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Pakistan: South Asia Expert Speaks About Significance Of U.S. Aid Package To Islamabad

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Washington, 27 June 2003 (RFE/RL) - On the occasion of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's visit to Washington this week, RFE/RL spoke with Stephen Cohen, a former U.S. diplomat considered to be one of the U.S.'s top experts on South Asia. A senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Cohen has written books on the Indian and Pakistani militaries and is working on a study of the effects of Pakistan's development on its neighbors and the United States.

Question: The United States has just announced a $3 billion aid package to Islamabad. What do you see as the main significance of Musharraf's visit and the new relationship the U.S. is building with Pakistan?

Cohen: I think both the size and the duration of the package is significant. I would have expected that it would have come about a year earlier. But clearly, the intention is to keep Pakistan engaged primarily for the war on terrorism. I think that's the Bush administration's major concern, to keep Pakistan as an ally in rounding up Al-Qaeda and Taliban and members of those hierarchies.

The question is whether once that happens -- and in fact, those groups could be rounded up pretty quickly -- what we do then and whether we abandon Pakistan or whether we continue the aid package and make it conditional on domestic Pakistani reform. To me, the most significant difference between this aid package and the one in the [former U.S. President Ronald] Reagan administration when Zia [ul-Haq] was president of Pakistan, is that Pakistan is a much weaker country internally, and there's been a much greater expansion of Islamic extremism. The economy is weaker. A lot of good Pakistanis have fled the country.

I think that the U.S. has to worry about Pakistan itself becoming a source of problems. And also, I'd add that Pakistan has become a nuclear-weapons state overtly, and that means that the U.S. can't simply provide the package and provide assistance and then declare the war on terrorism over and walk away from Pakistan. It's got to stay engaged.

Question: I wanted to ask about that. There's been a lot of concern about the so-called "creeping Talibanization" of Pakistan. Do you see that as a genuine threat?

Cohen: Well, I see that as a threat about a few years from now, not immediately. I think that the Pakistanis have used the threat of the Islamic radicalism as a way of extracting U.S. sympathy and support from others. In a sense, they're pointing a gun at their own head and saying, "If you don't help [me], I'm going to shoot myself." But in fact, much of the Islamic radicalism in Pakistan was fostered by the government over the years, and if they don't reverse this pattern, if they don't round up some of these extremist groups, both not only in the northwest frontier but also in the major cities of Pakistan, then I think there's no hope for Pakistan. That decision has to be made by Pakistanis. But I don't see a radical Islamic takeover of Pakistan for years to come, at least looking ahead, maybe not at least in the next five years.

Question: What do you make of Musharraf's appeal to Washington to address what he called the "root causes" of Islamic terrorism -- that is, political disputes around the world, such as in Palestine and Kashmir, in which he said Muslims are "victims of state terror"?

Cohen: Well, if he believes that, then we're in serious trouble, because the root cause of Islamic terrorism is not only bad politics, policies which make Muslims unhappy -- and he used the examples of Palestine, Israel, and Kashmir and Bosnia. I think that's a legitimate concern. But also, [there are two other] root causes. One is that the states themselves have fostered radical Islam for political purposes. In fact, Pakistan used radical Islamic groups for various purposes. And secondly, some states or individuals in some states -- especially Saudi Arabia and the Middle East-- have fanned Islamic extremism as a matter of ideology. This stuff has been paid for and supported for years now, lavishly, by a few states. So that's helped increase the Islamic radicalism all around the world.

Question: Yet Musharraf says the West, led by the United States, must end all these political disputes with Muslims if Islamic terrorism is ever going to end.

Cohen: That, in sense, is a threat that if the U.S. doesn't solve the Kashmir problem, then Islamic terrorism will continue. And I think that's just a self-serving argument. There are ways of dealing with Kashmir other than the threat of Islamic terrorism. I do agree with Musharraf, I think Musharraf was right, that these are issues that anger a lot of Muslims. But clearly, there are a lot of unhappy Muslims that don't take to terrorism because they don't like the way in which one area, one policy or another is going. In fact, most Muslims are worried about dictatorships of various sorts within their own countries rather than what's happening 2, 3, 4, 5,000 miles away. And I think Musharraf can't simply pick on one aspect of a problem and ignore the others.

Question: He is strongly welcoming U.S. mediation in the Kashmir dispute. But third-party mediation has always been strongly opposed by India. Is that still the biggest obstacle?

Cohen: I personally would like to see us get involved. I've been arguing this for 10 years now, right after the 1990 crisis. And I think Pakistanis always wanted America involved, and as you said, the Indians don't want us involved. But I was astonished that he used the term 'peace process' because Pakistanis haven't used that term in the past. And also, the American administration does not like the term peace process. They're barely able to engage in a Middle East peace process, and they don't call it a peace process; they call it a "road map."

So in a sense, he made the pitch to the wrong administration. The Clinton people might have done this, but I think whoever advised him to use that language misadvised him, because I think you have to talk about road maps and so forth. The Bush administration isn't ready to manage still another peace process.

Question: Do you think Musharraf can have any influence on the Bush administration with his calls to increase the size and reach of the international stabilization force in Afghanistan?

Cohen: I think he's right. I think he's absolutely right. I can't figure out why the administration doesn't want to do it. I think it's essential to keep Afghanistan from crumbling. And Musharraf is worried not only that Afghanistan will crumble, but he doesn't want to see Americans in Afghanistan. He'd rather see an international force there. But I think he does want to see an Afghanistan that's pro-Pakistan and also fairly stable. If that doesn't happen, then you will see radical Muslims, certainly the Taliban types, trying to use Pakistan again as a base to tear apart the politics of Afghanistan.

Question: What did you make of his recipe for raising the quality of life in the Muslim world through "enlightened moderation" and improvements in education, health care, and poverty reduction?

Cohen: I think he ought to begin at home, because Pakistan, which was always known as a moderate Muslim state, is now known as a Muslim state where foreigners go out of fear for their lives. And Pakistan has become equated with terrorism. And that's not because of the Taliban so much but because of sectarian violence within Pakistan. It's reached a terrible level, and he's talked about this himself. But he hasn't done very much, or maybe he can't do very much, to stop this.

So I think that enlightened moderate Islam is proper, but also good governance and reining in provincial governments such as in the northwest frontier that are carrying out radical activities and really breaking Pakistan's laws -- that's his obligation.

Question: Did he bring that on somewhat himself by banning some of the traditional secular parties from taking part in the general elections last fall?

Cohen: That cleared the way [for the Islamic coalition]. I wouldn't be surprised if it simply wasn't a strategy that the Pakistan intelligence services followed -- build up the Islamists. And what you'll see now, perhaps, is that they'll build up the secular parties to beat down the Islamists. I thought that the funniest comment in his statements was that he was very critical of all the people in Pakistan who over the years had damaged democracy. Well, he didn't mention the army, and the army was certainly in the forefront of this, not only the coups, but also in the intelligence services, manipulating Pakistani politics.