Targets, Not Drones, Draw Ire From Pakistan: Weinbaum

By Malik Siraj Akbar

Pakistan’s relationship with the United States was hit hard in 2011, owing to various factors, prime amongst which were the May 2 raid to kill Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad and the attack on Pakistani armed forces’ check-post in Salala in November.

Both countries have been unable to undo the damage and Pakistani parliament’s review of relations has not deterred Washington from continuing drone strikes inside Pakistan’s tribal areas.

To assess the state of US-Pakistan relations, Dawn.com spoke exclusively to Professor Dr Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director of the Pakistan Center at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.  He is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 1999 to 2003, he served at the US Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research as an analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan.  

What has been the response in Washington to the parliamentary review of Pakistan’s relations with the United States?

It was interesting to see the Pakistani parliament debate the issue. Normally, the military in Pakistan decides the foreign policy. One wonders if the parliament was competent to examine the foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States.

Washington wants the reopening of supplies to Nato forces in Afghanistan, while the bottom line for Pakistan has been to stop the drone strikes. Drones are one area where the US is most reluctant to give up.

It is believed in Washington that Pakistani officials secretly endorse drone operations but publicly denounce them. Which of these statements is true?

Everyone realises that one could not have conducted the operations over the years without some cooperation from the Pakistani military authorities. The dispute between the two armed forces has been the issue of who to target. Pakistan does not mind if the US targets Al Qaeda. The raid on the Bin Laden compound was the only exception. Likewise, Pakistan does not mind if the drones strike on Hakeemullah Mehsud’s people. Pakistan seems to have problems when the Americans go behind the Haqqani Network or the Quetta Shura. The cause for friction between the two countries on drones is over the issue of the targets.

What is going to be the impact of the bounty announced by the US government on Jammat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed?

The US has been watching the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in the context of the rise of the Pakistan Defence Council (PDC).  The PDC has become much visible and the Pakistani civil and military authorities have done nothing to stop it. The objectives of the LeT are aimed at the South Asian region as well as American interests and beyond. The bounty could have been announced one or two years ago but it has come now as a mark of American frustration with Pakistan in the wake of the stoppage of the supply lines, the parliamentary debate and, most importantly, how  groups like the LeT and even the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been given a free hand to operate.

What do you think are going to be the major transitional challenges in Afghanistan in 2014?  

There are going to be different transitions and different challenges. For example, the security transition looks into the matter of transferring authority to the Afghan security forces, finances, competence of Afghan forces and their loyalties.

Afghanistan will also go through political transition as there is going to be a change in political leadership of the country. If the Afghans can’t negotiate among themselves ahead of 2014, the Taliban are likely to take advantage of this and attain military gains which will eventually lead to a civil war. There is a need to sufficiently stabilise the security forces to avoid a civil war.

The third transition is going to be economic. Most of the economic growth in Afghanistan in the past one decade took place by the virtue of the money that came because of the military’s presence there. Recently, there has been a sharp decline in military assistance. The challenge is how the Afghan economy is going to make an adjustment with where it is today and what it would look like by 2015.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Pakistan was left alone by the United States and even isolated due to its nuclear program. Now, it seems the US won’t be there to help Pakistan grapple with the post-2014 challenges, such as the Pakistani Taliban, because Washington is still annoyed with Islamabad over Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. So, what do you think is going to happen to Pakistan?

In 1990s, there was no insurgency in Pakistan but now it has to calculate what the events in Afghanistan will lead to inside its territory. I do not think that the Pakistani government, or even the military, wants a complete Taliban victory in Afghanistan. They don’t want to see a civil war in Afghanistan which would place Pakistan on the other side of the military influence of Iran, Russia and India. Taliban rule could lead to further isolation for Pakistan and could also lead to the rise of an uncontrollable Taliban in Pakistan.

What is the future of the Pakistani Taliban?

The Afghan Taliban, if they come into power, would like to realign themselves with the Pakistani Taliban. At this time, their top priority is to get into power in Afghanistan because of which one does not see a lot of realignment between the two. But once the Taliban in Afghanistan achieve their goals, they would want the Sharia law for Islamabad as much as they want it for Kabul.

Pakistan wants to be instrumental in bringing a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. They do not want to run Afghanistan but want to make sure that they have their elements there who will take care of Pakistan’s needs. This means, Pakistan would like to offer the Afghans so much domestic influence that they should be able to keep the Indians from getting too much of a foothold in Afghanistan.

What was the impact of Pakistan’s boycott of the Bonn Conference?

I think Pakistan’s boycott was emotional. It made no sense. Pakistan wants to be at the table whenever anything regarding Afghanistan is being discussed. The reason its absence did not matter much is because nothing significant happened in Bonn. Some speeches were made but nothing substantial took place there.

What do you think we should expect from Nato’s upcoming Summit in Chicago?

Some tough decisions, such as the pace of withdrawal, have to be made at the Chicago Summit. Presumably, some bilateral strategic agreements are going to be signed. This is, therefore, an event of important interest for Pakistan.

Would you agree that Pakistan was not consulted while opening an office for the Taliban in Qatar or initiating the reconciliation process?

Pakistan has never objected to the Taliban setting up an office in Qatar. Pakistan was on board on that notion from the very beginning. That is why it never complained about it. For instance, when Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Bradar was secretly talking to the Americans, the Pakistanis immediately locked him up. The problem with Pakistan’s strategy is that Islamabad can’t make the Taliban deliver what it wants them to do. It is naïve to expect the Afghan Taliban to accept Hamid Karzai as a part of the political set-up or form a political party of  their own to become a part of the electoral system.

Do you see a future relationship between the United States and Pakistan after 2014?

Both the countries can ill-afford a complete separation. They will struggle to find those areas of common interest that serve their purpose. There should be no illusions that it is going to be a broad-based strategic partnership. It is going to be a narrowly construed and transactional arrangement.

Why can’t the two countries have a successful strategic partnership?  

The military and the elements in the government are willing to develop a strategic partnership but the public opinion prevents it from happening. Political forces in Pakistan do not want a resolution of tensions between the two countries. Despite controlling the country’s foreign policy, the military in Pakistan involved the public and the media in key debates concerning the relations with the United States as was seen in the Raymond Davis affair. The Bin Laden raid and the killing of soldiers last November has created a set of expectations among the public which serves as the limiting factor for the policymakers.

Pakistanis complain that the United States comes up with a new set of demands every time. When should one expect an end to future pressures on Pakistan to ‘do more’?

I do not think that the US comes up with new demands all the time. We only keep repeating the old ones. The only new demand has come in the case of Hafiz Saeed.

Some sections of opinion in Pakistan believe that the United States is eying their nuclear program and would eventually take away the country’s nukes.

That is nonsense. Anything that weakens the government in Pakistan should be treated contrary to the US interests. The US needs a predictable partner. A partner that is distracted from issues cannot be an interlocutor in any kind of negotiations. If the US has to worry about Pakistan’s nuclear program, it would be for the fear of a break up within the Pakistani military. Does the US worry about it? Yes, it does. The US does not expect the imminent break up of the country but the consequences are catastrophic if junior officers (with support to Jihadi elements) turn on the senior officers causing a serious command-and-control challenge. Fortunately, we are not there at this point. It is not in the interest of the US or even India to deliberately weaken the Pakistani government or the military. (Courtesy: Dawn.com)

Malik Siraj Akbar is a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy(NED), Washington DC. The contents of this interview do not reflect the policy of NED.