‘The Pakistani Government Sanctioned Drone Attacks’
Editor’s Note: A newspaper version of this interview was published by Dawn.com, Pakistan’s most respected news source in English language. The Baloch Hal is publishing the whole text of the interview for the benefit of students, researchers and all those who take an interest in topics related to Af-Pak, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, counter-insurgency operations and US-Pakistan relations
By Malik Siraj Akbar
Steve Coll, the president and CEO of the New America Foundation, is a distinguished American investigative journalist who spent twenty years as a foreign correspondent at the Washington Post where he also served as the paper’s Managing Editor from 1998 to 2004. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Coll, 52, is the author of six books, including the highly acclaimed Ghost Wars(2004) which focuses on the history of CIA, Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. He was a blogger for the New Yorker magazine.
In an exclusive interview with Dawn.com, Steve Coll spoke about the war in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency operations, the future of Al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s role in the war against terror.
How big a difference have the drone attacks made in the Afghan war?
The American military commanders think that the drones have been the best tactic to sustain pressure on foreign fighters in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). They have also been important for Pakistan because they have brought the war on the Pakistani soil. The high technology system used to operate the drones creates all kinds of questions and reactions among the Pakistanis about their lack of control over these drones and the sense of violated sovereignty that the attacks create.
How much is the will and cooperation of the Pakistani authorities involved in these drone strikes which, as you pointed out, many Pakistanis describe as a violation of their national sovereignty?
The government of Pakistan has not only known about them but it has also sanctioned and supported them. However, there have been debates about the extent of the Pakistani involvement in the program. Throughout the process, the Pakistani authorities have provided logistical support — air bases, permissions— to the United States. What has been harder is to have an agreed plan as to who has to be on the target list and how the strikes are carried out. The US has found it difficult to share intelligence reports with the Pakistani government because the Americans think the intelligence often leaks to the target.
On their part, the Pakistanis resent the lack of trust. They want to have their own ideas about who is an enemy of the Pakistani state; who should be targeted while drawing the list of targets in the drone attacks. One year ago, the US and Pakistan made kind of a new agreement on targeting in particular to go after the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban who had not been previously high priority targets for the US. As the insurgency grew, the Pakistani Taliban became a high priority for the Pakistani military. Toward the end of last year, there was a period when the sense of a shared purpose was relatively strong as the Pakistani Taliban leaders were targeted along with Al-Qaeda. That working agreement changed with the Raymond Davis case and of course the Bin Laden raid brought things to a very low point.
Does that mean that these strikes have renewed anti-Americanism in Pakistan and they pose more security threats to the United States in the future?
From what is reported by the governments and newspaper accounts in Pakistan, the drone attacks have reduced the threat of terrorist attacks on the United States by constantly disrupting the leadership of Al-Qaeda. At the same time, they have increased the threat by inflaming anti-American feelings in some sections of Pakistan. There is not really good evidence about attitudes of the local people in some of these areas that are Taliban-controlled to the role of the military action in attacking the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
What does bin Laden’s killing mean for Al-Qaeda? Was it simply the killing of a man who financed the terror group or was he kind of morale-booster as well?
Al-Qaeda has had the same leader for more than twenty years and it never had to deal with a succession crisis. Bin Laden was not only an important source of finance and symbolic leadership but he also had a unique history in the Muslim world as a militant leader who raised voice for the oppressed people. He was the architect of 9/11 attacks; no one can replace him in that role. There is no one in the organization who has bin Laden’s communication skills and his history. So, there are some significant military leaders but I don’t think anyone can provide his symbolic leadership.
How capable, reliable and charismatic is Aymann al-Zawahiri in Al-Qaeda? Do you think he can provide alternative leadership to the organization?
It is true to say that Aymann al-Zawahiri lacks bin Laden’s charisma. He has had a history of getting into arguments with his colleagues. He was thrown out of a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood for arguing with his own colleagues. He wrote an entire book to call bad names to his Egyptian colleagues and to argue that he was right and they were wrong. In his communications, he has never emerged as a likeable figure and he has received criticism even from some of his own followers.
Nonetheless, he has a long history of dedicating his life to this organization and its movement. There is a group of Egyptians and Arabs inside Al-Qaeda who have worked with him for a long time. He is not insignificant but I am not sure if he is going to attract a new generation of young people inside the organization. He does not have the ability to think in a creative political way to explore the opportunities in the Middle East for Al-Qaeda in the wake of the recent uprising. His record suggests he is not going to succeed in achieving those goals.
Tell us something about the “cash-movements” inside Afghanistan. How much CIA, Saudi and drug money is involved in the politics over there?
The sources of cash have changed over the time. If you look back the history at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the border areas, from Balochistan to the North of Chinese border, have become kind of ‘war-industry areas’ where all the cash, drug and arms smuggling, criminal enterprise, transportation have been building up and the people have been struggling over the control of these industries for thirty years now.
The sources of money have changed depending on who is involved internationally.The big era of Saudi and American money was late 1980s and early 1990s when billions of dollars flowed in mostly around South and North Waziristan. That machine is there but now the sources of income are different. Now, you have all kinds of different industries such as the smuggling of heroin and timber. There is the business of renting transportation for the Americans and NATO supplies and that of security industry which also provides security to the supply lines. The big contracts now come from the Afghan side of the border. The Saudi money is no longer the factor because it is too dangerous to move that around in large sums.
What are the influences of neighboring, Pakistan, Iran and India, on the stability of Afghanistan?
A: Obviously, Pakistan is the most important player and also the biggest source of instability in Afghanistan. Pakistan has historically had its own legitimate interests in Afghanistan since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The politics in Afghanistan impacts Pakistan more than it impacts Iran or India because of the large Pashtun population spilling over on both sides of the uncontrolled long border
Pakistan built up several Islamic groups to control the politics inside Afghanistan but now those groups have turned against Pakistan itself. Since Pakistan’s concerns are more than the other countries, its degree of interference has also been larger.
What is your critique of Pakistan’s Afghan policy?
You see big countries always exert pressure on their smaller neighboring countries. For example, the United States exerts pressure on Mexico to the extent it can. The problem is that the Pakistani army has chosen self-destructive methods to achieve this influence by arming groups which are not friendly with the Pakistani State.
Secondly, they [the army] keep overreaching the degree of the influence. They feel they need to have an Afghanistan to be satisfied. They seem to be driven by the fear of India in Afghanistan in a way out of proportion to the actual degree of influence that India could ever reasonably exercise in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan but has not been able to develop balanced sustainable policies that can produce a friendly Afghanistan. When Islamabad tries to over reach its influence in Afghanistan, it bounces back with adverse fallout of instability for Pakistan. I am afraid we are about to enter into another period of that character.
How satisfactory has President Karzai’s role been in bringing stability to Afghanistan?
Karzai has certainly disappointed the United States. Many American officials who have dealt with Karzai look at him as unreliable and unable to deliver governance and help in achieving the American goals by offering a political energy. Still, reports show he is liked by the Afghan people more than President Zardari is liked by the Pakistanis. From an American perspective, he may certainly be unreliable but some of what he is doing is designed to strengthen his own political position in the south and east of Afghanistan. He has succeeding in attaining that goal.
Karzai still has an opportunity over the next few years to step aside from his eight years of presidency and make a deal with the international community to secure his legacy by leaving peacefully and handing over the office to a successor. If he did that, he will still be remembered not as a ‘disaster’. I think he will bargain with the government of Pakistan to extend his presidency. History teaches that more Afghan presidents die in office than after retiring.
In spite of reports of corruption in Karzai administration and massive fraud in the last presidential elections, Karazi continues to serve in the office. Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars” indicates that Washington is not fully satisfied with him. Yet, he remains in office. How indispensible is Karzai for the Americans?
Actually the Americans over-invested in Karzai from the beginning. When the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq and put the Afghan war aside, they personalized policies both with Karzai and Musharraf [in Pakistan]. So, the US ran Afghanistan through Karzai and his family. They didn’t build an alternative opposition in the parliament or independent politicians in that country. They allowed Karzai to develop a family mafia. That was a two-way mistake committed by the Americans and cashed by Karzai as an opportunity to become indispensible for Washington.
The United States has initiated a process of reintegration of the Taliban. Are they directly talking to the Mullah Omar network or is it the so-called “good-Taliban” who do not pose a threat to the US-Pak interests.
According to some published reports, they are talking to individuals who were previously close to Mullah Omar. Nobody knows if those people are still in touch with Mullah Omar. These contacts are actually facilitated by the reconciled Taliban. There are some others among Taliban who have shown allegiance to Mullah Omar who have been involved in these exploratory talks. The talks are at an early stage. The Americans who know about these contacts have differing opinion among themselves whether or not this will work out.
Do you agree that the American policy toward Taliban has gradually softened?
There has been a lot of debate about talking to Taliban in the Obama administration. It is sort of unusual actually not to talk to the enemy during a counter-insurgency war. The normal thing in an insurgency is to fight and talk, fight and talk and fight and talk. Because of 9/11 and Taliban’s historical relationship with Al-Qaeda on the basis of which they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States, automatically compelled the Americans in early 2000s to treat Taliban the same as Al-Qaeda. As a matter of fact, most Taliban had never travelled outside Afghanistan and did not know much about the United States. Apart some of their top leaders, most Taliban were never a part of the global Jihadist network. No Afghan had ever been a part of Al-Qaeda operations outside Afghanistan.
How much did the accommodation of different war lords, after the ouster of Taliban, contribute to the Taliban resurgence?
Actually after 9/11, there was sort of Victor’s Justice in Afghanistan where the Northern Alliance and the governments that supported them (India, Iran, Russian and the United States) did not realize how to organize the post-9/11 politics in south and east. They allowed all the war lords to come back. In return, they created a mess by hunting down their old enemies. This allowed the Taliban to come back. Let’s not have a big fantasy that negotiations with Taliban will fix all problems and bring complete peace. This exercise should be used to redress some of the mistakes made in regional political strategies
What mistakes are you talking about?
Basically the Pashtun exclusion was a big mistake. There was no strategy to build a more stable national politics in Afghanistan over the years. Everyone was chased into Pakistan. Entire provinces were turned over to war lords who themselves had been thrown out of power by Taliban. They were badly treated. The policy did not have the right approach to the politics of south — one of power sharing, disarmament. It’s probably too late to fix a lot of those mistakes. Some elements in the Taliban are also tired of fighting for so long.
Is there a way out to compensate these mistakes?
Fundamentally, I don’t think the negotiations will make much sense to the United States unless they can deliver ceasefires as an early confidence building measure. It would be critical to reduce violence as a result of the negotiations even if there are many important issues that are unresolved during the overtures. There are many conflicts of this type in Africa and Asia where these kinds of negotiations have dragged down for years. Sometimes they don’t produce a perfect ending but the very fact that they are negotiating and the ceasefires they come up with eventually change the picture. If violence reduces, civilian causalities go down; economic activities normalize; factions break up and new coalitions emerge and gradually you get a period of better stability than what you have during the conflict. That is all you can hope from these negotiations.
So does it mean that Pakistan should be excluded from these talks?
Once the talks begin, the government of Pakistan can eventually be brought into the process in a more intelligent and sustainable approach based on Pakistan’s own concerns about Afghanistan. It would be much better if Pakistan could achieve an adequate amount of political influence in Afghanistan through peaceful talks rather than continuing the self-defeating policy of arming Taliban groups that are actually opposed to the state of Pakistan.
In your book, Ghost Wars, you talk about Pakistan’s deception in the war against terror. Islamabad has handed over several Al-Qaeda leaders to the Americans in the past. Are you trying to argue that Pakistan selectively takes action against Taliban and Al-Qaeda based on a case by case approach?
There is a level of detail [on this matter] about which I don’t think anyone, including a lot of people in the Pakistani military, understand. Even the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] is not so organized as if they sit around and make plans. It is not a monolithic entity. Just like any other institution in Pakistan, the ISI is also a mess where there are different elements engaged in various deals.
The Pakistan army for long has had the view that they can distinguish between the good militants — those who are in an alliance with Pakistan— and bad militants — who are engaged in criminal revolutionary activity against Pakistan. So, if you are willing to refrain from attacking the Pakistani state, its army and refrain from undermining its negotiations then you can maintain your bank accounts, buildings, safe sanctuaries, businesses and remain able to travel to the Gulf or something like that. Many Afghan Taliban refugees have accommodated the Pakistani State in that way by refusing to join the Pakistani Taliban.
For example, unlike the TTP, the Lashkar-e-Taiba has, by and large, adhered to that norm by not declaring the Pakistani state as their enemy. Pakistani security services feel like they have got their hands full. They don’t want everyone to be their enemy. So, they try to reward those groups which refuse to join the TTP and keep them focused on Afghanistan. They even go to the extent of motivating the Taliban to attack the Americans but stay away from targeting Pakistan’s interests. Thus, the Americans regard them as deceptive. Pakistanis tell the Americans that they treat everybody among the Taliban as the same but in practice it is in their interest not to treat everyone as the same.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) recently released a report in which it expressed concern about the safety of Pakistan’s nukes. Do you think this is a genuine or a mere exaggerated fear?
I think the American officials have been too complacent in their public statements. They often say we know the weapons are secure and their safety is not a serious problem. I understand why they say that because the Pakistani army has taken technical nuclear security seriously. They have established a regime and taken some advice from the outside world.
Any security expert will tell you that the security of weapons and nuclear materials in any country, including the United States, is not just a technical matter like how good your fences or security alarms are. Although these are important features, nuclear stability is fundamentally about political stability. If the institutions that control the weapons split then the control of weapons will also split. Now, there are signs of split and disloyalty in the Pakistani military.
Given all kinds of pressures Pakistan has faced in the last thirty years, it is a miracle that the army has not split yet. The army has never produced a high-level internal plot of rebellion. Most countries caught in such situations would have such a revolt in their armed forces. The bulk of disloyalty has come from the non-commissioned officers. To say that the army has been free from a colonel-level revolt in the past does not mean that this will continue forever in the future.
How much as Al-Qaeda been crushed in Pakistan?
I think Al-Qaeda has been gradually smashed in Pakistan. Currently, tt is not the most obvious place for the volunteers to go to. The Arab volunteers have been lately suffering in Pakistan. A lot will depend on the attitude and the capacity of the Pakistani state for the next five years as to how much they want to continue to cooperate with the international community to keep Al-Qaeda under pressure in Pakistan. It is in Pakistan’s own interest to cooperate with the international community to defeat Al-Qaeda.
What is the future of Al-Qaeda?
Al-Qaeda will remain under pressure from the US authorities in Afghanistan and some pressure from the Pakistani security services. Yemen looks like the best place for the young Al-Qaeda fighters. If I were a twenty-two year old Arab provoked by my corner mosque to fight the “Great Holy War” with 1000 bucks in my pocket, I would be interested in going to Yemen because no one is looking for you there. Al-Qaeda is now in control over there in the south, as we know from published reports. They are likely to end up with significant space there. It’s an Arabic speaking country where Al-Qaeda can be strong in the next few years.
When we talk of the Pak-US contacts, who are the Americans talking to, President Zardari or General Kayani?
The US military talks to Kayani all the time. The balance of American policy is, unfortunately, still tilted toward the belief that they must put the army first in their interactions with Pakistan. It is not as if they want to but because as a practical matter the army can only deliver what the Americans are focused on. Of course, a lot of people in Pakistan have been disappointed with President Zardari. He has underperformed whatever hopes the people had from him. He has not been able to organize a civilian administration that can carry out the energy and economy projects that the Americans thought they were going to invest. Thus, they continue to work with Kayani now.
Until a couple of years, the Americans had a very high opinion of General Kayani. They supported his extension as the army chief though some of us didn’t look at it as a good idea, not because of any personal assessment of Kayani but the negative institutional signal it would send. Once again, we are personalizing our relationship with the Pakistani chief of army staff.
Why are you putting it in the past tense? Does that mean the Americans no longer support General Kayani?
Earlier, it was a stronger relationship. In the last couple of months, there have been more doubts. Admiral Mike Mullen, who maintains deep personal faith in General Kayani, believes the latter means what he says. In the other sections of the Obama Administration, there is exhaustion with the failure of the Pakistani army and the security services. Many American soldiers who fought in Afghanistan saw Taliban units come from Pakistan; set bombs which killed American troops and then ran back into Pakistan. The American army requests the Pakistani army if they can do something about these elements or at least raid a particular house where the militants are hiding. Nobody takes action from the Pakistani side. The Americans provide addresses of the bomb-manufacturing factories and the army tips them off to run away.
There is a full batch of American army officers who have now returned to the US after serving in Afghanistan. They have come back with memories of friends and colleagues who were killed by Taliban. Now in the US, these soldiers influence government policies. Some of them have jobs in the White House and other key places. They are angry. They don’t think that the Pakistani government should be forgiven for accommodating individuals who kill Americans at a time when they are also getting billions of dollars as aid.
How badly has the Abbottabad incident damaged the ISI-CIA relationship?
The damage has been pretty severe. It, nonetheless, did not lead to a complete breakup of relations between the ISI and the CIA. The ISI has done a skillful job of maintain formal contacts with the United States but still maintaining its independence and holding the Americans at a distance. The Americans have also taken a similar approach. They developed a relationship with the ISI to work on some shared projects but also kept their independence by distancing the ISI in some other operations. The Raymond Davis case and the Abbottabad raid were clear examples of this approach. I don’t think either side is going to change their approach. Intelligence sharing is a dirty business. Even countries with friendly relations will recruit agents in state with which they share cordial diplomatic relations only to pursue their own interests.
Where does Pakistan go from here? How does the future look like?
Pakistan’s future depends on strengthening civilian and the economic sectors of the country. The only way to break this pattern of internal violence and self-defeating policies is to open up the economy. Pakistan has to benefit from the transformation and the economic growth that has so much changed India, for example. Once that growth clicks, then the balance of power inside Pakistan will change. It won’t be about personalities or wishing for great politicians. Pakistan does have sources of strength to overcome its challenges. You have a talented business sector; professional diaspora and a strong media. There have been a lot of countries with similar terrible situations of civil-military conflict, corruption, internal violence, separatist movements and drug smuggling.
For instance, Columbia in late 1990s looked like a hopeless case. Today, it is a pretty healthy country. Indonesia was about to fall apart in late 1990s after three civil wars; the army was disappearing people; attracting international sanctions; Al-Qaeda was emerging through the Jamaat-e-Islamia. Only twelve years later, today Indonesia is full of shopping malls; it has a large middle class and its stock exchange is performing very well. How did that happen? It could be possible only because of the economic growth. Pakistan lives on the edge of a neighborhood that is entering an age of transformation and success. This is the Asian century. Pakistan is on the western edge of the Asian century. It has an opportunity y to become a part of that prosperity.
This can happen only if Pakistan normalizes its relations with India and let economic activity and trade flourish in that region by opening up its borders. Pakistan has the talent and the human capital to benefit from the Asian century. An economic change will ultimately put these arguments about the ISI, the army, corrupt politicians etc. in the dustbin of the history.