Sunday, April 12, 2009

Q&A with Walter Andersen and Shaun Gregory

It has become unusual to hear about a day minus bombings, protests and unrest in Pakistan, which began as an ally in the war on terror but ended up being an epicentre of terrorism. With the Taliban militant leader Baitullah Mehsud threatening two attacks per week and experts ‘prophesizing’ the end of Pakistan in six months, it is pertinent to ask whether the country has lost the will to take on the Taliban.

Meenakshi Iyer spoke to Walter Andersen, a South Asia expert at the Johns Hopkins University and Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit, University of Bradford about the present crisis in Pakistan, the Af-Pak strategy and India's role


Do you think Pakistan was more controlled under Gen Pervez Musharraf?

WA: Pakistan was certainly more controlled under Musharraf, though he permitted substantial press freedom for a miltary dictator. But then democracies by definition are more open societies.

SG: No I do not. The seeds of all that is happening now were sown during the Musharraf era. It was Musharraf that supported extremist religious-political groups like the MMA; Musharraf who continued the army's support of militant groups like the LeT; Musharraf who tolerated or supported [depending on what you believe] the return of the Taliban Afghanistan between 2002-2007, and it was Musharraf who diverted so many of Pakistan's scarce resources to the Army when this money should have been invested in raising the living conditions and education and employment opportunities of ordinary Pakistanis. Remind yourself that Musharraf threw the senior judges into jail, shut down the free media, etc.

It is said that Pakistan neither has the resolve nor the capability to take on the Taliban. Do you agree?

There is little doubt that it lacks the capacity. The Taliban have essentially fought it to a stand still and hence the various agreements. The Pakistan army is trained and armed to fight a conventional war with India, not a counterinsurgency effort. On the will, there are certainly some parts of the military sympathetic to the Taliban, as it could be used to advance Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. The insurgency is not popular, seen as Muslims killing Muslims.

SG: I certainly agree that they lack the resolve, but this is not because they lack the capability in my view. The Pak Army after all has 500,000 troops and a similar number of reserves. When it wishes to quell a rebellion - as in Balochistan - it is able to do so and to eliminate the leadership. No, the explanation for the lack of action against the Taliban lie elsewhere.

In my view the Pakistan Army is actively supporting the Afghan Taliban because it does not want Karzai to rule, opposes the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan and opposes the US/NATO presence. It is also worth mentioning that many in the Army are reluctant to fight Taliban militants who they see as fellow Pashtuns or countrymen and they don't like fighting "America's war".

What do you think about Obama's Af-Pak strategy?

WA: Obama's Af-Pak strategy was shaped by Bruce Reidel and clarified in the report he drafted for the president that was released in late March. I think it is the right approach: it links Pakistan and Afghanistan, that is you can't make much of a headway in Afghanistan until you stop the cross border activity from Pakistan Our focus on both countries will be to build up counterinsurgency capability of the security forces, to focus more on issues of governance, and to have meaasures to periodically determine degree of success.

SG: I wrote a long piece about this for the Sunday Times of India last week - please read it and you will know my views. Obama Strategy: Win hearts and minds

Can things change for the better in Pakistan? How? Where do you think lies the solution?

WA: I think things are changing for the better in Pakistan, in that for the first time you have a civil society that has forced the political system to pay attention. I think that the present democratic system needs more time to work things out, and hopefully that the various challenges will not undermine it prematurely.

SG: It will be very difficult to turn things round in Pakistan but some important elements of a successful strategy would be: (a) shift resources to civilian/pluralist forces in Pakistan - that is, elected leadership, political parties, civil society, business, etc;

(b) Ensure that any and all military aid is subject to strict conditions and accountability;

(c) Funnel resources through the government so that it is better able to discipline the army and ISI;

(d) Shift the focus of counter-terror spending and effort into policing and rule of law rather than ISI/Army;

(e) Devise a strategy to contain the violence to the Pashtun areas of both sides of the Durand line;

(f) Exercise maximum leverage on Pakistan army/ISI to end its support for terrorists and Afghan Taliban.

As regards the Af-Pak strategy, do you think India should be brought into the picture?

India can play a very helprful role in strengthening the government in Afghanistan, and it has been doing so. It needs to deal with restraint with Pakistan, a problem because of the terrorist threats which originate there.

Yes, part of the solution must be a regional framework which has Af-Pak at the centre but which includes all the regional players, above all India. India has two important contributions to make in particular: (a) supporting democracy in Pakistan by working with the new government and not allowing the Pak Army/ISI or terrorism to derail bilateral progress; and (b) by taking Pakistan's legitimate security interests into account and taking steps to avoid fuelling the paranoia of the army/ISI.

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Kamraan Haider said...

How I wish you had spoken to some Pakistani experts as well. Interesting read.

Shazneen Akhtar said...

This rocks Iyer...but why didn't you ask them about Kashmir??? The reason why US wants India in Af-Pak is Kashmir. It is their way of nudging India to solve the Kashmir dispute with the US. Even though the message is clear in your story, but it is hidden. Fools like us have to be explained each and everything :( Great piece. Shazneen, Lahore