Pakistan's War on Terrorism: Strategies for Combating Jihadist Armed Groups since 9/11

  • Published

Pakistan’s War on Terrorism: Strategies for Combating Jihadist Armed Groups since 9/11 by Samir Puri. Routledge. 2012, 156 pp.

Pakistan’s role in the twenty-first-century “war on terrorism” is understandably mystifying to many Western observers. At various points between 2001 and the present, Pakistan has played the part of US ally and partner, but it has also been characterized as an obstructer and even enemy. On one hand, the Pakistani state was instrumental in the effort to rid the region of “foreign fighters” in the early years of the war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, this effort sometimes resulted in too close relationships with Islamist armed groups, which baffled US leaders. Pakistan’s military fought an internal war against an insurgency of loosely confederated groups and received an immense amount of US military and financial assistance, yet the United States continued to target groups and individuals within Pakistan’s borders for targeted killings, culminating most dramatically in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2012. These are the central paradoxes and contradictions that Samir Puri seeks to explain in Pakistan’s War on Terrorism.

The monograph’s premise is that Pakistan has pursued strategic ends in the war on terrorism, balancing international and internal security concerns and reacting to an ever-changing operational and strategic environment. Puri writes, “it offers an analytic account of the ingredients of Pakistan’s strategic calculus, and how these ingredients have been filtered by Pakistan’s strategic culture” (pp. 1–2). He convincingly argues that Pakistan did pursue strategic aims regarding its engagement with and opposition to armed Islamist groups within its borders. When faced with a host of less-than-desirable options after 9/11—namely, to cooperate with the United States in its regional military effort or to suffer the consequences of a US military intervention—Pakistan chose to pursue the former while preserving its freedom of action by acting autonomously and sometimes out of step with the United States. Puri’s examination of the historically fraught relationship between the United States and Pakistan is quite valuable and insightful.

Thus, Pakistan found itself fighting a war within its own borders which required engaging some groups while opposing others, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of South Waziristan. The effects, however, were often dire—by cooperating with some armed groups, the Pakistani military forfeited a monopoly on sanctioned violence within its borders, and by allying with the United States, likely contributed to the proliferation and consolidation of violent armed dissenters, particularly under the Tehreek-e-Taliban banner in 2007. The additional pressure of an escalating US drone campaign further destabilized and challenged Pakistan’s military and national strategies. Yet, as the conflict evolved, so too did Pakistan’s strategic response. The military, primed for conventional conflict with India at the beginning of the decade, improved as it learned to fight in a low-intensity environment focused on counterterrorism. By 2009, the state “sought to regain the initiative,” a shift which tracked the end of military rule under Pervez Musharraf. Puri is not, however, optimistic about Pakistan’s future, arguing that “cleavages within the Pakistani state . . . may prove intransigent” and “may continue to stoke anti-state activity” (p. 4).

Puri’s analysis is strongest when making claims about the strategic choices faced by Pakistani leaders—the origins and evolution of the strategies discussed here are handled well. The chapters on the vice of 2007 and the turning points of 2008 and 2009 are quite strong and go a long way in helping readers to understand the complicated nature of Pakistan’s tribes, its relationship with the United States, and the internal governance and administration of the country. The book is weaker where it reports more than analyzes—too often, readers must draw conclusions about strategy on their own, Puri having abandoned strategy for the narrative of various tactical and operational pursuits. This is not a fatal flaw, but it does take some work to piece together an overarching argument. Finally, Puri claims in his introduction that the book will engage the question of Pakistan’s “strategic culture,” but this aspect of analysis is sorely missing—there are few explicit examinations of the idea, or even references to it. Given the rich literature on strategic culture and the ongoing debates within the scholarly community, this is a more problematic shortcoming and one which limits the conversations into which this book can fully enter.

Puri is a doctoral candidate at Cambridge University and formerly an analyst with RAND Corporation, and occasionally, the book has the feel of an unpolished first draft. Whether that is due to failures in editing or simply a function of a short publishing time line and inexperience is unclear. Even so, the book is structured logically and soundly, moving from contextual chapters in the first half to a series of chronological chapters in the second. And the writing is generally solid, if workmanlike—unlikely to inspire, but also unlikely to confuse. The most difficult thing for English-speaking readers unfamiliar with the literature on Pakistan (or South Asia, more generally) will be the profusion of proper nouns—names of people, names of groups, names of regions and cities—all unfamiliar to the reader. While the list of acronyms provided at the beginning of the book goes some way in ameliorating the confusion, one wonders if Puri could not have accomplished the same objective with less detail or with more scaffolding to remind readers who the actors are and what they are doing.

Ultimately, this is a monograph best suited for security studies and South Asian specialists, though the topic will certainly be of interest to practitioners and scholars working with or seeking to understand US allies and coalition partners, counterterrorism strategies, and nonstate actors. Though some of Puri’s conclusions and observations are likely to be tempered by time and distance, as an initial take on Pakistan’s role in the war on terrorism, the book is an excellent resource.

Jacqueline E. Whitt, PhD

Assistant Professor of Strategy, Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."