Tellis: Pakistan’s Mixed Record on Anti-Terrorism

Ashley J. Tellis, a leading expert on South Asia, says he expects a coalition government of the late Benazir Bhutto’s party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) party which backs President Musharraf to emerge from the February 18 elections.

February 5, 2008

Interview
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.

Ashley J. Tellis, a leading expert on South Asia who has served in the National Security Council and State Department as a senior adviser, says he expects a coalition government of the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) party, which backs President Musharraf, to emerge from the February 18 elections. He also says Pakistan has a mixed record on anti-terrorism and still tolerates Taliban elements that operate from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan.

The Pakistani parliamentary elections, which were postponed after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, will take place on February 18. What should we look for? What should we expect? Do we have any idea which parties will come out ahead in this election?

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Well, you know that is really the $1 million question. I don’t think even President Pervez Musharraf, despite his control of the intelligence services and despite the role that the intelligence services have been playing in shaping the outcome, even knows the answers. What seems to be the most likely guess is that they are heading towards a hung parliament, where no single party gets the majority. But there are really two parties that I think are likely to garner the most number of seats. The first is of course, Mrs. Bhutto’s party, the PPP—that is the Pakistan People’s Party—which will be trading in part on the sympathy vote. And the second is the Pakistan Muslim League (Q)… which is the party that has supported Musharraf. Now from Musharraf’s point of view, the question really for him is, if it turns out this way can a viable coalition be formed between the PPP and the PML-Q? He wants, of course, a coalition that brings a certain modicum of stability in the political environment that permits him to validate his reelection as president, and that at least offers a tacit commitment that parliament will not challenge the decisions he has made, either on the constitution or with respect to the dismissal of the Supreme Court justices.

Now this was the original understanding before Mrs. Bhutto came back, wasn’t it? That she would have ended up as prime minister of this government?

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That is exactly right. In fact if you get this electoral outcome it would mimic at least partly the deal he made with her. Now the deal he had made with her, though, had envisaged the PPP under Bhutto winning close to an absolute majority. So in that sense there may be a slight deviation, but you’re right. This outcome would reflect more or less the kind of agreement that he had envisaged with her several months ago.

Will the prime minister be her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who now heads the PPP?

What her husband has said is that the prime ministerial candidate, at least for the moment, is likely to be Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who has been a long-term PPP leader. Some uncertainty arises because it appears that her Zardari is trying to get elected to parliament through a bye-election that will take place several months after the main election which is to take place on February 18. If he gets elected through such an election, then the question of whether he will want to be leader of the party or prime minister at that point is really an interesting question. We don’t know what his own ambitions are in that respect.

If the election looks like it was held honestly, that will do a lot to repair Pakistan’s image abroad, particularly in this country.

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It would not only go a great deal toward repairing the image, but what it would actually do is give us some sense about what Pakistani political preferences actually are. And to the degree that these preferences actually are accepted by the party politic it will be an important waypoint in the transition toward a civilianization of military rule.

Now, I’m jumping a distance here. Last week this al-Qaeda commander Abu Laith al-Libi was apparently killed by a missile. Neither the United States nor Pakistan has claimed any credit for this officially. And if it was the United States that did it, as most press reports suggest, Pakistan has certainly not protested. What do you think is going on here?

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I think there is essentially a tacit understanding that when such events occur, theUnited Stateswill neither confirm nor deny, and the Pakistanis will pretend to have absolutely no view on the issue. I think this is an understanding that is reached for very obvious political reasons. Musharraf cannot be seen domestically as acquiescing to a foreign power conducting military operations on Pakistani soil. And the United States does not want to put Musharraf in the awkward position of having to attest to these operations by saying that it was an American platform that essentially executed the attack. And so I think that this is something that suits both parties, it’s something that we have tried to do essentially since at least 2004, to conduct these operations with no fingerprints. And as long as these are effective in getting the “bad guys,” this kind of ambiguity is something that both sides can live with.

It’s been reported for years now that al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, and his crew are holed up somewhere in Pakistan.

Osama bin Laden and his crew are most likely in the northern Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in what is called the Bajaur agency.

And is the Taliban leadership in the Pakistancity of Quetta?

Yes; the Kandahari clique that was expelled from Afghanistan, led by Mullah Omar, and the coterie around him.

Now obviously the Pakistani security forces know they’re there.

Yes.

And this is not in some distant territory. Why don’t the Pakistani forces just take them out?

It appears that they have been there now for several years. So that’s fact number one. Fact number two is that they are in part of Pakistan that is not in the stateless areas of the FATA. They are in the populated areas, in the provincial capital of Balochistan. That’s fact number two. Fact number three is that it is almost certain that the Pakistani intelligence agencies knows the location of these individuals and actually has some kind of a liaison relationship with them. But the Pakistani state has consistently refused to go after them, and I think the reason for that is a complex blend of geopolitical calculations.

“This outcome would reflect more or less the kind of agreement that [Musharraf] had envisaged with [Benazir Bhutto] several months ago.”

First, these werePakistan’s clients for close to seven or eight years. They feel extremely awkward about going after people in whom they invested a lot and built very deep relations with. So that’s one reason. The second reason is that they see this Taliban leadership essentially as a hedge in case things in Afghanistan go really sour. So for them, they look at the Taliban leadership as a sort of reliable backup force. You don’t want to use them, but it’s good to have them in the quiver. So I don’t see, as long as the situation inAfghanistancontinues to remain unsettled, any Pakistani effort to interdict this leadership. They really think of these guys as a strategic asset.

And is it your impression that these are the guys who are directing the attacks in Afghanistan against the NATO coalition forces?

At least in southern Afghanistan. The way the operations in Afghanistan work themselves out now is …you really have three fronts. You have the group operating out of Quetta, which is Mullah Omar and his coterie, and all the derivative command-and-control organizations that report to him, which are focused primarily on southern Afghanistan. So you’re really talking about Kandahar and the regions adjacent to Kandahar. Then you have a second front, which is really based in the FATA itself, and it appears like there is another regional shura [consultative council] in this town called Miranshah. Most of their operations are immediately adjacent to the Afghan territories opposite the FATA. There is a third leadership shura, which operates out of Peshawar, and those are the guys who appear to be most focused on the operations in northeastern Afghanistan. So you really have three distinct kinds of fronts, where different leaders in a sense are playing a role.

In addition, there’s also what’s been called a Pakistani Taliban, which apparently is causing some havoc in Pakistan, yes?

Yes, absolutely. And this is a newer development. In 2001, the Pakistani Taliban didn’t exist. These are essentially the tribal groups that exist in the FATA who have become extremely radicalized, and who have created new alliances. They are Pakistanis who share the extremely primitive and austere vision of Islam, and these are the characters who, most simply, go under the name Tehrik-i-Taliban [Pakistan], which is the coalition of all these radical tribal groups that now operate mostly in the FATA. And these guys were old allies—you know these are the old tribal groups that were allies of the Taliban in the past, [but] never had any organizational kind of entity. Now what they’ve got is an organizational identity, and that is the group that is targeting the Pakistani state in very, very dramatic ways. And the name that is best known in the West is Baitullah Mehsud, who is the leader of the Mehsud tribe in the FATA. Baitullah Mehsud is just the best known because he’s the most aggressive and he’s the guy who’s using suicide attacks as his modus operandi.

And he’s accused of being responsible for Bhutto’s assassination?

And in all likelihood, he was responsible for Bhutto’s assassination, though whether he acted alone, or whether he acted at the behest of others is a very interesting question.

Clearly Musharraf would like to crack down on this group?

Yes, this is the one group that Musharraf has actually gone fairly vigorously after. You have to go back to the events that occurred last year at the Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque inIslamabad , where, after the Pakistanis flushed the extremists from the Red Mosque, many of those who were killed were really members of these tribal groups in the FATA. They were really madrassa students who had come from the FATA and had taken over the Red Mosque. And so, what the Pakistani Taliban—this Tehrik-i-Taliban group—is doing is now essentially targeting the Pakistanis for having attacked their cohort in the Red Mosque, and now in the FATA. What you really have is essentially a civil war right now between the Pakistani state and the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban of course being the denizens of the FATA. And so, the most active Pakistani military operations today are really directed against this group, the Pakistani Taliban.

In your recent report you give Musharraf’s government I think a pretty good mark on the terrorism front at a time when most American politicians are very critical of Musharraf for taking American aid money and not doing anything.

Well I think a more accurate judgment is that it is a mixed record. There are two points that I really wanted to make in the monograph. The first is that Musharraf has tried hard in the context of operations against certain terrorist groups, and there are other terrorist groups that he has given a pass to. And what accounts for the difference is really the importance of the relevant group toPakistan ’s national interests. Those groups that he thinks have no importance to Pakistan’s national interests (take for example al-Qaeda, take for example the Pakistani Taliban) he’s gone very vigorously after. Those groups that he thinks are important for Pakistan ’s interests (like the old Afghan Taliban, like the Kashmiri terrorists groups) those are the groups that he’s basically gone easy on.

“I don’t see, as long as the situation in Afghanistan continues to remain unsettled, any Pakistani effort to interdict this [Afghan Taliban] leadership. They really think of these guys as a strategic asset.”

So I think when one looks at his performance, at least at the level of motivation, I think the first thing that needs to be recognized is that it has been an uneven kind of performance. It’s very segmented. It’s very focused on certain targets. The second thing that people don’t realize, and that’s also what I wanted to flag, was even if the motivational issues were not apparent or were not manifest, there are very serious capability limitations that afflict the Pakistani military in counter-terrorism operations. This was a force that was never designed for counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency. They don’t know how to do it. And in the way they have tried to do it since 2001, they have only ended up making things worse. And until these capability limitations are appreciated and addressed, I think you are going to see a lack of results, which is what most people in the United States complain about.

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