Council Expert Ispahani: U.S.-Pakistan ’Marriage’ Needs Serious Counseling

Council Expert Ispahani: U.S.-Pakistan ’Marriage’ Needs Serious Counseling

December 31, 2003 4:38 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Mahnaz Ispahani, the Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for South and West Asia and co-executive director of the Council-Asia Society Independent Task Force on New Priorities in South Asia, says that President Pervez Musharraf’s policy of cooperating with the United States and his moves to dampen tensions in Kashmir may have helped provoke the two attempts on his life in the past month.

But Ispahani expresses concern over future developments in Pakistan, and has misgivings about the seeming ability of Pakistani nuclear scientists to help out other countries. As far as U.S.-Pakistani relations, she says “it is a marriage in need of some serious counseling.”

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Ispahani was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on December 30, 2003.

There have been two recent attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. What is the reason for these violent episodes on December 14 and 25?

My understanding of these two attacks is that there are groups very angry at this stage with General Musharraf’s support for U.S. policies in the region. A component of that support has been his efforts intermittently to clamp down on Islamist groups and so-called neo-Taliban elements in Pakistan and in the border areas with Afghanistan and Kashmir. As you probably know, they have identified two of the killers in this second attack, one possibly being an Afghan and the other a Kashmiri Jihadi [holy war] fighter.

One important aspect, however, of these two recent assassination attempts is that the president normally has quite extraordinary security. There is a significant body of opinion forming now that there were some insider connections to these two attempts because information about the president’s movements is usually so closely held. There are duplicate convoys that move when he moves.

There is a consensus emerging that somehow security around the president was breached. Security responsibility lies with the intelligence and the army.

Of course there have been rumors for some time that there was dissatisfaction with his policies within the military and intelligence branches who were more prone to support radical Islamists.

I cannot say at this moment that the breach came from within the military. The military is still quite hierarchical and responds to his leadership, particularly at the highest levels. But yes, you are right that some intelligence units have supported the Jihadi groups and perhaps that’s where the breach occurred. The main point here is that the assassination attempts should focus U.S. policy minds on what will happen to Pakistan post-Musharraf.

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Crisis Guide: Pakistan

Let’s break down some of these issues. From the U.S. perspective, the effort has been to get Musharraf to lean more heavily on his forces to block off the border areas with Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from going back and forth across the border and also to help in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, General Musharraf has recently seemed completely preoccupied with the Kashmir problem. Has there been progress between General Musharraf and the Indian government on quieting the situation in Kashmir?

There have been some interesting developments in Indo-Pakistan relations since last April when India and Pakistan began trading peace overtures. The Pakistanis declared a cease-fire on November 23; that cease-fire has still held. That’s been an important beginning. Additionally, India had made a series of gestures toward Pakistan in the last four or five months to open up transport and trade and other economic links. The Pakistanis in the last month took up that mantle and have really moved forward to negotiate restoration of air links, road links, and links between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. And importantly, the Pakistanis have announced that they will not make Kashmir an issue in the upcoming meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which is actually supposed to meet in Islamabad next week.

The reason I say it is important that the Pakistan government has announced that they are not going to raise Kashmir is because the Indians have argued since 1972 that Kashmir should not be raised in regional forums, that it is a bilateral issue. The Pakistanis, at least in the past, have tended to raise Kashmir at every opportunity and at every forum. Likely Kashmir will be discussed in bilateral, private settings between Musharraf and [Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari] Vajpayee. And recently, Musharraf clamped down yet again on some of the jihadi groups operating in Kashmir. These clampdowns have historically not lasted very long, or the groups have re-emerged with new names or new bank accounts. But he has yet again arrested several militants from banned organizations.

Was the Kashmiri killed in the most recent assassination attempt from one of these banned groups?

Yes, he was reportedly from Jaish-e-Mohammed [JEM], the Army of Mohammed.

This is a group not in parliament, right?

Yes. The Islamist parties are actually political parties. These jihadi groups are active, militant organizations that operate completely in the nongovernmental world, or underworld. The political parties that are in parliament, the JUI [Jamiat Ulema-i-Islami], the JUP [Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan], and the Jamaat e Islami do have ties to some of these militant groups, but there is a formal distinction between those operating in the political process and the extremists.

Let’s talk about the Taliban, which is of great interest to the Americans. Has the border situation improved any?

Not according to my colleagues who have recently talked with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. But according to the Pakistanis, they are making every effort they can to manage that extremely porous border. Journalists have demonstrated that there is a great deal of activity coming out of the Pakistani border areas from what are called neo-Taliban groups going across into southern Afghanistan, which is causing a severe problem for the Afghan government. When I was in Pakistan, I must say, in private discussions and in official meetings, the Pakistanis reacted most angrily to this particular accusation— that they were not doing enough.

Their anger was based on several points. One, which I just mentioned, is that they believe they are as active as they can be in a part of the country where, prior to this, no Pakistani or British government had operated.

And in places like Baluchistan, the central government in the past had almost no role along the borders.

Particularly further northwest in north and south Waziristan, which are in the tribal belt. The Pakistanis point to how much they are doing, and the United States points to how little they are doing.

The second point they make, which we have not paid enough attention to in the United States, is the challenge of the Pashtun. Pakistan has a larger Pashtun population than Afghanistan. And these are fraternal tribes. So what happened— in the period following the initial United States bombings in Afghanistan in 2001 and the United States support for the Northern Alliance troops that then took Kabul— was that the Pashtun who were Taliban were defeated and completely thrown out of power. Karzai, who is of Pashtun background but without a major Pashtun constituency, was made the head of [Afghanistan’s] transitional government, but all the key personnel surrounding him were from the tiny minority in the north— the Tadjiks and the Uzbeks— because they had won the war with the United States. The Pakistanis have always had some say in Afghanistan’s central government politics, primarily because it flows over into their own. They felt pushed out and had to deal with the politics of their own Pashtun.

Now, slowly, the constitutional process, it is hoped, will bring more Pashtun into the government structure in Afghanistan and into parliament, and thereby reduce some of the pressure for this support that goes from the Pashtuns in Pakistan to the Pashtuns in Afghanistan.

Let’s go back to President Musharraf. He agreed recently to resign as head of the army in 2004, and the Islamist parties agreed to allow him to remain as president. What is that deal about?

In parliament, the upper and lower houses have agreed to let him remain as president until 2007, which in a sense is to legitimize what many people thought was not a very fair process by which he had himself elected in a widely suspect referendum and then passed a series of orders amending the constitution known jointly as the Legal Framework Ordinance or the LFO.

Does this strengthen him or weaken him?

I think it was the only route he could take. It still gives him the power to dismiss the prime minister, but it limits his ability to do that. He now has to take the matter to the supreme court, which has 15 days to offer judgment. One could argue that the supreme courts in Pakistan have sadly been quite pliable institutions. So I wouldn’t think that he has lost too much of his power there.

What is interesting to me is the question: what does it mean for Musharraf’s main constituency, the army, when he takes off the uniform? He obviously has a good sense of who will succeed him. The army is very clear on those things. By March 2004, Musharraf will complete his final rotation of senior military commanders. But as we know from history, once a person is put in the driver’s seat, you can’t really control his activities. In Pakistan, in the 1970s, the then-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who became prime minister, lifted up General Zia ul-Haq, who was a very lowly general, nowhere in line to be chief of army staff, and he made him chief because he thought he was a pliable man who would do his bidding. But this was the man who eventually hanged him.

So one big question is when Musharraf takes off his uniform, what has he negotiated within the army? That’s the negotiation we don’t know about. If you put the most positive spin on it, the deal puts Pakistan one step forward toward some kind of negotiated democratic dispensation. If you look at the downside, Musharraf has refused again to negotiate with the secular parties. He cut this deal entirely with the Islamist parties. Again, the big question there is, what has he offered them? What is the quid pro quo?

Let’s talk for a few minutes on the nuclear question. With Libya now agreeing to give up all its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, it again appears that the Pakistani nuclear industry was involved with Libya. Is this still a troubling situation?

Very much so. Two senior scientists in Pakistan were recently detained for “debriefing” in connection with the Iranian nuclear program.

These were people who worked for Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan’s program? [Dr. Khan is known as the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb.]

They were detained on the basis of what the Iranians reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It isn’t clear if U.S. agents or the Pakistanis or both are questioning them. The Pakistanis insist it has only been them. But there are indications that the United States has been questioning them. This has been very troubling. In the past, people have focused a great deal on whether Pakistan’s weapons were disassembled, whether the facilities are safe and secure, whether there are ways the United States can assist Pakistan to make these physical assets safer, more protected, under the military as has always been the case.

But as you see, there is not enough monitoring of these scientists. The Pakistanis claim that these are individuals operating out of greed, rather than from government policy. That doesn’t make me feel very secure. What you are telling me is you don’t vet your scientists, you don’t control them. You do not, as you keep telling us, maintain the safety and security of your system. A general told me two days before the scientists were detained that all systems were safe and secure under military control. They can’t have it both ways.

This is a program that has evolved over a long period of time. It is a very sophisticated program. Despite all the U.S. war gaming, there are no realistic options to take it out or remove it.

What about the reported trade of Pakistani nuclear know-how for North Korean missiles? Has this been brought under control?

The Bush administration has sought to not bring undue attention to these violations. They have been overly protective and given Pakistan what amounts to a slap on the wrist. They’ve made calculations that there is too much at stake. The dependence on Pakistan in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda is too great. And Musharraf has given assurances that this did not happen under his watch, or if it did, it has stopped. The problem is that you have a country which is an ally of the United States, reportedly proliferating nuclear know-how to the countries that the Bush administration has labeled as the “axis of evil.” Once again, the Pakistanis absolutely deny it. I think on the Iranian program, it is too hard to deny, and there may be some hard evidence.

I would make one comparison again. When the goal was to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the United States looked aside while Pakistan began to develop quite actively its nuclear program. In 1985, a Pakistani nuclear procurer was actually caught in Philadelphia trying to buy switching devices for nuclear weapons. The Pakistanis denied this was so and U.S. aid to Pakistan continued to flow. Then, when the Soviets left and the Pakistanis lapsed again into geopolitical unimportance, the United States slapped sanctions on them. It did not cost the United States anything. Now, when the stakes are high again in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda, the United States may again look aside. But it seems to me that fighting the war on terrorism is exacting very high costs in the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We have not learned from past experience when we gave the Pakistanis basically a “bye” for six to eight years to do what they were doing.

So how reliable an ally is Pakistan?

We have to remember that the Pakistani military government has its own set of regional realities and interests which do not always overlay neatly with United States interests. Where they do, there can be accommodation. I do believe that Musharraf is very determined to get some of the al Qaeda vipers out of the Pakistani nest. So there is that shared interest, but beyond that we have to remember, and as the Pakistanis keep saying, they have to live there, and America comes and goes. That’s the basis of the relationship. It is a marriage in need of some serious counseling.


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