Pakistan’s government is squandering its “Malala moment”: the chance to harness public outrage over the Taliban’s shooting of 14-year-old education activist Malala Yousufzai and take the fight to the terrorists who threaten the nation and its neighbors.
The fecklessness of the government’s current strategy against terrorism is captured in the offer of a $1 million bounty by Interior Minister Rehman Malik for aid in hunting down Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Eshan, who has defended the attack on Malala and warned of more to come.
If Pakistan really wanted to capture Eshan -- and it should -- a $1 million reward probably isn’t necessary. He routinely sends e-mails and text messages and makes landline phone calls to dozens of journalists, many of whom are under some form of government surveillance. Dollars to doughnuts Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, long thought to have ties to the Taliban and other terrorist groups, knows where Eshan is.
Since Pakistan’s founding, its military and intelligence establishments have relied on militants as an asymmetric asset in their rivalry with the larger, more powerful India. That reliance remains intact, despite occasional pressure from the U.S. and its counterterrorism partners.
General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the leader of Pakistan’s military, has condemned the attack on Malala and her fellow students, praising her as “an icon of courage and hope.” He could follow up those comforting words with a military operation against the Taliban and other extremist groups such as the Haqqani network in North Waziristan.
Disappointingly, Pakistan’s governing coalition has so far held off on a parliamentary resolution for such an operation. Opposition politicians including Imran Khan, the blow-dried ex-cricketer, have withheld their support and shamefully hedged their condemnations of the Taliban.
The U.S., meanwhile, is not in a position to push loudly for action, especially given the need for Pakistan’s cooperation in the winding down of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s ever-inventive conspiracy theorists already claim that the U.S. was behind the shooting in an effort to make Pakistan look bad and force its hand in Waziristan. Behind the scenes, however, the U.S. should make forcefully clear -- especially through its military and intelligence channels -- that Pakistan’s failure to make the most of this moment will have consequences for U.S. assistance. A month before Malala was shot, Hillary Clinton quietly issued a “national security” waiver on conditions for $2 billion in U.S. aid. There’s little chance Congress would let her get away with that in the attack’s aftermath.
The U.S. should also continue to tighten the screws on Pakistani terrorist networks and their supporters, as it did with a new set of sanctions on individuals on Oct. 17. And it should channel more aid to Pakistan’s civilian security forces to help them gain independence from the military and intelligence services, which have a long history of interfering with law enforcement efforts to tackle terrorist groups.
The Malala case has attracted worldwide concern and sympathy (including, perhaps inevitably, a striptease tribute from Madonna). This may help shine a light on the efforts of Pakistanis to live free of terrorist violence. But real progress requires Pakistan’s leaders to renounce the cynical use of terrorist proxies to achieve their strategic goals.
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