What was the position of Pakistan when the US decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001?
The indication was very clear when 9/11 happened that the US government was ready take action against the Taliban. The first reaction of Pakistan was that it told the United States that they will support the Americans, but Pakistan also tried to persuade the United States not to take a military action in a hurry. Pakistan also suggested that, before the military action, some other means should also be tried to persuade the Taliban to handover Osama bin Laden so that the issue can be resolved peacefully – this is also why Pakistan sent a delegation to Afghanistan to talk to Mullah Omer and the delegation actually tried to persuade him to cooperate with the United States given the situation … but Mullah Omer refused to hand him over to the Americans or any other country. Secondly, Pakistan also advised the United States that, even if it they launch an attack, they should have more troops on the ground and the mission should not be long. Third, Pakistan also told the US that they should not allow the Northern Alliance to enter Kabul before the formation of a new government, which should also include moderate Taliban. So Pakistan actually tried to dissuade the United States from taking a military action. But when the action eventually took place, Pakistan had no choice but to go along and it offered the United States logistic support and other facilities.
What are Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan?
Actually when the war started, nobody had an idea as to how it will end or what course it will take. Even the Americans were not clear about it. So to say that Pakistan has a clear objective is wrong because it did not. The major Pakistani objective when the war started was that it should end quickly otherwise problems would start to surface for Pakistan when the Taliban and Al Qaeda would start coming to Pakistani tribal areas.
There is a suggestion that Pakistan wanted to use the Taliban commanders as a bargaining chip when the war would eventually come to an end. Is that a fair suggestion?
I do not think that it is true because when the war started, nobody knew what was going to happen. Actually, they all thought that the Taliban were history. Taliban themselves thought the same when their government was ousted. There was no indication that they would be able to come back and lunch this type of resistance. Even around 2006 when the insurgency started picking up, the Taliban were not even on the radar of the Americans even. The Americans always considered Al Qaeda as their enemy and not the Taliban. The second thing is that, by 2003, the Americans had almost declared victory in Afghanistan and took away their eyes from Afghanistan and went to Iraq. So there was not anything thinking of that sort from Pakistan at that point of time.
The picture only started to become clear after 2007 and by then Pakistan was also concerned with what will happen to Afghanistan because the Americans were not clear and nobody knew that the war will prolonged for 11 years. Moreover, on each stage things kept changing. Initially, the American interest was to take out Osama bin Laden, finish Al Qaeda and then democracy would be restored in Afghanistan. But things did not happen that way.
There is also a suggestion that, now that the war is coming to a close, Pakistan wants to support one group over another. Is that also an accurate suggestion?
Pakistan’s main concern is to have stability in Afghanistan. The time is gone when Pakistan could think that Afghanistan could become a strategic depth – that is not possible anymore. It is wrong to say that Pakistan wants the Taliban to come back to power because it is the complete opposite of that. This is because Pakistan has also become a battle ground and groups like Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (The Taliban Movement of Pakistan) have emerged who may have a separate agenda than the Afghan Taliban. These two groups are also linked. Therefore it will be a nightmare for Pakistan if the Taliban take over Kabul because in that situation Pakistan might lose control over some parts of its territory. So I think what Pakistan wants at this point of time, before the troops withdraw, is to have some sort of an arrangement which will make the Taliban a part of the political process so that their attention can be diverted towards Afghanistan. But it is completely wrong to say that Pakistan supports the Taliban and wants them to take power in Afghanistan.
It was claimed by the US that the Haqqani group is a veritable arm of the ISI? Is that true?
Well, the group is not protected by Pakistan but what is true is that Pakistan has certainly not taken any action against them. The reason for this is simple: if the Americans are interested in political reconciliation in Afghanistan then there is no point in fighting against the Haqqani group. They should better talk to them rather than asking Pakistan to kill them. Pakistan certainly does not want the Haqqani group to take over but it does want them to be a part of the political process. It could be that the ISI has links with them but to say that they are a veritable arm of the ISI is a bit extreme.
What exactly is the nature of the relationship between Pakistan and the US? In public, there is so much friction but from what you are saying, it seems that there is potential for both to work together.
They can work together because they share some of the concerns, for example they both can join hands to make some sort of stability to return to Afghanistan. But the major problem is that there is a huge trust gap between the two. It has also to do with America’s aggressive policies. The United States itself is not very clear as to what it wants to do in Afghanistan. They have given a deadline of 2014 when all the forces will be withdrawn and they are talking about a negotiated political settlement but they are not very clear as to how to go about it. So this is another major area of conflict since Pakistan wants to know how this issue is going to be resolved. But the trust gap is huge because the US feels that Pakistan is supporting the insurgency actively, while Pakistan feels that the US is not interested in a political settlement in Afghanistan. Another issue that has widened the trust gap is the aggressive American policy within Pakistan and there is a feeling that that is underlining Pakistan’s national security.
Talking of aggressive policies inside of Pakistan: how does the Pakistan army view the drone attacks inside its territory?
They were taking place with the cooperation and the consensus of the Pakistan army and the Pakistan government. It is wrong to say that Pakistan Army was not consulted about it, but what has happened since 2009 is that the Americans have intensified the drone attacks and have carried them out unilaterally, so that has created huge problems. Before 2009, the drone strikes were carried out with the knowledge of the Pakistan military and other authorities and they were informed beforehand. But that has now changed and it has created more friction around drones.
Was Osama bin Laden given refuge in Pakistan by some members of the ISI or was his presence completely unknown to the Pakistani establishment?
I do not agree that he was given refuge by Pakistani intelligence agencies but certainly some people in Pakistan were cooperating with him; otherwise how could he have come to Abbotabad? So it is still unknown but there must be some militant groups who know and it is also possible that some elements in the secret services might be helping him as well, but it is not known whether the Pakistani intelligence chiefs were aware of it.
Did the American operation to kill him kept completely secret and did the Pakistani army knew nothing about it?
So far it seems from all the information we have that the Pakistani army did not know about it, and this is also one of the reasons why the relationship between the two countries has become so bad.
One the war is over; will all the militant groups, who have been empowered by the war, come for the Pakistani state?
They are already attacking Pakistan. 100,000 Pakistani troops are on the ground, so the war is already in Pakistan. Everyday there is a terrorist attack in the country.
So will a settlement in Afghanistan help to pacify some of these groups?
No, it will not pacify these groups in Pakistan but it will make it a lot easier for Pakistan to deal with them.
Does the US need to have a long-term plan for the region or will it wash its hands off it once it leaves Afghanistan?
It depends on what kind of a presence they want, but certainly what they need to do right now is to have a political settlement before they leave otherwise the whole region will go back to a civil war. There is also a danger that the Afghan National Army and the police might also disintegrate in such situation.
Will the long-term Pakistani and US alliance remain the same once the war is over?
There have been huge problems and ups and downs but they will stay together because what happens in Afghanistan concerns both of them.
Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and writer. He is a correspondent for The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal. He also has covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for several other international publications, including Newsweek, the Associated Press and The Economist. Last year he was the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Hussain has authored two books: Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (2007) and The scorpion’s Tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (2010). The books have won widespread acclaim as seminal texts on the subject. He is currently working on his third book.
The interview was conducted by Jahanzeb Hussain, the editor of Collateral Damage Magazine. He is a 22-year old student based in Vancouver, where he goes to Simon Fraser University. He also represents the Vancouver chapter of Afghans For Peace.
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