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Riedel: U.S. Needs to Tread Carefully in Pakistan

Interviewee: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 12, 2008

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Bruce O. Riedel, a former high-ranking CIA and Pentagon official who helped shape U.S. policy in South Asia in previous administrations, says the United States faces a very frustrating situation in Pakistan, and the recent U.S. cross-border attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan are risky given the anti-Americanism in Pakistan. He says that "in that kind of charged political atmosphere, these kinds of operations can easily incite even further anti-Americanism." His advice for whoever is the next president is "to work with the civilian government, show them we want democracy in Pakistan," and to "increase our assistance to Pakistan, especially in economic areas." He also urges putting pressure on Afghanistan to accept the border with Pakistan imposed in 1893 by the British and get the Indians to work toward a Kashmir solution acceptable to all sides.

In recent days there've been a number of reports about U.S. drones hitting al-Qaeda targets within Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. And more recently, there have been reports of Navy Seals going into Pakistan, staying a few hours on the ground killing many Taliban or al-Qaeda operatives, and then being flown out by helicopters. Are these cross-border attacks good or bad in the longer run for the United States? What do you think?

Well let me say, first of all, it's very different going into the sovereign territory of a nuclear weapons state. We have heard from the Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani that the Pakistani army doesn't approve and will resist. Now some of that may be playacting, part of a very complicated Pakistani internal game that's going on. But my experience with the Pakistani military is that they will jealously try to guard their nation's sovereignty and their own perceived prestige. So it's risky. I think that we're doing it because the situation is deteriorating rapidly in Afghanistan and because the related fear that this sanctuary that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have built in Pakistan can and will be, sooner or later, used to target American interests outside of South Asia, possibly including in the United States itself. So, our military faces a very frustrating situation. It cannot defeat the Taliban as long as they have a sanctuary across the border, and it fears that al-Qaeda in that sanctuary is developing plans and plots that go far beyond Afghanistan.

It's seemingly a very difficult dilemma, I think, for American policymakers. You would think by now the Pakistani military would be happy for help on this issue, but what is preventing them from working with the United States on this?


Pakistanis in general, but the Pakistani army in particular, does not have a lot of confidence in the United States. They feel that the United States has let them down, over and over again, over the last fifty years. We don't have a lot of friends in Pakistan. What we have is a lot of people that think the Americans are not reliable. There's been a poll in Pakistan in last several days that say the majority of Pakistanis think the violence in their country is the result of the United States. And only a handful of Pakistanis think that it's the result of al-Qaeda and its allies. And in that kind of charged political atmosphere, these kinds of operations can easily incite even further anti-Americanism. We are, as you said it, in a very, very difficult situation. I think any American leader that was told that we had very good intelligence, at a certain point and a certain time, will act on that intelligence. And they should. But, you have to be sure it's really, really good intelligence. And not a set up that someone is deliberately trying to put you in.

It was reported that the Pakistani head of the army met with U.S. officials on an aircraft carrier not too long ago. Presumably, they must have discussed this kind of action.


I think that's a safe presumption. I think, though, we also have to understand we don't have a track record with the Pakistanis that leaves them feeling we're reliable. And there is a very complex political game going on inside Pakistan today, including the civilian leadership, President Asif Ali Zardari, the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, and the Army High Command led by General Kiyani are all maneuvering. This issue becomes a billiard ball in this political atmosphere, and if you can portray your political opponent as America's man, that's good politics in Pakistan today. You don't want to look to be George Bush's best friend in Pakistan and I think that there are games being played within games here and American policymakers need to be extremely shrewd in how they maneuver in this political atmosphere.

There seems to be a growing consensus among U.S. strategic thinkers that the war in Afghanistan is being lost right now. And that's why I suppose the desire to hit targets in Pakistan is so strong at this moment. There's going to be a new president in the United States in a few months. What do you think that either Sen. John McCain or Sen. Barack Obama can do about this situation?

I'm going to answer that in two parts. Let's look first at the actual situation. The Afghanistan war is a really an extraordinary one for the United States, because we've actually fought this war from the other side in living memory. In the 1980s, we backed an insurgency against the Soviets from Pakistan. We know from that experience—those of us that were in it—that you cannot lose that war as long as you have your sanctuary in Pakistan. You may not be able to win in Afghanistan, but you can't lose, because you always have a place to regroup and you can make life miserable for the ruling government in Afghanistan. And it's paralyzed in Afghanistan as long as you have that sanctuary. The next president has to find a way to reverse Pakistani attitudes about America, to get the Pakistanis to change from being half-hearted supporters—or not being supporters at all—of our struggle against the Taliban. We have got to get them on our side. There is no unilateral American solution to the problem of these sanctuaries in Pakistan. We cannot hope to invade and occupy all of Pakistan to cleanse it of the Taliban and al-Qaeda since Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state. We just simply cannot occupy the entire country. We need to get the Pakistanis to work with us.

Crisis Guide: PakistanAnd that means the next administration, whether he is McCain or Obama, has got to reverse the distrust and the lack of faith in America that has accumulated, not just during President Bush's administration—though he hasn't helped—but over decades now. That can be done, I think, if we work with the civilian government, show them we want democracy in Pakistan, if we increase our assistance to Pakistan, especially in economic areas as Sen. Joseph Biden and Sen. Richard Lugar have proposed. We should also be sensitive to some of Pakistan's diplomatic needs. Pakistan, for example, would like the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to be accepted as a real international border by Afghanistan. It never has. No Afghan government has ever accepted this border. We have some leverage in Afghanistan now with the Kabul government. And we ought to think about whether we should use that leverage to make this border line drawn by the foreign secretary of British India in 1893 into a real border. That would be in Pakistan's interest and I think in the long term it's in everyone's interest.

I didn't realize that was still a live issue.


That is still a live issue for Pakistanis.

I thought it was a problem for the Afghanis.


The Afghans don't accept the border as an international border. They feel it was imposed by the British. Actually they're right. It was imposed by the British. That's how Britain ruled the region. But it's been more than a century; it's time to accept it's an international border. That's what Pakistanis would argue, it's time to realize this is an international border and for Afghanistan to acknowledge that it's an international border. That's a diplomatic objective that the United States ought to encourage, which would be of utility to Pakistan and which is a coming to grips with reality. If we want Pakistan to enforce border controls and to guard its border to prevent infiltration, a good first step would be to have that border become a real international border.

Of course the Pakistanis are also unhappy about their other border which is in Kashmir, which is a hot bed right now as well.


There's another place where I feel creative American diplomacy could be helpful. We ought to try to encourage a long-term settlement between India and Pakistan of the Kashmir dispute, based again on the principle that the existing line of control ought to become an international border with some special status reserved for Kashmiris. We can't expect Pakistan to behave like a normal state, unless it has normal borders. And we can't expect Pakistan to behave the way we would like it to while it's obsessed and fixated on its neighbor and the problem in Kashmir. The problem in Kashmir has been in the doldrums for the past several years. It is now starting to boil really quickly, and when Kashmir boils, the result is Indian-Pakistani tensions that can produce war. We've seen that over and over again.

I've noticed that at President Zardari's inauguration the other day, his honored guest was President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. Does that mean anything special?


It's a striking reversal. It would have been inconceivable that Karzai would have shown up at former President Pervez Musharraf's inauguration. The two men detested one another. It's a hopeful sign. Whether it becomes more than that, remains to be seen. It's certainly a hopeful sign.

I guess it's a truism that the civilian government in Pakistan, having gone through all these problems to get where they are now, has virtually no control over their military and the intelligence services, right?


Absolutely. Zardari this summer tried to put the Pakistani Intelligence Service, ISI, under his control, and the army slapped him down right away and told him, "no way." Zardari, though, should not be underestimated. He is a clever politician. It's in the United States' interest to have a healthy civil-military relationship in Pakistan, where the civilian government that runs the show is accountable for the actions of both the army and the ISI. It is not in our interests, in the long term, to continue to have an unhealthy civil-military relationship where the Army and the Intelligence Services are on their own, except when their hand-picked general is the military dictator.

Do you see any threat of another military coup?


Not immediately. But if the Zardari government looks like it's failing—it faces extremely serious economic problems now— if it looks like it is unable to manage Americans, if it looks like it's soft on India and Kashmir, I could envision a situation in the midterm where the Army once more comes back and takes over the country. We've seen this story before. This is the fourth attempt in Pakistan's history at a civilian government. Three previous attempts failed. There was a coup in 1958 led by Ayub Khan, martial law imposed by General Yahya Khan in 1969, and martial law imposed by General Zia ul-Haq in 1977, and most recently General Musharraf's coup in 1999. The track record of civilian government in Pakistan is pretty depressing. On the other hand, the track record of military dictators is also equally depressing. The country's caught in a cycle of failed civilian and military regimes. And that's a cycle which is progressively taking the country downhill.

Just to sum up here. I think what you're saying is that the United States should be extremely cautious about repeating the cross-border activity, at least in the last months of this administration until we can get a new dialogue started. Am I reading you correctly?


Correct. Pakistan is an extremely dangerous and unstable country. We need to tread carefully. We need to get the Pakistanis to see this as their war. And that's going to require some major new initiatives on the American side. Commando raids and Predator strikes are not a long term solution to this problem.

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