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Markey: Complex U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Interviewee: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 26, 2007

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Daniel Markey, a former State Department specialist on South Asia for the Policy Planning Council, says that relations between Pakistan and the United States have fluctuated widely in recent years. The United States had at one point lost interest in its long-term ally, but now needs Pakistan badly to help stem the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Vice President Cheney has just made an unscheduled visit to Pakistan, where he told President Pervez Musharraf of American unhappiness with the efforts so far by the Pakistanis to crack down on al-Qaeda and Taliban forces operating out of Pakistan where they are able to launch attacks in Afghanistan. Why can’t Musharraf just do what we want him to do and crack down?

The challenge is a lot bigger than that. It’s probably useful to put it into the context of what he has tried in the past. If you go back to the immediate pre-9/11 period, the Pakistanis had an ongoing and pretty close relationship with the leadership of Kabul and the Taliban. The Pakistanis had at least intelligence ties with them, and not only were they not doing anything to crack down, they in fact they were working together.

Of course, immediately after 9/11 you saw a switch, and the immediate response from the Pakistanis was not to make a heavy involvement in that tribal belt region, but to try to use existing mechanisms and existing ties. This goes back to the period of the British Raj, when you had political agents who were essentially selected from a bureaucracy who worked with local tribal elders to resolve outstanding disputes. You would use that mechanism to crack down on elements operating there, especially al-Qaeda and other foreign elements, and get them out of there or bring them to justice. After a couple of years the United States found that it wasn’t very effective. Many of these tribal agents were not interested in cracking down on the bad guys, so we had a disconnect in terms of interests. The United States pressed pretty hard, and the Pakistanis ultimately recognized this was a problem and went in heavy. They brought in the Pakistani army.

What year was that, about?

That was true up until about four, five months ago, and so it had probably been a policy for about two years. While it immediately paid some dividends—they were able to hit some of the bigger targets, some of the obvious training camps and other headquarters, especially for Uzbeks and other foreign militants—the Pakistani military took serious casualties and the longer they stayed, they began to be seen more and more as an occupying force. The army itself isn’t all that effective as a counterinsurgency force. They started to alienate the population to such a degree, it was felt, they were actually counterproductive.

In the past five months or so, Musharraf’s government decided this was not working, and we tended to agree. They needed in some way to go back to an earlier policy but then try to bump it up a little bit. They wanted to go back to this earlier strategy of working through traditional mechanisms between political agents and tribal elders, but then try to improve the local security forces so they would actually stand a chance against the larger terrorist and militant threats. The Pakistanis would then inject a certain degree of development and other types of assistance so the local populations wouldn’t be so alienated, which was a big part of the problem. The problem with this latest strategy is that in the near term, you have fairly weak local authorities with relatively poor security mechanisms at their disposal. They’re not capable to standing up against outside terrorists and the Taliban. And it doesn’t serve theUnited States’ interests, at least in the short term, to allow these militants to continue to operate there.

Or NATO’s [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], because NATO is now deeply involved in Afghanistan.

Exactly.

So you’re saying the Americans sympathized with Musharraf’s approach last year.

Precisely.

But now there’s this frustration. Why?

What we’re finding is that despite the fact that he and his lieutenants may be correct in their assessment of the complexity of the problem, and he’s right that their previous solutions weren’t working, this new solution has a significant downside in terms of timing. It may be a reasonable approach to a long-term solution but in the short term, when we’re fighting a serious insurgency in Afghanistan, this is not working, at least so far.

How did the Pakistanis, a member both of CENTO [Central Treaty Organization] and SEATO [South East Asian Treaty Organization], go down the wrong path?

They would say we went down the wrong path. They say we abandoned them in 1990, once the Cold War was over and we no longer needed them to combat the Soviet threat. Against our express wishes, they went ahead with the nuclear weapons program, no longer making it possible to cooperate with them in quite the same way.  We cut a number of ties. This included a decision not to deliver the F-16s they had purchased in the early 1990s. This immediately sent shockwaves through the Pakistani military, who felt that they could not trust us any longer. That was compounded by the fact that over time we cut other kinds of assistance significantly and we stopped working with them and training them. We stopped including Pakistanis in the IMET [International Military Education and Training] programs that we have for foreign officers. We lost a whole generation of Pakistani officers who were not, as their predecessors had been, exposed to U.S. military training and to the United States.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

So what would the United States ideally like Pakistan to do now?

A big part of it is Pakistan’s capacity. You have different interests and concerns at the local level in these tribal areas that really diverge, both from what Islamabad would ideally want and from what the United States wants. At the local level you have people who essentially are looking to preserve some degree of personal security and stability, and they don’t much care who is passing through their territory or maybe even seeking safe haven there, as long as they’re not the targets of attacks. The local security forces aren’t all that excited about going after the really bad guys for us. Thus you have a disconnect in terms of interests. But you also have a disconnect in terms of capabilities. The Pakistani military is just not that good at fighting these guys.

From a U.S. perspective, we have a significant interest in trying to bolster the capacity of Pakistani forces that are based along the border. We want them to have people in there who are committed to the fight, and that they have people there who stand a chance. Some of the Pakistani local security forces are outfitted so poorly that when al-Qaeda drive up in their Jeeps and have automatic weapons, of course the local forces—who are armed with guns from fifty years ago—are going to look the other way. So, the biggest part of it, from the U.S. perspective, is really enhancing the Pakistani capacity to do more, and recognizing that at the local level there may be a disconnect in terms of actual desire to do more. I’m guessing the vice president is delivering a firm message but also a message of “We’d like to work with you,” and not a message of “wanting to hit you over the head.”

Has the United States ever considered trying to base any troops in Pakistan?

No. We have a very limited presence in Islamabad, and obviously we have a very heavy presence in Afghanistan. Basing U.S. forces in Pakistan raises very severe political issues, having to do with President Musharraf’s concerns about basically not jeopardizing what he would consider to be national sovereignty, concerns that he would somehow look weak to his primary constituency which in this case is the military, and would actually lose face with them.

What I read in the papers is that one of the reasons for the new message to Pakistan is a fear the Democratic Congress would cut aid to Pakistan?

Right. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to play it in those terms. I don’t think most responsible members of Congress—on either side of the aisle—would really significantly seek to cut assistance to Pakistan. Everybody recognized after 9/11, and it’s in black and white in the 9/11 Commission report, that you need to build a long term partnership with Pakistan if we have any hope of actually beating this problem.

Trying to isolate them or beat them up is usually counterproductive; it doesn’t actually get us what we want. We need to establish to the Pakistanis that it doesn’t matter which administration is in power, that we’re committed to working with them. We need to build that trust. One of the deepest problems that we have is a lack of trust and a lack of mutual understanding, even just between the top levels of our two governments. And by threatening or saying, “When the Democrats come they’re going to really hurt you,” that doesn’t do anyone any good.

What are the things the United States would look for now from the Pakistanis?

As the spring comes, and we start to see the war in Afghanistan heat up, which is what everybody’s expecting, then we’re going to be looking for some very concrete things on the Pakistani military and intelligence side to see if we’re getting as good cooperation from the Pakistanis as we can get. There’s always this issue of cross-border infiltration and the militants going back and forth. That’s something we can yell and scream about and also something we can help the Pakistanis fight. But there are also issues about command and control, and there’s a fair degree of consensus, at least in the open press, about the fact that a number of Taliban leaders are operating out of Quetta, Pakistan. If we could see some significant moves by the Pakistanis to go in there and round some of these folks up, that could have a very big impact, at least at the psychological level, in terms of the prospects for this insurgency over the next four months.

Why are so many people in the Pakistan intelligence and/or military believed to be pro-Taliban?

There are those who actually sympathize in terms of the goals and aspirations of the Taliban, but I would say that’s a relatively small group. There’s a much larger group who have been sort of whiplashed by the historical changes that have taken place just before their eyes. At one point these folks who we’re calling Taliban, or at least some strain of these groups, were called mujahadeen. When the Soviet army was in Afghanistan, they were regarded as freedom fighters and we supported them with weapons and money. A number of the individuals who are working in the Pakistan intelligence services, but also in the military, very vividly recall that some of these people were allies to the United States. They simply question how reasonable it is to shift gears so quickly and turn against individuals who were once allies.

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