Malik Siraj Akbar speaks to the two-times Pulitzer Prize winner, Steve Coll, also the author of six books, including the highly acclaimed Ghost Wars (2004) which focuses on the history of CIA, Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden.
Steve Coll, the president and CEO of the New America Foundation, is a distinguished American investigative journalist. He spent twenty years as a foreign correspondent at the Washington Post where he also served as the paper’s Managing Editor from 1998 to 2004. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Coll, 52, is the author of six books, including the highly acclaimed Ghost Wars (2004) which focuses on the history of CIA, Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden.
In an exclusive interview with Dawn.com, Steve Coll talks about the war in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency operations, the future of al Qaeda and Pakistan's role in the war on terror.
Q: How big a difference have the drone attacks made in the Afghan war?
A: The American military commanders think that the drones have been the best tactic to sustain pressure on foreign fighters in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
They have also been important for Pakistan because they have brought the war on the Pakistani soil. The high technology system used to operate the drones creates all kinds of questions and reactions among the Pakistanis about their lack of control over these drones and the sense of violated sovereignty that the attacks create.
Q: How much is the will and cooperation of the Pakistani authorities involved in these drone strikes which, as you pointed out, many Pakistanis describe as a violation of national sovereignty?
A: The government of Pakistan has not only known about them but it has also sanctioned and supported them. However, there have been debates about the extent of the Pakistani involvement in the program. Throughout the process, the Pakistani authorities have provided logistical support --- air bases, permissions--- to the United States. What has been harder is to have an agreed plan as to who has to be on the target list and how the strikes are carried out. The US has found it difficult to share intelligence reports with the Pakistani government because the Americans think the intelligence often leaks to the target.
On their part, the Pakistanis resent the lack of trust. They want to have their own ideas about who is an enemy of the Pakistani state; who should be targeted while drawing the list of targets in the drone attacks. One year ago, the US and Pakistan made kind of a new agreement on targeting in particular to go after the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban who had not been previously high priority targets for the US. As the insurgency grew, the Pakistani Taliban became a high priority for the Pakistani military. Towards the end of last year, there was a period when the sense of a shared purpose was relatively strong as the Pakistani Taliban leaders were targeted along with al Qaeda. That working agreement changed with the Raymond Davis case and of course the bin Laden raid brought things to a very low point.
Q: Does that mean that these strikes have renewed anti-Americanism in Pakistan and they pose more security threats to the United States in the future?
A: From what is reported by the governments and newspaper accounts in Pakistan, the drone attacks have reduced the threat of terrorist attacks on the United States by constantly disrupting the leadership of al Qaeda. At the same time, they have increased the threat by inflaming anti-American feelings in some sections of Pakistan. There is not really good evidence about attitudes of the local people in some of these areas that are Taliban-controlled to the role of the military action in attacking the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Q: What does bin Laden’s killing mean for al Qaeda?
A: Al Qaeda has had the same leader for more than twenty years and it never had to deal with a succession crisis. Bin Laden was not only an important source of finance and symbolic leadership but he also had a unique history in the Muslim world as a militant leader who raised voice for the oppressed people. He was the architect of 9/11 attacks; no one can replace him in that role. There is no one in the organisation who has bin Laden’s communication skills and his history. So, there are some significant military leaders but I don’t think anyone can provide his symbolic leadership.
Q: What is your critique of Pakistan’s Afghan policy?
A: You see big countries always exert pressure on their smaller neighboring countries.
For example, the United States exerts pressure on Mexico to the extent it can. The problem is that the Pakistani army has chosen self-destructive methods to achieve this influence by arming groups which are not friendly with the Pakistani state.
Secondly, they [the army] keep overreaching the degree of the influence. They feel they need to have an Afghanistan to be satisfied. They seem to be driven by the fear of India in Afghanistan in a way out of proportion to the actual degree of influence that India could ever reasonably exercise in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan but has not been able to develop balanced sustainable policies that can produce a friendly Afghanistan. When Islamabad tries to over reach its influence in Afghanistan, it bounces back with adverse fallout of instability for Pakistan. I am afraid we are about to enter into another period of that character.
Q: In your book, Ghost Wars, you talk about Pakistan’s deception in the war against terror. Islamabad has handed over several al Qaeda leaders to the Americans in the past. Are you trying to argue that Pakistan selectively takes action against Taliban and al Qaeda based on a case by case approach?
A: There is a level of detail [on this matter] about which I don’t think anyone, including a lot of people in the Pakistani military, understand. Even the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] is not so organised as if they sit around and make plans. It is not a monolithic entity. Just like any other institution in Pakistan, the ISI is also a mess where there are different elements engaged in various deals.
The Pakistan army for long has had the view that they can distinguish between the good militants --- those who are in an alliance with Pakistan--- and bad militants --- who are engaged in criminal revolutionary activity against Pakistan. So, if you are willing to refrain from attacking the Pakistani state, its army and refrain from undermining its negotiations then you can maintain your bank accounts, buildings, safe sanctuaries, businesses and remain able to travel to the Gulf or something like that. Many Afghan Taliban refugees have accommodated the Pakistani State in that way by refusing to join the Pakistani Taliban.
For example, unlike the TTP, the Lashkar-e-Taiba has, by and large, adhered to that norm by not declaring the Pakistani state as their enemy. Pakistani security services feel like they have got their hands full. They don’t want everyone to be their enemy. So, they try to reward those groups which refuse to join the TTP and keep them focused on Afghanistan. They even go to the extent of motivating the Taliban to attack the Americans but stay away from targeting Pakistan’s interests. Thus, the Americans regard them as deceptive. Pakistanis tell the Americans that they treat everybody among the
Taliban as the same but in practice it is in their interest not to treat everyone as the same.
Q: What is the future of al Qaeda?
A: Al Qaeda will remain under pressure from the US authorities in Afghanistan and some pressure from the Pakistani security services. Yemen looks like the best place for the young al Qaeda fighters. If I were a twenty-two year old Arab provoked by my corner mosque to fight the “Great Holy War” with 1000 bucks in my pocket, I would be interested in going to Yemen because no one is looking for you there. Al Qaeda is now in control over there in the south, as we know from published reports. They are likely to end up with significant space there. It’s an Arabic speaking country where al Qaeda can be strong in the next few years.
Q: How badly has the Abbottabad incident damaged the ISI-CIA relationship?
A: The damage has been pretty severe. It, nonetheless, did not lead to a complete breakup of relations between the ISI and the CIA. The ISI has done a skillful job of maintain formal contacts with the United States but still maintaining its independence and holding the Americans at a distance. The Americans have also taken a similar approach. They developed a relationship with the ISI to work on some shared projects but also kept their independence by distancing the ISI in some other operations. The Raymond Davis case and the Abbottabad raid were clear examples of this approach. I don’t think either side is going to change its approach. Intelligence sharing is a dirty business. Even countries with friendly relations will recruit agents in state with which they share cordial diplomatic relations only to pursue their own interests.
Q: Where does Pakistan go from here? How does the future look like?
A: Pakistan’s future depends on strengthening civilian and the economic sectors of the country. The only way to break this pattern of internal violence and self-defeating policies is to open up the economy. Pakistan has to benefit from the transformation and the economic growth that has so much changed India, for example. Once that growth clicks, then the balance of power inside Pakistan will change. It won’t be about personalities or wishing for great politicians. Pakistan does have sources of strength to overcome its challenges. You have a talented business sector; professional diaspora and a strong media. There have been a lot of countries with similar terrible situations of civil- military conflict, corruption, internal violence, separatist movements and drug smuggling.
For instance, Columbia in late 1990s looked like a hopeless case. Today, it is a pretty healthy country. Indonesia was about to fall apart in late 1990s after three civil wars; the army was disappearing people; attracting international sanctions; al Qaeda was emerging through the Jamaat-e-Islamia. Only twelve years later, today Indonesia is full of shopping malls; it has a large middle class and its stock exchange is performing very well. How did that happen? It could be possible only because of the economic growth. Pakistan lives on the edge of a neighborhood that is entering an age of transformation and success. This is the Asian century. Pakistan is on the western edge of the Asian century. It has an opportunity to become a part of that prosperity.
This can happen only if Pakistan normalises its relations with India and let economic activity and trade flourish in that region by opening up its borders. Pakistan has the talent and the human capital to benefit from the Asian century. An economic change will ultimately put these arguments about the ISI, the army and corrupt politicians in the dustbin of the history.
This interview originally appeared on Dawn.com on August 9, 2011