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Pakistan's 'Existential Threat' Comes From Within

Interviewee: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 6, 2009

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Bruce O. Riedel, a retired CIA expert on South Asia, who chaired a special interagency committee to develop President Obama's policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, says "the situation remains dire" in the region, and particularly in Pakistan. He says "there is a real possibility of a jihadist state emerging in Pakistan sometime in the future. And that has to be one of the worst nightmares American foreign policy could have to deal with." He says it is crucial for Congress to pass the five-year $7.5 billion economic aid package for Pakistan without too many conditions on the bill, so that "we can send a signal to Pakistan that we're in this for the long haul and that it's not a conditions-based relationship."

When we talked in January after Richard Holbrooke was appointed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan you were rather gloomy on the outlook there. You said he was inheriting a "dim and dismal" situation. You then chaired a special committee to draw up policy for that region. Is the situation now any better? The press reports seem to portray a picture of continuing violence and disorder.

I think the situation remains dire. In Pakistan, in particular, it's deteriorating. In Afghanistan, as President [Barack Obama] has said, we're not winning. It's not a lost war, but it's not going in the right direction. In Pakistan, we face a growing coalescence of jihadist militant groups, not just in the tribal areas, but in the Punjab and in the major cities including Karachi. This is threatening the very survival of the Pakistani state as we have known it. It is not inevitable and it is not imminent, but there is a real possibility of a jihadist state emerging in Pakistan sometime in the future. And that has to be one of the worst nightmares American foreign policy could have to deal with.

You used the expression when we spoke that this was the "jihadist Frankenstein monster that was created by the Pakistan army and the Pakistan intelligence service." Is there any sign that they're realizing what they've created and willing to do something about it?

There are a few tentative signs, but it is far from clear that they acknowledge that the existential threat to Pakistan's freedoms comes from within. I think the army remains focused on the external threat posed by India. Of course, here the "Frankenstein" [monster] is a self-fulfilling prophecy because extremist groups, in this case Lashkar-e-Taiba [Army of the Righteous], attacked India last November in Mumbai. The tension between New Delhi and Islamabad is back to a very high level. In that sense, the "Frankenstein" [monster creates] the conditions for the army to be focused on India. The post-Mumbai era of significant tension between India and Pakistan has not come to a close yet. And there is a serious risk of another Mumbai-style attack, which would ratchet up tensions and make the Pakistani army even more determined to keep 80 percent of its manpower focused on India rather than on the threat posed by the internal jihadist problem.

I'm not sure most Americans recognize that. Is the atmosphere in India like it was in the United States after 9/11? Was there a feeling of even more anger and hatred toward the Pakistanis?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

Pakistan is a base of operations for repeated attacks on India going back to the hijacking of an Indian aircraft in 1999 to the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and then of course the Mumbai attack of last year. Indians feel that they have put out the olive branch on more than one occasion and instead of a reciprocal response, they've gotten more terror. India has shown remarkable restraint over the years partly because they can't figure out a viable military response that doesn't risk escalation to full-scale war. How much longer that restraint will last before we have another major attack remains to be seen. There has to be some point at which India's tolerance is pushed too far. Of course that's exactly what the jihadists want. They want the situation constantly boiling on the India-Pakistan front that diverts the Pakistani army away from them, providing them [Islamic militants] the conditions that allow for them to grow and fester in Pakistan.

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had been working secretly with [Indian] Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to work out some kind of deal on Kashmir. Now that he's gone, there's no sign of any real fruitful diplomacy going on, is that right?

That's right. The back channel that was operating at the end of the Musharraf regime, which by all accounts produced some significant movement, was completely shut down by [the attack on] Mumbai. It's not likely that it's going to reopen until two things happen. One is that the Indian electoral process, including not just the voting but the building of a new coalition, is finished. That will take several more weeks if not months. Two is that some kind of resolution on the outstanding Indian demand that Pakistan shut down Lashkar-e-Taiba inside Pakistan is shown by Islamabad outside of the revolving door of house arrest, house release.

President Obama asked you personally to head an interagency review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, which you completed and the president then made his remarks about boosting troop levels in Afghanistan and outlined his hopes for the region. There is a summit this week in Washington among President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, and President Obama. Is there a symbolic empty seat there for India? Shouldn't India really be there also?

Afghanistan and Pakistan have plenty of issues to discuss between them. There's more than enough business on the table between the two. Their hands are full with dealing with the Taliban on both sides of the border. But there's clearly a recognition that if you want to change Pakistan's overall behavior, India will have to be a part of that equation. The Indians have made it very clear that they don't want to be put in the same grouping. But at the same time, we should understand that you can't change Pakistan's behavior without understanding it's obsession with the Indian equation.

I take it the United States is still as unpopular as ever in Pakistan as far as public opinion goes. It's fascinating because you'd think by now the Pakistani public would realize it's biggest threats are internal from the jihadists.

Parts of the Pakistani population are coming to that conclusion, particularly the ones who have a more secular or liberal world view. But that's a very small elite in Pakistan. Pakistanis continue to believe that the United States is an unreliable ally. When they look back at the past sixty years of U.S.-Pakistani relations, there's a lot of reason for them to come to that conclusion. And they're not convinced that the United States will be a reliable ally in the future. That's why I think that it's so important that Congress pass the Kerry-Lugar legislation that commits to a five year $7.5 billion economic assistance program, and that it pass that legislation with as few conditions on it so that we can send a signal to Pakistan that we're in this for the long haul and that it's not a conditions-based relationship. Obviously we want results, but we have a long history with Pakistan of legislation that tries to force Pakistani behavior. The best example is the [Senator Larry] Pressler amendment of 1990. That's a very unhappy history.

That was the one that said if Pakistan developed nuclear weapons foreign aid had to stop?

That's right. It said that we would provide assistance as long as the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] did not believe Pakistan had developed a nuclear weapon. Well, at a certain point the evidence became overwhelming and the first President Bush had no option but to cut off assistance.

Congress is now loading up this latest bill with conditions, right?

That's right, and that's a recipe for a very unsatisfactory ending.

What about in Afghanistan? Karzai's been taken to task by the press here for having a corrupt government and for being unpopular. He's running for reelection in August. A Taliban representative was on CNN this morning stating that anybody who votes will be killed. It all seems very dangerous.

President [Obama] inherits a situation that is indeed very dangerous and deteriorating. It's very unfortunate because it need not have been that way. Had the war in Afghanistan been properly resourced over the last seven years, we probably wouldn't have a Taliban insurgency but we're now faced with the reality of a Taliban recovery that has momentum today in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The president, I think, has made the right choice to properly resource the counterinsurgency strategy not only in terms of putting more troops on the ground but also in putting more civilians on the ground for reconstruction and development purposes. The question is if it's too late. I don't think it's too late, but unless we gain traction quickly, we're going to see a problem that will get worse and worse.

When the president outlined his Afghan policy, he really didn't talk about the Taliban as much as preventing al-Qaeda from getting another foothold to attack the United States. What is al-Qaeda's role right now?

Al-Qaeda exists in jihadist groups that include the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and Punjabi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. Within this broader terrorist syndicate al-Qaeda finds its place to operate and hide. It has relationships with all of these groups that go back many years. I think that's why you heard the president talk about al-Qaeda in this context so much, because its room to operate grows as the jihadist syndicate in Pakistan grows. They have more and more opportunities to hide, to operate, and to plot. You have to think of that as the threat that is of course the most immediate and the most direct for the United States. If the Afghan Taliban succeed in taking control of southern and eastern Afghanistan, then al-Qaeda will have room to operate there as well. The danger that is posed here is clear and real, and that is that al-Qaeda's room for maneuver is growing and the Pakistan-Afghanistan arena is getting larger. Al-Qaeda's jihadist allies are getting stronger and expanding not just into the tribal areas, but across the board.

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