Terrorism, responsibility and bad neighbours

Pakistan should acknowledge and address the deadly threats emanating from its ungoverned territories.

Pakistani policy is greatly driven by rabid domestic politics largely impervious to government influence [Reuters]

Geographers might disagree, but as a resident I can attest that for two months a year, Washington DC lies in the tropics. Its days are stultifyingly hot and humid, and its evenings are punctuated with monsoon-like downpours, frequently accompanied by lightning and high winds. In such storms, trees in the residential areas surrounding the US capital, over-grown and top-heavy from lack of competition for water and nutrients, frequently fall like ten-pins.

A particularly violent storm slashed through the area just two weeks ago, uprooting hundred-year-old trees, downing power lines, and leaving more than four million homes in the densely populated area in darkness. A local columnist, finding that three large trees originating on a neighbour’s property had fallen into his own and a third neighbour’s yards had suggested what he thought was an equitable solution: Rather than fight over who was at fault, or who would benefit most from the local wood-cutter’s efforts, why not pool resources equally to have the toppled trees cut up and carted away? This seemed both fair and neighbourly.

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But the neighbour on whose property the offending trees resided while still vertical instead consulted the local county statutes. There he discovered that if a tree in this area falls onto a neighbour’s property, it is deemed the responsibility of the receiving party to deal with it, irrespective of where the tree originated.  Had this neighbour felled the trees intentionally, the law would have taken a different view; but as their falling was deemed an “act of God”, the neighbour who had previously provided sanctuary to these wayward boughs could claim innocence, and decline to contribute to the removal effort. To the columnist who related this tale, his neighbour’s attitude was not only unjust and short-sighted – he may someday need his neighbours’ help – but ethically wrong, irrespective of the fact that the law was on his side. And like many, I suppose, I am inclined to agree. Moreover, as if to add insult to injury, our columnist friend would have been legally barred from taking any preventive action to remove trees standing in his neighbour’s copse, lest they likewise fall and incur on him yet added expense.

This little parable would surely not be lost on those responsible for US relations with Pakistan, or indeed upon those involved in US dealings with a growing number of countries around the globe. The crux of the US complaint with Pakistan, at its most benign – that is, when the US is not claiming direct Pakistani complicity with its enemies in Afghanistan and the border areas – is that Islamabad has a moral obligation to curtail the activities of militants launching cross-border attacks both into Afghanistan and much further afield and, if it lacks the ability to do so, it should acquiesce in American efforts to address such threats in its stead. Pakistan takes a rather different view. Like our Washington DC landowner, it claims it has no responsibility for the actions of militants who are beyond its effective control. Their actions, whether deemed worthy or otherwise, are essentially “acts of God”.

Impotence regarding its ability to maintain a relative monopoly of violence within its own borders – considered a basic requirement of statehood – has not, however, inhibited Pakistan from invoking its sovereign rights. It complains bitterly about the United States’ regular violations of its airspace to launch deadly missile attacks on militants and on those non-combatants who through complicity or simple bad luck happen also to be in the cross-hairs. In claiming rights without corresponding responsibilities, however, Pakistan should not be surprised that it elicits little sympathy from the US government, to say nothing of the American public. 

The problem of ungoverned space is not unique to Pakistan and Afghanistan. We see it in Somalia and in Yemen, in much of Sahelian Africa and in Egypt’s Sinai.”

Of course, our metaphor of the neighbourhood tree dispute is of limited utility in making judgments regarding the issues in contention between the US and Pakistan – and still less when making policy decisions. One must take into account the fact that Pakistan is already beset with domestic terrorists, and that hostile engagement with outward-looking extremists will make them yet more vulnerable in the heartland; that Pakistani policy is greatly driven by rabid domestic politics largely impervious to government influence; that unilateral US efforts to curb threats in the tribal areas which Pakistan cannot or will not address risk destabilising a nuclear-armed state of far greater intrinsic importance than Afghanistan will ever be. All of this is true, and all of this should inform and constrain US policy, which has undoubtedly been too aggressive in its pursuit of secondary interests in Afghanistan.

And yet there is a simple truth at work here, and one which Pakistan should acknowledge: The requirements of sovereign statehood, to say nothing of political self-respect or simple good-neighbourliness, demand that sooner or later Pakistan address the deadly threats to others emanating from its territory. If prudence dictates that the means or the timing of such efforts cannot meet US demands, then so be it. It may well be that full exertion of Pakistani sovereignty in the tribal areas will be the work of a generation, and that Pakistan will need much international assistance and even more international patience before it reaches that goal. But if that is the case, then Pakistan should at least have a rational plan, and one that it can articulate, for eventually meeting its responsibilities.

The problem of ungoverned space is not unique to Pakistan and Afghanistan. We see it in Somalia and in Yemen, in much of Sahelian Africa and in Egypt’s Sinai. The inability of nominally sovereign governments to control threats from their territory that affect the interests of their neighbours both near and far removed is not a new phenomenon, and it is a growing one. But at least one necessary component of the solution, particularly when the combined assistance and forbearance of others will be an important part of the solution, is at least a candid acknowledgement of the problem, and of where the ultimate responsibility must lie.

Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.