An Interview with Ahmed Quraishi

Recent Features

Features | Security | South Asia

An Interview with Ahmed Quraishi

The Diplomat speaks with Pakistani commentator Ahmed Quraishi about the country’s current military offensive in Waziristan, relations with the US and what America should do to improve its image in Pakistan.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Pakistan this month meeting key political leaders. What did you make of her comment that she finds it difficult to believe that nobody in the Pakistani government knows the whereabouts of top al-Qaeda members?

Ahmed Quraishi: It was very surprising to even the most hardened skeptics here in Pakistan to hear a US secretary of state saying this, because despite all we heard during the eight years of President [George W.] Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, no American official accused Pakistan or ‘rogue elements’ in the country of supporting or protecting al-Qaeda. If ever there were any grievances with Pakistan on this count, they were mostly focused on that Pakistan had done a very good job of cooperating with the Americans on al-Qaeda, but that progress was still lacking on the Afghan Taliban and its leadership. So in the entire eight years since September 11, no US official actually criticized Pakistan by saying Pakistan was somehow trying to protect al-Qaeda.

Second, the facts contradict what the secretary of state said. Everybody knows the vast number of al-Qaeda operatives that have been arrested have been arrested in Pakistan. And the big fish names, although there is close cooperation between the CIA and ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], were arrested thanks to crucial information coming from Pakistani intelligence sources. This is, of course, natural seeing as it is our country, and it’s only to be expected that the ISI and other Pakistani government agencies should be at the forefront of finding these people. And they did.

And three, another crucial point is that if we’re going to throw blame at each other, then frankly speaking it is Pakistan that needs to complain–and complain loudly–at the failure of US intelligence and the US military back in late November and early December 2001 to corner and arrest Osama bin Laden. If you remember the battle in Tora Bora on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, that battle was instrumental at providing an escape route to the al-Qaeda chief and his liuetenanats. And the biggest blame for that actually goes to US intelligence, which relied on unreliable Afghan warlords on the ground who apparently took money, probably from al-Qaeda operatives, and let Osama bin Laden escape.

So if anyone should be complaining it should be the Pakistanis, who now have to deal with this country’s mess, basically because many of these people who should have been eliminated in Afghanistan were able to disperse and mostly head for Pakistan. And this is mostly because of the thin American presence in Afghanistan, the poorly secured military presence in that country and of course the poorly secured border.

One of the reasons Secretary Clinton was visiting was to try and improve the US image in Pakistan. How much of an image problem does the US have there?

Quraishi: In this whole debate about America’s image in Pakistan, and people talk of course about how America supported a military dictator [General Pervez Musharraf] and so forth, the reality is that the real grievances pertain to issues that are not really discussed very openly, especially in the American media, and which are not really known about by American public opinion. I’m talking about things like, for example, the fact that the US military and the Afghan army, which is being trained by the US army, suddenly removed all their posts from the Afghan side of the border when Pakistan began its military operation in South Waziristan.

This isn’t the figment of anyone’s imagination–it has been verified by people on the ground and was raised by the Pakistani chief with General Stanley McCrystal a couple of weeks back. This story was headline news on major Pakistani news channels and in newspapers, so it’s surprising that so little time has been given over to such grievances, which provide fodder to skeptics in Pakistan who question US motives in Afghanistan.

And of course we have a standing complaint that weapons and money that are sustaining terrorists are coming from Afghanistan. And it’s not just the factor of Afghan warlords and drug money and so forth. It’s beyond that. And we feel little time is given to this grievance in the US media. US officials know about it, and often discuss the issue with Pakistani officials, but they never talk about this openly. So I find it very funny when Secretary Clinton comes over here and says ‘you have some questions about our role, and we have some grievances about yours, but we need to reach some common ground.’ Sure. But this entire thing that is going on in the Af-Pak region is a result of US policy. And eight years on, this project is falling apart and isn’t showing any signs of being nearer a conclusion than it was, say, five years ago. So serious questions are arising about why in Pakistan we continue to be part of a project that shows every signs of failing, if it has not already failed.

What would you like to see the US doing differently to improve its image?

Quraishi: Two things. One is that in terms of foreign policy, on its policy on Afghanistan, it needs to take its Pakistani ally along as it moves on. What has happened over the past eight years is that Pakistan was not taken along in US planning on Afghanistan. A government was set up in Kabul that was decidedly full of anti-Pakistan elements, elements that are antagonistic to Pakistan. Now when I say this I don’t mean that the Afghan government should be pro-Paksitan. But they should not be antagonistic. So the United States and the different stakeholders in policy in Afghanistan, including the intelligence community and the military, will have to trust Pakistan and take it along as an ally, and not treat it as someone to be looked upon with suspicion, or to be used for logistical help it needs but to then not trust it on the long-term questions of what kind of government should be in Kabul and whether the Pashtuns need to be isolated from such a government or not.

Number two, the United States needs to understand that it is counter productive to try and interfere in the domestic politics of Pakistan. Very few observers in the United States discuss a very interesting thing that they have been doing in Pakistan, which is to try and micromanage that country. The very government we have in Pakistan right now, the elected government in Islamabad, wouldn’t have been in place without a deal that was discussed and tailored and finalized at the US State Department with the active participation of diplomats from the United States and United Kingdom. And, of course, with the full backing of Vice President Cheney at that time. That deal resulted in tailoring the political set up that you currently see in Pakistan, and it dealt with such minute issues as who would be the coalition partner, which parties could work with the United States, and which ones could not.

So this kind of micromanagement has really backfired–when the United States was tailoring this kind of deal with Musharraf, the anti-Americanism in Pakistan was not at a level it is at right now. So this tells you something at least about how the micromanagement has backfired and has produced possibly an exaggerated feeling of a threat among the ordinary Pakistani on the street.

As you mentioned, the Pakistani military recently embarked on a major offensive in Waziristan. What do you think the prospects for success are?

Quraishi: There’s no question that a ragtag army of mountain fighters who do not enjoy the full support of the people of the area they are based in–the people of that area are pouring into other parts of Pakistan where temporary camps have been set up for as long as this military operation goes on–that such a militia cannot sustain itself in the face of a large and well-organized army.

Of course, when the Pakistan army began the Swat operation in the spring of this year, there was a lot of skepticism–especially when almost 2 million people from that area poured into refugee camps, people were asking how that problem would be dealt with. But now, over 1.5 million people have been restored to their towns and villages in the Swat region, and that region is overwhelmingly secure now.

There’s no reason why this can’t be replicated in South Waziristan. It’s a small patch of land. The only uncertainty we really have is over the Afghan side of the border–there aren’t enough Afghan soldiers on that side, and there are no US military or ISAF on the other side. This is a constant problem and we know money and weapons are coming through from that side. The Mehsud terror militia is not sustaining itself from inside Pakistan. I understand that Pakistani officers have had assurances from General McCrystal that he will do what he can with the resources he has in Afghanistan to secure that area and ensure that such movement doesn’t occur backward and forward. But we’ll have to wait and see. At the moment though, the prospects look good.