Pakistan, Terrorists, and Economic Stress

You'd be hard pressed to find a Pakistani anywhere in the world, regardless of class, education, or citizenship, who does not object to the U.S. drone strikes that have killed hundreds of innocent civilians in Pakistan since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. It would also be difficult to find a Pakistani who does not object to the government in Islamabad allowing the strikes to continue. Only a very few misguided individuals—such as accused Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad—would turn this objection to American and Pakistani foreign policy into a terrorist act.

The case of Pakistani-American Shahzad and his alleged May 1 act, a ridiculous attempt to blow up a car bomb in New York's Theater District, reminds us of the obvious and recurring characteristic of one cadre of Pakistani militant recruits since 2008: economic stress. Economically stressed individuals are often more psychologically vulnerable to being ideologically brainwashed for recruitment by terrorist groups. These individuals then use militancy to take action where they feel their government and its policy has failed them. The examples of Shahzad, Ajmal Kasab (the sole surviving Pakistani terrorist of the 2008 Mumbai attacks), and the landless tenants-turned Taliban recruits in northern Pakistan's Swat in the summer of 2009 reflect this particular trend.

Shahzad was part of Pakistan's "brain drain" phenomenon. He left home in 1999 with big dreams of "making it" in the U.S., where there were presumably greater opportunities than in politically and economically unstable Pakistan. Over the next decade, he finished his BA and MBA, bought a Mercedes, earned a salary of $50,000 to $70,000, and starting making mortgage payments on a modest home in Connecticut for his wife and two young children.

As the years passed, he felt increasingly frustrated with his career. He complained of not making enough money and of feeling demeaned by his American employers. He felt he was worth more and should be doing something bigger with his life.

Shahzad's growing frustration with his professional life was coupled with increasing discontent over the policies of his host and home countries. Shahzad felt let down when his home government failed to put a stop to the drone strikes carried out by the government of his host country. He seems to have experienced some sort of psychological break, after which he was no longer defined by family and career, but by what he felt was the failed policy of both countries.

Kasab: No job or government benefits

There is no easy way to prevent another Shahzad. At the very least, this example should remind U.S. and Pakistani policymakers that the controversial drone strikes have manifested the power to radicalize a globally exposed, upper-class Pakistani who faced real or perceived economic stress. There is therefore a need for more explicit communication from U.S. and Pakistani officials about when the strikes will end, together with a broad, public acknowledgment of the huge costs of this policy. This simple effort by policymakers to communicate with Pakistanis about the drone strikes is a much-needed first step to reduce more radicalized thinking from emerging among even the most liberal and well-off, both in Pakistan and abroad.

Like Shahzad, Ajmal Kasab felt his government had failed him. A factory laborer who lost his job in Lahore and had no opportunities in his rural village in Punjab, Kasab lacked access to unemployment benefits and other support from government. Where was he to turn? The economic and psychological stress of being chronically unemployed made him an easy target for militant recruiters. They offered him $1500 to give his family and provided him with a sense of larger purpose in life—unlike his government, which consistently failed to reach him or provide him any welfare or job opportunities.

Yet again, the combination of economic stress and ineffective government policy rendered an individual psychologically vulnerable to be recruited for terrorism. Kasab also said he chose to attack India to free Kashmir, the disputed territory over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, because his government had failed to do it. His actions represent warped logic, but they illustrate the terrorist recruit's decision to take matters into his own hands over what he feels is his government's poor policy.

As I argued in previous columns last year and this year, a terrorist recruit such as unemployed, uneducated Kasab could potentially be swayed from terrorism if government—and U.S. aid—created more opportunity for the poor, especially in rural areas. Areas of high unemployment should be targeted for job creation programs such as vocational microfinance. Government officials should be reaching out to the unemployed through explicit public communication to reduce their sense of alienation, a simple step that could make a huge difference.

a history of ineffective land reforms

Like Kasab, some landless tenants in Swat also felt that militants provided them with more support and opportunity than their own government had. In the summer of 2009, about four dozen of the area's most powerful landlords were ousted from their land by armed gangs of peasants recruited by the Taliban. These laborers turned their back on their landlords in favor of militants who promised economic redistribution and effective governance that they felt government had consistently failed to provide.

Militants effectively exploited the class rifts that have been a permanent feature in many rural areas of Pakistan. Land reforms in 1959, 1972, and 1977 never changed the power equation; decades later, meaningful reforms are still needed. According to a 2009 estimate by campaigner Anti-Slavery International, debt has forced more than 1.8 million people to work for their landlords on some estates with no pay.

These events should have clued policymakers on the need to revisit the issue of land reforms and the rights of landless laborers. The severe inequality that persists in Pakistan because of government's failed policies has only helped militant groups recruit this cadre of economically stressed individuals. If government cannot provide them with the opportunity to earn their own land or other basic necessities, where else can we expect such people to turn for support?

All three examples—the professionally frustrated Shahzad, the unemployed Kasab, and the landless laborers—should show Pakistani policymakers that at least part of the reason economically stressed individuals of different classes turn to militancy is because of government's poor policies on key issues, including the U.S. drone strikes, job creation, and land reforms. It is not too late to reverse this trend and prevent this type of economically stressed recruit from being further radicalized. Pakistan's democratic government must take this simple but critical step to publicly communicate about and execute such policies more effectively.

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