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Pakistan and United States: Two Different Priorities

Interviewee: Teresita C. Schaffer, Director, South Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 26, 2008

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Teresita C. Schaffer, a former senior State Department official with expertise in South Asia, says that while the United States and Afghanistan are particularly concerned about the Taliban crossing back and forth across the Pakistan border, Pakistan is more concerned with stopping internal terrorism caused by suicide bombings and the seizure of territory within the country by insurgents. Although the United States has been critical recently of Pakistan’s efforts to stop the Taliban from crossing back and forth into Afghanistan, Schaffer says that it was not much better when the army reported directly to President Pervez Musharraf.

Ever since the Pakistan parliamentary elections last February, there’s been a disconnect between the United States and Pakistan. The United States is very concerned about the Taliban going back and forth across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Pakistan government seems to be allowing the local people to make deals with the militants in the outlying areas and doesn’t seem to be very sensitive to U.S. concerns. Do the two countries have different priorities right now?

In a sense the overall objectives match, but the priorities don’t. You’re right that the top priority for the United States is essentially border control: preventing the Taliban in Afghanistan, where of course we have troops, from taking sanctuary in Pakistan; preventing their movement back and forth across that border. For the Pakistan government, the top priority along the Afghan border and in that area is closing down suicide bombing within Pakistan. They are dealing with an internal insurgency. And they would like to see the broad pacification of the tribal areas that the United States has talked about. They would like to see better border control. But what they most want to see is an end to suicide bombing, and an end to the phenomenon of insurgents taking control of pieces of territory inside Pakistan.

And have these deals that the Pakistan authorities have worked out with the militants worked? I’ve read reports in the Pakistan press indicating in some areas it works, some areas it doesn’t.

Let’s take a step back. It was about two years ago that the government of Pakistan worked out what was supposed to be an understanding in South Waziristan, one of the tribal agencies, which was supposed to permit the army to end its presence and under which the local tribal leaders were supposed to be seeking out anybody who was neither Afghan nor Pakistani. That deal had no enforcement mechanisms, and it ultimately did not work very well.

Why did the government of President Pervez Musharraf, which implemented that deal, go that route? Well, their effort to take greater control of the tribal areas by military means had also not worked very well. So in the time of the Musharraf government, they tried military means and they tried negotiation, and neither one worked out terribly well. There’s all kinds of deep reasons why this might be so, including the fact that the traditional tribal leaders, in many cases, are no longer there, so it’s hard to find the person who can enforce an agreement. So when you fast-forward to the new elected government, you’ve got a history in which the previous efforts of the government of Pakistan to impose greater control were not very successful.

The elected government did one thing that may actually have been smart, but probably wasn’t enough, which was to put the negotiations in the hands of the secular party—the Awami National Party—that had just won the provincial elections in the area that we’re talking about. At the same time, the army has been working separately to try to regain control of areas inside the settled areas of Pakistan that have been seized by insurgents. So you’ve got three things going on at once: You’ve got a military effort; you’ve got a negotiation; and you have a government in Islamabad which is very much preoccupied with the challenge of staying in power, and for which this is the only policy issue that they’ve done any work on, but it’s not their top top priority because their top priority is maintaining the government.

And I guess, at least part of the government wants to get rid of the president, right?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

That introduces another complication. And maybe this is the right time to talk about who is the government in Pakistan and how do the different parts of it relate to one another. You’ve got in Pakistan, at the moment, four major political actors. Two of them are the principle personalities in the government that emerged from the election: Asif Zardari—who is the principal personality in the Pakistan Peoples Party and who chose the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani;  Nawaz Sharif—who is the principal personality in the Pakistan Muslim League-N. Neither of those men is actually in elective office at the moment. The third major political actor is President Musharraf, who is still in the president’s office, but who no longer controls the machinery of government. A year ago, if there was a big demonstration coming, he could order thousands of people kept in jail. He can’t do that now. But he still has some forty-odd followers in the parliament. And he is still trying to work out arrangements with Zardari’s party—so far not successfully, but there’s been enough going on that it’s been one of the factors that has kept the coalition unstable.

The fourth political actor is, of course, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, the head of the army. Now, of these four major political actors, three of them want to change their situation. The first two, Zardari and Sharif, would like to govern by themselves instead of with each other. Musharraf would like to have his own power back. It is a pretty good definition of instability when you have a government composed of people who don’t trust each other and would prefer not to have to work together, and when you have an army that wants not to have to make a choice among different leaders, that would prefer to take a holiday from politics, but that has an institutional history of intervening in politics. That’s not what the army wants to do, but of course every officer in the army knows that it has happened at various times in the past.

Who runs the army? The president, yes?

The president is commander-in-chief, but day to day, General Kiyani runs the army. Kiyani controls promotions and appointments.

Now does he set the policy for the dealing with the militants, etc.?

In all likelihood, he does. I know he has made a great effort to consult with the government in general. But I don’t know that that consultation extends to specific policies, particularly at a time when the government is very much preoccupied with just staying in power.

From over here it seems rather bizarre that this whole government apparatus seems caught up in the question of who should be a judge. I mean, that seems to be the issue, yes?

That is the issue. And it is the issue because it was the crisis of the judiciary that led to the protest movement, which culminated in the elections. Without the judge issue, without Musharraf having tried to fire the chief justice, and having ultimately fired him during the emergency, the elections would have looked very different from what they actually did look like. And one of the points on which the coalition was supposed to have agreed was that they would in fact bring back the judges who were sacked. Unfortunately, they didn’t agree on all of the details, and Mr. Zardari has some anxieties about bringing back the old judges.

And his anxieties are what? That they would say he can’t run for office because he was in jail for corruption?

That they might reactivate the corruption charges against him, which had been cancelled by the national reconciliation order at the time his wife, Benazir Bhutto, returned to Pakistan.

And Sharif wants the judges reinstated, but doesn’t have the power to do it by himself?

There are disputes over what is necessary, legally, in order to reinstate them. There’s one view that says this can be done by executive order, because their removal was illegal. There’s another view that says the parliament can pass ordinary legislation that makes it happen. There’s a third view that says this requires constitutional action, in which case they don’t have the votes in the upper house of parliament. But all these technical problems could probably be resolved if the parties were really agreed on what exactly was supposed to happen.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is talking tough about sending Afghan troops into Pakistan because of the cross-border problems. What does the United States want to happen?

What the United States wants to happen is ideally an end to the insurgency in Afghanistan—and certainly an end to any support for that insurgency from Pakistan-controlled territory. Karzai’s statement was both unwise and intemperate. And it was infuriating, both for Pakistan and for Afghanistan, for somewhat different reasons. There was a firing incident near the border the other day, in which U.S. forces who said that they had been attacked from the Pakistani side of the border, fired at and destroyed a frontier outpost on the Pakistani side. The Pakistanis, quite understandably, reacted in an outburst of fury. You have to understand that by the time of the elections, just about every political party in Pakistan was making political mileage out of denouncing the United States and saying that Pakistan needed to run its own life and not have the United States dictating policy to it. The attack on the outpost would have gotten a nationalist response under any circumstances, but it’s even stronger under the present circumstances. So, faced with this nationalist response from Pakistan, Karzai then says, “Okay, if you take any action against us, we’re going to invade you.” So that put it suddenly in a Pak-Afghan context. Pakistan and Afghanistan had bad relations for over half a century. That’s no surprise. The new government in Pakistan had tried to have a honeymoon with President Karzai. This development appears to have ended the honeymoon in a hurry. I don’t think there is a real danger of a land war between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But what this demonstrates is how very frayed the feelings are on both sides. And how the idea that you can control things with an outside military flies in the face of very strong nationalist sentiment on both sides.

Is the U.S. military talking to the Pakistan military on a regular basis? Or are these talks in limbo?

No, there’s a lot of talking going on between the U.S. and the Pakistani military. And there’s also a three-party mechanism by which the three militaries—U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani—are supposed to coordinate. So I assume that’s going on. The real danger is this, though: In Pakistan, you have a government that is distracted by the very complicated business of remaining in power. In Afghanistan, you have NATO forces dealing with an increasingly obstreperous insurgency. And the exigencies of that effort in Afghanistan have already led to shooting incidents and there’s obviously a danger that this will happen again. And with the situation in Pakistan as unsettled as it is, any incident of this sort can escalate in ways that will make it harder for the United States to obtain the kind of support that it wants from Pakistan, and it will fray relations all around.

The other danger for the United States is, if the insurgency continues in Pakistan—and I’m not talking at this point about the border control problem, I’m talking about the internal insurgency in Pakistan—you can have parts of Pakistan withdrawing themselves from central government control, and Pakistan becoming a less governed country. This isn’t something that happens overnight. But the trends are somewhat disturbing in that regard. And if that happens, it will become vastly more difficult to manage the situation on the other side of the border because the prospects for sealing off that border will become even less. In other words, you can’t fix Afghanistan without having Pakistan stabilized at the same time.

What are the chances for the Pakistan military to once again try to take power?

I don’t think that’s what they want to do at the moment. If General Kiyani had his druthers, he would be taking a holiday from politics, for the time being. I know that the Pakistan army does not want to be put in a position where it’s picking and choosing which government authorities it will support. But, you know, this has happened before in Pakistan’s history. I certainly hope it won’t happen again.

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