Pakistani Lt.Gen. (ret) Asad Durrani: "I consider a Pakistani encouragement of the Taliban as unwise"
- Exclusive Interview with the former head of Military Intelligence and ISI by WSN Editor Pakistan S.A. Samad Khan from Islamabad -
The backdrop to this interview on Afghanistan will be familiar to most international observers; but the issues underlying the problems being faced by the Pakistani and Afghan leaderships, as also Western powers, have been in the limelight recently – especially in view of Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s recent press conference during which he spoke resolutely (some would say even aggressively) and in great detail on Afghanistan, the Taliban, the Al Qaeda threat, Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, and the responsibilities of the international community in Afghanistan. His defence of what Pakistan is doing, and why and how other actors, regional and international, are falling short of their commitments, came on the heels of several developments. These included a visit to Pakistan by four top NATO commanders, a series of allegations in the western media that Pakistan is helping the Taliban, TV clips shown by Afghan authorities of alleged Pakistani Taliban confessing that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies were sponsoring their activities, and remarks by US National Intelligence Director Chief John Negroponte that Al Qaeda had found a hideout in Pakistan for its global operations.
S.A. Samad Khan: Gen. (ret) Asad Durrani*, the problems surrounding the bi-lateral and multi-lateral relationships amongst ostensible allies (i.e., Pakistan, Afghanistan, ISAF/NATO and the US) in this conflict are indeed complex but seem to be more getting more acute by the day. Could you kindly shed some light on the background to these problems?
Gen. (ret) Asad Durrani: Afghans have a long history of resisting foreign forces. This time (after the US-led coalition removed the Taliban regime), there was a good chance that they might not put up such strong resistance, or at the very least delay it for some time (a few years). My reasons are as follows: they were tired, exhausted in fact, after fighting against the Soviets and amongst themselves for more than two decades. An Afghan Government, elected and endorsed by the Loe Jirga (a grand assembly), and a good number of democratic and administrative institutions were put in place fairly quickly. Certain reservations about the process notwithstanding, the arrangement was acceptable to the majority of the people. Most importantly, conditions to restore unity and stability in Afghanistan were quite favourable: the world community and all the neighbours were on board; resources to rebuild the Country had been pledged; and most of the internal actors (former Mujahideen, warlords, even many religious groups) were willing to play ball.
This positive environment soon gave way to disenchantment and insurgency in the Pashtun areas. The reasons were: The US persisted with military operations in the Pashtun areas to hunt for the “remnants of Al-Qaida and the Taliban”. Since they relied mainly on air power (and dubious intelligence), the “collateral damage” was considerable. Honour bound by “Pashtun-Wali” (their code of conduct), people had to mobilise to “take revenge”. (This is thus a Pashtun and not a Taliban movement, though some of them must have been the hard-core Taliban.) Reconstruction in Pashtun areas was, therefore, understandably problematic. Even in other areas, most of the money was skimmed off by foreign development agencies (real-estate prices in Kabul, till recently, were higher than in Washington; this was confirmed by a retired American general). Inefficiency and corruption of Afghan administration did play a part.
S.A. Samad Khan: Can you please comment on the allegations in the media and from the Afghan government that the Pakistan government or the ISI are assisting the Taliban, that senior members of the Taliban leadership are operating out of Quetta, and that Al Qaeda elements may also be hiding in Pakistani territory?
Gen. (ret) Asad Durrani: Pashtuns live mostly in the East and the South of Afghanistan, and straddle the Durand Line (Pak-Afghan border). It is a highly porous frontier, impossible to monitor or to seal against human, even vehicular, movement. Tribes on both sides cross it all the time. After the American-led invasion, many Afghans and a few hundred non-Afghans (mostly Chechens and Uzbeks, not necessarily Al-Qaida members; probably there to get some practical experience) escaped to Pakistan’s tribal areas. As the insurgency gathered momentum, many more fighters (now only Pashtuns) regularly crossed over, mostly to recover from the rigors of life and fighting, and then return across the border to fight again.
- Pakistan cannot control their movement; not effectively at least (they are only a part of the larger “regular” traffic). Worse still; it cannot crack down on them, even if they are identified and located. The local population has great sympathy for these “freedom fighters”, resents the allied military operations across the border, and is unhappy with Pakistan for being an ally of the “infidels”. Pakistan’s actions, mostly military, have created the same effects as those of the U.S. on the other side of the border, killed mostly innocent people, and produced more militants.
- I do not know if there was any official Pakistani encouragement or support for the resistance. If there is, I consider it unwise: not so much because of U.S./ Western ire, but more because it affects our relations with Kabul; and most importantly, because there does not seem to be an alternative to the present Afghan dispensation.
S.A. Samad Khan: What are your thoughts on the overall Pakistani strategy of combining the use of force with peace deals with tribal elders to tackle the Taliban threat, despite the fact that these deals were hardly negotiated from a position of strength?
Gen. (ret) Asad Durrani: Yes, peace deals are best made from a position of strength. When dealing with the people, the state is the stronger party – until it has used its power and failed. Now that both the US and Pakistan have used their instrument of last resort, the military, unproductively, in fact counter-productively, they can at best do damage control and make deals with their adversaries. Deals like North Waziristan and Musa Qila are better than no deals. (Even the Baker-Hamilton report recommends peace deals. And lest we forget, it is Karzai who has often suggested reaching out to the Taliban and a bi-national Jirga with Pakistan. Apparently, the U.S. supports both these initiatives.)
S.A. Samad Khan: As regards the cross border movement of armed groups, is Pakistan’s strategy – namely the large-scale deployment of troops to the border, patrolling, use of human intelligence, and fencing part of the border even an efficacious route to follow? Furthermore, despite NATO’s lack of effectiveness in stemming cross-border movements from the Afghan side while relying heavily on aerial and technical intelligence gathering assets, does Pakistan need to improve its indigenous means of gathering intelligence by similar means rather than rely on NATO or the U.S.?
Gen. (ret) Asad Durrani: I do not believe a better system of intelligence or surveillance would make any material difference in the militants’ ability to move across the Durand Line. “Mining and Fencing” is at best Pakistan’s defensive response to the flurry of charges against it for not doing enough to control this movement. Since these “obstacles” cannot be covered by observation and fire, they would be breached in no time. (Scrap dealers on both sides of the border will be the only beneficiaries.)
S.A. Samad Khan: To wind up, could you please share the salient points of your overall conclusions on this issue with us?
Gen. (ret) Asad Durrani: I have often described the present situation in Afghanistan as a “Greek tragedy”. (Near) ideal conditions were wasted because the power that called the shots, the US, looked for the trees and lost sight of the forest. The irony, redolent of a Greek tragedy, is best illustrated by the role that narcotics now play in the Afghan matrix. All the major actors need this commodity: drug barons, who had suffered under the Taliban and were amongst the first to line up behind the US; two million Afghans, who have no other recourse to livelihood; the regime in Kabul, who cannot afford more unemployed and un-contented people and indeed cannot forfeit half of the Country’s GDP; the Taliban, who have no other source to fund their war; and even the Americans for all but the last of the above reasons (and because these drugs do not find their way to the US, which is Colombian turf). The course correction has to start with a “strategic pause” in the military operations against the Afghans, followed by a series of local, regional and national Jirgas or peace deals. Pakistan in the meantime can do no better than state clearly that it can neither seal-off the Durand Line, nor take military action against its own people and should "gang-up" with the Afghan regime to persuade the occupation forces to change course.
* Lt Gen. (ret) Asad Durrani was commissioned in the Pakistani Army in 1960 and retired in 1993. He took part in both the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars. Amongst his important assignments: instructor in PMA and Command and Staff College; headed Military Intelligence (1988-90),ISI (1990-92), and the Training Branch in GHQ; and Commandant National Defence College. After retirement, served as ambassador to Germany (1994-97) and to Saudi Arabia (2000-02).