US wary of Pak N-programme, terrorism: Stephen Cohen

Says drones, unilateral hits in Pakistan to teach lessons to other states too

Dr. Stephen P. Cohen is one of the best-known American writers and intellectuals in and outside United States. A former academic and an acclaimed researcher, he is an expert on South Asia and takes a keen interest in Pakistan. He has travelled extensively to Pakistan and has written three books on the state of affairs in Pakistan and its institutions. His forthcoming book “Future of Pakistan” also looks at the challenges confronting the country. Currently associated with the think-tank Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, he sat down with Dunya News for an interview in which he responded to an array of questions on Pak-US relations and other wide-ranging issues in a candid manner.

Question: Dr. Stephen, thanks for talking to Dunya News. The United States and Pakistan have had a troubled relationship over the years. The tensions peaked after the Raymond Davis case and the Abbottabad raid to kill Osama bin Laden. What in your opinion are the reasons for this mistrust?

Answer: Let me first of all say that there is very little communication between our countries and a lot of that is of course misinformation. So I am happy to do this interview with the Pakistani media. In terms of what happened in Abbottabad, I think the whole US-Pakistan relationship is characterized by deep mistrust. There is suspicion on both sides. I talk to Americans and they are very concerned what is happening to Pakistan and what the Pakistanis are telling them. Of course the Pakistani view is that Americans can’t be trusted at all. There is a trust-deficit. We can’t trust each other because we don’t know that what we say is what we mean. I think that applies to both sides.

Question: In the war on terror, Americans have accused Pakistan of not cooperating fully. Pakistanis obviously think that the US left us after the Soviet war, what are we going to do if they leave us again? With this kind of differences, do you think it is possible for both countries to find common grounds?

Answer: Well, there are difference of interests between US and Pakistan, we may have common grounds but we also have common differences. Above all, from the American point of view, two issues are prime. One is the nuclear issue and the other is terrorism. The nuclear issue here is seen as a problematic issue for all of Asia. I can speak for myself and not for other Americans. I think Pakistan’s nuclear programme was justified. There was a state under threat. India was getting a nuclear programme and Pakistani nuclear weapons presented an equalizer to Indian nuclear capability. But beyond that Pakistanis have to think what kind of nuclear state they are going to be. Second issue is terrorism. There is deep concern whether Pakistan has control over these groups, now that they’re attacking Pakistan itself, there’s even greater concern about the integrity of Pakistani state in fighting these groups.

Question: The US administration does concede that Pakistan has been the biggest victim of terrorism. Pakistani military has lost something like 5000 lives in this war. There is no city in Pakistan that has escaped terrorism. Still, what’s the reason for the US to think that Pakistan is not going all out in this war?

Answer: Well, I can’t speak for the government at all, but my own view is that we know that there are groups walking around and operating in Pakistan who have been involved in these terrorist attacks. I hear from Pakistanis that they are afraid to deal with these groups because they are afraid of backlash from these groups. So may be the state is too weak to take them on. In some cases, these groups have attacked the Pakistani state itself. Now other countries have had this problem too. We had this problem in the case of Cuba and elsewhere as all intelligence agencies are afraid of backlash. So this is not a problem that is unique to Pakistan.

Question: Talking of these groups, US has had a long-standing demand from Pakistan of launching an action against Haqqani network in North Waziristan and also crackdown on the IED factories in tribal areas. Both governments seem to have reached an agreement on this crackdown on IEDs and Pakistan has also launched a military offensive in parts of North Waziristan. Do you think these actions are in line with the demands of US and these could lead to more trust?

Answer: I would not answer that question that way. I would say whether these actions are in line with Pakistani interests. It is in Pakistan’s own interest to re-establish control of the parts of the frontier region, which have sort of ceded to these groups completely. Yet Pakistan has legitimate interests in the future of Afghanistan. I think Americans should understand that and see this in a larger context. How can we stabilize Afghanistan so that it does not become a threat to Pakistan or to other neighbors, for example Iran? My own view has been that there should be an active American attempt to coordinate Iran, India and Pakistan in Afghan developments as well as the Europeans so we have India Pakistan working together in Afghanistan, not against each other.

Question: So you are a supporter of the view that US should play an active role to get Pakistan and India work together in Afghanistan and for resolving their own differences?

Answer: Absolutely. I think that’s far easier than talking about Kashmir. Because both India and Pakistan see a neutral, non-aligned Afghanistan, which is not extremist, one way or the other, in their interest. And also in a sense Afghanistan could be a useful economic transit point for the whole of central Asia, from Iran, through Afghanistan and to India. The Americans have opposed that at times and I think that’s a bad policy on our part but clearly the Indians and the Pakistanis and the Afghans should be sitting down and talking about the conditions under which any Indian presence in Afghanistan, and any Pakistan presence in Afghanistan, should be complimentary and not competitive.

Question: For the countries bordering Afghanistan, all kinds of scenarios are being predicted in wake of the decision to drawdown US troops and make the transition to Afghan forces. What is your opinion on the decision to drawdown and do you think that Afghan forces and economy will be able to sustain once the US troops pull out?

Answer: I don’t think we are going to pull out completely. We will keep a small force there because we want to make sure that no terrorist groups operate from Afghan territory and I think that’s a legitimate American concern and the Afghans seem to agree with that. There is still a question of capability on Afghan National Army. But I think the Pakistanis have to decide how much of American presence they could tolerate, how much would be useful for Pakistan to prevent groups from going back and forth across the border. I don’t disagree with the idea that Taliban should be part of the process but the Taliban who are willing to work with other countries and other forces in Afghanistan. The Indians have an interest in Afghanistan too and they don’t want to see Afghanistan Talibanised because they are afraid that Pakistan will be Talibanised and I don’t think many Pakistanis want to be Talibanised either.

Question: There has been an effort by the US to establish contacts with Taliban. Do you think such an effort can lead to eventual success particularly when Pakistan tried this in Swat and Waziristan but could not succeed with it?

Answer: Well, we’ll see. I can’t predict that one way or the other. But I think the effort has to be made because in the end political solution is what’s necessary but groups that want to adhere to a political solution have to be complemented by other means. They want to Talibanise all of Afghanistan and turn it back into a medieval barbaric state again. But then Pakistan does not want to be involved with that, as I think will threaten the very existence of Pakistan itself.

Question: Admiral Mike Mullen has made a statement recently raising suspicions about the killing of journalist Saleem Shahzad. Now when there are efforts underway to normalize the relationship and get the Pakistani military do what the US wants, do you think this kind of statement could again infuriate the Pakistani military and put a dampener on these efforts?

Answer: I don’t know what he is saying to them privately and I don’t know what we are doing privately. In these cases, I would rather see us do private diplomacy rather than public diplomacy because all this does, these statements, to strengthen a paranoia in Pakistan that we are out to get the Pakistan nuclear programme, the Pakistan army and the Pakistani ISI. I don’t think we are out to get any of them. Mullen’s statement was more anger and grief than anything else but clearly I would advise him not to have said it.

Question: Over the last couple of months, there has been a lot of talk about aid to Pakistan and to withhold it, cut-off altogether or attach conditionalities to it. Do you think the aid being given to Pakistan is being put to good use and if that is so, what the future course should be vis-a-vis this aid and its accountability?

Answer: I would like us to reach a point where Pakistan would say that it does not need aid. Where it can manage to raise the money for development projects itself, but right now the Pakistani financial situation is in peril. They are on the verge of going bankrupt and defaulting on all kinds of loans. So in a sense it is to keep the Pakistan government afloat. We need to see Pakistan doing all this effort internally before we can talk about a developing and modern Pakistan. I would rather see the aid programme abandon completely because I know it is not that effective but on the other hand, it is the first time the Americans committed themselves to a long-term support for Pakistan’s economic and internal growth. But to see Pakistan turn against that the way they did in the Kerry-Lugar bill in a sense made Americans drop that off completely because if nobody wants the money, we won’t give it to them. And if the money is not spent properly, we should not give it to them. In terms of quality and the performance, there are problems on both American side and the Pakistani side. They are complicated and detailed but clearly the larger strategic issue is whether we want to help Pakistan domestically, its economic reforms, its educational reforms, its internal reforms, and the answer is yes but Pakistan has to show that it is willing to tax its own people before we go much further with this.

Question: If officials from both countries were to sit across the table to resolve the differences that have cropped up recently, what would be the three top advices that you’ll give to them regarding issues that need to be resolved first in your opinion?

Answer: First thing I would advise them is to develop a track-two dialogue. What seems to be astonishing in this time, in this place is that there is no serious dialogue between Americans and Pakistanis on a whole range of issues. I tell the officials there are issues, which are very sensitive that you cannot talk to the other side about but a non-official dialogue could do that. So get a track-two going, get non-official group going, get parliamentarians talking to each other, get retired officials talking to each other, get academics talking to each other. We did this during the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I was involved in a number of track-two dialogues between Americans and Pakistanis. I have not seen any of that this time around and I think it is more necessary now. When it came to giving the negotiators advice, I would say to both of them, trust but verify. There’s any agreement you reach, whether it is on military or economic or other assistance, intelligence sharing, you have to have clear benchmarks, what is good performance and what is bad performance, and in a sense both sides should state clearly what they expect from the other side and they should keep a record of that to know exactly when the other side is fulfilling the commitment and when they are not fulfilling the commitment.

Question: Now these are two, one is “track-two’ and other is “trust but verify’. What could be the third?

Answer: Ahh, I learnt from George Shultz (former US Secretary of State in President Ronald Reagan’s regime), when I worked for him that “hope is not a policy”. But I also learnt from a Pakistani diplomat on my last trip to Pakistan that ‘despair is not a policy either”. So somewhere between hope and despair, the relationship can be brought to a normal level. We are not hopeless and Pakistan is not hopeless in a sense. Somewhere between hope and despair there are practical policy suggestions both sides can follow.

Question: The strategic dialogue that was put in place as a proof of the commitment of both countries to this relationship has been delayed for quite a while now. What do you think are the reasons for that and if that is held at all now, do you think that can help in putting this relationship back on track?

Answer: Not unless the dialogue is prepared for and the ground is prepared beforehand. The United States and India have a strategic dialogue. Every year before that dialogue, we have a track-two dialogue to discuss a whole range of issues. We share the conclusions with officials on both sides. So in a sense both sides know pretty much where the other side is coming from and there are no surprises. So a strategic dialogue without this preparation is not likely to be very useful.

Question: You must have seen the new counter-terrorism policy of the US that was unveiled recently and it has a lot of obvious implications for Pakistan. It tells of increase in drone attacks, hints at more actions like the Abbottabad raid within Pakistani territory etc. What do you make of this policy?

Answer: I think that’s a good policy because it will force countries around the world, not simply Pakistan, to look inwards to make sure that they have got their own terrorist groups under control and if a country can manage its own internal terrorist problem, it should have nothing to fear at all. So I think the lesson for Pakistan is we are going to be tougher on these issues. If it worries Pakistan, it has to shape up its own treatment of terrorist groups.

Question:There is another issue of drone attacks in tribal areas. The Pakistani leadership has been raising it for quite a while now and has clearly said that these are counter-productive and should be stopped. What’s your opinion on that?

Answer: What I have learnt from Wikileaks is that some of them were carried out on behalf of the Pakistan government. For all I know there may be joint targeting of some of these terrorist groups because the Pakistani government is unable to deal with them themselves. I think you have to distinguish between the CIA’s drone attacks which are primarily directed against al-Qaeda, the US air force’s drone attacks which are in support of American forces in Afghanistan and perhaps other drone attacks. There are several categories of this but clearly Pakistan should have the capability of using drones against their own bad guys. But can they be trusted to do that? Will they carry these out? I think the Chinese are providing some drone technology to Pakistan and I think that’s a good thing as long as the Pakistanis see this as a way of defending the state against groups that are trying to destabilize the Pakistani state. So in a sense I have no problem with drones in principle, but when you go across the border in another country, it does raise big issues but that country should be capable enough to guard its own territory so that drone attacks are not necessary.

Question: Given this troubled relationship over the years, how do you see it panning out now? Are you hopeful that military and civilian governments from both sides will be able to resolve these differences?

Answer: As I have said there’s always hope. I don’t despair easily. But I think the American withdrawal from Afghanistan should make things a little bit easier. The real issue I think is the instability within Pakistan, which is not just caused by the Americans in Afghanistan but by mismanagement of the Pakistani economy, by tolerance of radical groups that are trying to destabilize the Pakistani state. In a sense it’s a long-term process. Pakistan has to rebuild and re-balance its civil-military relationship. There has to be a degree of trust between the military and civilians and the civilians have to learn how to be competent politicians. They will make mistakes, but you have to let the Pakistani people decide when to throw them out, not the army.

Question: Leaving US-Pakistan relationship aside, you are obviously one of the best know Americans in Pakistan. You have studied Pakistan’s history and Pakistan’s civil and military institutions a lot besides writing about it. Do you think there are still indicators for Pakistan and Pakistanis to sort of get out of this mess?

Answers: Well, a friend of Pakistan does not simply praise Pakistan without being critical. It also points out the problems. In the case of Pakistan, there are a lot of institutions not functioning properly, there are some that are functioning at half speed, there are some that are doing very very well, I think the press and the media are doing very well. And I think the political parties are slowly coming around to learning how to be political parties in Pakistan. They are learning by mistake. They make lots of mistakes. They seem to be learning by some of these mistakes. The real problem is the economy and here Pakistan has sort of missed the boat of globalization. It has got to do a lot of things and whether it can do that or not is a big question. Here I think the Americans are eager to help. I know the Chinese are eager to help also as China is one of the most productive countries in the world. But the Pakistan economy won’t grow until it becomes linked to the whole South Asian economy as well. I think that requires roads, railways for travel and trade between all the South Asian countries.

Question: There are a lot of other conspiracy theories in Pakistan, even if you leave US and anti-American sentiment in Pakistan aside. Do you subscribe to the views that Pakistan is going to become a failed state or it is going to disintegrate or it does not have a future on the map of the world?

Answer: Well, it does not have a future unless it gets its act together. I mean no country has a future unless it pays attention to doing business. But in the beginning of the Pakistan book (Idea of Pakistan), you’ll see there is a whole section on failure. And Pakistan has not failed comprehensively. It has failed in bits and pieces. Everything has failed, economy has failed, religious tolerance has failed, but not all comprehensively. There has been ethnic violence and so forth but you know Pakistan has to manage these problems and take it more seriously. It can do that and conduct a global diplomacy but at the same time, I think the Pakistani army and the Pakistanis are too distracted by these other events. They need to have support of their neighbours, the Afghans and the Indians, to come out of this. The South Koreans did this and the Indonesians did. When Indonesia banned the policy of confrontation, then it became a normal and developed country and began to become friends with its neighbours.

Question: Do you think the US administration and the media have made a mistake at times to equate anti-Americanism in some segments in Pakistan with pro-radicalism?

Answer. Yes that’s a good way of putting it. Because burning a flag does not make you a radical I know after 9/11, there were American flags being burnt in Pakistan and some of these were staged by the networks just for the TV appeal. My impression is that Pakistanis are deeply suspicious of the US and also my judgment is that there are good reasons to be suspicious of the US. I wrote an article and it is on the Brookings webpage, “The way in which we have let down Pakistan”. So I think much of the Pakistani criticism is justified but Pakistanis have to look inward and look at what they have done themselves to themselves and to their neighbours. And come up with a more truthful and balanced assessment of where they are, what responsibility is at the Americans and what responsibility is their own because clearly nobody is blameless in this.

Thank you Dr. Stephen Cohen for speaking to Dunya News.

Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity.


We owe it to Saleem Shahzad

Saleem Shahzad’s killing has once again brought into sharp focus a bitter reality that we all know but hardly admit. Intolerance has seemed across the society in Pakistan and it is not just terrorism but intolerance across the rank and file of the society that threatens the very existence of its fabric.

Saleem was Pakistan’s best-known journalist to the outside world because of his expertise in covering militant outfits and the ability to unmask their ability to infiltrate within the security agencies. The fact that his stories were hardly ever rebuked, even by his detractors, is a credit in itself.

Even in the last story that he did on the terrorist attack at Mehran naval base in Karachi, he pointed to the presence of some right-wing elements in navy who were probably having sympathies with the militant outfits. But the question is whether there is anything new in it? We all know that several officers and jawans of armed forces were taken in custody and convicted on charges of abetting the militants.

The attack at the naval base in Karachi was no different from the GHQ attack in October 2009 and several other attacks on military, police and other law enforcement agencies across the country. Sad though it is but could this be without any inside information? This is a question that hardly anybody would dispute.

Why kill somebody who is writing all this then? And he had been doing this with aplomb and fearlessness for more than a decade. The rising intolerance meant that his mouth had to be shut like other liberal and independent voices in other parts of the country. Whether he was killed by the intelligence agencies, as is being alleged, or the militants that he exposed, is immaterial in this debate because the ultimate cause of his death remains the same.

And why rue his loss only? What about an acclaimed intellectual like Prof. Saba Dashtiari in Balochistan or the politicians like former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseeer and former minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, who were assassinated because of their liberal approach.   

Could this go on with such impunity? Could a country of 180 million be allowed to drift towards extremism and intolerance like this? The answer of an overwhelming majority in Pakistan will be a big NO. But how to stem the rot and where to start? The answer perhaps lies in coming out of the state of denial.

There will gain be commissions and promises of fair investigation into Saleem Shahzad’s killing but in every likelihood it’ll also meet the same fate as other investigations prior to this. The murder probes in Pakistan, right from the first Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan’s assassination in 1951, have literally become a joke.

Saleem was not just another number and not just another journalist in the long list of people who had to pay dearly for their quest to bring the truth to light. His killing has caused a huge uproar within the country and abroad. While we may never know who exactly killed him and it’ll be life as usual for most of the people after a while, but the journalist fraternity has an obligation to him.

He gave his life without compromising on truth and that is the message that needs to be understood and spread across. It is now our responsibility to carry the baton and seek light towards the end of the tunnel. When I see most young journalists, let alone his contemporaries and seniors, echoing the same sentiments and ready to play their part, I know all is not lost and there is still hope. Yes Saleem, we owe it to you!