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‘Playing With Fire’ Examines Pakistan’s Complicated Relationship With Taliban

July 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Pakistan is fighting the Taliban on its own territory, but, by some accounts, it's supporting its efforts in Afghanistan. A new book, "Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself," examines the country's complicated relationships. Author and Washington Post correspondent Pamela Constable speaks with Judy Woodruff.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a key American ally, Pakistan, makes its own deals with the Taliban in Afghanistan, who, in turn, are killing U.S. and coalition soldiers.

A veteran correspondent and author looks at this tortured relationship.

Judy Woodruff has our book conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While the United States has 100,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan, that country’s neighbor to the east is in some ways more vexing and challenging for U.S. policy-makers.

Pakistan is fighting the Taliban on its own territory, but, by some accounts, it’s supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. A new book, “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself,” by Washington Post correspondent Pamela Constable delves all of this.

And she joins us now.

It is good to you have with us.

PAMELA CONSTABLE, “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself”: Thank you so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A provocative title, “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself.” What do you mean by that?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Oh, it means — many layers of meaning in that — playing with fire in the sense that Pakistan has always flirted with dangerous notions.

It’s always sort of had this nuanced, subtle, denied, unclear relationship with all these militant groups, mostly because they wanted to use them as proxies against India, which is their long-time adversary. But now it has all come back to haunt them. And many of these same militant Islamic groups that they sort of thought they could manage or handle have gotten way out of control, and not only moving against Afghanistan, but in many cases turning against the Pakistani state itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You spent a lot of time in the country reporting from there, Pam Constable. The feeling many ordinary Pakistanis have for the Taliban — I mean, we see all these terrible things the Taliban does. And yet you say many Pakistanis regard it as a force for good.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Yes. I would say that, you know, it’s — I don’t want to oversimplify it by saying that Pakistanis are in love with the Taliban. It’s not true.

I mean, most Pakistanis have never met a member of the Taliban, and most Pakistanis would sit here and say they don’t believe in chopping off people’s heads or any of the terrible things they do. But on the other hand, there’s a great surge in what I call a very emotional kind of attachment to the religion of Islam that’s been going on in Pakistan now for a number of years.

It was accelerated by the events of 9/11. Since then, you have had a much more sort of visceral and defensive attitude among Pakistani Muslims toward the West, toward the United States and about their own religion. So I would never go as far as to say that they are embracing the Taliban. But, yes, I would say that, particularly among the poor and working Pakistanis who are Muslims — and that is, again, almost 90 percent of the population — you’re seeing a real emotional embrace of a religion and a more violent embrace of it as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another thing you write about with regard to the Taliban is how many Pakistanis see it as providing justice. To the outside world, that sounds strange. What do you mean?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, I would say that the great majority of Pakistanis don’t feel that their democratic system of government has brought them justice, in the sense of sort of everyday things.

If you get caught up in a land dispute with your neighbor, it can go to the courts for 20 years and never get resolved, and you can get dragged into it. So, many people feel that they don’t have access to justice. Now, the Taliban, in the areas where they have had power, they have brought a kind of crude, kind of religious justice. As we would see it, it’s extremely cruel in many senses.

But they — but it’s very efficient. And when you ask ordinary Pakistanis the question, would you rather see — polls have asked, would you rather have a current form of government or Sharia law, which is an Islamic form of government, many people would say Sharia law. Now, they might not understand what that would mean if a Taliban-type group was in power, but there is a strong, strong sense that a religious form of government among many people would provide more justice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do write to some extent, of course, about the role the United States has played in Pakistan. How do you see that connected to what happens in Pakistan in the near term?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: It’s such a complicated relationship, of course, going back to the Cold War, when you had the Americans and the Pakistanis on the same side supporting the Afghan insurgents against the Brezhnev regime. It’s is a very old relationship. It’s is a very old and strong strategic partnership.

Of course, many, many Pakistanis have come here, have gotten visas, have settled here, a long-time relationship. But what’s happened in recent years, particularly again since 9/11, is it’s become a kind of estrangement. There’s been a lot of tension added into the relationship. And because you have militant groups, Islamic militant groups inside Pakistan, especially near the border of Afghanistan, who have been fighting and running back and forth and causing all sorts of problems, the Americans have responded.

And then particularly they have responded with this campaign of drone attacks, which are unmanned Predator kinds of planes which drop bombs and missiles on suspected militant hideouts. This has been very controversial in Pakistan. And the public has gotten very whipped up over this issue of drone attacks. It’s become a real buzzword. So, now…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Civilian casualties, of course…

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Civilian — yes, civilian casualties, although I have to say, sort of on the grand scale of things, not that many. But it’s there as an issue and it’s got people upset.

And, of course, there are religious leaders who purposefully sort of exacerbate this problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But to circle back to something you said a minute ago, despite all of these things that you chronicle here, you do see hope for this country, that all is not lost, necessarily?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I definitely do.

You know, there are — Pakistan has become sort of famously labeled as a failed state. I don’t see Pakistan as a failed state. I see Pakistan as a country with enormous potential that has been failed by its leaders, by its upper class, and in some cases by its own military institution.

But 180 million people with, you know, all the desires of anyone else to work, you know, to be free, to get an education for their kids, to move up in the world, they want what everybody else does and they are willing to work for it. So if a new generation of leadership comes along that’s really serious about pushing this country into the future, I see no reason why it can’t compete with any other country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A really wonderful book, “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself.”

Pam Constable, thanks very much.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: You’re very welcome.