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confronting the pakistan problem

In this Web-exclusive interview with FRONTLINE, Christine Fair lays out the complexities of Pakistan's internal and geopolitical situation and what it means for U.S. policy. Fair is a specialist in South Asian political and military affairs at the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute for Peace. The Institute is an independent, nonpartisan think tank established and funded by the U.S. Congress.

Who are the militants operating from Pakistan's tribal areas?

… [In] North and South Waziristan there have been numerous so-called "foreign militants" captured, located, or otherwise localized to this area. There have been foreigners in this area for decades. When different Arab and central Asian and southeast Asians came to fight during the Soviet invasion, many of them were not welcome back in their home countries. Lacking any other alternative, they made their homes in this area of Pakistan, married local women and speak Pashto. …

Many of those detained or captured in this area are actually Chechens and Uzbeks and other Central Asians. And a few Arabs. There have been very few Pakistanis. This is the distinction that I made in my testimony: the high-level Al Qaeda operatives were not captured in FATA [Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. …

FATA is certainly a Taliban hideout. But Al Qaeda arrests and detentions have been far, far away from FATA. It doesn't mean that they don't use FATA, that they don't transit through there. It doesn't mean that there are not operational consequences, because there are. But I always tell people that while FATA is important, we have to keep in mind the enormous urban centers in Pakistan -- that's where the most high-value [Al Qaeda] arrests have taken place. The closest to tribal areas was Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who was arrested last year in a town called Mardan.

[Why has support for the Taliban taken hold in the tribal areas?]

First, one has to understand how that particular space was governed. … When the British governed South Asia they set up a very peculiar structure for these tribal areas. And it is certainly true of North and South Waziristan. The primary representative of the state was a character called the "political agent." He answered directly to the governor of the North West Frontier Province, who, in turn, took his orders from the central government. …

The political agent's job, then, is to make an order a policy. He would interact with what were called the tribal maliks, or tribal leaders. And the maliks would form jirgas and they would basically orchestrate a process of consensus by which the central order would become policy.

And when the jirga undertook a decision -- say, for example, that it would not house certain undesirable elements -- if an individual or family were to break consensus, there would be very punitive consequences for that individual under the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act [FCR]. It has in it this notion of collective punishment.

The U.S. does not know how to deal with Pakistan. It doesn't do its homework �� doesn't learn lessons. It doesn't call Pakistan on the carpet when we're being blatantly lied to and deceived.

So, for example, if one family member is refusing to comply with the decision that was executed by the jirga, which was, of course, received from the central government, they could demolish the homes of all related individuals. Their powers of coercion were quite expansive.

This system worked for many decades -- up until the '80s. The malik and the political agent got along fantastically, for the most part, because there were financial incentives to do so. The political agent always had a lot of cash that he could disperse to get his job done. …

Now, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the infusion of Saudi money, and the deliberate use of the madrassa to prop up religious leaders, … this perceived power structure began to change and the mullah entered into the mix. The mullah had historically sort of been -- you know, Pashtuns would derisively refer to the mullah as "the dog that lives off of table scraps," because the mullah had no independent source of power. His money, his wherewithal, his living, his prestige, his status was all at the mercy of the malik and the tribal leadership and organization.

But as a result of the geo-strategic changes that were foisted upon this region, the mullah came into his own. And remarkably, because the political agent would be the source of information, feeding intelligence to the central government, the central government, until really quite recently, largely remained ignorant of these changes in the power dynamic.

So in 2004 when the army went in, many people believed the army really was not aware to what extent the mullah had become a power broker. And the army went in there pretty much disgusted with the political agents, thought they were a bunch of corrupt losers that did their own bidding and not the bidding of the state, nor, for that matter, the local residents. And they had similar contempt for the maliks.

So the army in 2004 tried to wipe out that power structure and impose a military solution to this tribal area. … But while the Pakistanis were busy dismantling the political agent and the malik structure, the mullah was there and basically absorbed that power vacuum. This is the situation we find ourselves in today. The Pakistanis don't know how to put this genie back.

So this is a recent phenomenon?

This is very recent. … The Pakistanis are now trying to put the political agent and the maliks back in place. But no one is positive that they can do that.

One has to appreciate that ever since 1979, religious forces have become much more important in tribal politics than they were when the British departed and left that system for the nascent Pakistani state to deal with.

On top of that, because you have all of these Arabs intermarried into the region, this was a place that was going to be receptive for foreigners to come after 2001. And you have to appreciate, too, how the locals view this: They were asked in the '80s to support these people -- they were freedom fighters, liberators … who liberated their kin in Afghanistan from the Soviets' oppressive regime, and then from subsequent warlording, when different warlords fought over the carcass. It's very difficult for these people now to be told that these same people are terrorists. And more to the point, they don't believe they're terrorists because they have kinship across the border. So you have a very fundamentally changed social structure, and this changed social structure, I think, has been inappropriately understood. …

Who are the Taliban?

You have to understand that the Taliban -- in the sense of the leadership of Mullah Omar -- is one thing. But when Pakistanis talk about the Taliban, I think they tend to mean something else. What it has become is a sort of Pashtun militant movement. So, depending on who you talk about, it may or may not reference Mullah Omar. It's this sort of ethos of revolt against what the Pakistani government and the U.S. government are doing in Afghanistan, overlapping with the fact that this is a region which is predominantly Pashtun. …

How big of a problem is militant Islam? How successful is Gen. Musharraf in his policy of "enlightened moderation"?

His policies of moderation are very controversial. Many people, including me, are deeply suspect of them. He has not broken down the militant training camps -- that's simply a fact. We saw this during the earthquake in Kashmir. … Because Pakistan still considers Kashmiri militants to be freedom fighters -- even though [Pakistan] itself is a victim of the sectarian groups -- it's had difficulty shutting down the sectarian groups because of this overlapping membership phenomena. And no intelligence agency likes to get rid of its assets. So it's been very difficult for Pakistan to dump these militant groups. …

Do they want to?

I don't think they want to. If you look at Pakistan's strategic compulsions, it has no other set of options but to support militancy in Afghanistan and in India. … Pakistan likes to call India its peer. India is not its peer. India is a vastly larger state with far more national assets that can be converted into national powers than Pakistan will ever have. Pakistan needs to resign itself that it's not India's peer and it's going to be, over the near term, a significantly less important player in South Asia.

Pakistan cannot resign itself to that fact. Nor can it resign itself to the fact that Afghanistan can be a neighbor. Instead, Pakistan wants Afghanistan to be a client state. So until Pakistan can resign itself to its geographic realities, it's going to continue to face incentives to engage in this, I guess what you can call proxy misadventures. …

The other kinds of militants, of course, are the Taliban. … Again, Pakistan is very ambivalent about them. We haven't seen a concerted effort to crack down on them. The BBC can interview its leadership in FATA and Quetta, but the ISI can't allegedly find them? To date, with very few exceptions, there have been no consequential Taliban leadership handed over. All of these arrests have been these so-called "foreigners," which is what Pakistan calls Al Qaeda.

So, we've seen a lot of ambivalence. This agreement that they've cut with FATA, I think, is going to prove to be disastrous.

Why do you think these deals are disastrous?

The answer is for multiple reasons. One, Pakistan … did not formulate an appropriately robust strategy towards FATA. When [the U.S.] did Operation Anaconda there was supposed to be the anvil and the hammer [to trap the Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives fleeing Afghanistan]. Well, there was no anvil. All these fighters went into [the tribal areas]. That border was insufficiently fortified [by Pakistan] and Pakistan said it's because they had a military standoff with the Indians, because of Pakistani [militants] that bombed [India's] Parliament. So, this is a very complex problem.

And subsequent to that, in trying to get the tribals to root out the foreigners and to hand them over -- again, Pakistan had an inappropriate intelligence picture. Or maybe they didn't. … I don't think we'll ever know. But the fact is, they did not have a situation that was conducive.

Many people believed that the Pakistani military breach in 2004 [into the tribal area] mobilized what I would call the "neutral residents," the people that had just been living there that were not really a party to the dispute. Because of the indiscriminate use of force under the Frontier Crimes Regulation and the notion of collective punishment, the population began to be mobilized against the Pakistani state.

Now, the problem with this deal is that basically it says to the militants: We could not defeat you militarily, therefore, we are trying to make a deal with you politically. So there has been no penalty, not even turning over of arms, imposed upon these tribals for engaging in this illegal activity.

So now, what is the recourse of the state? The state has essentially said, "You are untouchable to us." They preemptively surrendered. In terms of the impunity with which these individuals have been launching attacks against [U.S. and NATO] forces in Afghanistan, I have every expectation that this is only going to become exacerbated by this deal. The militants were basically handed a preemptive victory that they did not earn.

Why would the government be cutting these deals then? …

Here is the million-dollar question. And there will be people, on the one hand, like Barnett Rubin, who will say that this represents what the Pakistanis wanted to do all along.

You'll talk to people who are going to tell you very matter of factly that we -- meaning the U.S. government, our European allies, the Canadians, whoever -- have robust evidence that Pakistan is directly supporting these insurgents in Afghanistan. … And the evidence is, in fact, compelling that this is the case. …

Now, that's obviously a controversial position … but here is something which I don't think is controversial: The Pakistanis know we're going to leave Afghanistan. Pakistanis believe that everyone's going to leave Afghanistan, and once again, Afghanistan is going to become its strategic backyard, fit for its manipulation. Therefore, it is continuing to prime the ground for this eventuality, and it doesn't want to do anything that will alienate these individuals that will once again become their primary constituents for manipulating Afghanistan's future. …

Once you start from that position, you start working backwards, then the question arises, how serious were they anyway in crushing the Taliban in FATA? And again, this goes back to people like Barnett Rubin who would say, "Of course they were never serious." That position is a little bit extreme, because the Pakistanis have lost hundreds of troops fighting these fellows.

I probably have a somewhat alternative view: The Pakistanis are doing only that which is narrowly in its strategic interest. It's in its strategic interest to expand the writ of law, and I think it wanted to expand the writ of law. It put its toes in those waters and found the temperature to not be of its liking.

Just look at the number of deaths that the Pakistan armed forces took, including some very sanguineous suicide attacks that began in May of this year. I mean, I think it is undeniable that the Pakistani state did have some significant intentions. But again, I would argue that it was to the extent that Pakistan perceived its own security to be at risk from these characters.

So by negotiating an agreement of this type, it can secure some immunity from domestic backlash. And, this agreement completely advances its interest while minimizing loss of life in its armed forces.

A lot of people I've spoken to are knowledgeable of the Pakistani army. Apparently, some of the Pakistani army cadres and officers simply refuse to fight their own people. And this raises the obvious question of, OK, you've been telling us that you're a professional army. Well, professional armies don't refuse to accept orders.

So there's also the issue of getting it back to my analogy, that they put their toes in those waters and found the temperature to be unpleasant. There were probably multiple factors that went into this, but at the strategic level, they never wanted to abandon these characters in the first place. They did want to wrap up those individuals that were most dangerous to Pakistani domestic stability, while not foregoing the utility of these actors and the proxies in the near and distant future.

What kind of an ally is President Musharraf?

He's a "marginal satisfier." I didn't coin that phrase. This is Marvin Weinbaum's phrase. [Musharraf] does exactly that which is necessary to keep all of his constituents simultaneously, minimally satisfied. And that's no mean feat, I might add.

But I might add, too, that some of the stuff he does is completely, I would have to say, constructed opposition. For example, the MMA [Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal], the so-called "Islamist opposition," they're the opposition of his choosing. They're there because he chose to let them be the opposition. He was intricately involved in its formation as an opposition party in the fall of 2002 after the elections. And if he wanted to completely deplete their support, he would let the mainstream parties back in. …

Now, there's no evidence that he's a strategic thinker. I don't think anyone who's ever met him says that. But he is a very effective tactician. And I guess from my concern is if I look at this strategic incentive facing Pakistan, I don't see a Pakistan that's going to be able to do the things that the U.S. should want it to do, which is democratize, stop relying upon militants to prosecute the foreign policy vis-à-vis India and Indian-administered Kashmir, and vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

Now, having said that, the United States government has not taken any of these issues terribly seriously. I am amazed about the insouciance with which terrorism in Afghanistan and in Kashmir is tolerated by the government. Washington seems to be so afraid that Pakistan is going to blow up, that it feels that it has to stovepipe … its policy objectives vis-à-vis Pakistan.

So this results in these peculiar situations where you have an administration that can say, on the one hand, that its worst nightmare is a nuclear-armed terrorist. So if that does affect your policy prescription, then we should be having a [policy] that's much more vigorous. I mean, Pakistan is a place where terrorism and nuclear black market wheeling and dealing overlap. …

So what are the options for U.S. policymakers?

Right now, basically, there's just a whole slew of money being thrown at the state to secure it, to buttress Musharraf. And there's very little actually expected in return for that. If you actually look at the cooperation that one's getting from Pakistan on key issues like, for example, militancy in Afghanistan, militancy in India, I think it would be hard for Islamabad to show that the U.S. is getting its money's worth. …

So, for example, cross-LOC [line of control] infiltration vis-à-vis India, the insurgency in Afghanistan -- a lot of people are saying that U.S. aid would be contingent upon verifiable progress on these issues. And whether or not that's going to happen, whether there's any stomach for it in Washington, remains to be seen. But increasingly people are posing these questions: What are we getting for our money? And it's a sizeable chunk of money that's being spent there.

You have a very interesting take on madrassas. Explain.

First of all, the data that we have on madrassas do not pertain to tribal areas. So in the settled districts, we do know that madrassa market share is very low, … between 1 and 5 percent of the total market share of students. So overall, it's really quite small. The most intense madrassa enrollments actually occur, not surprisingly, along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. And, if for no other reason, there's historical reasons for that, mainly, you know, U.S.'s and everyone else's involvement in the Soviet war.

But you don't see them showing up in high-level, high-profile terrorist attacks. Now, there may be a reason for that. … They don't have to take unqualified madrassa graduates because there are students coming from the public school system and even from Pakistan's colleges that are interested in working for these organizations. So the fact that we don't see them in terrorist organizations does not mean they're not wanting or willing or interested in becoming terrorists. It just means that the groups have other options. …

But there's the other reason to worry about madrassas, and that is what I'll call the demand for terrorism. In other words, the demand or the support that people have for certain kinds of terrorism. And this is where they think there's been some very provocative research done.

There was a survey done by a researcher in Pakistan named Tariq Rehman. He interviewed madrassa students, as well as students in private schools and public schools, all roughly 10th-grade equivalents. He had some questions about their opinions towards jihad, towards militancy and Kashmir, outright warfare with India to take Kashmir away from India, and support for minorities: for women in Pakistan, Pakistani Christians, and Pakistani Hindus. Not only did he interview the students, he also interviewed teachers.

He found that the madrassa students were the most inflexible and the most intolerant and the most prone to support violent solutions, and their teachers were even more so. Whereas private school students were the most tolerant, the least likely to support violent solutions, and their teachers were also. This is very provocative. Now from an analytical point of view, can you say it's because of the schools and the curriculum and the teachers? Or is it because of parents who espouse those world views? …

But the differences are really striking. I think it would be very difficult to … exclude the madrassa effect in terms of the effect of the school in producing world views.

That view is buttressed by another piece of data that was exposed by the World Bank. If you look at families who use madrassas -- we'll call them madrassa households -- only a quarter of madrassa households use madrassas to educate all of their kids. So most people who have at least one kid in a madrassa use public and private schools in conjunction with madrassas to educate their other children. ….

So, all of this evidence suggests that one, the madrassa threat has been poorly understood. It may be that they don't produce terrorists, because the terrorists groups have better training institutions that they can choose from. But it does appear that madrassas do produce students and teachers who have outlooks that dispose Pakistan to not live in peace with itself and with its neighbors. And this is a concern.

But on that note, in the very same survey I mentioned, public school students are also pretty darned intolerant in supporting of militant solutions, and less likely to support equal rights for Pakistan's women and minorities. And since public schools educate about 70 percent of Pakistan's student body, this suggests that the policy focus may be skewed, that if madrassas educate anywhere between .07 percent and 5 percent and public schools educate 70 percent, boy, it seems to me the policy focus is completely backward.

What does that say about the views of the Pakistani population writ large?

There have been public opinion surveys. … Obviously anti-Americanism is really high. But I always tell people, they should not assume that support for terrorism and support for the United States are mutually exclusive. … I think anti-Americanism is very much now part of the anti-Bush [sentiment], and because Bush is seen as commensurate with the policies.

Can you just unpack that a little bit more, the policies?

Well, there's always the Palestinian issue. And even though the United States has said it supports a free, fair, functioning, viable Palestinian state, no one believe it to be the case. Thank goodness I wasn't in Pakistan during the Lebanon-Israel crisis. I was there during the [Mohammed] cartoon controversy. That was pretty horrible, because again, they blame the CIA. How could a bogus country like Denmark do something this provocative? Must have involved the CIA. …

The real issues really happened after Iraq. And again, there's even ambivalence about Iraq itself, because, you know, it's not as if Saddam Hussein has a big following in Pakistan. But it was more the way in which the war was conducted and the terms in which it was conducted. No one believed it was done for democracy. Pakistanis said routinely, if it was for democracy, where's our democracy? I mean, here you are supporting this guy who stole our democracy while you're willing to send troops into combat in Afghanistan and Iraq for democracy. So no one believed it. …

It's difficult to explain how anti-American Pakistan is. It's always, to some extent, been that way since I've been going, since '91. But there was always a willingness to make a distinction between America, its policies, and its people. I'm not so sure … if that distinction holds anymore. …

What's the prognosis for the U.S./Pakistan relationship? Where do you see this going?

The prognosis is not good, … and the reasons are both on the U.S. side and on the Pakistan side. The U.S. does not know how to deal with Pakistan. It doesn't do its homework. It doesn't retain its history. It doesn't learn lessons. It doesn't call Pakistan on the carpet when we're being blatantly lied to and deceived. Instead we use diplomatic nicety, when in fact, that doesn't really go over very well with Pakistan.

So for example, it's very much akin to, you know, telling Pakistan leadership in the '80s repeatedly that if you continue to cross this nuclear red line, you will not get the F-16s which you bought, period. And then they crossed the red line, and in fact the F-16s were withheld. And the two countries spun off irreparably separate from one another over the course of the next decade.

I think that this issue of terrorism is going to be very much like that. We keep saying we care about what's happening in Afghanistan. We keep caring about what's happening in India and Indian-administered Kashmir. But there's neither carrots nor sticks associated with this espoused concern. And so Pakistanis naturally conclude, "We've duped them in the past. We can dupe them again. We will dupe them again." …

Pakistan, on the other hand, has a meticulous historical memory. It knows how to play us like a fine fiddle. And it will continue doing so. …

What about within Pakistan?

The U.S. government has done absolutely nothing to cultivate the relationship with Pakistanis, and every Pakistani knows that. When President Bush wants to talk about Pakistan, he talks about Musharraf. And this is in stark contrast [to] the way in which he talks about India. He talks about India's culture, India's democratic principles, India's institutions, India's people. …

There are very colorful expressions that you hear when you're in Pakistan. Two of my favorites are, "India's your bride and we are your whore." And the other wonderful one is, "We're the prophylactic with which you are going to copulate with Afghanistan." I've cleaned up the language for you.

This is the sort of sentiment that you hear in Pakistan. This is very problematic, and I think it's at the root of why there's so much anti-Americanism. The average Pakistani has not seen value from this relationship. And that's something that really needed to be changed five years ago. … The average Pakistani just feels as if, when the United States disengages from Musharraf, we will have left Pakistan's democratic institutions weaker than they were on Sept. 10, 2001. I have to say there, I think there's a lot of justification to that criticism. …

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posted oct. 3, 2006

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