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After Deadly Raid, How Can Pakistan, U.S. Ease Tensions?

November 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Outrage blazed in Pakistan Monday over a deadly NATO cross-border air raid from Afghanistan. Judy Woodruff discusses the escalating tensions between the United States and Pakistan, who maintain an oft-strained alliance, with Shuja Nawaz of The Atlantic Council and Stephen Cohen of The Brookings Institution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for more on this escalating dispute between official allies, we turn to Shuja Nawaz, the director of the Southeast Asia Center at The Atlantic Council. He has written extensively on the Pakistan military. And Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of numerous books about Pakistan, India and South Asia, including a forthcoming one on the future of Pakistan.

Gentlemen, it’s good to have you both back with us.

Shuja Nawaz, to you first.

There is a late report, late this afternoon the Associated Press reported that — quoting defense officials as saying perhaps this was a case of mistaken identity. What is known at this point?

SHUJA NAWAZ, The Atlantic Council: At this point, all that we know is that there was a firefight, perhaps in the border region, and that the Afghan forces asked for support. And it was U.S. air support that came in and went and hit the targets, two of them. Both were Pakistan military posts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, this late report, Steve Cohen says, in effect, there was an attack on a joint U.S.-Afghan group, and they asked the Pakistanis to confirm what had happened, and in looking for the source of it, they came upon what was an established — they came upon what they thought was an encampment of insurgents, but this report is now saying perhaps this was…

STEPHEN COHEN, Brookings Institution: Yes, at this stage in this crisis and all crises like it, we don’t know what the truth is.

And half of what you hear is false. And, yes, we don’t know which half you do hear is accurate. There could have been in the past insurgents, Taliban groups operating from the Pakistani side which would give the Americans and NATO forces and the Afghans a reason to attack. But maybe this time, there weren’t. We just don’t know what the facts are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How, Shuja Nawaz, does either side get to the bottom of this?

SHUJA NAWAZ: I think there needs to be a very swift investigation from the U.S. side first. And that’s been promised.

And with all this new information that is now emerging, there’s quite clearly a desire to walk this crisis back from the edge of the precipice, because the next step on Pakistan’s part, which would be to close the air link to Afghanistan, would really rupture this relationship. And at this point, it is not in Pakistan or the United States’ interests to have this relationship break apart.

It’s very critical for Pakistan to attend the Bonn conference on Afghanistan that starts Dec. 5. It’s very critical for Pakistan to continue to receive U.S. military assistance and economic assistance. But street (INAUDIBLE) is now forcing the hands of the government and the military in Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that raises the question, Steve Cohen, how easy will it be to dial back the anger, the emotion in the streets of Pakistan right now?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, some of that anger is manufactured by the government, who is very effective in its manipulation of the press. So, I’m not that concerned about that.

I think the larger issue is that Pakistan believes that it has to support the Taliban and other groups in Afghanistan to preserve its position at the Bonn negotiations and in the future of Afghanistan. As long as they do that, then our interests and the Pakistani interests are not going to be similar.

They believe that they need to use these groups to get a place at the peace process. Our argument — our view is that supporting these groups is not the right thing to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that something that is seriously in jeopardy of going away?

STEPHEN COHEN: I don’t — I think the Pakistanis believe that that there’s their only viable instrument in long-term strategic negotiations, so they will continue to support them. That’s been the case all along, the different goals in Afghanistan and all these different instruments in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Excuse me for interrupting.

Shuja Nawaz, what is at stake here from the Pakistani side? This is a — as we pointed out, a nuclear country. Everybody talks about the fact that Pakistan has nuclear capability. How much is that a factor in this right now shaky relationship?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Well, this year, we have seen a series of events that has taken Pakistan by surprise. And it’s the cumulative effect of those.

In your own report, you mentioned a number of those events. And so whether it was the Raymond Davis affair, whether it was the drone strikes after he was released, whether it’s the raid on Abbottabad, all of those has really created and deepened the mistrust between the two countries.

Secretary Clinton had done a great job in trying to rebuild the relationship after her trip, while being fairly frank and forthright about what the U.S. expected Pakistan to do in return. This latest episode has really angered the Pakistan military, but it’s also empowered the opposition politicians in Pakistan, who are using this as a stick to beat the government.

So even though Steve Cohen is referring to manufacturing this public opinion, there is a political dynamic at work inside Pakistan’s domestic politics that we must be aware of. That’s forcing the military and the civilian government to take a much tougher stance than they might normally take.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much more difficult does that make it to figure out a way through this?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, behind all of this, in a sense, victim psychology, especially on the part of the Pakistanis, but occasionally us, there’s the fact that Pakistan is a weaker and weaker state year by year.

Shuja and I have written a book, co-authored a book, which argues that Pakistan will be stable for at least five years. So we’re not worried about immediate collapse. But in the long run, a nuclear weapon — Pakistan with 200 nuclear weapons — plus a terrorist production factory is a danger to everybody, beginning with Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can this — what do you see as the next steps here, Steve Cohen, in terms of…

STEPHEN COHEN: I think we’re muddling through both in policy and in terms of the developments in Pakistan. I don’t think there’s any clear policy.

In the U.S. government, there’s clear division over how to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan. And, in Pakistan, I think any notion of working with the Americans is now anathema, except for a limited section of the military. So I don’t see any clear solution to this. We’re going to struggle with a failing Pakistan, not a failed Pakistan, but a failing Pakistan, for the next four or five years, if not longer.

And, of course, our policies are inconsistent towards the whole region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re saying regardless of which administration, who’s in power in the White House?

STEPHEN COHEN: Yes. From what I have heard of the Republican candidates, they’re all over the place in terms of dealing with Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Shuja Nawaz, in terms of what happens next, can the U.S., by saying this may have been a case of mistaken identity, can they bring the Pakistanis back to at least having a discussion about how this happened?

SHUJA NAWAZ: I think so. And I think it’s very necessary, if indeed that is the case, to be open about it with the Pakistanis, and especially in the closed-door meetings that are likely to occur at the higher level, to give them a face-saving way of easing out of this crisis, so that they can ratchet down their own rhetoric and their actions, because, as I said, they have now used a very serious weapon which is closing down the land route.

If they close down the air route, then things are going to completely rupture between the two states. And it’s not in Pakistan’s interest and not in the United States’ interest for that to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add to that?

STEPHEN COHEN: I agree with that. I think that this will blow over, maybe in a month or two, and we will return back to a normal state of inconsistent hostility between the two countries.

It’s like a bad marriage, where they need other, but they can’t live without each — with each other and without each other. And I think behind — in our mind — at least the American perception that is behind all of this is that a truly failed Pakistan is not going to be in anybody’s interests. I think that’s the view of the Chinese and that’s the view of the Indians towards Pakistan.

In fact, Indian relations with Pakistan are much better than our relations with Pakistan, which is a bizarre, but welcome development.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I hear you both saying there may be a short-term solution, resolution to this, but in the longer term, the complicated relationship continues.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Yes, because Pakistan’s regional interests are at variance with the United States’ interests in the region. And the U.S. has to take cognizance of that.

Once we recognize that situation, I think the U.S. will be in a much better position to deal with Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shuja Nawaz, Stephen Cohen, thank you both.

STEPHEN COHEN: Thank you, Judy.