ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — “Failure is hard to admit so you look around for a scapegoat,” said the distinguished and soft-spoken gentleman from Inter–Services Intelligence, or ISI, Pakistan’s version of the CIA.
For nine years, he said, the United States and its NATO allies — the entire Western World — has failed to bring stability and prosperity to Afghanistan, the ruined, war-ridden country they invaded. So they looked around and said it’s all the fault of “those people over there,” the Pakistanis.
The background noise was the thunder out of Brussels, where Pakistan was being taken to the woodshed by the above mentioned Western World at a meeting of the “Friends of Democratic Pakistan.”
Pakistan’s foreign minister, Mahmood Shah Qureshi, was being chastised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who demanded that Pakistan “mobilize its own resources” rather than depend on western taxpayers. A member of the European parliament, Ana Gomes of Portugal, is being quoted in the Pakistani press as saying it was “those who control the military structure, namely the military intelligence,” who were the reason “we see so many problems.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates repeated America’s demand that Pakistan clean out North Waziristan, especially the Haqqani network based there in a sanctuary safe from American troops.
“It’s true there are safe havens,” said my host as we shared some spicy soup, “porous borders, tribal territories” where the government’s writ runs thin, thanks to an old British arrangement with the tribes whom the British never really controlled — a situation which Pakistan inherited upon the birth of the nation.
“But that’s not the whole story. It’s maybe 10 to 15 percent of the story,” he said.
The elephant in the room, of course, was the American claim, which Pakistan denies, that the ISI is secretly still helping the anti-American Taliban as a hedge against the day when America leaves and Indian influence grows in Afghanistan.
When I pointed to the elephant, my host averted his eyes but said: “I am not saying we are totally innocent,” but why put all the blame on the Haqqani group? There are a plethora of other Taliban elements, some who took advantage of the porous border, but others who never leave Afghanistan, he said.
“The Americans were always badgering Pakistan to go after North Waziristan,” my host said, “but that is less of a priority for us because we are still working on South Waziristan.”
Pakistan’s military resources were stretched thin, helicopters were still needed for flood relief.
“When we have settled matters in South Waziristan, when people have returned to their homes, when that is done we can go after the north,” he said.
There were some 30,000 Pakistani troops in North Waziristan, he said, but they are there to keep supply routes open and not to engage in fighting. It wouldn’t be wise to “ignite the entire area,” because Pakistan did not “have the capacity” to cope with the entire northwest frontier in flames.
Pakistan was well aware of the dangers faced by both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by extension the Western World, by extremism. It was a question of timing, he said, not lack of will. But war had its own sense of time.
The trouble with the Americans was that every problem was treated as a nail, and the only tool was a hammer, he said. Afghanistan, traditionally, had a weak center and a strong periphery. But the West had imposed an artificially strong central government, with constitutional powers, that was unnatural to the way Afghans had always done business.
It wasn’t working and it probably never would, he said.
In addition, the Pashtuns, nearly half the Afghan population, felt left out. A Tajik minority ran Kabul and the army was dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks — “the traditional enemies of the Pashtuns.”
What the United States had basically done was intervene in an Afghan civil war and replaced the Pashtuns in Kabul with Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance. The Pashtuns felt under-represented in both the army and the government, and were drawn to the Taliban who stood up for them.
He didn’t need to mention that there were more Pashtuns on his side of the border than in Afghanistan, and that Pakistan was still suffering the effects of 3 million Afghans having sought refuge here for 30 years. A stirred up, radicalized Pashtun population was just as much a Pakistani problem as it was an Afghan or American problem.
The traditional hospitality code of the Pashtuns demands that guests not be turned away or turned over to the authorities, even if they were wanted men. This iron principal thwarted the British when they were trying to control the region, thwarted the Saudis and the Pakistanis when they were trying to get Mullah Omar to disgorge Al Qaeda, and will hinder efforts to separate the Taliban from groups Americans don’t like.
My host thought that the American hammer was not the only way to deal with the problem. He complained that when Pakistan tried to negotiate and make deals with militants it was roundly criticized in the West. Now the West and Afghanistan is trying to make its own deals with the Taliban.
My host did not need to say that a solution for Afghanistan will only work if Pakistan is involved and satisfied that its own interests aren’t being put at risk.
But what really needed to be done for the Pashtuns is to “give them an alternative way of life,” he said. The frontier areas where the Pashtuns live is the poorest of the poor. “They need roads, water education,” he said.
Unemployment is so rife that young men take a job with the Taliban the way young men in America might take a job at the post office — steady work in a recession. An alternative way of life for the Pashtuns would “drain away” the power of the mullahs, he said, who were leading their flocks astray.
It’s better than bombs.