obama's war
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Interview: Anne Patterson


Patterson has been the United States ambassador to Pakistan since June 2007. She began her career in the U.S. Foreign Service in 1973 and has served as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador (1997-2000) and Colombia (2000-2003). This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in August 2009.

“You can't kill your way out of this. … There might be other alternatives -- reconciliation process, offering job opportunities.”

I want to start back to September 2008, just after [Pakistani President Asif Ali] Zardari makes a speech saying he won't tolerate any violations of Pakistani sovereignty. Six days later there is a cross-border raid into [Pakistan]. Not a confidence builder. What was the Pakistani reaction?

Well, that's an issue that I just can't get into in a venue like this. I'm sorry, but we just can't discuss that. ...

Drones are also an issue. Pakistanis will tell you off the record that they support the drone strikes. On the record, they issue statements to you, protests to the embassy here. Why the game? I mean, they provide the intelligence; the Americans, the agency provides the drones.

... Our goal here is for the Pakistanis to be able to control territory. Many of the problems here originate from the fact that they cannot control these huge swaths of territory, particularly in the tribal areas. And that's nothing new. That's been going on for hundreds of years. ...

Until that happens, the United States is going to do what it needs to do to protect ourselves and our allies. ... And the truly nightmare scenario for Pakistan and the United States is an attack based in Pakistan against the United States, because lots of options would be off the table.

What do you mean by "lots of options would be off the table"?

We have now these very extensive aid programs. We have a very broad cooperative program here. That would certainly be, to say the least, under a lot of stress if there were an attack on the United States from Pakistan. So it's critically important that we do everything possible to prevent that. ...

The United States policy toward Pakistan, how has it changed since Obama took office?

There's a more structured strategy since President Obama took office. First, we have more resources, with the Kerry-Lugar bill, which is pending, and the Congress has been very generous in giving us more resources. I think we'll have a quadrupling of our aid resources, our social and economic resources, which are terribly important, particularly given the very dire levels of poverty here.

And there's focus with [Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard] Holbrooke's ... meetings with Afghanistan and Pakistan, which we call the tripartite process; the friends of Pakistan, Ambassador Holbrooke's outreach to a number of other countries, China and Saudi Arabia, to get them more involved in Pakistan.

A lot of money has been spent in Pakistan over the last eight years since 9/11. There was some $10 billion of aid --

Currently around $10 billion. Much of that is reimbursement for Pakistan's efforts in the war on terror. [It's what] we call Coalition Support Funds, which is about $1 billion a year in reimbursement for Pakistan's expenses.

But in other words, we were paying them to help us fight the war on terror?

And we're also paying them because Pakistan is [the] critical lifeline for American military supplies into Afghanistan.

But it amounts to a lot of money.

Yeah, it does amount to a lot of money. ...

I spoke with President Karzai's chief of intelligence, Amrullah Saleh. He's still quite very much playing the blame game, saying that Pakistan is not coming along, has real doubts about whether Holbrooke and other U.S. officials can really make a dent. He's skeptical that there's any change in Pakistani policy.

I think there's been quite a considerable sea change in Pakistani policy, say in the past six or eight months. And that was when there was the dramatic realization that these insurgents or terrorists or whatever you wish to call them, extremists, were a threat to Pakistan as well.

And there was, as you may recall, a huge upsurge in suicide bombings, particularly in some of the major cities. There was an attack on the Marriott Hotel. There was a very famous [video] of the girl being flogged by the Taliban. ...

But that's different than the Taliban that are coming across the border, that are using sanctuaries in Pakistan. That's what the Afghans are worried about.

If you went and interviewed Gen. [Ahmed Shuja] Pasha, the head of ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], he would be absolutely up front that yes, that's a problem, and they have a very difficult time controlling that because the border, it's essentially ungoverned.

So these people have lived here -- the Haqqani network, to take one prominent example -- these people have been up there for years, generations at this point. They're a product of the old jihad. They control a huge swath of territory. And we're working with [the Pakistani government] on these, as are other Western countries, to exert control over these areas of the country, helping them build up the military capacity and build up the social and economic capacity.

The tribal areas have a female literacy rate of 3 percent. It's one of the most underdeveloped places on the face of the planet. So it's critically important to get employment generation in these areas, to get education, to get some kind of health infrastructure. And we are working with them to do that. And it will take time.

Unfortunately, I didn't interview Gen. Pasha, but you say he will say that's a problem; that the Afghans and frankly military commanders, U.S. commanders, are seething about the inaction against the Haqqani network, against the Quetta shura [Taliban leadership council], against [Islamist Party warlord] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Yes. And this is, of course, a very serious issue, because these people are attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan, killing U.S. troops and allied troops in Afghanistan.

And these are people that have received support from the Pakistani military in the past.

Yes. ... My deputy, when he was the principal officer in Peshawar 20 years ago, used to meet with [Jalaluddin] Haqqani on a regular basis.

So they know where he is, don't they?

Yes, they probably do know where he is. The question is, can they really dislodge these people, or do these people control territory that the government is essentially afraid to enter? And again, I think they're very aware of this. They're working more and more with the Afghans. We've had very good cooperation along the border in the past year, particularly in the area of RC [Regional Control] East. ...

Well, there's people that I've spoken with, many generals on the other side of the border, who use words like that the Pakistanis have "bamboozled" the U.S.; have taken us for a ride; that yes, they'll go after [Pakistani Taliban leaders] Baitullah Mehsud, they'll go after [Maulana] Fazlullah, but they're less likely, and they haven't so far, gone after Haqqani or [Afghan Taliban leader Mullah] Omar.

Yes, because those people aren't a threat to Pakistan.

But Pakistan's a partner.

Again, they are utterly candid about this, and we discuss this at great length in Washington. They're going to have contacts with these groups for intelligence purposes, if nothing else.

The question is they have to prioritize, and they've made a decision -- which would not be our decision, obviously -- that they're going to go after those that are a threat to Pakistan, the Fazlullahs, the Baitullah Mehsuds. And they're going to go after them because they're setting off bombs in the major cities of Pakistan.

But we're working with them on these, and I think they increasingly see these [other] groups as a threat as well. ...

The difference with somebody like Haqqani is he's a longtime friend of theirs.

He's an old jihadi. He was a product of the cooperation back in the old days against the Soviet Union, absolutely.

And even more recently, with the establishment of the Taliban regime, [of] which he was defense minister, he received guidance from the Pakistani military.

Let me be absolutely clear: We have urged the Pakistani government to go after Siraj Haqqani repeatedly. Siraj Haqqani is probably the biggest single threat to our troops in Afghanistan, and we will continue to urge them to go after Siraj Haqqani. ...

What evidence is there that they are going to go after him?

The evidence is that they've started to go after all the rest of these insurgents. ...

But there seems to be a key bridge that has yet to be crossed, and that is turning on the Taliban that are threatening U.S. forces and Afghan forces and not just on those that are threatening them. And we haven't gotten to that point, have we?

No. But we will, I think. ...

I don't know how to put this diplomatically, but there's this feeling from some in the U.S. military that we have been extraordinarily patient with the Pakistanis for eight years, and we're falling for the same reassurances again.

But it's not a reassurance. Ultimately, we have to help build the Pakistani capacity so they can do this themselves. ...

That's why we have this development program for the tribal areas, again, which is one of the most underdeveloped places in the world. What you have up there is you have young males with absolutely no hope whatsoever, who join these groups because there is no alternative and the traditional tribal structure has essentially broken down. There are huge power vacuums in these areas. So it's important to get in there with services, with capacity building, with all of the things that you talk about in any classic counterinsurgency, and try and roll this situation back. ...

Have the Pakistanis, in recent memory, taken any serious action against Al Qaeda in North or South Waziristan?


There's a peace deal in North Waziristan right now.

There's a peace deal. There are lots of peace deals, yes.

... What are we to make of these peace deals? I remember talking with [former Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf a couple of years back about the 2004 peace deal in South Waziristan. He admitted it didn't go very well. Have any of these really gone well?

No, none of them have gone well.

So why do we keep putting up with it?

I don't think there's been a serious peace deal really since the new government came in. And I think this is one of the huge advantages to a democratic government. I think the democratic government has largely rejected these peace deals.

The last one, the one in North Waziristan, the large one, was essentially signed on election day, which is very revealing. I think the new government has largely rejected these peace deals.

Signed by the military just before the new government came in.

Signed by the military just before they came in. And I think the deal in Swat was immediately recognized as a mistake. They tried to negotiate; it failed. Then they felt they had the moral authority to move in there with the military. What they'll tell you is that it gave them a stronger hand. ...

But let me assure you that they [the military] have taken action against Al Qaeda targets. We're basically talking about three different groups here. We're talking about Al Qaeda, we're talking about the Taliban that threatened Pakistan, and we're talking about the Taliban that crossed the border into Afghanistan. And so it's important sometimes to disaggregate those, because the responses, frankly both by us and by them, are very different.

You said that they likely know where Siraj Haqqani is, Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Most people know more or less where Siraj Haqqani is. I don't think on any given day you could put your hand on Siraj Haqqani, but there are certain haunts.

Is he in Pakistan?

Right now? I don't know.

Does he base operations from out of Pakistan?

He often works out of Pakistan, but he also works across the border. He's very active across the border.

Mullah Omar?

Mullah Omar we think is in the Quetta area, but he crosses over, too. And again, these are huge, ungoverned spaces, so it's very hard to track a certain leader. We know people come in and out. We can track that sometimes; sometimes we get lucky with our intelligence. But they cross the border quite frequently.

When I speak on camera to Pakistani officials, they say the Haqqani network and Mullah Omar's operation is in Afghanistan; it isn't in Pakistan.

Well, that's not true. The fact is that these warlords -- and again, I think warlords is sort of the best conceptual way to think of them -- they operate on both sides of the border.

So you simply reject what they're saying?

We know that they're here in Pakistan at times. Again, on any given day, it would be hard to put your hand on one of the warlords. But sure, they operate out of here.

So when you're in conversations with these same officials that we've spoken to, and they make this claim to you that these guys --

They don't make that claim to us. They may make that claim to the press.

So [can you expect] American people to have any confidence in Pakistan really being serious if they struggle to speak the truth about the situation on the ground? ...

Let me put it this way: They certainly freely admit that these people move back and forth across the border.

This hasn't always been the case, has it?

I don't know, but it's certainly been the case while I've been here. And we have a very cooperative arrangement to go after many of these people, too.

Are you satisfied that the Pakistanis are doing enough?

No, of course not, because American kids are getting killed in Afghanistan. ... But again, we have to help them build the capacity to do more ... so they can convey force and they can move into these areas and hold territory.

One American official has said to me that what really concerns him is that U.S. dollars have gone to support the Pakistani military, and some of that same money has gone from the Pakistani military to support militants based in Pakistan to use to kill American soldiers.

Well, U.S. money goes to support the Pakistani military to allow them to fight Baitullah Mehsud, to go after Al Qaeda targets. U.S. money goes to the Pakistani military to help them go after targets that we jointly share with them and to build their capacity.

If they don't have the capacity, if they don't have lift capacity, if they don't have surveillance capacity, if they don't have modern armaments, they can't go after these people. So we have to help them build up this capacity.

But doesn't some of that money still go to support the militants?

Well, money is fungible, but as far as we know, no, none of our money goes to support the militants. Frankly, it's very hard to steal American money or misdirect American money.

Does a portion of the Pakistani military still support these militant groups that are fighting in Afghanistan?


You don't think so?

No, of course the Pakistani military does not support these groups that are fighting in Afghanistan. ...

They have interaction with these groups?

Yes, of course, and they, again, are the first to admit that.

Why don't they arrest them?

Well, that's a really interesting question, because there probably aren't any charges, and there are no courts out there, and there are no police out there. Again, we have a massive amount of ungoverned territory out there, and they don't control the territory.

Siraj Haqqani controls I don't know how many square miles of territory, but he would be extraordinarily hard for the Pakistani military to dislodge. But again, we're not satisfied with this. We obviously want to get to a point where they can go after these people on their own and they'll stop.

Or they can perhaps, as is being discussed in Afghanistan, become involved in some sort of reconciliation process. I mean, you can't kill your way out of this. That's not the option. There might be other alternatives -- reconciliation process, offering job opportunities, I don't know. But it's not just by force.

But do they meet with members of the Haqqani network, such as Siraj?

Not that I know of, but they certainly have contact with the Haqqani network.

And you're saying they don't have charges against them? I mean, Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son [Siraj], certainly they could arrest these guys.

Possibly they could arrest them, and obviously that's a goal we wish to get to.

But we've waited eight years for this to happen.

The real question is, how are they going to do this? I mean, as a practical matter, are they going to go up there and arrest Jalaluddin Haqqani, who has a huge -- 20,000 fighters or whatever he has like that? Again, the Pakistani government does not control these areas of the country. That's the key point here, from my standpoint. ...

The Political Parties Act [of 1962] was extended into the tribal areas. They're trying to integrate the tribal areas more effectively into the country, and that's a very important first step. …

But how do you respond to an American viewer who will say: "Well, this is taking an awfully long time to get sort of minimal progress in the tribal areas. We've known for a long time the madrassas and the tribal areas are a problem. We've known that failure to integrate these areas is a problem. We're eight years after 9/11"?

Because the area hadn't been integrated, ever.

It was designed to not be integrated.

They were governed under the rules the British left behind, which were basically the Frontier Crimes Regulation. It was basically left to tribal law.

But we've had these purges of the ISI. Right after 9/11, there was a purge. Zardari has had another purge. It seems to just roll on and on, and there's reason for people to look at this situation and be reasonably skeptical.

It's unfortunate that I can't discuss here the very broad intelligence cooperation we have here and the successes that we have day after day working with ISI. And they're really quite considerable. We've had a longstanding relationship with ISI. Again, the successes are virtually on a daily basis, targets we identify, targets they identify.

It's not simply that ISI is the enemy here. We work together with them very closely on a broad range of issues. But yes, it is taking a long time. And of course, our presence in Afghanistan has made this all the more acute, because we have up there now what most military officers would call a thickening of the battlefield. There's more activity. And our casualties, of course, have gone up.

I was in southern Helmand with the Marines, pushing quite far south, further than Americans have been before. We were 100 miles from the Pakistani border, and all the currency was Pakistani. I made this comment to the U.S. ambassador [to Afghanistan] Karl Eikenberry. and he says, "Yeah, the whole border is Pakistan." ...

Again, we see these cross-border infiltrations coming in the opposite direction, too. And the Pakistanis, if you talk to them, which I'm sure you have, will also discuss that at some length. It was very pronounced in the Bajaur operation when the Taliban crossed over to this side of the border to fight against the Pakistani military. ...

There's a curious phenomenon in that it's very easy to name a dozen or more Pakistani Taliban commanders, but on the Afghan side of the border, it's all sub rosa. You don't know who's the commander in the area, who's fighting.

But as I said, it's not really true, because we know the Afghan commanders because they cross over here. I mean, there was an effort just a few weeks ago to find one of them here, an Afghan who had crossed over.

Who was that?

I can't remember his name. ...

But who can we name on the Afghan side of the border as military commanders, where we can name here all sorts of figures?

I think if you talk to American generals on the other side of the border, because I've heard them discuss it a lot, they could name a lot of Afghan Taliban.

They say they use sanctuaries in Pakistan, and then they come over. ...

I've heard them mention a number of names, and we've certainly seen people cross over here, Afghans.

I guess they don't get play in the press there.


Talk about your meetings with President Obama and the kind of brief he has given you. ...

I think certainly any American president has made fighting terrorism the overwhelming goal here. ... And with President Obama, and certainly in the strategy that he laid out, the disruption and dismantling of the terrorist groups was the most important goal. But a stable and secure Pakistan was a very important goal, as was international engagement, particularly with India and Pakistan.

So when President Obama talks about this, it's certainly focused on the terrorist threat, but also focused on the longer-term strategy to stabilize Pakistan, to make Pakistan a more prosperous and vibrant country, and to essentially support Pakistan's democracy as much as we can.

And that's what these bills in the Congress are aiming to do, the Kerry-Lugar bill and the Berman bill. They provide a greatly enhanced amount of humanitarian assistance, which this country desperately needs.

How much money?

Kerry-Lugar would provide $1.5 billion a year.

That doesn't sound like a lot of money given the problems that Pakistan faces.

Yes. And well, obviously, we're hopeful we'll get more. But it's a lot given the historic amounts that we've been able to provide here.

But one could argue that we've grossly underresourced this region.

One could argue that.

You would argue that.

But I'm still grateful for the $1.5 billion that I presume will be authorized in the Kerry-Lugar bill. Certainly it's a start, and we're planning to concentrate it in certain areas. We have had a program for several years in the tribal areas that provide employment generation and health and education. It's difficult to work up there because of security constraints, but I think we've made some progress, particularly in working with villages.

[Editor's Note: Congress pass the Kerry-Lugar bill in late September.]

In Swat, do you feel you have a good view of what has gone on up there and what is going on up there now?

We feel we have a pretty good view.

How so?

We've had people up there. We've had Americans up there. We have a lot of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and aid groups that we work with that have been up there. ... Ambassador Holbrooke is going to go up there in a couple of days.

When Ambassador Holbrooke was here before, he was prevented from going up there.

He was prevented because of security reasons, but the situation's better. That was only three weeks ago. He's going to go up there on Sunday. We've had Americans up there; we've had aid workers up there.

What is his mission?

His mission is to talk to citizens and see how things are going, talk to officials, talk to the military and see how things are going.

There are a number of people who have made pretty harsh statements about the tactics used by the Pakistani military in Swat.

There are people, but I think the Pakistani military learned a lot after their experience in Bajaur.

Talk about that.

There was a lot of collateral damage in Bajaur.

A lot of civilians were killed; a lot of villages were --

They would be the first to tell you that that was the case. And I think in Swat the use of force was much more discriminate. But yes, in any combat area there's bound to be collateral damage. But what we've seen is that the destruction was, frankly, a lot less than we anticipated, both in Swat and Buner.

And we've got an aid team here from Washington that's doing an assessment, damage assessment. The World Bank and the ADB [Asian Development Bank] are working on a long-term assessment so we can hopefully provide some resources to rebuild the area and help reintegrate the population.

The Americans are putting a lot of emphasis on counterinsurgency and protecting the people, separating the Taliban from the people. Do you think that Pakistanis get it?

Increasingly they get it. And I think what we saw in Swat was a much better counterinsurgency operation than we'd seen in Bajaur just a few months before. ...

We were just up there, and I had the feeling that there was quite a bit of fighting still going on and --

There's fighting above Mingora and the upper part of the valley, absolutely.

We were not allowed to see that as press. And I know other journalists have had a hard time getting a view of what's going on up there.

We've had aid groups even into the northern part of the valley.

And those aid groups are telling you what?

That the fighting was still going on and --

And that it's targeted or that there's collateral damage or what?

They're telling us that there are pockets of resistance. The military is telling us pretty much the same thing, too. ... And mostly Mingora's safe; the services are being restored. We have people living now in Mingora, aid groups living in Mingora. Services are being restored. So, again, I think we've got a pretty good picture of what's going on there.

Pakistan has historically been preoccupied with its eastern border, the Kashmir situation with India. Do you see any change in that?

I think with the democratic government there's been very considerable outreach to India. And I think even with the Musharraf government, there was the very famous back channel in the composite dialogue. And I think certainly the composite dialogue is about to be restarted between Pakistan and India.

I think the government recognizes -- and this is true, frankly, of all the major parties here -- the enormous commercial potential in better relations with India.

Officers in the Pakistani military have said to me that until there is a settlement of the issues with India, Pakistanis will not let go of their assets in the west.

Well, that's not entirely accurate, because they've moved huge numbers of troops off the Indian border.

But what they mean is that they won't give up their support for people like the Haqqanis or Mullah Omar.

I'm not quite following.

This is the opinion of officers within the Pakistani military.

That they won't give up their support for insurgents or for the Kashmiri groups?

They won't give up their support for their assets in the west, such as Haqqani --

Oh, well, this is a so-called strategic depth --

Well, it's a real argument.

Yes, of course, and it has certainly been a critical component of their policy.

A driver.

But I think even the military -- and we talk to them all the time -- recognizes, again, the enormous potential for some kind of, shall we say, peace with India or better relations with India. They don't want to spend all this money either. And the civilians -- without exception, from what I've been able to see -- want better relations with India, if only for commercial reasons.

This region of the world has the lowest percentage of intraregional trade in the world. And Pakistan has the huge market, India, and Pakistan's not an insignificant market either. And it's largely complementary. So there's huge potential here.

But they're being left in the dust economically. Zardari admitted in July that Pakistan has in the past trained paramilitary Islamic terrorists. Do you remember this speech? He said they were deliberately created and nurtured as a policy to achieve some short-term tactical objectives.

Oh, well, they say that all the time. That's a reference to the jihad.

But these are not statements that you heard from Musharraf until maybe close to the end.

I used to hear them all the time from --

In private, but not publicly. This was a public pronouncement on the part of Zardari.

OK. I don't remember that statement.

So that wasn't news to you is what you're saying?

No, it wasn't. It doesn't shock me. Again, I hear them say it all the time.

It's shocking to a lot of Americans when they try to grapple with it. I mean, there is this notion that Pakistan and America have similar interests, but in fact they don't.

But we do have similar interests here.

In some ways, but our interests finally are not the same.

They are exactly the same. They are that we want a peaceful Afghanistan, a peaceful, stable Afghanistan, and we want a peaceful, stable and prosperous Pakistan. They are very, very precisely the same.

And there are number of ways to achieve this. One you just mentioned, which is better relations with India, which will open up, again, a huge, huge commercial opportunity.

And reduce their fears in Afghanistan.

And reduce their fears and reduce the defense spending, which will free up money for health and education, etc. So there are enormous opportunities here. And I think we do have a great convergence of interest with Pakistan.

posted october 13, 2009

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