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Drones Can't Win Over the Taliban – Former Pakistani Ambassador to the US

Husain Haqqani

Click here to watch the interview.

Times are not easy for Pakistan – the country is waging a seemingly endless and futile war on the Taliban, American drones in the north are seeking their prey, and the war is claiming the lives of innocents as well as jihadists. The new offensive operation by the army has led to hundreds of thousands of refugees. The country itself is being torn apart by the political struggle, with anti-government leaders promising a revolution. Will Islamabad ever see the end of the Taliban? Is there any sense to the negotiations? What about the US – how much of an ally is it for the Pakistani people? We ask these questions to Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US and a professor at Boston University. Husain Haqqani is on SophieCo today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, international relations professor at Boston University, Husain Haqqani, welcome, it’s great to have you with us today. I’m just going to start from the current events. There are threats to the Pakistani government from hardline extremists, but also, from what I understand, the military takeover – is an army coup likely?

Hasan Haqqani: I’m not sure whether the army would like to take over directly – the army wields tremendous influence, and I think it would like to continue to wield that influence. Unfortunately what that does is that it paralyzes decision making – the civilians cannot make decisions because the army is constantly looking over their shoulder and the army doesn’t really control everything, because after all it has to contend with the civilians. So, it paralyzes decision-making, it’s not a good situation to be in, but that’s the situation we find: the army not liking the civilians, the civilians not liking the army, and yet, the army takeover not necessarily imminent.

SS: There’s another factor – the anti-government cleric Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri led a mass revolt last year, and he is now promising to lead the revolution. Now, in your opinion, is he backed by the real force, or is he just being delusional?

HH: I think he has basically a few thousand supporters – even the last time when he came to Islamabad there were a few thousand supporters. The question is why he is doing it. He has lived abroad for quite a few years, why does he feel confident enough to bring his supporters into the streets, challenge the authority of the government? A lot of people suspect some foul play. You must remember that in Pakistan’s history, street demonstrations have sometimes been used by the intel services, intelligence, as a means of trying to exert influence on civilian government, and sometimes even to depose it. Is something like that happening? We don’t have evidence, but we certainly have a lot of suspicion.

SS: Why do you think the current parliamentary government is in such a weak position? How did it come to this? It’s besieged from all sides: extremists, the military, now the Qadri threat. Why?

HH: First of all, the best way to run Pakistan under a civilian government is building relationships across the board. No civilian political party has sufficient strength to run the country on its own, even if it wins an absolute mandate like Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League did, the Muslim league doesn’t have support beyond Punjab; Pakistan is a country of several regions – it needs a little bit more consensus building. That’s one of the problems. The other problem, of course, is the civil-military divide. The civilians have to be very adept at handling the civilian-military issues. A third is the ideological divide. Pakistan is ideologically still very polarized between those who want Pakistan to be some form of an Islamic state – everybody has their own version of an Islamic state, but they want an Islamic state – and those say that Pakistan needs to be a pragmatic, functional state. And then, above all, that is the whole Pakistan ideological DNA of constantly wanting either parity with India or competition with India, which makes it very difficult to invest in things like healthcare and education and run a functional economy – when the civilian government makes decisions about the economy, sometimes a military thinks that those decisions are motivated by corruption, not pragmatism; courts interfere, the institutions have not yet worked out a manner in which full democracy can move forward.

SS: Let’s talk about the Taliban, for instance. I mean, for many the Taliban represents extreme, extreme Islam, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in strong favor of engaging the Taliban militants in peace talks. What do you make of that? Why do you think it’s there?

HH: First of all, we must understand that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1998 said that he actually admired the Taliban because of their commitment to Islam. This brings us to the problem that I have been writing about and speaking about openly. Pakistanis now need to revisit the very fundamental idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state, because if it’s going to be an Islamic state, people in jackets and ties are not going to be able to define Islam – Islam is going to be defined by the mullahs, and every mullah will offer a different explanation and different vision of what an Islamic state is going to look like. And that is the real reason of why Pakistan is in such a mess. Now, the Taliban represents the most extreme form, and there are Taliban that have been used by the Pakistani state for influence in Afghanistan in the past, and there are Taliban who are now coming back and hunting and fighting the Pakistani state inside Pakistan. There needs to be much greater clarity about Pakistan’s future direction. Prime Minister Sharif said he could talk to the Taliban who are fighting in Pakistan and persuade them to accept some kind of a compromise – not realizing that you become Taliban because you are uncompromising. Your belief system is so hardline, that you do not like people who do not do exactly what you tell them to be. So, these are not people who are amenable to reason. Now, as far as fighting them is concerned, fighting them would require a national consensus, or some kind of national support. If the Pakistani public opinion remains divided between those who think, “Well the Taliban are at least good Muslims,” and those who think, “the Taliban are just being mislead by some foreign forces to attack Pakistan,” then in that environment, how is the soldier supposed to decide in the battlefield which Taliban should he shoot, which Taliban should he negotiate with?

SS: Well, that’s exactly my next question, actually, because if the government does pin its hopes on a peace treaty with the Taliban, isn’t launching a military offensive a strange step in that direction?

HH: Absolutely! Look – it reflects confusion, it reflects ideological confusion. The real ideological confusion is: are the Taliban just some people who are angry with the state, who are angry with America in Afghanistan, or are they people who have a vision that means taking Pakistan, and everywhere else, everywhere where there are Muslims, into the VIII century. All evidence points to the fact that these people want to drag our society into the VIII century. They don’t want young girls to go to school, they don’t want to have religious pluralism, they want to kill anybody who doesn’t conform to Islam as they see Islam. They don’t consider Shia as Muslims, they don’t consider Sunni, Barelvis as Muslims, they don’t consider Ahmadis as Muslims, they don’t want Christians, they don’t want Hindu. They want the purification of society, they slaughter people like goats. These people are not people of the 21stcentury, so how does the 21stcentury negotiate with the eighthcentury? What can be the compromise? Look, Sophie, negotiation always means finding middle ground. So, for example, you want 100, I am willing to give 20, we can settle on 50…But here, these are people who believe that either everything that they think God has ordered them to impose has to be imposed, or there is nothing else. Such people will never be amenable to negotiation.

SS: Talking about 21stcentury fighting the eighth century – I mean, we see that even NATO’s latest armament is unable to defeat the Taliban. So, for example, this latest anti-Taliban North Waziristan offensive is one amongst many previous ones that have also proved futile – or is this one any different?

HH: The big difference is that the eighthcentury uses 21stcentury means of destruction to impose eighth century ideas. So, my point is that you cannot have a negotiation between the ideas. Now, as far as the military tactics are concerned, the Taliban has the advantages of terrain, they have advantages of surprise, and they have the advantage of confusion within society. Look: in Russian, when, for example, extremists have ever attacked in any city, the terrorist attack – the whole nation has been united in thinking: “These are terrorists, we need to fight them” – and so, your military, your intelligence service, all kinds of law enforcement people are all on one page. In Pakistan, we have deliberately created confusion over the last six or seven years – we have always said “No, no, no, people who operate in the name of Islam are good people” – even when they are slaughtering people like goats! So, what we have is a confused state apparatus. And, a confused man, even if he has 21stcentury NATO weapons, cannot really prevail. What you need is clarity – what are we trying to do? Are we trying to build a modern Pakistan, which allows people to practice Islam, which encourages people to remain moral, but which is not going to be bound by any clerical vision of an Islamic state? We are not doing that, and the Taliban has an advantage.

SS: So, just a tiny bit more about the Taliban. Pakistani Special Forces and the military helped create the Taliban, hoping to wield influence in the region through them. So why is Islamabad so involved with the Taliban now? Has it been worth it? What do you think?

HH: I think the Pakistani military does realize that the Taliban has become a problem for Pakistan, but it is just too late. The Taliban has sunken deep roots in Pakistan, and now it’s very difficult to beat the enemy when it was previously your friend and your creation.

SS: Now, Washington’s drone program has been active in Pakistan for years now, targeting the Taliban, mainly, but also causing civilian casualties, and that has been kind of a problem. But is that now becoming less of an issue for the Pakistani government? What do you think?

HH: I think the current government has been able to work out some kind of an arrangement with the Americans, whereby most of the drone strikes are now taking place only with some kind of coordination between Pakistan and the US. So we don’t hear too much about them. When the drone strikes were not coordinated, Pakistan used to leak the information to the media – we are not seeing those leaks, and therefore we are seeing less of a reaction as well. And groups like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaf, which was running the campaign against the drones, have now shifted their emphasis to other issues.

SS: But what do you think of the whole thing? Just, like, in general, the bigger picture – the US drones attacking extremists in Pakistan – is it a good thing for you?

HH: Well, very frankly, the drones were used primarily because Pakistan was not launching a ground offensive and there was no other way of paralyzing those people. You know, the American attitude was “We have a list of people who need to be paralyzed, who need to be taken out, so that they are not a threat internationally” – they don’t attack Americans abroad, they don’t attack Americans in America. That was the strategy, it was not only for Pakistan or Afghanistan, it was also for Yemen. Everywhere where there was no ground capability or air capability in the region to fight the terrorists. I think that if the Pakistani military manifests its interest in fighting the terrorists inside Pakistani territory, then there will be less drone strikes. Now, there are other issues relating to drones, which I think are even bigger: can drone warfare be deemed regular warfare? It’s basically war by assassination, you are just assassinating people. In a regular war, a soldier can point a gun on another soldier and say “Surrender” and the man can surrender. There is no option of that in this particular warfare. So those are moral issues, ethical issues, that the international community needs to sort out, but, I think, in the case of the Pakistani northern territories, and northwestern areas primarily, it was the lack of action on the ground that made the Americans use drones.

SS: But let me ask you this – putting the moral factor aside, can the Taliban be defeated without the drone offensives? What do you think?

HH: I think that drones were only a way of eliminating leaders, but the Taliban has shown a remarkable capability of recruiting new members and I think basically the idea of Talibanization needs to be confronted. Somebody needs to stand up in Pakistan and say: “This way forward is not a way forward. These people represent ideas that are not acceptable to Pakistani society, and these people are not Pakistan’s partners for regional influence.” Unless that happens, the Taliban will continue to recruit all the way from Karachi to North Waziristan. Look, the North Waziristan operation will result in a lot of internally displaced persons. These people will include the future Taliban; as long as the ideology of the Taliban is alive, they will continue to recruit all over Pakistan.

SS: I’ve spoken to many Pakistanis who are actually surprised when people are interested in their internal politics, so, like, you know, “it’s not about your business” – but I’m thinking, obviously, the internal politics of Pakistan are a concern for the rest of the world, at the very least because of its nuclear program. Can Pakistan insure the safety of its nuclear arsenal against any threat?

HH: I think Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has the same kind of safety arrangements that most countries do. The real problem is – is Pakistan a secure nation? It’s a different question…

SS: Well, that’s what I mean by the internal problems, because there is so much turmoil around who is governing the country.

HH: What happens when extremists take over the country, for example – and that is something the Pakistanis should be open to talk about. Unfortunately Pakistanis have become very, very defensive in their arguments with the rest of the world. Look, Pakistanis can travel to fewer countries without a visa than even North Koreans. Pakistan has become the country that is being held responsible for the revival of polio in the world. These are things that Pakistanis should be aware of. We can’t turn around and say “our internal problems are not the problems of the rest of the world” – no, they are, because our internal problems are causing problems for the rest of the world. Also, polio is a global problem, terrorism is a global problem, extremism is a global problem – either we control it, or the world will have to come up with ideas to control it, and nuclear weapons proliferation is one of them. As long as we can assure the world that the nuclear weapons are in the control of an authority that itself is responsible – and we have not done that in the past, if you remember. Our nuclear designs ended up in Korea, North Korea, and Libya and Iran. We blamed one man, Dr. A. Q. Khan, but we must come forward and hold all those who did it accountable. Either we are a responsible nation, or the rest of the world will continue to wonder about us and our ability to be responsible nation.

SS: Especially that no one in the international community has the right to come and check up on your nuclear arsenal – that’s also a problem. But, there is another thing. Seeing how the Taliban threat is getting stronger and relations with India are actually getting smoother…I mean, originally, the nuclear bomb in Pakistan was created because India seemed to be a threat. But what does Pakistan need the bomb for now?

HH: I won’t get into what Pakistan needs the bomb for or not, because I have my own views on Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. I am, personally, one of those who feels that Pakistan should be part of some international nuclear restraint regime, but I am a very small minority in Pakistan. The problem in relation to India is that relations may be smoother on the surface, but deep down there – not. Every Pakistani child is still taught in schools that India is still Pakistan’s eternal enemy. I am one of those who advocates a reorientation of Pakistan completely. Pakistan needs to think of itself as a trading nation, not as a warrior nation. We need to trade with India, we need to trade with Afghanistan, we need to de-emphasize this whole Islamic identity that has made us into jihadists rather than productive people who engage with the rest of the world in a more reasonable way. I think, unless that is done, the nuclear issue will only be one part of the bigger problem. The bigger problem is what is the purpose of Pakistan in the world? Is Pakistan always going to be a warrior nation that wants to be India’s equal, without having the economic resources or the size of geography and population – or is Pakistan willing to be a nation that pays attention to its 180 million people?

SS: You know, a while ago there were reports that the US Special Forces were getting ready to move into Pakistan and seize the nuclear arsenal in case pro-Taliban elements came or come to power. Now, do you think that’s a realistic plan? Do you think Washington still has that plan in mind?

HH: Look, Americans make all kinds of plans. I don’t know if you know that the Americans even have a plan to deal with some kind of zombie takeover of the world, so they do these exercises, but I don’t think it’s practical for American special operations forces to arrive in Pakistan without some kind of support base inside Pakistan. And you must remember – 83 percent of Pakistanis have a negative view of the US. So if American troops ever come to Pakistan, it will result in a kind of chaos and a war-like situation which I don’t think the Americans want. I think the Americans would like to have a government in Pakistan that takes responsibility for Pakistan’s nuclear program, and I think it’s in Pakistan’s interest to make itself part of the global community with restraints rather than an un-restrained country that doesn’t allow international observers into Pakistan even for normal check-ups on its nuclear technological facilities. This kind of isolation is not good for Pakistan. It makes Pakistan more like North Korea, rather than like South Korea, which is an economically prosperous and open society.

SS: Talking about North Korea, you know that US intelligence spends just as much time spying on Pakistan as it does on North Korea and Al-Qaeda. Why is it that they feel they need to spy on its ally?

HH: I think that the Pakistan-US alliance is essentially now just a charade. Everybody knows that Pakistan’s strategic calculus is very different from America’s strategic calculus. I’ve written a whole book called ‘Magnificent delusions’ in which I say that the Pakistani delusion is that it can maintain its strategic calculus with American assistance and their support, whereas the American delusion is that they can change Pakistan’s strategic calculus by giving it aid and arms. These two countries need to review their relationship in a very significant way, and we must come to terms with the fact that there are people in Pakistan who have ideas about how they will fight America and there are Americans who think that Pakistan needs to be brought under restraint much more than they say publicly. So, I don’t think that the alliance is really an alliance anymore, and I agree that the Americans are conducting the kind of surveillance in Pakistan that they usually reserve for countries that are deemed as hostile. And that is not good, by the way, that is not good either for the US or for Pakistan.

SS: Just a little bit more about the nuclear program. I mean, the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, is responsible for safeguarding the nuclear arsenal – but is it really as untrustworthy as the US thinks it is?

HH: No, I don’t think…look, I think sometimes these questions are framed wrongly. I mean, who is it untrustworthy for? No Pakistani would want Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to fall into the hands of either the Americans or Indians or anybody else. People like me worry about what happens when people with jihadist sympathies take over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Nuclear weapons were designed primarily as a deterrent. We already have that deterrent capability. Why do we need to expand on our nuclear weapons program when 42 percent of our school-going age children do not go to school? We need to think about the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is that it’s not just Americans, Sophie, many other countries also are getting concerned about Pakistan as a petri dish for global terrorism. Most of the people arrested in Europe have had some kind of relationship – either they went through Pakistan or were in Pakistan when they became radicalized, and those are things that we need to address for ourselves. So a radical Pakistan which is also nuclear is definitely a problem. But a nuclear Pakistan that is responsible and takes responsibility for its nukes? I don’t think that needs to be confronted in the same way.

SS: Ambassador Haqqani, thank you very much for this insight about Pakistan’s internal and foreign policies. We were talking to Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US, international relations professor at Boston University. We were talking about the threat of the Taliban and Pakistan’s nuclear program. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, we will see you next time.

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