The panel "Afghanistan and Pakistan: What is Victory and Where is Victory?" took place at the 62nd Annual Conference in November, 2008.
Wegger Strommen: Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I should probably introduce myself. My name is Wegger Strommen, I am the Norwegian Ambassador to the United States. I also moderated a panel last year and it is a good feeling to be asked to do it again. I would like to commend the Middle East Institute and its president, Wendy Chamberlin, my old friend from Geneva, for the excellent work that they do. Please, keep up your good work.
I have asked the panelists to each speak about fifteen minutes and then we will have questions and answers that you write on cards and I will read them out and ask the panelists to respond.
Our theme this morning is “Afghanistan and Pakistan: What Is Victory and Where Is Victory?” It does not get any better than that, does it? If we could have some answers to that, that would be absolutely brilliant. At least we have three excellent people who are going to have a shot at it: Steve Coll, Maleeha Lodhi and Shuja Nawaz.
I have asked Steve Coll to go first. I would like to say the following about Steve Coll: president and CEO of the New America Foundation and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine (a magazine that some of us have been addicted to for decades). Previously he spent twenty years as a foreign correspondent and senior editor at The Washington Post, serving as the paper’s managing editor from 1998-2004. He is the author of several books. Mr. Coll’s professional awards include two Pulitzer Prizes. He won the first of these for explanatory journalism in 1990 for his series with David A. Wise about the SEC. His second was awarded in 2005 for his book “Ghost Wars.” Without further ado, Mr. Coll, you have the floor.
Steve Coll: Thank you, Ambassador. Thanks to the Middle East Institute for organizing this conference and for bringing Mr. Ahsan here. It is a pleasure to listen to you and I am glad you are here.
I cannot answer the question of what victory looks like in Afghanistan. It is really not within my abilities. What I can do, I think, is give you a sense of where the US government is and where it is going in attempting to address the downward spiral in Afghanistan that both the outgoing administration and the incoming administration recognize as perhaps with Pakistan the most pressing foreign policy crisis that is both part of the transition period and will face the next administration in the first six months. What I will offer you is a briefing, a report about what I understand is going on inside the US government as policymakers wrestle with the problem of Afghanistan and attempt to construct a new strategy, because that is what is coming. I will leave it to you to evaluate and perhaps we can talk during the question period about some of the premises and prospects of that strategy, but first let’s just describe it.
There are three important reviews of Afghan strategy going on right now inside the US government. One is an interagency review taking place inside the outgoing Bush administration to recommend a new strategy to the next president in effect and also to prepare in a sort of continuous way with the military for next year’s events. There is a second review going on in the military command for the Middle East (CentCom) and there is a third review going on within the auspices of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At some point when President-elect Obama takes office those three reviews are going to intersect and probably be re-reviewed, but at least a substantial amount of thinking and analysis will have been done by then.
One of the objectives of these reviews is to create a formal plan for US work in Afghanistan where none currently exists. It is very interesting, if you travel to Iraq as a member of the US government or as a journalist, as I did this summer, and you say, “What is the operating manual for US strategy in Iraq?”, there is one. It is very thick, it is a classified document, a very thick document. But it is available to everyone who is involved on the civilian side and the military side. It is available to allies. The broad, unclassified outline of it is articulated every day in public by members of the US government. So everyone is in a metaphorical sense singing from the same hymnal.
In Afghanistan that has not been the case. There is no unified plan. Part of the purpose of these reviews is to create one. So what are some of the questions and premises that this plan will have to wrestle with? I will start with some calendar items and then perhaps work forward to the broader strategic dilemmas that the plan and the next administration will eventually have to wrestle to the ground.
I think the first calendar item confronting planners is scheduled elections in Afghanistan next year. I think all of these reviews are going to have to essentially judge whether holding elections in Afghanistan is a strategic priority or not. My forecast is that they will judge that that is a strategic priority. Those of you who understand Afghan politics and work with Afghan politics in detail probably are aware that the Afghan constitution does have a provision for the emergency use of a jirga as an alternative temporarily to formal presidential elections. I think there have been some in and out of the government who have reflected upon the security situation in Afghanistan and have wondered whether elections were viable next year. I suspect that without knowing – and this is certainly a decision for the president-elect – that there will be a decision to try to make those elections happen because of the centrality of such an event in trying to reinforce the legitimacy of the Afghan government at a time when the Taliban is seeking to call that legitimacy into question.
Having made that decision however the US and the international community and regional neighbors and allies will face enormous challenges of preparation and security to deliver on the promise of national elections that many Afghans are themselves invested in and for which many Afghans have already given their lives. One question around the prospective elections is how the Taliban will play its hand. In the previous election cycle the Taliban was in a very different condition of retreat and regrouping but did find in some respects a conclusion that disrupting the elections and killing innocent civilians in the name of disrupting democracy was not an effective long-term strategy. So there was a restraint from the opposition at that time and part of the way to interpret all of this talk about negotiations and reconciliation is partly to do with internal electoral competition in Afghanistan – that is, an attempt by President Karzai and other national political leaders to distance themselves from the international community and to position themselves as true Afghan nationalists interested in national reconciliation. That is one explanation, but also there will be a sustained attempt to use negotiations to improve conditions for these elections.
A second premise of these reviews and the strategy that is likely to emerge from them will be a focus on attempting to build an Afghan army and Afghan police even more rapidly and certainly more successfully than previous investments and previous policy attention has achieved. While I am in no position to really provide an accurate evaluation of the capabilities of either the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police, the general consensus – a review of reviews – would suggest that the army is capable but too small; the police are nowhere near where they would need to be to provide security at the community level. I think there would also be a consensus that an explanation for those facts is massive under-investment and a lack of attention by the United States and its allies to the challenges of building these institutions. The explanation for that has been the diversion of investments and attention in Iraq substantially and also a sense that perhaps there was no great urgency in Afghanistan as there is a sense that there is that urgency now.
One of the risks of these heavy investments and rapid investments in the army and the police, particularly the army, is forecastable – you can see it in Iraq, where a similar investment has been made and is now bearing fruit – that you can get as a result of over-reliance on security forces (as against governance and civilian institutions) an outcome where you have a very big army and a very weak government, which is usually a prescription for unhappy interventions. But I think now because of the downward spiral and the need to create Afghan-led, Afghan-officered, Afghan-soldiered security institutions, there is going to be a sense of “full steam ahead” in this direction.
Another premise of the next strategy will be the centrality of the experience of Afghan populations, an experience of security, an experience of governance, an experience of basic needs, and an attempt to restructure the delivery of outside resources so that the population has a better experience of all of those things. One of the strategic failures of USAID in Afghanistan, particularly in the first years after the fall of the Taliban, was a very heavy emphasis on infrastructure projects, big-ticket items, and an aid system that tended to reward contracting groups headquartered within a few blocks of where we are today rather than building up indigenous capacity and building up amplifying economic effects. This has been much remarked upon and complained about by the Afghan government. The net effect is that the experience of the population of their own government and of the international community has been polluted by these failures of strategy and delivery.
Also, to some extent it is a failure of policy clarity because the priorities of aid as much as the mechanisms of aid have been scattered and divided to some extent. Each of the NATO governments involved has its own philosophy, its own policy, its own emphasis. There has not been an overall plan to pull all of these pieces together.
Finally, I would just forecast that there will be an emphasis coming out of these reviews and in the next administration on regional diplomacy. A big push, probably some sort of special envoy or perhaps the next secretary or deputy secretary of state will take this portfolio on for him or herself. But the mechanism will probably be some sort of regional contact group involving the neighboring states as well as perhaps donor countries and interested great powers. There will be an immediate agenda item that they will all presumably share an interest in, which is the elections. So to some extent it does provide a pragmatic focus for regional diplomacy and, for instance, for reopening engagement with Iran and trying to resurrect some of the constructive multilateral contacts that the United States enjoyed with Iran about Afghanistan until roughly 2003.
So that is my brief. I appreciate your time and we can come back to this during questions.
Wegger Strommen: Thank you very much, Mr. Coll, very helpful. The next speaker is Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi, a fellow at the Kennedy School Institute of Politics at Harvard University. She has served over eleven years as a diplomat, representing Pakistan as ambassador in the US and in the United Kingdom. Ambassador Lodhi has been the editor of Pakistan’s leading English daily, The News, and among the country’s top political commentators. Ambassador Lodhi taught politics and political sociology at an institution dear to many of us, the London School of Economics. We seem to all at some point have been at the London School of Economics. Ambassador Lodhi is the author of two books, “Pakistan’s Encounter with Democracy” and “The Internal Challenge.” Ambassador Lodhi, you have the floor.
Maleeha Lodhi: Ambassador Chamberlin, ladies and gentlemen, assalamu alaikum. I am delighted to be back here in Washington after a break of six years, when I was last serving here. It is great to see a number of familiar faces. Of course when you are in between speakers like the author of “Ghost Wars” and the author of “Crossed Swords,” it is a very daunting prospect that you have to say something very intelligent. But let me start by saying what a timely conference this is. It could not have come at a better time. But the topic of our session really reminds me of something from “Alice in Wonderland,” because the question we are asking is: what victory, where victory, how victory? Lewis Carroll in “Alice in Wonderland” said, “When you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” So I guess it is that “any road” that we want to talk about.
But there is one other comment I would like to make about the fact that we are looking at Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think part of the problem for a number of people in Pakistan is that Pakistan is more often than not viewed in a tactical perspective rather than as a country which is important in its own right, important for its intrinsic value. I make that point not because I want to in any way undermine the significance of Pakistan in terms of defeating terrorism or stabilizing Afghanistan – that is a role that Pakistan is playing, has been playing and will continue to play. But I think we need to step back from time to time and also look at the country and the kind of challenges that it is facing other than the challenge on the security front.
Having said that, I will say that in Pakistan it is very interesting to see that President-elect Obama’s victory seems to have temporarily trumped the traditional cynicism of the Pakistani public about its relationship with the United States. It has been trumped temporarily – that is an important word – by a sense of hope and anticipation that perhaps the new administration will bring a new approach which will help to address many of the issues and above all address what is now being called (rightly in my opinion) the trust deficit in the relationship between Pakistan and the United States. I will return to that later.
So the mood changed significantly with that victory. I think the vital question is going to be how the new administration will tap this rare public goodwill not just in Pakistan but in a great deal of the Muslim world, and convert this or translate this into cementing relationships which have either frayed or are afflicted by problems or other issues. Before I get to the policy issues that you are all interested in, let me make a couple of very quick points about things that are very important in Eastern cultures and Eastern perspectives.
First of all, the tone and language in which the new administration engages with the region that I come from is extremely important. I know the focus is always on policy issues but language, tone and the ability to listen and learn from the world will be vital. This is not an unimportant fact, this is extremely important because it will establish that important, vital but intangible commodity called respect. I think above all people expect the new administration to speak in a language which signals respect.
I think it is time to discard the language of the war on terror. The reason for that is that the very phrase, the war paradigm or the metaphor, mischaracterized the challenge and also misdirected the response. The challenge is a multidimensional one but somehow the war on terror reduces the paradigm to something that has to be fought primarily by military means, whereas we know the military is one element but not perhaps the most important in the long term.
It has also done another thing, and I digress a little from the topic. What it has done in the Muslim world is created the impression that the war on terror is a war on Islam. I think we must recognize that. We need to change this. There are many countries – in fact I cannot think of a single country in Europe, Ambassador, if you can correct me – which still uses this term. I think there are very few countries. I know Britain switched and has dropped and discarded this term three years ago roughly. I think it is time because it also does another thing: it has unintended effects. It conflates and unifies separate and diverse threats that emerge from the use of violence to promote political objectives in different parts of the world – unifies them and creates one big, epic threat that somehow has to be addressed in this very epic way, whereas we know that many of these violent conflicts in different parts of the world have local roots and have to be addressed locally.
I think with those general points, let me get on to the issue at hand: the urgency of the foreign policy challenge to overhaul strategy in Afghanistan. I give you obviously a Pakistani perspective. This is not an official perspective but it is the perspective of a Pakistani.
I think the sense in Pakistan very much is that as this policy review is undertaken in the United States a number of factors have to be acknowledged and kept in mind because unless we analyze how we got here, we are not going to be able to get out of this situation. It is not my purpose here to stand and list factors in order of importance, why things went the way they did, but I do want to say that one of the major factors which President-elect Obama has already recognized – and that is why he wants to shift strategic focus from Iraq, winding down there and focusing on Afghanistan is because he wishes to reverse the monumental blunder committed by the Bush administration in fighting an unnecessary war. That is something that people in my part of the world absolutely agree with. It is one factor but not the sole factor. I think part of what went wrong in Afghanistan was also a grievously flawed strategy – if I can call it that, I do not even know whether there was a strategy.
The war in Afghanistan was a war to avenge 9/11; it was not a war of strategy. A war that is undertaken to avenge, understandable as it was, is not a war that had very clear strategic goals and plans. There was certainly a lack of clarity about goals right through the six or seven-year period. I will come to the Pakistan part of it, in case you are wondering, “What did your country do right or wrong?” I will come to that but first this, because obviously the policy review is being undertaken here.
A series of strategic errors, lack of clear objectives, military missteps and misplaced priorities pushed the war and exported the insurgency into Pakistan. There is no question about that. Pakistan pre-9/11 did not have the kinds of issues that it is confronted with in its border regions. I think sometimes we forget a very obvious point. It is obvious to us in Pakistan, it is sometimes not obvious to people here. One thing that Steve, I noticed, did not mention, and I appreciate that because one of the concerns is that the emphasis on a troop surge by itself is seen as something which is clearly going to be inadequate without a new strategy. Simply adding a number of troops would ignore the lesson of history, and the lesson of history is that the Soviet Union had something like 150,000 troops in Afghanistan at the height of its occupation of that country. We all know that with that plus the benefit at that time of having a fairly well organized military apparatus or military force – certainly in the Afghan army at that time – and the state structure was much more intact (whatever state structure existed in Afghanistan was much more intact), and yet we know that the Soviets were spectacularly defeated in a terrain which we all would agree has been the graveyard of empires.
So one has to be very sensitive to the fact and I understand that this famous leaked cable by the British ambassador in Kabul talks about the NATO forces being perceived increasingly in Afghanistan as part of the problem and not part of the solution – I think this is a very important thing. Sometimes leaks can be very useful. This particular one certainly was very useful in addressing attention to this.
So I think the challenge here is to prevent a situation where ill-defined goals are undertaken and as a consequence what happens is what has happened in Afghanistan, which is a growing insurgency where a sense of Pashtun alienation and Muslim radicalism has been fusing together to fuel this insurgency. It is important to prevent an over-reliance on force because that has clearly become an important factor for support for the Taliban.
So a return to basics, a return to first principles, a more realistic approach has to be evolved based on clarity and priority of objectives. I believe that US goals must distinguish between what is vital to the United States and what is desirable for both the US and its European allies. What is vital is to prevent that area becoming a haven for terrorists and eliminating the terrorist network – the reason why the US went into Afghanistan in the first place. I think what is desirable, which is the promotion of democracy, the promotion of a centralized state, that obviously has a longer timeframe. How these timeframes in any case were ever going to synchronize was a question that was left unanswered for the last six or seven years.
If we distinguish very clearly between those objectives we may have something that prevents what is happening right now, which is the danger of the insurgency turning into a virtual Pashtun war of liberation. If you take on too many things at the same time and do not do any one of them terribly well, this is the consequence. That is the consequence we are seeing. So evolving a set of realistic goals with the overall objective of achieving a modicum of stabilization or stability in Afghanistan, so that it can prevent becoming a sanctuary, should be the goal. This is not quite the big project that was talked about. This is a smaller project but it is a much more vital project.
I think elements of the new strategy – I will quickly list them before I run out of time – is clearly to decouple Al Qaeda from the Taliban, engage the Taliban in a serious reconciliation process, holding out the prospect of a withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan in return for a cessation of attacks and suicide bombings and Taliban support for the creation of an Afghan National Army. Shifting emphasis from bombing campaigns to political accommodation and economic reconstruction. Building peace region by region, village by village, through local communities. I think the bottom-up approach much more than the top-down is what is going to work in a country that is defined by its decentralized reality. Of course the Afghan security apparatus, which I am told – Steve, I have learned from him that this is something that is going to figure very high, as it should. Unless an overall exit strategy is not conceived, and an exit strategy must have as its central point the training on an expeditious basis of the Afghan National Army and a police force that can withstand the return of the sorts of things that clearly we do not want to see in the region and the United States does not want to see either.
And of course a more regional strategy – I think Steve did not mention that. A more regional strategy means basically trying to bring all regional stakeholders on board and that means talking to Iran. In fact if you look at any issues in the Middle East, if you look at any issue anywhere in a troubled region, Iran has a role to play. No policy change, no change in strategy will be possible either on Afghanistan or any other issue that will figure high on the Obama administration’s agenda. It is important to recognize here that the success and failure of the Obama administration’s foreign policy will be determined by how this administration handles and manages issues in the Muslim world. It is in the Muslim world that the two wars are located and it is also in the Muslim world that the heartland issue of Palestine has to be addressed. That is not my topic but this is a very important part of what people in Pakistan or people in the Muslim world will be looking at.
When I turn to Pakistan, addressing the trust deficit – because I do believe as somebody who served in the United States twice as my country’s ambassador – I am seeing something quite remarkable. I have never seen this before. The relationship between our two countries is really held rather precariously only at the leadership level, with the wider establishments and the publics and the media in both countries viewing the other with deep suspicion and often hostility. Wondering what the other country is up to and what design it has. This I do not believe I have ever seen, even though this is a relationship that has gone up and down. I have never seen a relationship where so much hostility has crept into public perceptions. I think this will need to be addressed in some form or another and in a very upfront way.
One of the things that has clearly figured in the National Assembly in our parliament in the last few days is once more protest over unilateral US strikes into Pakistan’s sovereign territory. We heard from one of the most influential voices in Pakistan, Aitzaz Ahsan, who talked about other expectations of parliament. Here you have seen parliament saying to the government: do something to prevent it. I think a cessation of US strikes – because this is compounding the problems of the new government, without question, in Pakistan.
Also, breaking with the Bush legacy of treating Pakistan as hired help rather than a valued ally – this is critical. I think the sense a lot of people get in Pakistan is that we are giving you so much, why haven’t you done A, B or C? The transactional relationship is something that people simply react against. This paradigm is a very critical one which is why I think it is important to stop scapegoating Pakistan for policy failures in Afghanistan. If there have been policy failures they were collective policy failures. I do not think it helps to shift the onus of responsibility onto a country which is actually now battling this conflict and paying a very heavy price. The number of people who died in Pakistan in terrorist-related violence since 2001 is 15,000. I do not think this figure is even known in this country. It includes 3,000 law enforcement personnel, 2,000 of whom roughly are armed forces personnel. Our foreign minister recently said – and this is a calculation made by the finance ministry – the economic cost to Pakistan of being a front-line ally of the United States is something in the order of $34 billion for the last seven years. It has been calculated in terms of lost national and international investment, lost exports and the other costs that Pakistan had to pay. It is a calculation made by the finance ministry which also calculated that something like $8.5 billion were lost in this fiscal year as a consequence of Pakistan’s role in counterterrorism.
It is very important to recognize that while the Taliban insurgency does draw support from across the border, from within Pakistan’s territory, the roots, origins and motivations for the Taliban insurgency are within Afghanistan and are not being stage-managed from outside. If we were to premise a new policy review on that, that the whole thing is externally sponsored and grown, it will be a very flawed response to trying to rectify a situation which clearly has deteriorated to the point where it is threatening Pakistan’s stability in a manner that is unprecedented.
We must also recognize that the strategic consequences of losing Afghanistan pale when set against the strategic consequences of losing Pakistan. So any new strategy must be a strategy which aims at the stabilization of Afghanistan in a manner that does not destabilize Pakistan. I would say to you that I think the core point that these policy reviews must address themselves to is how not to destabilize Pakistan while pursuing the objectives that Steve outlined. To find a way which mutually reinforces stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan rather than do one at the expense of the other, as it were. Not that I am suggesting this was in any way intended – these are unintended consequences of certain types of policies. This is going to be very important.
In terms of economic help to Pakistan, having spent a number of years in this business I have come to the conclusion that economic help is best construed in trade rather than aid terms. I am not a great admirer, never have been, of aid packages. A bailout package from the IMF is something that Pakistan desperately needs – that is a different matter. But I do believe that the only way you transform societies is to give them what they really need with honor, because they can trade their way out of economic crisis through honor.
I remember in 2001 – Ambassador Chamberlin would remember that too – we asked the United States to give us preferential tariffs for our textiles exports. Textiles is the lifeblood of the Pakistani economy. We were not able to get that. I would say to the new administration, this would be a dramatic gesture to the people of Pakistan. Every additional one million dollars of exports of textiles or any commodity translates into roughly 300 jobs. You multiply that by twenty or whatever it is. This is transformative, this is something that immediately has an impact. This has nothing to do with monitoring whether the government is putting the money in its pocket or taking it home. This has to do with a sector that immediately is in a position to capitalize on and turn this into the kinds of things that we feel should address the sense of deprivation and the sense of hopelessness which provides the breeding grounds, as we know, for violent acts and violent extremism. This is going to be the key.
In Pakistan itself – this is a list of things that the US administration at a time when it is thinking about these issues ought to look at, and I have failed to mention one quick point which is that obviously stability in Pakistan has to also be seen in terms of resolving the adversarial relationship that Pakistan has long had with India. Aitzaz Ahsan appreciated the fact that President-elect Obama talked about Kashmir. That shows a very perceptive understanding of the need to resolve that in some form so that the Pakistan army can get on by focusing its entire attention on counterinsurgency rather than the overarching conventional threat from India.
In Pakistan the new, fledgling democratic government confronts a triple challenge: the challenge of security, the challenge of the economy, and the challenge of governance. So far, nine months on, this government has not yet been able to provide the leadership that is warranted at this critical juncture by the enormity of the challenges. We hope that this leadership will be forthcoming but we have not seen that yet. Let’s not forget that effective counterinsurgency – Pakistan’s ability to confront and counter these issues – is fundamentally an aspect of governance. You get the governance piece right and you will tend to – it is a necessary but not sufficient guarantor of how to conduct the extremist and terrorist piece.
Here it is extremely important that the new government is able to develop and evolve a consensus which is not there, on three things. One, how to fight terrorism. I think we do not have that consensus yet. What is the best way to go about it? The second is to develop a consensus on economic management. Again, the consensus seems to be either dissipating or fraying, if you look at what has been happening in Pakistan’s parliament in the last couple of months. The third area is how to actually run an effective democracy, in which there are unresolved issues as Aitzaz Ahsan correctly pointed out. Running an effective democracy also means having the kind of independent judiciary that Mr. Ahsan so eloquently spoke about.
These are areas where consensus-building will have to take place because if the overall governance piece falls into place then we can see the new government trying to evolve a vision for FATA, which it needs to do – we have not seen that yet but it does need to look at the kind of political reforms that can take place in FATA so that the whole counterinsurgency effort is anchored in those political reforms. I know Shuja is going to talk more specifically about these issues so I will leave it there.
At the end I would simply round off by saying that the increasingly aggressive actions being taken by US forces on Pakistan’s sovereign soil are undermining the government’s ability to forge consensus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. This is key, this has to be understood. For tactical gains, if any – I do not know what tactical gains are being achieved frankly by these missile strikes into Pakistan’s territory – but whatever they are, they are clearly coming at the expense of great strategic losses. The continued loss of Pakistani hearts and minds and the continued loss of hearts and minds in the Pakistani parliament, because these are the United States’ partners.
Lastly I would say that while the Pakistani government itself needs to apply, evolve and build a consensus and mobilize the public around consistent and even implementation of counterinsurgency in its tribal regions, clearly this will have to be done within the broad rubric of a policy approach that will change from Washington and its NATO allies. But the core interest that has to be borne in mind is to adopt a strategy that does not destabilize Pakistan. Thank you.
Wegger Strommen: Thank you very much, Ambassador. I will not try to speak on behalf of the rest of the world; you asked how you translate or use the word “war on terror.” I would like to put in an editorial note that not all of us speak English at home. Some of these phrases that everyone uses actually translate differently. I stand to be corrected by all the native French speakers – I am not an English native speaker, I am not a French native speaker – but normally you would find the French using the French word “lutte,” which has a broad meaning. It can mean many things in French, it is a sort of struggle but in many aspects. In Scandinavian languages we also tend to use a word that does not translate very well into English but some kind of struggle. So every now and then a little bit of linguistic exercise into how – because we are forced to – someone said “the tyranny of the English language” is with us in diplomacy and I accept that. It is a great language. But we address these things, not to speak of what you say in other languages, I was now only referring to two or three others that I know. I would encourage everybody to take a look at the linguistics of some of these phrases.
Our last speaker but not the least, Shuja Nawaz, is going to round off these introductions. A political strategist and author of the book “Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army and the Wars Within.” He writes for leading newspapers and the Huffington Post and speaks on current topics before civic groups, think tanks and on radio and television. He has advised governments in Asia and Africa. He is currently working with RAND, the United States Institute of Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, the Atlantic Council and other leading think tanks on projects dealing with Pakistan and the Middle East. A very warm welcome to you.
Shuja Nawaz: Thank you, Ambassador. Ambassador Chamberlin, Acting President of the Middle East Institute Michael Ryan, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure and an honor to be here, particularly before this extremely highly qualified audience. I am sure there are people in the audience who know much more about the topic than I do but I will, particularly after these two stellar commentaries by Steve Coll and Maleeha Lodhi, try to shed some light on what I see as not just the Afghan-Pakistan situation but Pakistan by itself. As often one discovers when one is looking for the true meaning of things, one should not solely rely on those who are so-called experts but one has to go to the poets and to the novelists. If you allow me, I want to read a couple of sentences from a brilliant new novel that has just come out by a British author of Pakistani origin named Nadeem Aslam, who has written a book which to my mind is probably the best novel out of the subcontinental heritage called “The Wasted Vigil.” It is set in Afghanistan and one of the main characters, a man named Marcus, is talking about the country. If you allow me, I will quote from him. He says, “The entire world it seemed had fought in this country, had made mistakes in this country, but mistakes had consequences and he didn’t know who to blame for those consequences. Afghanistan itself? Russia? The United States? Britain? Arabia? Pakistan?” Then he goes on to say, “One day he thought of capturing a [bird] that had flown into the house. In the end he knew he could never eat anything he had heard sing.” One of the most telling lines from the book was that “only the dead have seen the end of war.” That encapsulates the difficulty that we face when we look at Afghanistan and Pakistan today.
In Pakistan, it would be a disservice to look at this solely as an Afghanistan-Pakistan issue because Pakistan faces the wars within, and Pakistan faces many critical issues and crises, some of which have already been mentioned by Ambassador Lodhi and some have been eloquently outlined in the keynote address of this morning by Aitzaz Ahsan. So I will not go into all those details. But there is a continuous battle between what the government of Pakistan wants, the government in any form, and what the people of Pakistan want. Our history has indicated that whenever you have long periods of autocratic rule, particularly military rule, that ends up stunting all forms of democratic systems and institutions of civil society. The lawyers’ movement, for instance, was one attempt at reversing that tide. I hope for goodness’ sake we will not allow that kind of movement within civil society to be turned back.
Finally, just to underline the point that Ambassador Lodhi made, it is very critical that we recognize that there is a wild card that is affecting Pakistan today and will affect it, and that is the economic crisis. With food inflation approaching 50 percent and recalling that the poorest segments of Pakistani society spend up to two-thirds of their income today on food, and it is a highly urbanized society, this is the kind of challenge that the government of Pakistan is facing.
Remember also, and this hearkens back to the fact that autocracy stunts democracy in Pakistan, any civilian government that inherits power from an autocratic regime in Pakistan ends up acquiring all the powers of that autocracy that preceded it and is very loath to part with those powers. That is exactly the situation in Pakistan today. General Musharraf had hijacked a parliamentary system and made it into a presidential system, and the current regime essentially is continuing that system. Until that is reversed, you are not going to have normal political development in Pakistan. So yes, we are on the road to democracy, but we have not reached that point.
I am reminded of Yogi Berra’s famous aphorism that when you get to a fork in the road, take it. That is the Pakistani situation. We are forever at that fork and we are forever taking it, and not knowing where we are going to end up.
Let me spell out very briefly – and I apologize if I misconstrue any of these positions – but since I have been travelling to Pakistan a lot recently for my work, I thought I would give you some bullet points of the basic perceptions and realities that affect the Pakistan-Afghan situation. These obviously emerge from the experience of the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Number one, it is quite clear that the United States went into Afghanistan without a comprehensive plan for winning the war beyond the military ouster of the Taliban. This was evident in the shift of focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, a completely unnecessary war. There was no focus on the socioeconomic rehabilitation of the country after decades of war.
Number two, the US failed to see the proactive need to help Pakistan transform its own army and frontier corps into a counterinsurgency force or to help equip and train it for that purpose. It has been in a kind of reactive mode since 2001 and it is only in the last couple of years that it woke up to the fact that it was giving all this money and it did not quite know what was happening to the money. Then it had second thoughts about the whole aid issue.
Another point that is worth remembering is that the insurgency inside Afghanistan, or the civil war as some are calling it, arises out of some internal issues and so Afghanistan has not shown its willingness to address the grievances of the Taliban against the excesses of the Northern Alliance in the wake of the US invasion. That is a deep hurt which apparently still affects thinking in the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan and Pakistan and keeps support for the Taliban alive.
Then the most obvious one, that the United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan without the full and willing participation and support of Pakistan, its army and its general population, especially with this new civil administration in place inside Pakistan. But it must recall that it cannot win by aligning itself to any single party or any single individual, as was evident in the misplaced reliance on General Musharraf after 2001.
Yet we must keep in mind that neither capitulation nor confrontation by Pakistan to US interests in Afghanistan and especially in FATA is the right approach. Rather, engagement and a joint effort to eliminate the causes of militancy inside Afghanistan and Pakistan is going to be the best approach.
Another point we have to recognize – and this comes from firsthand experience from my recent trip to FATA and NWFP – is that the Pakistan army is seen as an alien force inside FATA. The Frontier Corps has also lost its efficacy over the years and both the army and the Frontier Corps are ill-equipped and ill-trained for counterinsurgency warfare. What compounds this difficulty is that in their operations they are now operating against their own people. This is not an army or a Frontier Corps operating against a foreign population.
We also have to recognize that the traditional system of governance inside FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Area that abuts Afghanistan, which involves the government’s political administrators and the largely compliant tribal mullahs, has failed. It has been displaced and supplanted by a new and freer system under which renegade leaders have emerged and religious leaders have taken on greater import. We must recognize that the old system cannot restored in its entirety and if it is to be used it must be used in a finite manner as a transitional mechanism alone.
Finally, no plan for FATA will work unless it involves the local people and they are given a responsible role in the implementation of the plan. However, we have to ensure that all efforts are made to stem the leakage of funds or resources by the privileged few, to prevent or reduce it, and ensure there is equitable sharing of opportunities and finances. I had the opportunity in my visit in August to speak with 23 tribal mullahs in North Waziristan and it was amazing how clear-headed they were on their needs. Their needs were very basic and are no different than the needs of people living in the United States or China or India or Pakistan. They just want an equal opportunity to be able to order their lives.
Let me move to the military side of the equation. This is quite critical. Let me begin by quoting General Petraeus, one of the persons looking at this whole picture anew to try to come up with a strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that will allow the United States to exit the area with honor. “You cannot shoot your way out of an insurgency. You have to recognize that the military-civil equation is 20 percent military and 80 percent civil and political.” So whatever the focus of the US relationship with Pakistan, it must not allow the military-to-military relationship to overshadow the relationship with the civilian government on the one hand and with the people of Pakistan on the other. If it only concentrates on the government and it loses the support, as it has over the last few years, of the general population of Pakistan, then whatever approach is taken is doomed to failure.
In the absence of a national consensus on what Pakistan wants and what kind of society the people of Pakistan want to have, the only possibility that was left to the government once the Tehrik-e-Taliban (the homegrown version of the Taliban in Pakistan) came into being and started attacking the military and civilian administration in FATA as well as in the settled area of Swat, Dir and Chitral, was to send in the army. This was done even recently after the new government took over and even after the military had briefed the civilian government on what had happened in the past and asked them for direction about the future. So without that overall direction, the army was sent in as a default. That becomes a mistake because the army moved in the equivalent of six infantry divisions but the Pakistan army is a conventional army, and the army’s posture has always been ready for an eventual war with India, in case India – choosing its new strategy of “cold start” – decides to shoot first and ask questions later. By moving six infantry divisions from the strike force that faces India, the Pakistan army suddenly feels very vulnerable. We have to recognize that vulnerability.
Also looking at the Frontier Corps, over time this institution has deteriorated. Over time it stopped attracting the best officers from the Pakistan army. Of course all the soldiers are locally recruited and because they are locally recruited they are good for minor policing, but when you are putting them in a war-like situation and getting them to fight people from their own tribal system and from their own tribes, you create ambivalence. You create conflicts and quite often they refuse to fight. That is what started happening.
The poor training and the morale of the Frontier Corps was also reflected in their poor performance. You had the locals who were telling the Frontier Corp soldiers that they were fighting on behalf of the infidels. Then, as I mentioned earlier, when the locals see the Pakistan army coming into the FATA region for the first time since independence in 1947, they see it as an alien force. When I spoke with officers in the army they also saw themselves as an alien force and it is not surprising given the demographics of the army. Pakistan still has an army which represents all the provinces but since the Punjab has the largest population, 60 percent of the military force in Pakistan is Punjabi. It struck me that when I was travelling in North Waziristan, for instance, that there were army officers who had been there for two years and still did not speak any Pashto. There is a disconnect there.
In the Swat district, which is part of the settled area of Pakistan, the army has been learning by doing. This is very difficult for a military institution. Even the United States, it has taken since its invasion of Iraq for it to learn many of the lessons of counterinsurgency. One of the lessons is that you engage the insurgents and militants on all fronts and you do not cede any intellectual or physical space to them. What happened in Swat is that they had launched a military operation called Mountain Viper. It seemed like the name had come out of the Pentagon. It had no meaning for the local population nor for the soldiers who were executing it. It essentially ceded the ground of Islam to the militants because the militants said: we speak for Islam, we want to bring shari’a (the Islamic code of ethics and law) into this area. There was nobody standing up and saying: this is not shari’a, you have completely created a convoluted version of Islam. You have mixed it with local custom and you are calling it shari’a. Shari’a is what we know to be Islam and what the majority of Pakistanis want it to be.
So it was quite interesting that the commander of the division in Swat lodged a new operation. He used a Farsi and Urdu term, Rah-e-Haq, for that operation, which meant that it was part of the true faith or the truth. He publicized that in order to tell people that we were – we meaning the army – acting on behalf of a government that believed in Islam and the true faith and that these people were miscreants in the true original English meaning of that word, that they were following a heretical path. I think that is critical, that you have to engage militarily but you have to fight with the brains and not just with the guns.
The other interesting development that has occurred and that many of us have been following in the newspapers is that you have locals now understanding that the militancy and the presence of Al Qaeda, foreign fighters, as well as Afghan and local Taliban, is creating economic costs for them and is also leading to many deaths and destruction of their property. So you have this spontaneous and to some extent primed by money from the government, the setting up of “lashkars” or posses or groups of local tribes. The lashkars are not new to the frontier region. Historically they have always been used by the administration whenever there was some kind of civil unrest or some criminal activity because it was the responsibility of the tribes to resolve those issues. So the political agent would go to the tribal mullah and the mullahs would then say, let’s form a group and go solve this problem. Now particularly in Bajour we had the spontaneous emergence, particularly among the major Salarzai tribe, and I quote Mullah Zaib Salarzai, the leader of the tribe, saying, “The Taliban fighters and commanders are of humble backgrounds and are not in a position to challenge the lashkar. They will be eliminated in a few days.” He promised that if these people did not leave their areas that they would be killed and their property would be destroyed. So this was a good way of approaching it, by encouraging the locals to take care of the problem.
But just to give you an indication of how the Pakistan army is very slow at acquiring knowledge about counterinsurgency and sort of shifting like that often-quoted example of an aircraft carrier trying to make a U-turn: it is very slow and very deliberate. They were applying some of the principles of counterinsurgency and one of the main principles is that you isolate the militants and the insurgents from the rest of society. But normally that is done by having the military inhabit the population and provide security from within, not by remaining in fortresses and camps outside. What the army did in Bajour was it asked all the good people of Bajour that were not involved with the militancy to evacuate and thereby anybody who was left behind was by default a militant. Then they used force. The trouble with that approach is you create unhappiness among the displaced people because not enough planning had been done to accommodate them in the middle of winter, to provide them with shelter, food and clothing, and when they go back they are going to find their property is destroyed – the housing and the schools and the mosques where the militants took shelter. So you are going to face a huge problem later on.
This is one of the key elements, the change from a tactical use of counterinsurgency measures to a kind of doctrinal shift within the Pakistan army. But recognize also there is an abiding fear inside Pakistan, as well as in its army, that with a powerful India to the east and its potential of becoming a regional hegemon, until that issue is resolved – as Ambassador Lodhi alluded – the India-Pakistan issue is resolved, you will always have this ambivalence about, should we retain our conventional force or should we be concentrating on unconventional weapons?
Let me make another point about the US-Pakistan relationship. The United States has been very niggardly in its support of the military itself. It has not given them the equipment they require. The night-vision goggles that were given to the United States were from mid-twentieth century vintage. They only operated ten nights of the month because when there was bright moonlight they would not operate. The helicopters that the army needs in order to move troops rapidly over this vast area, an arc that goes from South Waziristan all the way up to Dir and Chitral, only one squadron was equipped by the United States and remains at that rate. Twenty-seven Cobra helicopters were promised, not all have been delivered. They are still being refurbished. So there is a lot that still needs to be done on the purely military front.
Let me end by saying that whatever happens, I hope the concentration will move away from purely military solutions and strengthening the military and moving to a solution that will engage the United States with the civilian population of Pakistan, and through them with the government of Pakistan, so that you change the direction of that engagement. I hope, like everybody else on the panel, that the new administration will take these views into account and particularly try to get the Biden-Lugar bill out in a hurry. That will allow economic development to be kickstarted into full gear in Pakistan. Thank you very much.
Question & Answer:
Wegger Strommen: Many of the questions focus on the relationship between the Taliban and drug production and the impact it has for what one is trying to achieve on the civilian side but maybe also on the military side in Afghanistan. I would like you to ask that. A huge number also relate to the role of Iran, some also to China but to Iran. So if I could ask you all to at least relate some to the question of counternarcotics and how that is reviving the Taliban and how drug production plays into the equation. Also the role of Iran.
If you allow me another editorial note, I would be very interested if you could say something – and this is maybe from a perspective of someone who tries to contribute in Afghanistan, my own government – sometimes when you read all the reports from Afghanistan you end up with the feeling that we lack a forum, we lack one place to discuss these things. Bits and pieces are done here and there. I come home with a big stack of reports from NATO, from the UN, from the region. We lack one place where we could in a comprehensive way address these things.
So drugs, Iran, and do we lack a forum?
Steve Coll: The counternarcotics problem is a microcosm or a parable of the failures of international strategy in Afghanistan and also a microcosm of the narrative of the Taliban’s revival. It is as complex as the war itself. I would just mention a few things.
Certainly now the revival of the opium economy in Afghanistan does provide the Taliban with a substantial and important source of revenue. No one can really claim to measure it scientifically but I think you can surround it with estimates that are in the tens of millions of dollars and are a significant source of revenue. I also think looking at that side of the equation, then I’ll turn around to the policy side, that the structure of the opium economy in the region is inseparable from the structure of the insurgency on both sides of the border. So it is a smuggling economy, it is a heroin manufacturing economy. It is tied up with the rackets that the Tehrik-e-Taliban exploit in the trucking and transport business. It runs in lots of different directions. It runs down to Karachi, it runs north into Tajikistan and so on. It runs into Iran quite notably, which parenthetically is a very important source of common agenda between Iran and all of the neighbors in the region. Iran suffers perhaps as much as Pakistan and with Pakistan more than any other country from the washing out of the heroin economy from Afghanistan.
One last point, on the policy side, international policy on counternarcotics has been paralyzed by a divisive debate about what approach to take, with substantial portions of the outgoing administration’s policymakers arguing for aerial spraying and for a very aggressive prioritization of eradication. Britain and other countries argue, as I would, that in the context of counterinsurgency, especially one that lacks a strategy and is very much unfinished and perhaps going in the wrong direction, that that would be a foolish tactic that would create more insurgents than it would de-fund. But this debate has paralyzed policy.
The final point is that it is inseparable from the building of Afghan security institutions because ultimately eradication can only occur in local conditions by local forces with credibility and with a policy that is seen as reasonable or at least subject to justice by local farmers and other constituents. The Contact Group is critical.
Maleeha Lodhi: There is nothing I can really add to what Steve has said. I agree entirely. This is a very significant factor that is fueling the insurgency. I think the transnational nature of this issue does mean that we will have to get several countries on board. Iran, again – it comes back to the vital question of how can we have solutions applied to Afghanistan and affecting my country without Iran being involved in this whole process?
It also goes back to an attitudinal issue. Some of the debates that Steve talked about which did paralyze policy underline the need for various international actors to be listened to by Washington. Part of the problem obviously has been the lack of effective harmonization of positions within NATO, whether it is about the troop surge itself actually. That does also mean that this attitude of “my way or the highway,” “I need to do this so everybody has to be on board because this is the only way to do it,” I think that has to change. Everybody knows what needs to be done on counternarcotics. Everybody knows the role it is playing, narcotics itself and the poppy economy. But the issue is going to be how we can harmonize various positions. I think NATO allies will have to be listened to much more on this issue itself and also on the broader policy whenever it emerges and whenever it is applied. Unless Washington is also prepared to listen to and absorb other ways of doing things on the ground, it is not going to work. I know this makes a very simple point but it is often the simple that is ignored.
I do not have an easy answer – actually this question does not have an answer – where is the forum? But I think the forum issue can be trumped by an attitudinal change. There are several forums which be leveraged and used. I am not sure about the Contact Group idea, it just adds another place, unless of course the Contact Group is merely a way and a transitional way of bringing Iran on board. That I am very happy with then. I think that is great. If that is the way you want to go about it, because there is a problem of how you get from here to there with Iran, then I think it is a very critical piece of the new strategy. But I do think a more consensual approach, the new administration really listening to countries in the region as well as its own NATO allies.
Shuja Nawaz: I think on narcotics it is important to clarify that Pakistan has almost totally eliminated narcotics production, opium production, on its side of the border. There are some important lessons to be learned and one should recognize an important role of the narcotics affairs section of the United States embassy in Pakistan over the years and the approach they have taken, and apply that to other projects in that region. Involve the locals, give them the responsibility and give them the wherewithal to make a living so that they know there are alternatives to narcotics production. Only then use punitive measures and military control and so on. So that is critical.
I agree with Steve that the effects of narcotics production are rampant in the region. Afghanistan itself has suffered tremendously from a country which did not have addiction to millions of addicts. Iran is suffering the same as a transit point, Pakistan the same, and Tajikistan, which is the conduit for the move into Russia and then to Europe. The demand is there for the product. This is the best example of the magic of the marketplace because the production of heroin is really a good example of how supply is matching demand. If there is some way to control the demand maybe the supply can be affected.
On the role of Iran, Iran played a very positive role even at the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan and I think it needs to be recognized for that. Iran has a very powerful interest particularly in the border region with Afghanistan. One should mention that because Iran has a majority Shi’a population and that region is also predominantly Shi’a, you have to take advantage of that relationship. Iran has a very powerful interest in stabilizing that region and having it develop because if there are problems there, they affect Iran. So opening a dialogue with Iran, bringing it into whatever forum – it does not matter what name you give it, but an opportunity for a dialogue. I would even broaden it to bring China, Russia and India into this forum because they all have a powerful interest.
For Pakistan in particular, going back to the perceptions that I outlined, it is important that Pakistan is confident that India does not have any kind of aims on Afghanistan that would end up putting Pakistan between a rock and a hard place. That is a concern of the government as well as the military in Pakistan when it comes to Afghanistan.
Wegger Strommen: Thank you very much. I believe this was an example of a panel where you don’t leave still confused but at a higher level, which is often the case. I go to many seminars and sometimes you actually leave, you are still confused but at a higher level. But I hope we will all leave and will have been enlightened. It has been very useful for me. Thank you very much.