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Pakistan: 'Economic Development' Needed To Fight Taliban

Philip H. Gordon (Courtesy Photo) August 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy with the Washington-based Brookings Institution who has authored numerous books or articles on counterterrorism and security in the broader Middle East. He spoke recently with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Abubakar Siddique about U.S.-Pakistani relations. Gordon described Islamabad's results against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as "mixed," and argued that "economic development and modernization" are the best weapon against extremism.

RFE/RL: You advocate more economic and humanitarian aid for Pakistan. Why?

Philip H. Gordon: I think, in the long run, it's really economic development and modernization that are going to help with the problem of extremism. I think in the United States right now -- especially with the talk of Al-Qaeda reorganizing and extremism growing -- there's a temptation to want to deal with these issues with military force. And I think that there is a real risk that that would backfire and alienate the populations of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I think that in the long run it's not the right approach.

RFE/RL: The U.S. Congress in late July passed legislation that would tie all U.S. aid to Pakistani efforts against Al-Qaeda and Taliban, and also its effort to promote democracy and reduce poverty and corruption. Do you think that this legislation will have a similar effect to that of the Pressler amendment targeting Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program in 1992, when Pakistan was sanctioned up to its eyeballs?

Gordon: That, of course, was very unpopular in Pakistan and that caused a lot of resentment in Pakistan -- and, I might add, didn't really deal with the problem because Pakistan pursued its nuclear program anyway. And I worry that this could have a similar effect in alienating the Pakistani population, in impeding Pakistan's development, and yet not actually getting the government to take the measures that the United States wants it to do.

RFE/RL: How do you respond to other experts who point to the dismal performance that Musharraf has shown in curbing Al-Qaeda and Taliban?

Gordon: I agree with those critics who say that Pakistani action in those areas has been mixed. I think, on one hand, there is a sign that Pakistan is helping -- a number of the so-called high-value detainees that the United States has captured have been captured in Pakistan [and] Pakistan has deployed soldiers and lost some of them in battles with extremists. So there is some sign that Pakistan is helping. There are also signs that it is not, and that Taliban from Afghanistan get refuge in Pakistan and that Pakistan's efforts are not 100 percent. But the question is whether cutting off American aid to Pakistan would lead to the sort of whole-hearted successful effort that the United States, understandably, would like to see. I'm not sure that it would, and I fear that it could backfire.

RFE/RL: What would be the likely fallout of U.S. military strikes inside Pakistan against Al-Qaeda? Senior administration officials have been talking about such actions for some time now.

Gordon: The National Intelligence Estimate [in July] suggested that Al-Qaeda is reorganizing along the border and in some places in Pakistan. And the [Bush] administration has said that nothing is ruled out, including strikes on actionable targets. And that has led to a lot of speculation about what the United States might do. I think if there really were clear and obvious targets -- of people training and plotting to attack the United States in a terrorist attack -- inevitably the United States would act and should act. That's what any country would do if it were able to prevent a horrific attack on its soil.

But I am concerned that we don't have such clear and obvious targets, and I think we shouldn't underestimate the negative results that would come in Pakistan if the United States started undertaking military strikes without the authorization of the Pakistani government in Pakistan. So I would much prefer -- to the extent possible -- that Pakistanis deal with this problem that, I should add and stress, they are also opposed to.

A vast majority of Pakistanis don't want extremist elements in Pakistan, don't want to support terrorism, and would want to fight it. And I would rather see the United States working with them than undertaking attacks that could lead to a backlash in Pakistan against the United States and make things worse.

RFE/RL: How real do you think the Al-Qaeda central regrouping is in Pakistan and how big a threat is it to international security -- U.S. security in particular?

Gordon: I do think it's real and I do think it's a threat. There seems to be no doubt that some of the [Al-Qaeda] leadership has found sanctuary in these ungoverned areas, and it's a good place to hide. I think, though, it can be exaggerated in this notion that there is some organized multinational Al-Qaeda movement that is directed in a centralized way from big camps in Pakistan. I don't think there is much evidence of that.

I think rather that what we call "Al-Qaeda" covers a whole range of different smaller groups -- some acting on their own, some acting in part with training and direction from Al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, and some perhaps acting more directly. So I think it's very complicated, but [the] bottom line [is], yes, it's a problem, it's a threat, and it's a serious one.

RFE/RL: Hearing news about the U.S. wanting to arm Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, where do you see Pakistani-U.S. cooperation going vis-a-vis Iran?

Gordon: It is fair to see the recent proposal to sell large amounts of weapons to the Gulf states in the context of Iranian influence or in the context of containing Iranian influence in the region. I think also that the Bush administration initially hoped that it could pressure these [Gulf] regimes to move in a more democratic direction. The reality is it knows that it's not going to happen anytime soon and it needs to have good security relations.

I really haven't heard Pakistan mentioned in that context. It is true that good military relations with Pakistan might help in containing the threat from Iran. But at the same time, it's linked to the other issue of Pakistani efforts on Al-Qaeda. The more Pakistani cooperation you see on efforts to contain Al-Qaeda, the more enthusiastic the United States would be about weapons sales and military cooperation. But if on the other hand, it appears that Pakistani military establishment is not prepared to fully move against Al-Qaeda, it would be a hard sell to the Congress to authorize military sales so long as that's the perception.

RFE/RL: Why do you think the United States has largely failed to reconcile Musharraf and Karzai, while it has been successful in kind of de-escalating the tensions between India and Pakistan, which are supposed to be archrivals?

Gordon: I think the United States is doing what it can and trying. The reality is that when you have such insecurity, leaders -- and it's true of Musharraf or Karzai -- want to blame somebody else for it. And as Karzai gets in trouble at home for insecurity in his country, it is very tempting for him to say that the problem lies on the other side of the border because Pakistan isn't doing enough. That similar dynamic, I think, applies on the Pakistani side, where Pakistan doesn't want any blame for that and says, "No, if there are Taliban fighting against NATO and against Karzai, they are Taliban on the other side." And Musharraf doesn't want to take the blame, and he doesn't want to alienate his Pashtun population by cracking down too hard.

So I think it's easy for them -- when things aren't going well, and the rise in violence suggests they're not -- to blame the other side rather than work together on the issue. That's clearly an important concern of the United States, to get them to stop blaming each other and start working together on it.

RFE/RL: Why do you think United States has failed precisely on this issue to convince Pakistan to give up what some say are its Taliban proxies in Afghanistan?

Gordon: I think a lot of Americans are very frustrated with Pakistan's apparent unwillingness to do that. My understanding is that Pakistan has always seen the idea of having a sort of "client" in Afghanistan -- dependent on it -- as an important part of its overall strategy. And given the ongoing tensions with India -- even though things are better than they have been in the past -- but given the perceived threat from India, and especially with the U.S.-Indian cooperation flourishing, some in Pakistan are reluctant to see Afghanistan develop in a direction that it would be very close to the United States -- and even, frankly, close to India -- and Pakistan would feel encircled if it didn't have a friend or client in Afghanistan. So that -- plus the ethnic element, where there are obvious links, ethnic and historical, between especially Pashtuns on both sides of the border -- there is a tendency in parts of Pakistan to see the Taliban at least as people who are going to defend Pashtun interests in both places.

So if you put these both things together, then you can understand, a little bit, why Pakistan is not willing to cut off the Taliban. I say you "understand" that; it seems to me a sort of analytical explanation. But I think a lot of Americans are appropriately frustrated with that -- because in the long run, Pakistan's interests really are to have a stable, democratic Afghanistan on one side and a stable, democratic India on the other. And with that, I think that Pakistan could ensure its security and its development and its growth and its prosperity -- but I think it's hard for some in Pakistan to see it that way.

Afghan-Pakistani Border

Afghan-Pakistani Border
EYE OF A STORM: Afghan officials first suggested that insurgents or terrorists were crossing the border from Pakistan in 2003. Relations have run hot and cold ever since. But the roots of the problem go back much further.

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