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U.S. cross-border attacks on Pakistani soil are not helping the effort to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda, says a high-ranking Pakistani official.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani has been a key player in Pakistan’s national-security policy for the past few years. As ambassador to Washington from 2006 until April, he was at the center of his country’s strategic, and often difficult, relations with the United States. Now as National Security Adviser, he not only counsels President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, he also delivers tough messages to Washington, protesting military strikes inside Pakistani territory, and serves as a liaison between the country’s two top political leaders and powerful Army Chief of Staff, Ashfaq Kayani. In an exclusive interview with Newsweek’s Ron Moreau in his corner office in the prime minister’s secretariat in Islamabad, Durrani, 67, discussed how American attacks are undercutting the country’s struggle against militants, Pakistan’s commitment to battling extremists in its own way, and how the historically testy relations between the country’s political leaders and the military are, at least for now, proceeding smoothly.
NEWSWEEK: It has been reported that you made an urgent trip to Washington immediately following an unprecedented U.S. military ground attack in Pakistan’s tribal area early last September. What was your message to the Bush administration?
Durrani: I did go, but not immediately [following the attack]. First the president [Zardari] said we have to do something about this. Everyone was upset. So first I sent a letter three days [after the attack] to [U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley, giving our point of view and strongly suggesting our opposition to this. I said it was highly unpopular in Pakistan and was causing greater anti-Americanism; that the [Pakistani] military is unhappy with this, and most important that it is not helping your cause and is counterproductive. It is doing exactly the opposite of what you are trying to do. We are trying to separate the good guys from the bad guys, trying to separate the tribes from the militants. We made it abundantly clear that this [attack] was pushing them together and creating sympathy for the militants. Soon after that I went to Washington and repeated my message personally to the White House.
What was the response?
Mr. Hadley told me that our letter has been passed to the highest levels, which I assumed meant the big boss. No promises were made. Hardly any comments were made by the other side, but my assessment is that the point did sink in—certainly about the land incursions, but not quite about [stopping] the Predator strikes.
The land incursions may have ceased but the drone attacks are escalating. Are the Predator strikes more acceptable than the ground forays?
No, they are not acceptable either. Actually the ground incursion triggered all this sentiment. There were Predator strikes before this too. People didn’t quite like it but it went on. But the ground incursion brought the whole thing to the forefront. It had a double-negative effect. It solidified opposition not only to the ground incursions but to the Predator strikes as well. That [the ground operation] was not a very smart thing to do. From our perspective neither is good for us or for the U.S.
Did you give the same message to U.S. Central Command’s new commander General David Petraeus, who visited Islamabad this past week?
I think General Petraeus’s visit was very useful. We appreciate he came here so soon after he took over. It shows his, the military’s, and the U.S.’s commitment to the region. We were very happy. There were two levels of discussion. One was with his military counterparts, the Chief of Army Staff (Gen. Ashfaq Kayani) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Tariq Majid.) They discussed more military matters, more focused on how to fight the war, what and what not to do. I think a message was given to him there also: "No Predators please. You are not helping." On the broader political level this same message was put to him very clearly without any ambiguity by the president and the prime minister: no Predator strikes. I think he understood the problem and our point of view. I think there was a realization that when the Predator strikes started there was a feeling in Washington that Pakistan was not doing enough. Now Pakistan is doing more than enough. So these strikes become spoilers, rather than helping.
The Pakistani military is still in the midst of a big and apparently successful operation in the Bajaur tribal area, while at the same time Predators are striking to the south in North and South Waziristan. Are those hits undermining the progress in Baj aur?
It is very distracting for us. There’s collateral damage as well, which upsets the people. So it is not helping our plan. It really throws a spanner in the works.
It sounds like there is a strategic disconnect between Pakistan and the United States over the war on armed militancy with the United States hitting areas that you are not targeting?
My assessment is that the disconnect is inside America. It’s there, not here. There are some elements in your security system that feel the Predator is not the right way to go. And there are some elements in your security apparatus that think you have to [continue the drone attacks]. So the disconnect is in Washington.
It may be up to Barack Obama after his inauguration to finally decide on the Predator strikes?
Of course, this is a decision that has to be taken at the highest political level, not just by CENTCOM or by the local U.S. commander sitting in Afghanistan. Going into someone’s sovereign territory has to be cleared at the top level. I have a feeling that Washington is finally getting the message on the land as well as the Predator strikes.
Does Pakistan have the will and capability to hit these Al Qaeda and Taliban elements that the United States is targeting?
Let me put it this way: Pakistan is committed to it, has the will, and the resolve, but lacks certain capabilities. But the automatic [U.S.] response is that since [Pakistan] doesn’t have the capability, therefore so and so should come in and do it for us. That is incorrect logic because by coming in, you become spoilers. It doesn’t help. As far as I’m concerned, the logical answer is to support Pakistan to do its job, to do what it wants to do, and what you want it to do. That is a more cost-effective and efficient system.
So what does Pakistan need to make it capable of tackling the militants?
Pakistan is not a banana republic. We have a strong government, a very professional and strong military. Still, we need the capability. As I’ve told my many friends in Washington, we are fighting a war. We have one-half of our army deployed and fighting [along the Afghan border]. We are on a war footing. But your supply chain, which is supporting us, is working on a peacetime basis. You have to support us at much greater speed.
And with better equipment as well?
At a greater speed. Forget better equipment. At least deliver what you have committed to and quickly. For example, we need some [more] attack helicopters. We use them all day. We can’t use them at night. Now the enemy is there all the time. So we need the equipment today. Yet we are told: "We are looking in our junkyard, and if we find some, we will repair them and give them to you. But it will take two to three years." That’s not the way. Let me not undervalue what your government and military are doing for us. But what I am saying is: "Guys, put it on the fast track."
One of your key jobs is to provide a crucial liaison between the executive branch and General Kayani. How would you describe the relations between the civilian leadership and the military that have proved so problematic in the past?
Right now the relationship between the army chief, the president and prime minister is outstanding. Of course, there is historical evidence that leads you to ask that question because of the dominant role the military has played in our lives. One of our good fortunes is that we have a leader like Kayani who is trying very hard to work under the [control of the] political leadership. He is making every effort because he believes in democracy. He believes in the ascendancy of the political leadership, and that the military should be a subordinate department.
So Gen. Kayani and the president and prime minister are on the same page in terms of tactics and strategy in the fight against extremism?
Absolutely. The political leadership, of which I am a part now, gives very broad direction to the military. But sometimes there are pitfalls when the political leadership tries to run battles and campaigns. That happens in all countries. That is a dangerous game. We should leave it to the professionals. It should only be the broad guidance, directives and objectives that the political leadership should give to the military. If it gets involved in the nitty-gritty [of tactics] then we have a problem. So far things are going all right.
Last month’s parliamentary resolution on militancy seems to have something for everyone: something for those who want to get tough with militants, something for those who favor talks. So will it really boost popular support for the military campaign?
I think [support] is building up slowly. It hasn’t exploded as we would have liked. But overall, the document is good because it acknowledges in the very first sentence that: "Extremism, militancy and terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, pose a great danger to the stability and integrity of the nation state." It does lay a lot of emphasis on dialogue with people who want to go in a peaceful direction, who are willing to give up the battle. We will listen to them. But if they shoot at you, you shoot back. Since the parliamentary resolution there has been no letup in the military action. I think the difference between this and past military action is that this one is going to be taken to its logical conclusion. That means you don’t stop and start, because you lose out doing that. We have learned that to our great sorrow. The intentions were good back then but the strategy followed was flawed. You don’t leave jobs half done. If you do, then the bad guys benefit from it.
Will you talk to militants before they lay down their arms?
These matters are kept hazy by design. I would say that if there is a militant who has a weapon in his hand and is ready to shoot me then there is no dialogue with him. However if there’s a militant who says I will sheath my sword and I’m ready to talk, then we will probably talk to him. This fine distinction is necessary because of the traditions of our tribal area where boys get weapons when they start getting a hint of a beard at 14 or 15. To them, a weapon is a mark of pride. Asking them to lay down their arms may mean more to them than you can imagine.
There have been civilian casualties, and towns and villages in Bajaur have been razed in the fighting. How do you rebuild support among the population and win hearts and minds?
When the operation finishes, there has to be a big push to re-establish the lives of the people, to help with their homes, wells, their broken roads and to re-establish the markets. But this movement from military operations to civil rule has to be a seamless connection. This is very important. In the past we have conducted military operations and then there’s been a halt and nothing has happened except that the bad guys come back in a better position. This is the first time that after many months, even years, that local lashkars [tribal militias] have come out in support of the military’s action. The locals, who were initially intimidated and terrorized by the extremists, will get up and fight when they know they have a chance of winning. There were some elected members [of parliament] who raised a hue and cry, demanding a stop to the [military] operations. But on the ground, people whispered messages in our ear saying, "Don’t stop."
Is the Al Qaeda threat in the tribal area as serious as Washington says it is?
It’s difficult to criticize an assessment. Washington has a better intelligence system than we have. But there aren’t armies of the bad guys getting ready in the tribal area to march. There may be five chaps here and three chaps there, sitting in huts, plotting, preparing. It is possible and likely. But there aren’t hundreds of cells working in bunkers that look like Pentagon military operations centers. I don’t think they are up there preparing and training people to go and hit Washington, New York and Chicago. The tribal area gives them peace and quiet, but it doesn’t give them any communications. You can sit in a remote hut and contemplate destroying the whole world, but your connectivity is very poor from there.