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In Pakistan, views differ on best approach for dealing with Taliban

June 9, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
Members of the Taliban provoked a dramatic firefight with Pakistani troops at that nation’s busiest airport. Judy Woodruff talks to Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council and C. Christine Fair of Georgetown University about the goals of the Pakistan Taliban and recent attempts to reconcile with the militants.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the siege and how it fits into the larger picture in Pakistan, we turn to two who have studied that country for a long time.

Christine Fair is an assistant professor at Georgetown University. Her latest book is “Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War.” And Shuja Nawaz is director of the Southeast Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is “Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within.”

And we welcome you both back to the program.

Shuja Nawaz, to you first. What does this attack say about the strength of the Taliban in that country?

SHUJA NAWAZ, Atlantic Council: I think they have the government on the back foot. They have the advantage that they can pick any target, and it can be a soft or hard one, and this certainly was a spectacular target.

We don’t know if they actually planned to go to the terminal where they ended up or whether it was a mistake on their part or whether it was the strength of the second post that they attacked which turned them to the right instead of to the left. This could have been much worse had they ended up in the Jinnah International terminal, where there were planes loaded with passengers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christine Fair, how do you read this? What does it say to you about the Taliban?

C. CHRISTINE FAIR, Georgetown University: I think it really says Pakistan as a country has simply failed to understand this problem strategically and to deal with it.

I mean, for years, we have been having these discussions on your show, and Pakistan’s problem is as it has been. It wants part of these militants to be retained as strategic assets that they can deploy to kill people in Afghanistan, usually often are Afghan allies and other allies, as well as Indians.

The problem is that the very organizations that the ISI have spawned to do its bidding in Afghanistan and India…

JUDY WOODRUFF: ISI being the intelligence…

C. CHRISTINE FAIR: The intelligence agency of Pakistan — is that elements of those groups have formed the Pakistan Taliban.

And what I find really interesting about the media discourse that you see in Pakistan is that they don’t want to talk about this. They want to talk about these militants as being foreigners. There’s been discussions about them being Uzbeks or Indians. They’re trying to everything they can to avoid a real discussion in Pakistan about this being blowback from Pakistan’s own policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, at the same time, one of you was telling us this afternoon that this wasn’t an attack that clearly wasn’t well-executed because they ended up killed. How well-organized did they seem?

As you said, Shuja Nawaz, they didn’t get to the destination they were headed for. What does it say about them?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Well, they were extremely well-prepared.

The equipment they had, there are reports that they were also carrying injections that assist the blood in coagulating if they’re wounded. And, indeed, I spoke to somebody in Karachi who told me that three of them were wounded and actually hid well past the deadline that the army had said that the airport was free, and after that they were discovered, so fighting continued beyond that midday deadline.

So they were well-equipped. I think this is not the first. This is probably the second major attack in Karachi that they have launched very successfully. The PNS Mehran attack in 2011 was also a successful attack. The government can’t take this lightly. I agree with Christine that they need to have a clearer strategy and they need to stop the policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They being?

SHUJA NAWAZ: The government…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The government.

SHUJA NAWAZ: … needs to stop looking at good and bad Taliban.

There are networks. There’s al-Qaida, as well as the Punjabi Taliban, that are active. And Karachi have five million Pashtun, more than in FATA alone. So it provides a kind of petri dish for the development of terrorism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pick up on that, Christine Fair. I think — and also for Americans trying to follow this, there are more groups involved than I think people can even keep track of.

But when it comes to the essential Pakistan Taliban and the government, how do you see them as they face one another? Which one has the upper hand right now?

C. CHRISTINE FAIR: So, I kind of think of these groups as a kaleidoscope and the different flux.

Give it a twist, you get one picture. You twist it again, you get another. The Pakistan Taliban are very different, for example, from the Afghan Taliban, who still, despite different disputes between commanders, more or less remain faithful to Mullah Omar.

The Pakistan Taliban is really a misnomer. It doesn’t have that command-and-control. Its current putative leader is actually absconding in Afghanistan. He hasn’t really been heard from in quite some time, so it doesn’t have this coherence.

Part of the Pakistan Taliban are very much dedicated to overturning the state. Some of them can be turned to go fight against us and our allies in Afghanistan. And this is the problem with the Pakistan government.

There is actually two strategies. There is the strategy of the civilians led by Nawaz Sharif. Now, he is scared to death of these groups. They can kill him whenever he wants, and he knows. But he has another problem. Some of the parties that vote for him actually have sympathies, so he can’t — he’s constrained. But the army has its own strategy.

And the army’s strategy is to flip them and send them to Afghanistan, so big difference between what the government wants to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Several different threads to follow.

But, Shuja Nawaz, that reminds us what that what President Sharif had been doing was attempting to negotiate with the Taliban. Where does that stand in the middle of all this?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Well, they launched a new internal national security strategy or policy in February this year. And after that, they launched the talks with the Taliban that have sputtered on and off.

There isn’t a very clear definition of the aim for those talks. They’re also only focused on the Federally Administered Tribal Area which borders Afghanistan, whereas, as I mentioned earlier, Karachi remains a hotbed of violence. The Punjab remains a hotbed of violence.

They are groups in the Punjab that are equally responsible for terrorism within the country and outside the country. So, they need to have a much clearer definition of what they’re aiming for in these talks if they’re going to succeed.

I don’t think that they can succeed. There’s also a sharp division between the military and the civilians. The military has remained mum on these talks and thus has exercised a veto of sorts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, to pick up on that, Christine. And you were talking about the split there between the military and the civilian…

C. CHRISTINE FAIR: Yes.

So, from my point of view, I have been long a critic of these talks. What’s interesting is that they always have the same playbook. The militants always come out on top. Pakistan civilian leaders engage them. They give them this credibility.

OK. Having said this, if you look at the timing of this particular round of negotiations, it’s really coincidental that it completely overlapped with the Afghan elections. And I think that tells you more about what the Pakistan army wanted than anything else, because, as I said, the Pakistan army’s idea of negotiating is that they flip them. Go kill Indians, go kill Afghans, go kill Americans, which raises questions about our policy towards this perfidious ally.

From the civilians’ point of view, they are willing to make concessions, but the problem is the Taliban have been clear that they don’t want to negotiate within the frame of Pakistan’s constitution, and that really puts Sharif in a bind, because Pakistanis, for better or for worse, despite their different views about the Taliban, they’re committed to those talks being within the constitution.

So there’s a lot of difference in opinions about what should be the best way forward with dealing with them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will leave it there. And we thank you both. The story certainly continues.

Christine Fair, Shuja Nawaz, thank you.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you.

C. CHRISTINE FAIR: Thank you.