One of the issues that has come up repeatedly this year is thequestion of the effectiveness of US drone strikes in Pakistan. How do you think theseattacks have affected the US-Pakistan relationship?
The fallout from US drone strikes in Pakistan isn’t limited to the significant – but diminishing – collateral damage. The worst side effect isn’t increased terrorist recruitment, but the long-standing official information blackout about the drone programme. Most Pakistanis see drones as robbers of their national sovereignty. But instead of explaining the how and whys of the complex Washington-Islamabad counterterrorism partnership, Pakistani elected officials exercise hypocrisy: publicly censuring Washington while secretly fuelling drones and providing Pakistani spotters.
In the past 22 months, US drone operators and Pakistani spies have worked closely to degrade al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban. Cornered in North Waziristan, these groups have lost significant territory, training grounds and IED (improvised explosive device) factories. This has caused a dramatic decrease in cross-border attacks in north-eastern Afghanistan from Pakistan’s northern tribal agencies. In 2010, suicide attacks in Pakistan decreased by 50 percent from 2009.
Yet the fact that today’s drone strikes are more precise, causing fewer innocent civilian deaths, are consistently approved by Islamabad for five years, and are a product of close US-Pakistan cooperation doesn’t matter to most of the 180 million Pakistanis. I don’t blame them. Instead of puncturing long-standing myths by reasoned discourse, Pakistani democrats fail to inform or incorporate conspiracy-driven Pakistanis. Islamabad defends this secrecy as necessary for stability and for keeping al-Qaeda and the Taliban at bay. The price, however, is increasingly untenable: swelling anti-Americanism.
So there’s significant damage being done to public perceptions of the US by these attacks?
All national polls indicate a general anger with US drone attacks. The numbers change, however, when we zoom into provinces, especially Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and areas like Swat and Mohmand where denizens support drone strikes against al-Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban and rival tribes. Moreover, most Pakistanis are unaware that their generals and democratically elected representatives have allowed, supported, increased and improved drone strikes for years. During 2009 Pakistani counterinsurgency operations, US drones targeted Pakistani Taliban safe havens in South Waziristan. Today they continue to target Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, degrading their suicide attack capabilities.
Unfortunately, Islamabad intentionally keeps ordinary Pakistanis in the dark, leaving them with media-driven conspiracy theories to comprehend US-Pakistan relations. This is a recipe for disaster, because eventually the institutions we rely on, such as the military, interior ministry, presidency and cabinet, will have Pakistanis born, raised, and educated in an atmosphere of anti-Americanism. So we have to bolster our efforts to explain and advocate our policy toward Pakistan.
Were you surprised that Barack Obama didn’t fit a trip to Pakistan into his Asia tour last month?
President Obama has committed to visiting Pakistan in 2011. While it’s never wise to skip a key ally on a trip to Asia that includes dancing in India – Pakistan’s arch-enemy – an exclusive trip next year should more than make up for it.
There have been a number of mass-casualty suicide bombings in Pakistan this year. How concerned are you about Pakistan’s internal stability, and what would you like to see the government doing to tackle this?
Pakistan’s security and stability depends on three factors: future counterinsurgency operations; the stability of President Zardari’s government; and Pakistan’s 2014 Afghanistan plan. The Pakistani military is expected to launch mid-level operations in North Waziristan by April 2011. In addition to better weather, more troops will be available from flood-hit areas in the north, centre and south of the country, and from the Swat valley where local law enforcement is slowly taking over security operations.
For another 12 months, a stable Zardari government will be necessary to sustain conflict and post-conflict efforts. Absent a major political tsunami like a forced resignation of Zardari or the firing of the chief justice, I don’t think we’ll see early elections or a military coup in 2011. Nobody is vying for Zardari’s job amid the rising food prices, unemployment, ethnic discord, and a national insurgency.
Finally, I’d say the shape and intensity of the internationally supported Kabul-led regional solution to the war in Afghanistan will determine Pakistan’s national security calculus for 2014. Pakistan-India rivalry will continue to support and spoil Afghan stability unless we push for a new course, perhaps one in which the international community guarantees peace post-2014. More than any other outsiders, Delhi and Islamabad must negotiate the degree of their influence in Afghanistan, while Pashtuns must reconcile with Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks for domestic stability and economic development.
Probably the biggest story for the international media this year concerning Pakistan was the massive flooding. How would you rate the government’s handling of the crisis?
I wrote a report that details the military and political fallout from the floods, and how al-Qaeda took advantage of the chaos that gives more details on this. But in brief, I outline how the devastating floods literally rocked the country: military operations came to a sudden halt, giving the terrorist a dangerous breather; political instability increased as elected officials stayed away from flood-hit areas, increasing the Army’s approval rating for following the civilian cabinet’s orders; and most importantly, America became the least visible, yet largest flood-relief donor. So another great opportunity to reboot US-Pakistan relations was largely lost.
Is there any issue over the past year in Pakistan that you don’t think has received as much international attention as it deserves?
Washington has yet to come up with a long-term, sustainable strategy for Pakistan that centres on the primary threat of nuclear terrorism and proliferation. It’s high time to begin talks on a US-Pakistan nuclear pact that allows Pakistan to join the responsible club of nuclear weapons states. AQ Khan can’t hang over Pakistan indefinitely. This is the only way we’ll be able to comprehend and influence Pakistani nuclear doctrine.
Haider Mullick is a fellow at the US Joint Special Operations University and a research fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Mullick is the author of ‘Pakistan’s Security Paradox: Countering and Fomenting Insurgencies.’ He has conducted three research trips to Pakistan this year. More information can be found at www.haidermullick.com