Crocker has been the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan since October 2004. He has also served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. In this interview, Crocker defends Pakistan's military efforts in the tribal areas, but he argues that striking deals with militant leaders is a bad idea. Crocker also expresses a firm belief that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is a solid U.S. ally. "He's come forward with a comprehensive strategy designed to solve the immediate problem of cross-border attacks on coalition forces, presence of Al Qaeda and other foreigners, and attacks against the Pakistani authority, both civil and military," he explains. "But beyond that, he's looking to a long-term stabilization of the [tribal] region that will make it an integral part of the state. … That is crucial to the war on terror." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 20, 2006, prior to Pakistan's most recent peace agreement with militant groups in North Waziristan.
What is going on in Waziristan? We've got the writ of government largely absent, scores of tribal elders are being assassinated, journalists banished or killed, and 70,000 troops from Pakistani military unable to control the situation, fighting daily battles with Taliban militants.
Clearly you've got a very complex situation, and over the last nine months, I have seen it distinctly get more complicated and, from a Pakistani government perspective, worse. Clearly we are seeing a Taliban surge, and that is on both sides of the line.
What President [Hamid] Karzai has to worry about in Afghanistan, President [Pervez] Musharraf has to worry about here, with a Taliban-like movement now asserting itself in North and South Waziristan and some of the other agencies, and moving outside of those agencies into the adjacent frontier regions.
I think you've seen the government react to it. The army remains engaged. It has become an effective part of the series of operations that the Afghan forces and the coalition forces are now undertaking on the west side of the line. But the president has also clearly stated that this is a complex problem that's going to require some complex solutions. He's talking, in addition to [using] his military hammer, of developing a comprehensive economic and social strategy for development, a political strategy, an administrative strategy to reinvigorate the political administration. From the perspective I have, it looks like the right way to go to combat a determined and versatile foe.
One of the things they have done in the past and are doing now is talking with the militants. In 2004, they cut deals with the militants; in 2005, another set of deals with the militants. These deals involve agreements on the part of the militants not to attack the Pakistanis, but they seem not to include any language about cross-border raids. How is it that this, our ally in the war on terror, can cut such deals without you loudly complaining?
I've had a number of discussions with the leadership here in recent days, and the point has been made repeatedly to me that while a political solution is ultimately the only outcome that is going to fully stabilize the areas, there are several governmental redlines in the process, and it's been made clear to me that these include cross-border militant activities. They will not be tolerated. And second, no foreigners will be permitted to shelter in the tribal areas. So I think two key concerns of ours [are] very clearly shared by the Pakistanis, and again, that's been made clear to me.
But in 2004, a deal was cut with Nek Mohammed, the Taliban commander. Money was paid to the Taliban. We have seen continuing since then cross-border raids, sanctuary, and Pakistan's become a launching pad for attacks against U.S. forces. So what's going to be different now?
Well, I think the Pakistanis have clearly seen that again, we are joined against a common enemy. The Pakistani military has lost a lot of troops just since the beginning of this year. [There were] two attacks by the neo-Taliban militants. I think it's pretty clear to them that there are some people with whom deals simply are not going to be possible. We all learn from experience, and I think that applies here, too.
They made deals with the Wana Five, as they're called.
Haji Omar is a member of that. At a commemoration ceremony commemorating the death of Nek Mohammed just a few days ago, he stated: "We will continue to run suicide missions against U.S. forces in Afghanistan." But yet he's somebody who has a standing agreement with the Pakistan military. How do you respond to that?
First, I do not think there are any standing agreements. Whatever agreements may have been there clearly were repudiated by the militants. What we've seen in these last few months is that some of these people with whom certain commanders may have thought they could get deals with have come at them with full force, and that obviously includes members of the Wana Five.
… I talked to [Gen. Hamid Khan], the 11th [Army] Corps commander, who said: "I don't want to call them Taliban. I want to call them mujahideen." I was surprised by that. Mujahideen is a generally positive term. Those are the people, in fact, that the United States spent money to support against the Soviets. There seems to be a reticence ever since Safdar Hussein was the corps commander to get tough with the Taliban. Are you satisfied that Pakistan is doing enough?
Well, President Musharraf has been pretty clear in his terminology, speaking about the growing Talibanization of the area, as he's put it, and the need of the state of Pakistan to confront it. I've heard the same thing from the minister of interior, other senior officials. I think they're pretty clear on who their enemy in this struggle is, and it happens to be the same enemy that we and the Afghanistan government are facing.
I mentioned before the Pakistanis have taken significant casualties in this fight. Last count, I think they were over 350 soldiers and paramilitaries killed since the outset, and that rate of loss has been increasing. In March, I attended a ceremony in which President Musharraf awarded decorations to individuals of significant achievement, and I was struck by the mothers and widows that stepped forward to receive decorations posthumously for their husbands and their sons.
So there's no question to me that the Pakistani government and military is solidly engaged in this. The challenge against a resilient and relentless enemy is to get your offense right. That's where I think the current initiatives on the part of the government make a lot of sense. You've got to use a military weapon, but you probably have to use a series of other instruments of national power to finally carry the day here. …
The case of Hayat Ullah Khan, the journalist who was recently found dead in a ditch near Mir Ali -- what can you tell me the U.S. did during his captivity to push for information about his whereabouts and who his captors were?
We were concerned from the outset. It's not someone we knew, but when a journalist who's doing his job disappears, it's a concern to people around the world, and we were no exception. The response we got back is [that] in all likelihood, he had been taken prisoner by Al Qaeda supporters or sympathizers who were suspicious of his perceived connection to the death of some high-ranking Al Qaeda officials.
Does that make sense to you that he would have been taken captive by the Taliban, given that he had embarrassed the government by revealing the missiles that had struck at [alleged Al Qaeda operative] Abu Hamza Rabia were U.S. missiles?
Well, without in any way confirming the latter part of your assertion, a lot a things do and don't make sense out there. You've been out there. I mean, there is no question that Taliban, neo-Taliban, pro-Al Qaeda, whatever you want to call these elements, have tremendous sway in these areas.
It isn't too hard for me to imagine, looking at some of the other things they've done out there, that they were perfectly capable of doing this as well. Apparently he was held alive for quite some time, very badly mistreated and then dumped in the middle of Mir Ali. We've seen that happen with other victims of the Taliban.
But the majority of Pakistanis -- journalists out there, observers and even others that I've spoken to in the U.S. community -- point to Pakistani security forces. But you're making a clear implication that this was probably a Taliban murder.
That, I think, is a pretty fair assumption. I mean, I'm not in a position to make a case for anything. …
Would you … be surprised to learn that it was a Pakistan operation?
Yeah, I'd be pretty amazed. I just don't think they operate that way.
There's a lot a finger-pointing going on across the border. Your two allies are arguing with one another, blaming each other for their troubles. You're in a way operating like some kind of a psychologist to these two parties. The Afghans claim that Musharraf is playing a double game, running a proxy war against them. How do you respond? These were the words of Amrullah Saleh, the head of the intelligence operation there.
It's important to take a step back, a deep breath, and look objectively at the picture, because I think what that shows us all is we -- and by we, I mean the U.S. and the coalition, the Pakistani government and the Afghan government -- are jointly engaged against a single enemy. The events of the past couple of months just, in my view, couldn't make that clearer. This enemy is attacking in Oruzgan [Province, Afghanistan], and he's attacking in the tribal areas and the frontier regions, in both cases against the forces of the respective governments.
So President Karzai, President Musharraf face a common challenge, a common enemy. They face incredibly difficult tasks. I think as you're trying to grapple with not just one, but in many cases multiple challenges and crises, it's easy to get a little bit frustrated. But it's important to keep perspective on this, because the only one who really benefits from accusations back and forth that someone is doing the wrong thing or not doing enough is probably that enemy.
Gov. [Ali Muhammad Jan] Orakzai told me that the finger-pointing is a consequence of the fact that we're five years out from 9/11, and we haven't really put a dent in the Taliban. They're coming back, they're resurgent, and there's a lot of frustration. Could you agree with that?
Well, there has been a Taliban resurgence, no question about it. … I think what this reflects is we've got a patient and determined enemy. We therefore have to show greater patience and greater determination.
A fight isn't over until an enemy concludes he's defeated. It's what the enemy thinks; it's not necessarily what we think. We've got the three of us to persuade him that this is a campaign he's not going to win, which means we can't let frustration take us over on this.
Yes, it's been almost five years since 9/11, but when you look at the challenges, when you look at what President Karzai has to deal with in rebuilding a state and a society in Afghanistan, it doesn't come as a huge shock and surprise to me that the Taliban's found some running room before he gets all this built.
Similarly, on the Pakistan side of the border, the tribal areas have never been an integrated part of the state. As you know, regular army forces had never been stationed there on any kind of long-term basis, ever. The British never did it, and the Pakistani government didn't do it until 2003, 2004. So there are a lot of crevices and vacuums, space where the Taliban can kind of get another little bit of a toehold. We -- and by that I mean the three of us -- have just got to go about this in a coordinated, systematic way, and we will prevail. Sure, I think everybody feels frustration, but in terms of who's doing what, the notion that Pakistan is somehow playing a double game I find just frankly preposterous. President Musharraf is a career military officer. He's putting his troops in harm's way, and they're paying for their mission with their lives.
I just find it absolutely impossible to think that any commander would do that with deliberate, two-faced cynicism; equally impossible that officers, commanders and common soldiers wouldn't be aware of it. So I just do not think that's happening.
[U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism] Henry Crumpton comes through here and makes comments when he's in Kabul and then apologizes. President Bush comes here and makes a statement about coming to check up on Musharraf -- something to that effect -- [and] has an awkward press conference. There's a clear sense among the U.S. officialdom that there's a feeling that Pakistan is not doing enough. That was the clear message that was given from both Bush's visit and Crumpton's visit, and the continuing harangue that they're getting out of the U.S. ally in Afghanistan.
I don't think that was the message from the Bush visit at all. I think he pretty strongly reaffirmed the strength of this alliance with Pakistan, and I can say it just as clearly as I can: Pakistan is an absolutely critical ally in the war on terror. No country has done more to kill or capture Al Qaeda, and they're now heavily engaged against a Taliban adversary. It's worth thinking from a U.S. perspective as we look at the three main fronts in this war -- Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- [there are] 135,000 troops committed in Iraq; close to 20,000 in Afghanistan; here in Pakistan, countrywide, the entire U.S. official presence is about 400 people.
But 80,000 troops from our partner.
Exactly. It is Pakistan that's fighting the war on this front.
It's an unknown war to most Americans. The Pakistanis, if I look at the numbers, are fighting the Taliban at close to a 1:1 casualty ratio. Sometimes the numbers go higher than that, depending on who you talk to, and they're killing only 350 to 400. It's a secret war. Do you think it's underappreciated back in the States?
I definitely do. [In the] early days in my career, Beirut in the 1980s, during the Israeli invasion, … every network, every major newspaper had an office in Beirut, covering that. The resident American press corps in Pakistan right now? One person.
What does that tell you?
It tells me that the American people are simply not getting the opportunity to see what's going on in a key front, … where we have an ally that's putting its troops in harm's way and where we don't have to commit American forces. I think it's a very important story to tell.
That's exactly the point, and that is exactly what President Musharraf has committed to not having happen. He's come forward with a comprehensive strategy designed to solve the immediate problem of cross-border attacks on coalition forces, presence of Al Qaeda and other foreigners, and attacks against the Pakistani authority, both civil and military. But beyond that, he's looking to a long-term stabilization of the region that will make it an integral part of the state, which it has never been before. That is crucial to the war on terror.
Let's agree that they are doing what they can today. But in 2002, [when] I interviewed President Musharraf, there was a general denial from him as well as many others that there was the presence of Al Qaeda and Taliban in the tribal area. When did Pakistan change its perception of what was going on?
I think it's a fairly clear chronology. Certainly [there] was a process under way in 2002. I'm not sure when you had your conversation, but I think in the aftermath of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan at the beginning of March 2002, as more Al Qaeda and related elements pushed east of the Durand Line, Pakistan became aware of it. … We saw forces go in in 2003, and they've been completely consistently engaged since then.
So you wouldn't say, looking back at the history, that they were slow to realize the seriousness of what they were facing.
You've got a clever enemy here. I wasn't here then, so I can't be completely authoritative, but my sense is that possibly out of necessity, possibly out of design, Al Qaeda and its associates, when they came across, say, in 2002, were running pretty silent. They were ... regrouping, laying low, and they were doing so in an area where the government didn't have a lot a antennae out there.
But how do you evaluate the approach that they took initially, that Safdar Hussein, the corps commander under Musharraf's direction, [used] to cut deals with them, to pay money to them, to try to get a political settlement? Was that successful?
Well, I think what it showed is there are some people you simply cannot make deals with.
That's what we told them then, right? But they didn't listen.
Look, this is a complicated problem. It's a problem that affects us, but it's a problem on their soil. They've been trying to figure out what approaches work, and in the process they discovered some that don't, and they moved on and in different directions. What they're embarked on now is a way forward that makes a lot a sense to me.
Using some incentives -- because it would be a very dangerous thing for any of us to think that the way forward is to fight all the tribes all the time -- it's to come to understandings with everyone with whom understanding is possible on the basis of certain conditions that I laid out earlier, and those who aren't going to play in that league, you're just going to have to fight. I think that's the lesson that's been learned over these last couple a years here.
But that means that you would approve the idea of talking with the militants before using a stick.
… There are some people that you can't do deals with. To a simple Western mind, that seemed clear at the time -- to me at least, when I came here in late 2004. I believe that the government now, that they are going to try for a broad-gauged understanding with the tribes who have some concerns of their own on economic and social development and collateral damage and so forth. But what I'm not hearing is that they're going to repeat the Nek Mohammed or Sharif Khan, Wana Five sort of process, because these guys have shown they are not going to quit.
One last question: The use of the Hellfire missiles off of the Predator drone airplanes -- sensitive subject. Are we going to see more of that in the future?
Well, I'm not even going to suggest to you that we've seen it in the past.
But why that charade? I want to be polite about this, but I've talked to Pakistan military officers who were involved in the planning who confirmed to me that this was a U.S./CIA agency operation. Nek Mohammed was [one]; Abu Hamza Rabia, twice; [and] Damadola [in Bajaur Agency, Pakistan], which the Pakistan authorities admit to. There's no secret here?
If there's no secret, then you don't need to press me for it, because I'm simply not going to confirm anything along those lines.
Do you want to steer me away from that? Am I wrong?
I think there were certain statements at the time regarding these respective episodes. I'll just let that record speak for itself.