Ambassador: Fight Against Al Qaeda Intertwined With Pakistan's Struggle Toward Democracy

September 04, 2009
September 4, 2009 — America's war in Iraq shifted focus and resources away from the war in Afghanistan and allowed the vanquished Taliban to melt away into the rugged hills to fight another day, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, told a University of Virginia audience Thursday.

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And the Taliban has done exactly that, causing rising American casualties in Afghanistan in recent months and taking control of large swaths of Pakistan's rugged and inaccessible Swat Valley, he said.

Haqqani kicked off the Ambassador Speaker Series for the 2009-10 school year with a discussion of "The Changing Direction of Pakistan" in front of a standing-room-only crowd of roughly 400 people in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom. The series is sponsored by U.Va.'s Office of the Vice Provost for International Programs.

Pakistan requires help from the U.S. to repel Taliban forces and eventually eradicate both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Haqqani said, but the help should not include American troops operating on Pakistani soil.

Pakistan has been a valuable ally of the U.S. in its fight against Al Qaeda, Haqqani said. Since 9/11, captures of senior Al Qaeda leaders, including Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, have occurred in Pakistan, arrested by Pakistani forces. Pakistani intelligence has averted attacks on the West, and Pakistan has lost more than 2,000 troops fighting Taliban and other extremists along its border with Afghanistan.

America's mission in Afghanistan should be to create a stable state, with a strong military and police, and to deny Al Qaeda and other extremists a place of refuge, Haqqani said. Pakistan also must work to deny similar refuge within its borders, and to work with U.S. and Afghan forces to limit fighters' movement across the porous 1,500-mile Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

"Al Qaeda, in particular, is something that we need to eliminate together," he added.

But the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban has created friction in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Haqqani acknowledged that U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan "have eliminated people who have threatened the security of Pakistan, of Afghanistan, and of the world," but added, "Pakistan would like to have drones ourselves, to be able to take these actions ourselves, so that our nation is not enraged by what they see as an infringement on Pakistani sovereignty."

Rather than waiting until Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters pull off a major strike against civilians and then swooping in to avenge the attack, Haqqani said, America should engage with those in Pakistan who are standing for reform and change in Pakistan's struggle to transform itself in three ways: from authoritarianism to democracy; from militancy and militarism to entrepreneurship and modernity; and from being roped into regional armed conflicts to being a trading and business hub in the region.

For much of its history since its blood-soaked partition from India in 1947, Pakistan has been run by military and authoritarian regimes. Finally, in August 2008, Pervez Musharraf stepped aside to make way for a democratically elected president, Asif Ali Zardari – widower of Benazir Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister who was assassinated in December 2007 shortly after her return from years of self-imposed exile.

Zardari is trying to pursue his deceased wife's policies, "and they essentially represent a total change and break from this past," Haqqani said.

"We have to leave the authoritarian culture behind," he said. "And democracy will be the way for Pakistan to contain extremism."

Pakistan's democratic transition is messy and far from complete. The country has 48 'round-the-clock news channels (compared to four in the U.S.), said Haqqani, who worked as a journalist from 1980 to 1988 and covered the war in Afghanistan for Voice of America radio.

Many Pakistani news channels are filled with political invective, undiluted by inconvenient facts, said Haqqani, quipping, "Can you imagine what might be happening with 48 Bill O'Reillys running around?"

Last year Pakistanis took to the streets, lawyers marching next to students, calling for the reinstatements of the former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and other judges who had been deposed. Winning Chaudhry's reinstatement in March, Haqqani said, strengthened Pakistanis' resolve to build and strengthen civil institutions, like an independent judiciary, free media and popular political parties, that are vital for a democratic society.

The U.S. is poised to help with this transformation to democracy, Haqqani said. A Senate bill with bipartisan sponsorship would give Pakistan $1.5 billion annually to fund health care and education. Improving opportunities and quality of life – especially for the one-third of Pakistani families who live on less than $1 per day – will both strengthen democracy and make the citizenry less susceptible to jihadist recruiting, he added.

Pakistan's position as a regional crossroads connecting the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia has long been a liability, Haqqani said. Pakistan must harness its geography to become a crossroads for trade and business, the ambassador said. Pakistan could hitch itself to India's recent rise as an economic superpower by building oil pipelines from Central Asia or by opening its ports to goods that idle outside India's overtaxed harbors.

But economic partnerships with India are impeded by longstanding hostilities, which can be understood as a husband and wife who went through a terrible divorce – and then were both given nuclear weapons, Haqqani said to a laugh.

"One partner didn't want the divorce, so they can't forgive the other for walking out on them. That's the Indians," he said. "... And the other side that wanted the divorce can't forgive the other for not making it easy for them.

"And then there's the beach house that they're arguing over," he said, alluding to territorial disputes in the Kashmir region that have caused military flare-ups over the years.

America can help Pakistan overcome its history and build a renewed relationship with India, but that will take time, he said.

In the meantime, Pakistan must move forward on other fronts. "Instead of postponing everything, for when our dispute is resolved – getting that divorce settlement first – we need to start living our lives and move on, and the settlement can come a little later."

For America to play a part in resolving tensions with India, Americans may first need to shift their Cold War outlook, he said. Americans look upon the world as a problem to solve, rather than as a situation to understand and engage with, Haqqani said, citing how often, when teaching or discussing the situation in Pakistan as a professor at Boston University, he was asked, "So what can we do to fix this?"

At least one audience member from Pakistan agreed that the transformation to democracy will be a slow process. "It can happen, but it will take time," said fourth-year Saqlain Kashif. "Maybe a generation – 25, 30 years – not a long time in the history of nations. But you have to start now with small steps toward broadening the vision."