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Haass: In Pakistan, Radicalism Is 'Spreading'

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 19, 2007

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CFR President Richard N. Haass, an expert on Middle East and South Asian affairs, after a recent trip to Pakistan, says there is a good chance for considerable political change in that country, although the army will remain a major force. He cautions, however, that Pakistan faces dual challenges of building political legitimacy and fighting extremism, either of which “would be a lot to take on. But taking them both on at once is quite demanding and then some.” He also warns that extremists are beginning to spread out from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to Pakistan's urban areas.

You’ve just come back from a brief trip to Pakistan, where you talked to many of the top leaders including President Pervez Musharraf. What’s the overall situation as Pakistan heads into a very busy political season, with Musharraf’s reelection still to be approved by the Supreme Court, and parliamentary elections due in January?

They are heading into a busy season, but not just politically. The realities in Pakistan are that the government is trying to deal with a deep and broad challenge to its authority from various radical and extremist groups. At the same time the government is trying to build its own legitimacy and bring about a political transition from what has been largely military rule to something more civilian in character. Either one of these challenges, dealing with the extremism and violence, or dealing with a political transition, would be a lot to take on. But taking them both on at once is quite demanding and then some.

Now yesterday seemed to include examples of both of those phenomena. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned to Karachi, Pakistan as part of an apparent arrangement with Musharraf so that her party, the PPP, can compete in the January elections. Perhaps she would be reelected prime minister, although the laws would have to be changed for that to happen. And then, there were two suicide bombs in Karachi that tried to kill her, but instead went off near her, leading to the deaths of more than a hundred people. Presumably, the bombs were set off by al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Let’s start with the politics first. Can you foresee the Pakistanis moving to a civilian government?

The short answer is yes. I believe we are moving from a situation where the president is a military figure to a situation where the president will be a former military figure, that Musharraf will take off his uniform as he serves his next term. It is possible that you will have a hybrid government—by that I mean the president sharing powers with the parliament and the prime minister with the judiciary. I don’t think that is pie in the sky. There is a good chance we will see considerable, though not complete, political transition because the army will always remain a central force in Pakistani society.

Now, the attempt to assassinate Ms. Bhutto clearly shows that the terrorists are out to get anybody in favor of a normal government in Pakistan.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

It says several things. One is what you just said, that there are various individuals and groups in Pakistan who, while not popular by any count­—radical groups have never gotten more than 10 percent in any election—they are still in a position to disrupt Pakistani society. And secondly, what we are seeing is a seeping out, the spreading of radicalism from the so-called FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] in the west, the area near Afghanistan. We have seen it recently in the Red Mosque incident. We saw it just now in the Karachi bombing. That to me is the frightening thing. It is not that the radicals have a political foothold, but increasingly, it is becoming a situation, in ways that are reminiscent, quite honestly, of Iraq or Afghanistan, where people who have negative agendas are increasingly in positions to assert them.

Do you think the Karachi bombings will put even more pressure on Musharraf and the army to really go after al-Qaeda?

I don’t think the army is the answer. What we are seeing recently in Pakistan, and what I heard when I was in the country, is that the army has not acquitted itself well in recent encounters with extremist groups, be they the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or something more homegrown. The army is not built for that. One of the real problems in Pakistan is that you don’t have the kind of police forces and local militias in particular that have a chance of being effective against this kind of challenge.

There is a good chance we will see considerable, though not complete, political transition because the army will always remain a central force in Pakistani society.

I used to think the problem was one largely of will: The Pakistanis were not willing to take on these groups. But after my visit there and after various meetings, I increasingly think the problem is one of capacity—the Pakistani army is simply not built for it. It doesn’t have the degree of competence or professionalism; it doesn’t have the right kind of equipment. It is going to take a long time to build up Pakistani capacities to take on the sort of low-level urban terrorist challenges they face.

Can the United States help? Or is U.S. help a “kiss of death”?

“Kiss of death” is way too strong. The United States has to be sensitive. There is a deep anti-Americanism in Pakistan. I have been going there off and on for thirty years, and I am always aware that there is resentment of the United States. Many Pakistanis blame the United States for the frustrating moments of Pakistani history. That said, we need to be a voice to urge political reform. We need to be a source of help for the Pakistanis so they can take on these extremist and terrorist organizations. I don’t believe the Pakistanis can prevail without U.S. help. We just need to be smart in making sure that the help doesn’t become so visible that it becomes a lightening rod for nationalist reaction.

There was that speech by Senator Obama (D-IL) saying that he would send U.S. troops into Pakistan if we knew where al-Qaeda was located.

The preferable situation is to help the Pakistanis locate the extremists and terrorists, be they Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or what have you, and then, if they need the help, provide it, so they can take advantage of these targets of opportunity. We just have to be smart and deal with the reality that Pakistani nationalism is strong and you don’t want to create political-legitimacy problems for the very government you’re trying to help.

Did the United States have a role behind the scenes in getting Musharraf to make the political arrangement with Ms. Bhutto?

It is assumed throughout Pakistan that the United States did have a role in helping forge this deal. So it is quite likely that the United States did have a role. If that is the case, the administration needs to be careful. The United States is wiser to stand for processes and principles than it is to back personalities. Whatever the role was in arranging or helping to arrange for Ms. Bhutto’s return, going forward, the U.S. role should be one of policies and principles, and not trying to help this or that politician.

The United States has to be sensitive. There is a deep anti-Americanism in Pakistan… That said, we need to be a voice to urge political reform… I don’t believe the Pakistanis can prevail without U.S. help.

Her views on al-Qaeda and the terrorists are pretty strong against, right?

Her comments recently have been welcome. They are very tough-minded, trying to delegitimize those who would use violence, essentially questioning whether they are so-called true Muslims. I see those kinds of comments as welcome. On the other hand, they are also going to galvanize some of those people into taking her on, as we’ve just seen in Karachi.

How strong is her party, the PPP? Is it still the strongest vote getter?

The short answer is nobody knows. Politics have taken place with such limits over the last ten years or so, that it is hard to get a true measure of the strength of the PPP or anyone else. And even more recently, a lot of people in Pakistan were critical of Ms. Bhutto—either for forging this tactical alliance with President Musharraf, or for this amnesty which was just passed, which led many people to speculate that she was only returning because she could do so free of fear of paying a price for past alleged corruption. Her place in Pakistan’s future is still not assured. It’s also unclear whether she will be able to campaign actively or publicly after the bombing. It is quite possible this will constrain her ability to be a national figure.

On the other hand, it might get her more popularity, a sort of sympathy vote.

Sure. There is always the chance that there will be a reaction in the sense that if the extremists are going after her, she becomes the repository of hopes—which still represents the view of most Pakistanis—that their country not be taken over or disrupted by people who are largely seen as non-Pakistani, or people acting in a nontraditional, non-Pakistani way. What you are seeing in Pakistan is the latest version of “blowback.” After years where the Pakistanis and the Pakistani intelligence services were the base and support for the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, now we’re seeing elements of what many are calling the “Talibanization” of Pakistan. Extremists and terrorists have put down deep roots in the western areas, in the FATA, and the North West [Frontier Province]. What is worrying is that they are beginning to spread out into some of the urban centers that form the core of the country.

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