U.S.-Pakistan Relations: The Year Past, The Year Ahead

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Steve Coll, Robert Grenier, and Daniel Markey look at changes in U.S.-Pakistan relations over the past year and make recommendations for moving forward.

TOM GJELTEN: So the topic again tonight is U.S.-Pakistan relations. And we really do have an all-star panel. Let me just begin with, to my far right, Steve Coll. I'm sure you all know him, president of the New America Foundation and staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, before that, a distinguished foreign correspondent, the author of two -- not one, two Pulitzer Prize-winning books. And the one that is of most relevance tonight is of course "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10th, 2001."

In the middle, Bob Grenier, currently chairman of ERG Partners. But for our purposes tonight, he'll be speaking on the basis of his 27 years of experience in the intelligence community. A veteran of the CIA, Bob most recently served as director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. Prior to that, he was Iraq mission manager, and prior to that, the agency's station chief in Islamabad from 1999 to 2002, in other words, spanning the 9/11 attacks in that post.

And on my immediate right, Dan Markey, senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia here at the council. And here he specializes in security and governance issues in South Asia. He's currently writing a book -- good luck with that, Dan -- on the future of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Prior to that, he was -- he handled the South Asia portfolio in the policy planning staff at the State Department. And of course, he was project director of the council- sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and some of the recommendations of that task force of course will be the subject of our discussion tonight.

So tonight we are focusing on one of the most complex and problematic situations in the world today: the multifaceted and multilateral relationship between Pakistan, the United States, Afghanistan and the Taliban. I would say that this is a critical moment in U.S.-Pakistan relations, but we have said that so many times before that it's become a cliche. So rather than make that rather lame observation, let me just roll off a few of the items that really set the stage for this discussion tonight.

Going back just to last May and of course the raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden -- and we've since learned that a Pakistani doctor who provided some of the key intelligence that made that raid possible has been arrested and is facing possible treason charges, just one indication of the rage that that raid engendered in Pakistan among those who feel that their sovereignty was violated; and of course the United States, in September, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, very publicly accusing Pakistan's intelligence service of supporting the Haqqani terrorist network, which has been the main enemy of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and then subsequent to that, just two months later, the U.S. air and helicopter strikes that resulted in the death of 24 Pakistani troops along the border when they were caught in the middle of that and, of course, the Pakistanis again, in their rage at that violation of their sovereignty, in their view, ordered an end to U.S. supply and resupply operations through Pakistan for operations in Afghanistan; and then, of course, finally and most recently, the controversy over the memo allegedly written by Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, in which he is said to have asked for U.S. support to guard against a possible military coup in Afghanistan (sic) on the part of the Pakistani army and of course that then provoked one of the most serious civil- military conflicts in Pakistan in many years.

So that's not even to mention the broader context in which all these things are occurring -- the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in less than two years, and the preparations that are under way for that including the possible arrangement of negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar -- so those are the -- that's sort of the parameters of the situation that we're going to be talking about tonight.

Dan, I want to start with you just to give us like a 30-second summary of where you see U.S.-Pakistan relations right at this moment. Where do things stand in terms of, let's say, the aid, the cutoff of aid, the refusal by Pakistan to accept aid, the supply line issue? Sort of, in a -- in a nutshell, where do things stand right now?

DANIEL MARKEY: Well, in a nutshell, we are currently at a place which is certainly worse in the bilateral relationship than we've had since 9/11, there's no doubt. So, yes, we've seen many crises over the past few years.

I was just thinking today is my fifth anniversary here at the council and, as soon as I showed up, things went haywire. No connection, of course --

MR. : (Inaudible) -- your area.

MARKEY: Yeah, no connection. But we've seen crisis after crisis. But, over the past 18 months, it's been a step-wise series of events, each one knocking us down from where we were to a point which is as low as we've seen since 9/11.

Now, in terms of our supply routes into Afghanistan and so on, I think some of these are sort of transitory issues. It sounds like at least some of that will be reopened in the -- in the next few weeks. But there's a broader question here and it's a question that's been certainly on Pakistani minds over the past two years and, in some ways, much longer than that, which is how we intend to resolve this end game in Afghanistan.

And I think, in many ways, that's the context that they see us in the region. That's how they perceive us. And the question in their mind is, how are we going to leave things? Are we going to leave Afghanistan the sort of mess that they -- that we felt we left it at the end of the Soviet occupation? Are we going to make it even worse for them, in a sense, by doing things that might say privilege an Indian involvement in Afghanistan? And will the way that we leave it leave us with a really broken relationship between Washington and Islamabad?

I think that's the framework. When you boil it down, they're -- each one of these incidents that we've seen over the past year in some ways relates to that and the deep uncertainty on the part of the Pakistanis about what our intentions are as we prepare for this departure that you mentioned in Afghanistan.

GJELTEN: Well, and that would be coming up in a couple of years and that's where the United States is positioned right now.

You know, something that all three of you have observed is in reference to Pakistan's support for the Taliban or for the Haqqani network -- all three of you have been able to -- have focused on sort of the rationality of that position.

And Bob, I wanted -- I was struck by something that you write in sort of the classic analysis of an intelligence professional, talking about Pakistan's support for the Taliban: "Given their perception of their national interests and the lack of effective alternative methods to pursue them, one can readily see why the Pakistanis behave as they do. I may disapprove as an American, but as a political realist, I cannot fault them." Do you want to elaborate on that a little bit?

ROBERT GRENIER: That's the problem with writing. Somebody's likely to read it at some point. (Laughter.)

Yeah, you know, the -- one of the real problems, I think, that we all have in dealing with Pakistan is it's very difficult to get past one's emotions.The Pakistanis are maddening as so-called allies. They -- often, what they do, even when it's in their interests, is, frankly, rather ignoble. Even when we understand it, we certainly can't approve of it. And so I think it's a tremendous burden, I think, for policymakers in dealing with those issues in the first place. And then, trying to sell them to a political public is almost impossible.

But, yeah, I think that for just the reasons that Dan has just mentioned, at this point, the U.S. has not decided for itself, I think, first of all -- nor, clearly, in conjunction with the Afghan government -- what our posture is going to look like in Afghanistan; how are we going to perceive our interests in the future and how are we going to try to realize them.

And under those circumstances, it becomes very, very difficult for the Pakistanis to imagine what that's going to look like. And I'm sure that U.S. policymakers are telling them to some degree what that's going to look like, but we have very, very little credibility. And it seems to me that unless and until we make very clear what will be the limits, if you will, of Pakistani aspirations in Afghanistan, we're not going to be able to get to anything approaching an agreement with the Pakistanis as to what -- how they will pursue their interests and how we can work out some sort of a rough -- a rough joint approach in coming up with something which at the end of the day will serve our interests and theirs.

The way things are right now, they assume, as Dan has said, that we're going to be leaving very shortly, and the only real ally that they have, potential ally, is the Taliban, and they're certainly not going to cut ties with the Taliban under those circumstances.

GJELTEN: Do you think the Pakistanis actually know what their -- what the limits of their activity in Afghanistan should be? And are they capable of confining themselves to those limits?

GRENIER: Well, I don't think that the problem is with the Pakistanis being able to confine themselves. I think that the problem with the Pakistanis is getting them to do anything at all, even in pursuit of their own interests. People tend to think of -- I mean, we see written all the time that the Taliban is in thrall to the Pakistanis, that the leadership of the Taliban is essentially under their control. I don't think that that could be further from the truth. I think they have a very complicated relation with -- relationship with them. I think they try to influence them in variousways. They certainly don't control them. And I don't think they've figured out for themselves, quite frankly, as to what are achievable national goals in Afghanistan.

GJELTEN: Steve, I read with great interest the New York Times story today summarizing this recent classified report on the state of the Taliban 2012 that's based on 27,000 interrogations of 4,000 Taliban insurgents. And I think for me, and I think probably for a lot of people, one of the lines in that report that really jumped out was an observation that many Afghans are already bracing themselves for the prospect of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

To what extent would you say that the Pakistanis are also assuming that? And again, does that explain their determination to sort of maintain influence with the Taliban, because they see themselves as dealing with the future power in Afghanistan?

STEVE COLL: Well, I think it's important to recognize that their timelines are quite different than our own. I mean, they're in the neighborhood forever. We have a plan that we've announced that has very specific calendar dates that relate to our political situation at home and in Europe, and our fiscal sustainability problems. And they're not thinking about our timeline; they're thinking about their own, for obvious reasons.

And my sense of the best guess -- because nobody has a crystal ball about Afghanistan -- that the Pakistani high command, core commanders, are operating from, is that they're doubtful that the Pakistani army that -- I mean the Afghan army that we're -- that we're building will hold together beyond 2016 or 2018. They see trouble on the horizon after we go. And I think part of the way to understand their caution and passivity now is this thinking about a longer horizon.

Now, I think the second point I'd make about that is that I think the Pakistani Army is genuinely in a pretty weak position. They've got trouble on the horizon, and they don't have a lot of cards to play. We're not their partners in securing their interests in an Afghan transition, they believe -- at least we haven't established ourselves, in their minds, as reliable partners. They see India, Iran and other interests -- other neighbors who don't have, in their mind, Pakistan's best interests at heart, already preparing for a post-NATO Afghanistan. And, you know, the Taliban, the Quetta shura leadership that -- the old Islamic Emirate leadership that's in Pakistan, and the Haqqanis, as distasteful and difficult and troublesome as they are as clients -- and they are difficult clients, who would like, themselves, to be free of Pakistani influence and coercion -- are about the only option that they -- that they've got.

And so caution and a -- and a longer timeline makes all the sense in that respect.

GJELTEN: Now, you just had a terrific article in the New Yorker on Mullah Omar. And one of the things that I thought was most admirable about it was the nuance in your analysis. I mean, you know, it's so easy for us to just sort of assume that the Taliban are somehow operating as puppets of the ISI. You pointed out that -- actually, that there's a lot of strains in that relationship.

COLL: Yeah, well, certainly the Times report that you referred to and the document itself, excerpts of which have now been released, make clear how the Taliban themselves see their relationship with Pakistan. And they are -- Taliban leaders and middle-level commanders are -- they're Afghans, first of all. They wish to operate independently. They resent the extent of dependency that they sometimes have on the Pakistani state for travel documents, for security, for the security of their family members. If you're living in exile in Pakistan, and the Pakistani state knows you're there, and you're a person of significance in the Taliban command, you're really not a free -- you're really not a free man. You may not be under ISI's control, but you are certainly under their influence, and you're dependent upon them in logistical ways.

And another point that Afghans have often made to me -- and I -- when I was in Kandahar this last time in December, I heard it again and again -- you know, from the Taliban's perspective, if you're trying to even consider conversion from revolutionary violence into political negotiation, it is not in your interest -- it's not viable to enter those negotiations while being seen by other Afghans as an instrument of the Pakistani state because that weakens your own credibility with your countrymen. The Afghans who are in the Taliban leadership who are exploring negotiations, I think, would like to enter those negotiations from the most independent posture possible.

GJELTEN: Bob and Dan, Steve mentioned the sort of weakness of the -- of the Pakistani army, which may strike some as kind of an odd observation given the role that the Pakistani army has played in Pakistani politics for so many years. But I'm curious what your view is of the position of the Pakistani army right now vis-a-vis other institutions in Pakistan and in the midst of this crisis.

Now, Bob, you wrote that they are, in some ways, the most competent institution in Pakistan. And yet you don't seem to thinkthat they're really in much of a position to exert that competence right now, it seems.

GRENIER: I think that if you view the situation from the perspective of the senior Pakistani officer corps, they're in a very difficult situation. They are facing multiple insurgencies within their own country, which they're having a very difficult time managing. They are very concerned lest the Afghan-focused militants in the area combine efforts with the Pakistan-focused militants against them. And that's something that they absolutely have to avoid and is one of the root causes for some of what we would regard as their very unfortunate behavior vis-a-vis the Afghan Taliban.

They have lost a great deal of credibility, particularly -- well, since the reign of General Musharraf, and now most particularly since the raid at Abbottabad. They don't have the domestic political support to step in and take over the government if they felt the need to do so. And so they are having to make accommodations all the way around, whether it's to the Americans, the Afghan Taliban, to their own militants and to a civilian government, which they don't like and don't trust.

GJELTEN: And Dan, what does this mean for the United States? You know, Musharraf was a very important ally of U.S. administrations. You know, does the U.S. have a dog in this fight? I mean, what is -- what is the outcome sort of with -- internally in Pakistan that would be most favorable to U.S. strategic interests?

MARKEY: Well, it's a -- it's a really different and unusual time in Pakistani history insofar as, as Bob pointed out, the military doesn't have the legitimacy, the credibility, the strength, the political punch that it had had in previous generations.

And I remember reading not long ago an interesting Pakistani column that pointed out that not long ago you would have expected, given the range of crisis that we've seen over the past year, that at any given time you would have seen a Pakistani, probably General Kayani, come onto the television sometime in the evening and announce that he had been forced, for national security reasons, to assert the army's control over the state.

And yet you haven't seen that.

And you've seen the rise -- and Bob alluded to this -- of other independent power centers in Pakistani politics. It's partially the fact that the army was tarnished by the years of Musharraf's rule. It's partially that it was tarnished even by recent events by being too connected to the United States, by looking weak, by looking weak after the bin Laden raid and so on. It's partially those things, but it's also the rise of the -- of a more independent media, of political opposition, politicians and so on, and by the judiciary, which also has asserted itself in ways that we'd never seen before in Pakistani history. So they do feel -- the army does feel somewhat more constrained than it has in the past.

And yet, if you peel away some of these pieces, you see that they're still pulling a lot of the strings from behind the scenes, particularly with respect to national security strategy and to regional strategy. There's no one else who's really running that policy other than the army. So while they feel very constrained and hemmed in in ways that they haven't before, they don't have that free hand, and it also makes it somewhat more complicated to figure out who's really in charge, because it's not transparent, yet there's no one else -- the president, the prime minister, the parliament as a whole, the public or some other -- you know, you can't find somewhere else where you would find that power center. So it does complicate things for us in a -- in a diplomatic sense.

And it also -- I think it leads to a certain amount of stalemate and gridlock in their own system, and it's not surprising that they seem sometimes sort of befuddled and caught unaware by events as they happen and that we get somewhat contradictory or confusing outcomes.

GJELTEN: Now, another cliche in talking about Pakistan is that they view India as their existential enemy, and you have to sort of keep that in mind always in analyzing Pakistani behavior. Sort of bring up to date on that relationship and that focus, because, you know, one of the developments in the last few months that hasn't gotten a tremendous amount of attention is the sort of very tentative rapprochement -- that might even be too strong a word -- between India and Pakistan; some confidence-building measures, I think, is probably the best to categorize it. And what's the significance of that? And has this changed at all the strategic outlook of the Pakistani military and security forces? MARKEY: And it's interesting; you have seen this surprising mellowing of the relationship between, in a sense -- between Islamabad and New Delhi -- certainly unanticipated in New Delhi, as far as I can tell. I think Indians were somewhat caught by surprise by some of the overtures that the Pakistanis have made in recent months, including on the trade front. The Indians that I spoke with were sort of, where did this come from? What's driving this?

And I don't really have an answer, except for two observations. One would be that on the part -- on the part of the Pakistani civilian politicians, there has been an openness and an eagerness to engage, particularly on the economic front, with India for quite some time. And if given the opportunity, they have been inclined to seize that opportunity. So they've moved forward or tried to move forward on most favored nation status agreements, to open up a variety of -- trade in a variety of sectors that had been closed.

At the same time, it appears that the army may have been looking, as it felt hemmed in on all of these other fronts, to try to at least ease the pressure on the Indian front and therefore open the door a bit to the Indian politicians -- sorry, to the -- to the Pakistani politicians to make that overture to India.

But it has only gone so far. It's not -- this is -- there's nothing that is irreversible about this. There's nothing that's really been accomplished that is concrete. But it's certainly positive and it's certainly a welcome change.

GJELTEN: Steve, with all of this as background -- you know, the situation between Afghanistan, the Taliban, Pakistan, the United States, India -- what's your sense of Pakistan's view of the prospect of negotiations between the United States and Taliban -- initially kind of a two-sided negotiation? It's kind of strange that Pakistan doesn't seem to be as much of a party to that process as you might think they should be. What's your sense of what their view of it is and their interest in it?

COLL: Well, I think they have an interest in it. I think they do feel aggrieved about the extent to which they've been involved. Whether their grievances are justified or not is another matter; they feel aggrieved about quite a lot of things about the U.S. relationship.

The Afghan government and other parties to the negotiations, I think probably including sections of our government, are not persuaded that putting the Pakistanis in the lead in this negotiation is a really wise way to get it started.

So there's been tension about the extent to which the United States has been briefing the Pakistanis. That yielded, I think, over the last six months or so to a much franker exchange between both the Pakistanis and the Americans about where this thing was going, what it was going to look like.

But I -- my sense is that the Pakistanis have been reluctant to take risks on behalf of these negotiations, that it's not clear to them why it's in their interest to really put their cards on the table at this stage for the reasons that I described before in part, that their timelines are quite different. We're in a rush because we would like this all to be wrapped up with a -- with a bow in time for 2014, but that doesn't make -- that doesn't align with Pakistani perceptions.

You know, I think there are easy metrics to test Pakistani decision-making about these negotiations. They've -- as I pointed out in The New Yorker piece, they've remained silent on the desirability of the negotiations. They could issue a statement saying, we think these are a good idea; we think the Taliban ought to participate. They could release some important Taliban figures who are in custody in Pakistan, (the "Liberator" ?) being the most notable of those, and perhaps they will over time.

I think that this is not a static stalemate between the United States and Pakistan. I think the next -- I think we've possibly touched bottom in the last cycle. I don't want to be too bold to predict that because every time I see my friends, who I've been in touch with in -- about Pakistan since the late '80s, they always -- this one friend of mine has the repeated line, the good news is next year it'll be worse. (Laughter.) And he's been right for about 20 years.

And -- but there's -- there -- there's a sense that, on both sides, there is activity under way, one step at a time, to at least clear the brush. Husain Haqqani is out of Pakistan; that matter is resolved. The crisis between the army and Gilani has been smoothed over. The negotiations over transit are under sail and will probably be resolved. And outreach is going on.

So I think, over the next six or eight months, there will be an effort on both sides to try to define a limited agenda of shared interests in which the stability of Afghanistan would loom as an obvious subject because it is in Pakistan's interest to preventAfghanistan from cracking up. There is no doubt that if Afghanistan cracks up, Pakistan will suffer even more than it already has from the violence and conflict in the region and the United States would also wish to construct a transition in which Pakistan remains stable and intact as a state and so that is a pretty powerful common agenda. It would be irrational if the two sides could not find a way back to it. Whether negotiations with the Taliban are best understood as the central element of that shared agenda or not, I'm not --

MR. GJELTEN (?): Yeah.

COLL: -- I'm not so sure.

MR. GJELTEN (?): There's one other issue I want your thoughts on, and then we're going to turn it over to the audience so you can ask your own questions.

But, over the last 10 years, the one enduring principle guiding U.S. policy with respect to Afghanistan has been the determination to deny, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida. Of course in the eve of -- and you were there, Bob -- in the eve of the -- going to war in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership in power at that time did have the opportunity to avoid war by simply getting the al-Qaida out of Afghanistan. And now when we talk about these negotiations, there's a lot of confusion about what the red lines of the United States are. But one pretty clear red line is that the Taliban would have to sever their relations with al-Qaida. I'm curious, among all three of you, where do you see al-Qaida right now in this mix?

Bob, do you want to start?

GRENIER: Well, I think, in a way, al-Qaida is a little bit peripheral in the context of the dynamics on the ground and among ourselves, the Pakistanis and the Afghans. And yes, absolutely, it would be a red line for us that the Taliban would have to, in some way, you know, formally, you know, cut ties with al-Qaida. The problem is that I'm just not sure what that would mean.

I mean, at the end of the day, from the Taliban's perspective, these are good Muslims who are behaving in the right way, who are coming to us and asking for our aid and succor. And they tend to see things -- I mean, we hear that this is not your father's Taliban and that they've evolved in terms of their thinking, but it's hard for me to imagine them being put in that situation where they wouldn't see the question in a very binary way.

And the correct answer, by their likes, is, well, of course; you are welcome.

Now, they might try to put limits on them. We've seen what that looks like before. Given the weakness of al-Qaida, what I've just said may not matter all that much, particularly if there is a continuing unilateral U.S. role in Afghanistan so we can control that situation with al-Qaida should it get out of hand in certain localities. But at the end of the day, I just don't see what those sorts of promises from the Taliban would really mean in a practical way.

GJELTEN: Well, Dan, if in fact al-Qaida is peripheral to this -- to this situation, I mean, what does that imply for the United States? Because every time you ask a U.S. official, what's the justification for our involvement there, al-Qaida comes up.

MARKEY: Well, I think how a U.S. official justifies our involvement in the region on the basis of al-Qaida has something to do with American politics and so on.

And -- but the -- let me -- let me take a slightly different stab at the al-Qaida. I wouldn't say that al-Qaida is peripheral, although it is significantly diminished. What I would also observe is something that's -- getting back to the report from a year ago, pieces of it are, I think, somewhat dated. So much has happened over the year. But one of the pieces that, looking back, I thought was useful and important --

GJELTEN: You're talking about the task force report?

MARKEY: -- the task force report, yeah -- is the -- its focus on LeT, Lashkar-e-Taiba. Not all assessments of the regional threat from Pakistan and Afghanistan, certainly focusing more on Pakistan, really emphasize this as an issue. And the U.S. government has certainly ramped up its concern and some of its rhetoric about LeT, particularly after the 2008 Mumbai attack. And yet if you look at the region and you look at al-Qaida as increasingly a diminished or spent force, the question is whether you're likely to see follow-on groups, organizations that are still motivated to undertake similar types of attacks in the region and globally. If you had to put your finger on any of the groups that might be the one, today it's LeT. And its continuing ties or apparent ties with the Pakistani state make it exceptionally dangerous and in some ways unique. And even over the past few weeks you've seen stories about its sort of -- he would say he's no longer the leader of LeT, but Hafiz Saeed -- you've seen some stories about increasing public appearances, demonstrations. This is an organization that is still strong, still active. And if we keep -- if we take our eye off that ball, even if we have seriously decimated al-Qaida, I think we will be underestimating the nature of the threat -- the terrorist threat from the region that will persist for a significant period of time.

GJELTEN: Steve, do you agree with that, that al-Qaida is really no longer the story that it was and that other actors are more important?

COLL: Well, I mean, let's remind ourselves of the -- of the background. By 2005-2006 al-Qaida in the tribal areas had become a revived international menace -- the planes-bombing conspiracy of 2006, multiple attacks in Britain, the Zazi case, up -- moving forward through 2007-2008 after the Red Mosque, when even more radicals flushed out and went up to the tribal regions, there was a gathering there of international capacity that al-Qaida had put together circa that period. Then the United States started pounding them and has pounded them pretty relentlessly for a period of two or three years, starting toward the tail end of the Bush administration, but picking up intensively in the Obama administration. And that has had a big impact on them. They've obviously -- culminating in bin Laden's killing last May.

Now, there is a -- there is an interesting question, which is if al-Qaida is diminished to the point that it is no longer a global strategic threat, how would we ever recognize that; what would the implications be? And I think the critical question is are there individuals, groups, networks who still intend to carry out attacks outside the region, and that there will probably always be some who -- about whom that can be said. They may be splinters from groups like Lashkar and Jaish-e-Muhammad and some of the sectarian groups. That's the form of al-Qaida that probably has the most durability.

You know, in Afghanistan, al-Qaida really is peripheral. I mean, it maybe a hundred, 200 people, and that's being generous to the Uzbeks and others who fly under the al-Qaida flag. And the interrogations of the -- of the Taliban, though you know, obviously, it's in the interest of detained Taliban to -- they know what the Americans want to hear about al-Qaida, so they distance themselves.

But I had this interesting experience in December where I traveled independently in Kandahar, so I had to kind of dress local.

And all my Kandahari friends were very anxious that I look authentic so that I didn't attract attention to the cars we were riding around in. And I remember I went shopping in Kabul to get all of my Kandahari fashions right. And --

MR. GJELTEN (?): Where'd you find a beard?

COLL: Well, so I -- well, I did try. And -- (laughter) -- but I remember -- I remember -- I remember the night before I flew down, I looked in the mirror and I said, OK, I do not look like a Kandahari at all, but I do look like a Syrian al-Qaida facilitator. (Laughter.)

And in fact, on the ground, riding around, I presented as basically al-Qaida to -- because I was -- looked -- blended dresswise, but fair -- and all of my Kandahari friends and contacts and everyone I dealt with said, you watch; as soon as anyone picks you up, they're going to turn and run in the other direction. Nobody wants anything to do with al-Qaida because it is nothing but trouble. And it was actually a very useful position for me to be in. (Laughter.)

(Chuckles.) Just turn and look the other way.

But yeah, so I -- and I did not -- I have not heard in years, outside of a few little places where -- certainly not in the south -- of any significant al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan.

GJELTEN: Yeah. Well, I'm curious what some of you might think about the implications of al-Qaida being such a diminished sort of part of the narrative in South Asia right now.

I'm been dragging these guys hither and yon all over the strategic landscape in South Asia. Maybe you folks can focus this discussion a little bit more. So this is your chance. Raise your hands. Identify yourself. Wait for the microphone. You know the drill.

Ambassador Schaffer.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Tezi Schaffer, Brookings.

I'm troubled by all three presentations because I think all three of them dramatically underplay the conflict in strategic objectives between the United States and Pakistan. I don't think the Pakistanisare ambivalent about U.S.-Taliban negotiations; I think they want to be in charge. I don't think they're unwilling to take risks for an outcome in Afghanistan that the U.S. would find acceptable. I think that's not what's important to them. What's important to them is being the dominant power and freezing out India.

The key question facing the U.S., it seems to me, is, is Pakistan willing and able to reach some kind of strategic agreement with the United States? I am deeply skeptical that this is the case now, not just because of all the emotion churned up in the past year, but also because as time has gone on, these strategic conflicts have become deeper and edgier, so that a year or two ago, there would've been a strong case to make for the U.S. humoring Pakistan's sensitivities in Afghanistan in the hopes of getting agreement on some outcome we could all live with; I think that case is much weaker now. And I think is the big problem the U.S. faces, plus the fact that Pakistan is a bigger prize than Afghanistan.

GJELTEN: Who wants to take a crack at that?

MR. GRENIER (?): Well, I agree with Tezi. (Chuckles.) In fact, I think that that's absolutely right. I think that the Pakistanis are focused like a laser beam on their own interests. And under these ambiguous circumstances, they have no assurances that their interests will be taken into account by any process which is led by the United States. And I think that you're right, that the influence of India in Afghanistan figures very, very heavily within the Pakistani calculation.

And so I think that if there is any hope for us to reach some sort of a strategic accommodation there, I think we have to realize a couple of things. One is that, as much as we would like to sort of have the equal involvement of all of the -- of the neighbors of Afghanistan, in fact, there is one neighbor that counts much more than all the others, and that's Pakistan. It's just a reality and something that we have to accommodate, at least to some degree.

I think that it's also true, therefore, that any achievable accommodation in Afghanistan that could have some support from the Pakistani side would require a great deal of difficult negotiation between ourselves -- well, I guess, amongst ourselves, the Afghans -- if you will, the Northern Alliance-dominated Afghans -- and India. And it's easy for me to sit here and say that it would be a grand exercise in enlightened self-interest if the Indians were to pull back to some degree in Afghanistan. It's going to be very, very difficult to convince them of that, however.

But the other real trump in all of this is that, you know, it would be nice if, at the end of the day, we could reach some sort of an -- of an accommodation with the Afghan parties and with the Pakistanis, which we might not particularly like, but we'd swallow hard and agree to if the Pakistanis could deliver. And I just don't think that they can deliver. I mean, I sort of fantasize about havingsort of a Bashar al-Assad-type conversation with the Afghan Taliban where he sits down and says, look, you know, you're my brothers.

And we are with you, and we want to do everything we possibly can for you, but this is the best we can do. And it's up to you whether you accept it, but you should accept it.

There's no one in Pakistan who can have that kind of conversation with them, and that, to me, is what scotches the whole thing. If the Pakistanis could actually deliver at the end of the day, we could use some kind of a deal. I just don't see how they can deliver.

COLL: But you know, I would just add -- I mean, Pakistan has a record of miscalculation in Afghanistan that is just appalling and persistent. It must reflect in a failure to understand Afghanistan adequately to manage Pakistan's own interests there.

They've picked the wrong clients again and again. They -- they'll lecture Americans about how Afghanistan is, but in fact their understanding of Afghanistan's internal dynamics, factions and decision-making is misguided. They misapprehend India's intention and presence in the country to a great degree. And they make -- they've made strategic judgments on the basis of bad analysis.

Now, I think there is some recognition in Pakistan -- quiet, unadmitted -- I don't -- I -- which shouldn't be a requirement that they come forward and confess these errors publicly; they're written into history. I think there's a recognition, at least in some quarters, that these mistakes are grave and part of a pattern of overreaching. And there's -- you know, there's a sort of tentative search for, well, what would a Pakistani strategy in Afghanistan that wasn't overreaching look like? And I haven't heard an articulation of that from the Pakistani side that any Afghan I know in a position of authority would recognize as a plausible basis for a settlement.

So, at best, you could say we're at the very beginning of a new imagination. But then you look at Pakistani conduct, and Pakistani conduct is the "same old, same old" --

GJELTEN: Now you --

COLL: -- whether it's out of weakness or aspiration.

GJELTEN: Well, you said before that they speak -- that they think in the long term; yet in some ways it seems like they have a very short-term perspective and kind of, as you've all agreed, kind of lack strategic sort of depth in their thinking sometimes. COLL: Yeah, they have a language of strategy and certainly enduring interests and an acute sense of prerogative about Pakistan's national security, you know, which is -- which is the -- justified in any sovereign country in principle.

But as to Afghanistan, they have proceeded from flawed assumptions about the pliability of Afghanistan to their strategy, about who -- what clients are durable, about the nature of power- sharing in Kabul, about the enmity of the Northern Alliance. I mean, they've miscalculated on big questions again and again.


QUESTIONER: Thanks. Chris Isham from CBS. I think we're kind of dancing around something here, and I wonder -- maybe the land of fantasy -- it's unclear to me what kind of a deal might possibly exist. What kind of a deal could we negotiate with the Taliban, with Pakistan, as their supporters, that could even be conceivably realistic? I mean, India out, girls' education, participation in the democratic process -- I mean, you know, what kind of a deal, even in -- even in the fantasy world do you -- do the three of you think could you possibly put on the table that might have a chance of getting off the ground? And also considering that the unpopularity of the Taliban, which continues -- we continue to see in the polling.

COLL: Well, I mean --

GJELTEN: Go ahead.

MR. : Sorry.

COLL: Well, I mean, it's just worth pointing out there are former Taliban sitting in Parliament now. There are former HezB (ph) sitting in Parliament now. History is full of insurgent movements that converted to politics. So the idea generally would be to convert the Taliban into a political party or some section of the Taliban into a political party.

Obviously not every Taliban under arms -- and perhaps not even half of Taliban under arms -- would follow such an agreement, but to reduce violence, to sustain the state in Afghanistan, it's certainly conceivable that a section of Taliban could be persuaded to enter politics. That's the -- I'm not offering odds; I'm just saying that's the conceivable framework.

And then power-sharing in the center, but not control; it -- devolved administration in which former Taliban are governors of provinces where they've historically been influential. Those are the sorts of things that people talk about. Even Afghans talk about that.

Afghans can imagine a stable -- a semistable power-sharing arrangement. They've already negotiated such an arrangement with weakperipheral members of the Taliban. They know how to make those deals sustainable. But whether a strategic partnership of that type is conceivable, that's another matter.

GJELTEN: Go ahead -- go.

MR. : All right.

MARKEY: I would only make the observation that it doesn't have to be a grand bargain that everybody's included, and I think you're alluding to this.

The process of a reconciliation dialogue can be primarily geared towards a narrower goal of peeling elements of the Taliban away, those who are willing in some way to be co-opted or encouraged to be a part of some sort of future Afghan politics. And the rest can be further driven to sort of the irreconcilable category, and then dealt with in other ways.

I think a broader observation, though: I'm also quite skeptical about the direction that our reconciliation agenda is taking, but for a different reason and a -- and a reason that has, I guess, more to do with Pakistan than with Afghanistan -- although I'm -- I don't know how a lot of Afghans would accept any kind of reconciliation.

But just on the Pakistan side, the message that we send to Pakistan, particularly when our reconciliation dialogue is increasingly open to all members of the Taliban, including the Haqqani network -- or at least apparently that way -- is that their strategy, their connections with these groups over the past decade that we have harped on again and again and again as being dangerous both to them and to us and to the region -- their strategy, in their mind, looks like it's working; that we're coming around -- and I've heard exactly this -- that we're coming around to their vision of the problem, which is that all of these groups can be incorporated and all of them should have a role to play in Afghanistan, no matter what blood is on their hands or what their -- the nature of their previous relationship with al-Qaida may or may not have been.

As we come closer to that, I think we send -- it's a missed opportunity, in a sense, for what you might call a learning moment for Pakistan to see the danger of its connections with these types of organizations. And as I mentioned Lashkar-e-Taiba before, the only sort of logical conclusion that you might reach out of all of this is that connections with militants work; it is a valuable and effective tool for regional diplomacy. And if you're a Pakistani, you might have good reasons to hold onto those tools into the future, even when they are exceedingly difficult to manage and exceedingly dangerous to Pakistan itself and certainly court the possibility of a future conflict between Pakistan and us, between Pakistan and India, and so on.

So I'm worried about reconciliation more for that reason. And I believe that our management of the process and who's in and who's out is meaningful and interpreted in important ways by Pakistanis for that reason.

GJELTEN: Yes, to you, ma'am -- you, yeah.

QUESTIONER: Avis Bohlen, retired diplomat. I -- I'm sort of puzzled by something I'm hearing several of you saying, which is that Pakistan doesn't understand its own interests in this -- in this situation; which implies that somehow we have understood what their interests are and are -- you know, are sort of looking at it from up above and can understand what their greater -- what their greater interest is. That doesn't really make a lot of sense to me. I mean, I think we've -- for every miscalculation that Pakistan may have made in Afghanistan, we've made about 10. Why is it impossible that they should -- as you've said, there's a longer timeline, and they're looking at a longer situation and how it will evolve over time. Why is that not a perfectly valid definition of their own interest, which may not be very much in line with our own?

And just a second short question. Is India's interest in Afghanistan strategic or opportunistic, economic? What's its game?

GRENIER: Well, maybe I could just address the first part of that.


GRENIER: And I guess -- I guess what I would say is that even if the combined genius of the people on this stage is able to perceive Pakistani interests in Afghanistan better than they can -- even if we accept that -- it doesn't matter, because at the end of the day, Pakistanis are going to follow their interests as they perceive them. We're going to have to play that ball where it lies. And, yes, it can be moved, perhaps. They are not -- they are not completely immune to some types of suasion -- not pressure, but suasion. But at the end of the day, Pakistani views of their interests in Afghanistan are what they are, and we're going to have to deal with them as they are.

GJELTEN: One of the points that you've made, Bob, is that this whole idea of carrots-and-stick and the transactional sort of approach just doesn't work with Pakistan.

GRENIER: Well, I think that that raises another question. And that is that at the start of the -- of this administration, I was one of the ones in one of the many studies who said, look, we have to get away from this transactional dynamic here; we really need to develop some more of a strategic approach to our relations with Pakistan. You know, we'll -- for the long term, we'll -- I think we've reached a point now where any kind of a transactional relationship would actually look pretty good. (Laughter.)

So I think that the best we can hope for, at least in the short term, is, yes, a transactional relationship, but a transactional relationship that's focused on deals that are actually makeable. GJELTEN: Steve?

COLL: Well, let me just clarify the point that I was making earlier.

I think Pakistan has a record of failing to achieve its own objectives in Afghanistan. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, it pursued a (coup-making ?) strategy to seize control of Kabul through Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's forces and failed to do that. Afterwards it sought to control Afghanistan as a -- as a source of strategic depth, as Pakistani generals put it, through the Taliban. The -- even after they installed the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, that proved not to be a durable strategy because the Taliban were not in fact able to carry Pakistan's interests in the way that the army had conceived. That's the reason that I think they have miscalculated again and again.

I certainly agree that whatever they -- you know, that the sovereign state of Pakistan will decide its own interests for itself. And countries, like people, have a funny way of not bending to other people's perceptions of what their interests are.

The -- I think, however, that history of failure is important because it was created by a narrow set of institutions in Pakistani national life, the army and the intelligence services, and that the policies that would be constructed by a Pakistan that enjoyed more normal civil-military relations and, indeed, more normal civilian control over foreign policy, would be far more likely to succeed. And coincidentally, they would also align better with the interests of the United States over the long run.

But the record of failure speaks for itself, and it is not a record that was created by a unified or civilian-led Pakistani government.

GJELTEN: Dan, you had a quick point.

MARKEY: Yeah, just a quick observation on India. Yes, it does, I think, have a strategic interest in Afghanistan. That relates to an interest that's similar to ours, which is that they've suffered from terrorist acts that have originated in Afghanistan. They have an interest in making sure that they don't see a return to a Taliban or Taliban-like regime that would play host to those kinds of groups. So that's their first interest.

Beyond that, some Indians have greater ambition for more access to Central Asian -- Asia, to energy markets and so on that would only really be possible if there was a relatively stable Afghanistan through which they could traverse. But it would also require them tobe able to get through Pakistan for the most part, unless they went through Iran.

GJELTEN: You had a question?

QUESTIONER: Hi, Pamela Constable from the Washington Post. Just a quick point of order: Did I understand or mishear -- is this in fact on the record?

GJELTEN: Yes, it is on the record.

QUESTIONER: OK, great. Thanks.

I sort of wanted to change the conversation a little bit. We've been talking a lot sort of state to state and organization to organization and talking about al-Qaida and other groups as sort of almost formal entities. I've tried to explore both countries sort of more from the inside, sort of more in terms of public opinion and public sentiment. Very glad Dan talked about LeT, because I think -- and in fact, I'd like to ask Steve about this as well, because the New America has done some very, very good polling.

LeT is a popular organization. The Taliban are a popular organization. In both of these societies, we are looking at populations -- Muslim populations who are both more conservative, more emotionally defensive and supportive about sort of a muscular version, if not necessarily a violent version, of Islam than we, I think, were expecting or necessarily prepared to deal with. I think we've been focusing a lot militarily and a lot, again, state to state, making assumptions about who's in power. These are both very weak states, including the Pakistan army, facing increasingly opinionated, vocal and violent populations who are -- have very, very strong feelings about Islam and are increasingly anti-Western. So I was hoping that the speakers could comment on sort of what they see about happening in both of these societies as well as the state actors and the organizations that we've been talking about. Thank you.

GJELTEN: Steve, why don't you take a crack at that, because you've got recent on-the-ground experience there, and I want to get to some other questions.

COLL: Well, just to speak of Pakistan, Pakistan is a very young society. It's also a very plugged-in society, and it has a lot of the demographic and connectivity characteristics that preceded the Arab Spring. I think the rise of confidence in civil society and the media and the judiciary reflects a sense that Pakistan is changing from the bottom up. And I think the army recognizes that, and that's why they would, I think, be unwise and recognize they would be unwise to intervene in politics the way they have in the past, as Dan was pointing out earlier.

They're -- the polling -- one -- somebody mentioned before about the role the United States now plays in the life of Pakistan. We did a -- some polling recently, where it was sort of startling to realize that many more Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy than regard India as an enemy. Considering that at the time that we did that polling, India had recently concluded what you might call its fourth war with Pakistan in 1999, and we were providing substantial aid to the country, the sense of being under siege, I think, is very widely felt in the country.

GJELTEN: Well, we're going to have to wrap this discussion up. I got time for one more quick question. I see Joe back there. And then you can grab us afterwards or something, but quick question from Joe Cirincione..

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Thank you very much for comments. Joe Cirincione, Ploughshares Fund. And thank you, Tom (sp), for your fluid chairing of this insightful panel.

Next week I'm going to a meeting where I'm expected to give recommendations for U.S. policy towards Pakistan, and I have no idea what to say. (Laughter.) So help me out. Give me the one thing, each of you, that the U.S. should be doing with Pakistan that it's not doing now.

GJELTEN: One sentence each.

Dan, you're a policy planning guy, so you can start.

MARKEY: Sure. I'll go -- I will -- I will take the safe route -- go back to a recommendation that was in our task force report, which has been made for about a decade now and still hasn't been acted upon, and it has to do with our trading relationship with Pakistan. There's a -- there's an opportunity there in the textile sector to open up.

Now, this is politically dead on Capitol Hill right now because nobody is particularly eager to do more for Pakistan. But once we hopefully get back to a position where we recognize that Pakistan's -- excuse me -- longer-term stability is of a meaningful significance to us, and we start to ask how we might do that without spending billions -- tens of billions of dollars in aid, trade starts to look more palatable.


GRENIER: I guess my first piece of advice would be figure out what the U.S. posture in Afghanistan post-2014 is going to look like, and then get there as quickly as you can and as credibly as you can, because unless we can communicate that in a credible way, we won't have the basis on which to reach a whole series of other agreements with the -- with the Pakistanis. And a whole series of decisions on the part of other players will be predicated -- (from ?) the part of the Pakistanis, the part of the Afghan Taliban and others -- on what the continuing U.S. posture in Afghanistan for the long term is -- (inaudible) -- going to look like.

COLL: Yeah, I think the record of failure of U.S. policy in Pakistan is informed, you know, by this pattern of constantly privileging short-term security crises over long-term civilian control over the country and the development of normal civil-military relations in Pakistan, as well as a pattern of coming and going in emotional states every 10 years.

And so I would wish to reset, since resetting is now necessary, around a long -- a clear, durable, long-term commitment to civilian- led democracy in Pakistan as articulated by Pakistanis themselves. That is what Pakistan wishes for itself. It has a constitutional system that has often produced very flawed civilian leaders. That policy does not require the diminishment of the army's role in protecting Pakistan's borders and national security, but it does mean returning to the first principles of American relations with big, large quasi-democracies like Pakistan, which to have the courage of our own convictions. Even at every moment that we're tested, we are often -- we often mute ourselves in the context of Pakistan in ways we would never would in Indonesia or Tunisia or even Colombia or Mexico. And so I think that we've got to stop deterring ourselves from the pursuit of this -- of the Pakistan that so many Pakistanis themselves envision.

GJELTEN: Well, Joe, I get -- you've got some talking points now. And I hope that -- (laughter) -- I hope that's helpful.

Well, I'd like to thank Steve Coll and Bob Grenier and Dan Markey for coming. I'd like to thank you all.







Top Stories on CFR


The Biden administration is imposing a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. What could a boycott accomplish, and how might China respond?


Ukraine has struggled to forge an independent path, torn between Europe and the United States in the West and its long-standing ties to Russia in the East.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Separatist rhetoric among Bosnian Serb leadership is raising concerns about the dissolution of Bosnia. It’s part of a nationalist wave across the Balkans that threatens a return of ethnic conflict.