An interview with William Milam, a former U.S. ambassador and a Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.
The year 2010 witnessed a dramatic deterioration in trust and diplomatic relations between the United States and Pakistan. The two strategic partners in the war on terror traded allegations on the Raymond Davis affair, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, drone strikes, Admiral Mike Mullen’s assertion about ISI’s alleged contacts with the elements of Taliban who attacked the US embassy in Kabul, and the attack by Nato forces on Salala check post, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
So, what is the future of the US-Pakistan relationship? Dawn.com spoke exclusively to William Bryant Milam, a former US ambassador to Pakistan (1998-2001) and Bangladesh (1990-1993). Milam is a currently a Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, where he completed a comprehensive study on modern Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Q: Some experts in Pakistan say the US does not seem to have a clear Pakistan policy. Others say Washington is ‘confused’ over whatever Pakistan policy it has at the moment. Do you agree?
A: The United States does have a Pakistan policy. In fact, it has had several Pakistan policies at different times. It has not been confused about Pakistan but it has had different situations to deal with Pakistan at different times. What we see today is the outcome of a long history of errors and misassumptions on both sides. In fact, it is a time when both countries will hopefully start reviewing the way they have been behaving and dealing with each other. At the moment, it is a pretty bad relationship.
Q: How would you evaluate Pak-US relationship in 2010? Were you expecting the developments that strained the relationship?
A: No. I think no one was expecting these events. I have contributed a chapter in the newly released book ‘The Future of Pakistan.’ I had written the first draft of my paper two years ago and subsequently revised it twice but even then things changed to such an extent in 2010 that when the book was published in 2011, much of the subject matter seemed out of date.
In early 2010, the US thought Pakistan could be an ally they could work with as a strategic partner, by helping develop it as a state instead of exclusively expecting it to cooperate in the war on terror. When the US passed the Kerry-Lugar Bill, it thought of Pakistan as a strategic partner. With the Raymond Davis affair, it became clear there was no free exchange of information between the two countries. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden highlighted the faulty exchange of information between both sides. It also became clearer that the two countries did not trust each other. Since then, the relationship has been limping along on distrust.
Q: How can a strategic relationship succeed when, with respect to drone strikes, Pakistanis feel that the US does not respect Pakistan’s sovereignty?
A: I presume Pakistan has been complicit in drone strikes. In fact, I think the government and military looked at the drone attacks on al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan’s interest for a long time. There has always been misunderstanding on the part among the public.
As far as the Osama raid is concerned, distrust between the United States and Pakistan had already reached such a point that the United States did not feel that it could inform Pakistan about an important target like bin Laden. They could not gamble on such a rich target being warned before conducting the raid and obviously did not inform the Pakistanis.
Q: So what was the reaction of retired diplomats and scholars when bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan?
A: Well, everybody knew that he was hiding in Pakistan. His presence in Pakistan did not surprise us but the fact that he had taken shelter in Abbottabad was surprising. We all envisioned him hiding somewhere in a cave but he was found in a mansion in Abbottabad. I think the Pakistani government was not officially complicit in this but it leads to questions about their capabilities.
Q: How do the Americans look at the upsurge in anti-Americanism in Pakistan, their ally?
A: Pakistan has recently experienced the enormous growth of anti-Americanism in public opinion. It was always present but it was submerged much of the time. The real problem is that the Pakistani military officers and political leaders are all driven by this anti-American public opinion, which is fanned by the media. One example of how anti-Americanism can appeal to public opinion is the emergence of Imran Khan as a politician of consequence. The basis of his philosophy is anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism among politicians is understandable as they have to move with public opinion but the rise of similar feelings in the military has surprised a lot of Americans.
Q: Do you see an end of US engagement with Pakistan after 2014, when it withdraws troops from Afghanistan?
A: I think our engagement with Pakistan will continue beyond 2014, but it’s important to address the issue Pakistan’s impending failure as a state. One of the things currently bringing Pakistan down is its economy. The country’s economic situation is influencing the behaviour of its people.
Q: Will the (US) presidential elections influence America’s policy on Pakistan?
A: I don’t think so. Pakistan is going to remain geo-strategically important to the US even after the Afghanistan withdrawal. Pakistan remains vitally important to America’s interests in the South Asian region in terms of ensuring peace and curbing terrorism, be it from Pakistani soil or elsewhere, so that it does not spread across the region and the world.
The Bush administration dealt with Pakistan differently from the way the Obama administration did. It is clear that every administration will have its own way of working with Pakistan, but their interests will remain the same. If President Obama gets re-elected, you will see almost the same policy towards Pakistan. Nonetheless, the emphasis on Afghanistan, due to the withdrawal, may change. If the Republican presidential candidate gets elected, I do not foresee any policy change.
Q: It is ironic that the US castigates Pakistan for having contacts with different factions of Taliban but it also continues to have secret communication with some sections of the Taliban movement, such as the Haqqani Network. The US no longer discourages or rules out negotiating with Taliban.
A: For a long time, I didn’t know that the United States had contacts with the Haqqani Network. There are different types of Taliban within the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghan Taliban are further divided between the Haqqani Network and the Quetta Shura while the Pakistani Taliban are also divided between the Taliban in tribal region and the Punjabi Taliban. You can’t lump them all together.
When President Obama was elected, we thought of trying to find a peaceful and political solution to the Afghan problem. This would allow us to draw down the number of US troops present in Afghanistan. From the initial days of President Obama, we were looking for ways to push for a political settlement. I think we should have made it a South Asian regional settlement from the very beginning. This could be something akin to the international agreement on the neutralization of Switzerland, in which all the neighbours would guarantee the neutralization of Afghanistan. Thus, none of these regional states would have a reason to push their own interests inside Afghanistan through their ethnic followers.
We started with the idea that we needed to reconcile with the reconcilable Taliban. At that point, it did not include the Haqqani Network. It only included some members of the Quetta Shura. You remember that we began to know about this when the ISI picked up Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the reconcilable Taliban, who was supposedly talking to the Afghans and others.
As our relations worsened because of the Raymond Davis affair and the bin Laden raid, we thought it was necessary to get the Haqqani Network involved in negotiations. I don’t know how much we are talking to the Haqqani Network now. Whatever contacts remain there, they are mainly through the ISI. My guess is that our contacts with the Haqqanis are a very recent phenomenon.
Q: Is Afghanistan becoming a proxy battleground between Pakistan and India?
A: I sincerely hope not. In my article in the recently published book, The Future of Pakistan, I say we should try to build the kind of peace and political process in Afghanistan which will bring Indians and Pakistanis together so that they work with each other. Otherwise, the alternative may turn out to be that Afghanistan becomes a proxy battleground between the two. It is clear that one of the things that has been bothering Pakistan for a long time is the Indian presence in Afghanistan. I don’t think that is going to change much.
Q: It is paradoxical that many American diplomats and scholars complain about Pakistan’s India-centric approach although they know it emanates from the unresolved conflicts between India and Pakistan. Can the United States help in settling the problems between the two countries so that Pakistan gives up its burden of history?
A: The US can’t do anything in a tangible way as far as the dispute over Kashmir is concerned. We tried that years ago and failed miserably. We can help in formulating a peace process in Afghanistan that brings the two countries closer to each other to work together for a peaceful, stable and neutral Afghanistan which will benefit the interests of both countries. Another idea, which seems more likely, is to improve relations between the two countries by promoting bilateral trade.
We should stress our interests in both countries working to resolve their differences. Countries can have normal relations despite having differences. That is actually harder without a normal relationship. Pakistan and India need to normalize their relationship to resolve their differences, which can only happen over time. If they do not normalize relations by encouraging trade and allowing people-to-people contacts, they will never resolve their problems. I don’t believe there is anything the US can do in a specific way to help Pakistan accomplish its goals in Kashmir. Pakistanis have also started to understand this reality.
Q: How significant was the recent Bonn Conference without Pakistan attending it?
A: The Conference was a serious attempt to get things started on a regional basis. It was a serious problem that the Pakistanis boycotted the conference because of the killing of the Pakistani soldiers, which I think was basically an accident.
Q: Is the recent opening of a Taliban office in Qatar another attempt to distance Pakistan from the future solution of Afghanistan?
A: I don’t think it has anything to do with moving Pakistan out of the picture. Pakistan has legitimate interests in a viable, peaceful solution in Afghanistan. The Taliban had been looking for an office and it does not push them further apart from Pakistan than they are today. We have to know which Taliban we are talking about. If it is the TTP, they are already hostile against the state of Pakistan and they are determined to bring it down. If it is the Quetta Shura or the Haqqani Network, they are already friends with Pakistan.
Q: What are the immediate challenges Pakistan faces in near future?
A: Pakistan’s real and immediate dangers are internal, and, at the moment, primarily economic. The economy is about to collapse, which is a problem that cannot be solved overnight or without sacrifices on the part of the political leadership. The political leadership should develop policies that encourage growth and stop inflation. A second immediate danger is an armed insurgency from the Pakistani Taliban. Thirdly, related to the economic coming economic tsunami, the 18th Amendment has not been implemented well, which is likely to trigger inter-provincial disharmony, increasing risks that endanger the very survival of the federation.
If you look closely at these problems, the external threats, such as the Indian involvement in Afghanistan, pale by comparison. Pakistan’s internal problems are eating away at the vitals of the state. Pakistan may muddle through in the next five to ten years, but the present direction is sliding toward failure. There are some strong and positive institutions, such as the military and the judiciary, which will not let Pakistan fail. However, I hope the military does not take the economic situation as a pretext to grab political power.
Q: Today the future of democracy in Pakistan is once again in danger because of visible rift between the civilian government and the strong military in the wake of the Memogate which somewhat indirectly involves the United States. What are your thoughts on Memogate?
A: I am totally befuddled. When I saw the text of the memo, I wondered how anybody could think it was genuine. It seemed a ridiculously phony document. I am confused why intelligent people are trusting the memo is real, and why intelligent people who are accused of having written it would have done so. The memo has clearly worsened relations between Pakistan’s senior military and civilian leadership. We don’t know what is going to happen as a result of that.
There are now rumours of ousting Prime Minister Gilani and replacing him with somebody else. This all looks weird to us outsiders. Pakistan is falling apart economically and here the leaders are caught debating a very questionable memo and making it into a cause celebre, when there are riots over electricity and gas shortages, raging inflation, and rapidly increasing poverty.
The memo struck me from the beginning that somebody was being set up. I find it a weird preoccupation at a time when the country is sinking fast economically. I hope the investigation conducted will be fair, objective, transparent – and quick so the leaders can get back to Pakistan’s real existential problems.