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Fri. February 03, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Stephen Cohen
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International Affairs Forum: In your ‘Foreign Affairs’ roundtable discussion on March 31st, “What’s the Problem with Pakistan?” you said, “the Pakistan army cannot govern the country, but it won’t let anyone else govern it either.” Can you expand on that? Dr. Stephen Cohen: The army has felt for a long time, since the ’50s, that it was the best qualified organization to govern a Pakistan under stress and threat; that is, as long as the Indian threat existed, as long as there were internal threats in terms of the separatist movements and so forth, they were best qualified to deal with it. And yet, they never came around to the view that there were any politicians that were as good as they were. [Also] they themselves have demonstrated marginal competence, I’ll use that phrase, in governance; that is, they’re not trained, equipped or psychologically adapted to governing, let alone governing in a democratic format. Leave that aside. But they don’t have the administrative talent. They don’t have the understanding of Pakistan’s diversity. Most of them come from the Punjab, so they can’t govern themselves. So that’s how I’ve already used that phrase. That’s Pakistan’s central political dilemma. IA-Forum: How do you see that dilemma being resolved? Dr. Cohen: I don’t think it’s going to be resolved, not for the foreseeable future. The other half of the dilemma is that the politicians themselves historically have chosen to let the army rule rather than another politician. In other words, they’ve never been able to come together and present a united front of competence, vis-a-vis the military. I think if they did, then the military would stand back. The military do stand back from time to time. They’re doing that now. But in the long run, they feel that they’re the last bastion of the state. The politicians themselves lack competence, because they’ve never had a chance to be politicians. It’s like expecting a teenager to be president. They haven’t gone through the maturity process of elections, and set up a system of provincial elections. The same leaders you see today are the same leaders we saw 20 years ago. So that system has not produced new leadership. IA-Forum: Regarding the new foreign aid offered to Pakistan by the United States, there are those within Pakistan who would prefer to have America’s trust and respect over the aid money. After giving Pakistan $11 billion in recent years, the U.S. attached the condition that the new aid offered will be performance-based. Is this the right approach? Dr. Cohen: The new aid bills haven’t gone through Congress, but the intent on the military side, this was true of the old Biden/Lugar bill, now it’s the Kerry/Lugar bill, was to have the military aid linked to specific Pakistani military actions, that is counter-insurgency. So that’s performance-based in a sense. The economic aid under the original Senate legislation was simply to be given to Pakistan carte blanche, that is, to support the civilian sector. But I can’t believe that there wouldn’t have been, if not conditions, at least terms of use. That is, you don’t want to write out a check and give it to the government. I would strongly favor a performance-based conditionality. When the IMF makes a loan to a country - and they just did this with Pakistan a few months ago - they have a letter that sets forth the terms of the agreement. And the country itself has to present that letter. Now, the country accepts certain conditions and terms before it gets the money, and I think that’s the way in which Pakistan should be handled. They should agree to the terms before the money is sent, and in a sense, these should be terms and conditions under which they can operate. IA-Forum: In a March interview in Boston, the Afghan ambassador, Said Jawad, said he thought Osama bin Laden was “probably spending a lot of time in major metropolitan cities in Pakistan.” Do you think that this is likely? Dr. Cohen: What is embarrassing to the Americans, and to everybody, is that he’s not been spotted credibly. He could be buried in a big crowd. There are some cities in Pakistan which have populations that physically look like frontier types, and an Arab can pass as a frontier person under certain circumstances. So I think that yeah, he might be in a city. He might be traveling around. But clearly the dangerous thing is that there are many Pakistanis who are not informing the authorities. Certainly the rewards are out there, but they’ve been pretty good at keeping secrecy so far. IA-Forum: On May 14th, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “Pakistan is facing a great humanitarian crisis as over a million people have migrated from North Western areas, where military operations are going on against the militants.” How does this refugee crisis de-escalate? Dr. Cohen: It’s going to be worse before it gets better. The more the military operates, the more people are going to be dislocated, and to some extent in a counter-insurgency war, you have to do that. But that’s not how you fight counter-insurgency wars. You go into an area. You keep the people there. You live among them, and then you protect them until the government can put down roots. So the notion of going in and chasing everybody out, sort of flushing the pond of fish to catch a few frogs is the wrong way, because the fish are damaged, and the fish are your fish. As the army continues to do these big “search and sweep” operations, then you’re going to see a lot of displaced people. Now, in some cases, according to the Pakistani press, in fact most Swatis are staying with relatives elsewhere. I saw the figure that 20% are actually in camps. So it’s not a million people in camps. On the other hand, Pakistan is used to this. They took in, I think several million, Afghan refugees who are not even Pakistani citizens during the Afghan War, and they never got much credit for that. But it’s an amazing act of generosity on Pakistan’s part. IA-Forum: Is A. Q. Khan an unfettered nuclear materials and technology trader again? And what kind of safeguards can be put into place to counter that threat? Dr. Cohen: I doubt very much whether he’s in operation. I think his organization was rolled up, as far as I know, as were other organizations out there. I certainly doubt if he has any access to Pakistani fissile materials. Why he’s important is that we don’t know exactly what he told and gave others. And in a sense, if Pakistan were to get the kind of nuclear agreement that the Indians got, one of the criteria should be that they come clean on what he did in the past. There may be a country or two out there that received nuclear and technical assistance from him that we don’t know about. For instance, Iran was a country that got nuclear assistance from Pakistan. In fact, one of the reasons we know that Pakistanis were involved is that the uranium could be traced back to Pakistani sources. It was on their centrifuges. And that showed traces of Pakistani uranium. And of course, the Libyans were involved. We don’t know about the Saudis. I think the big, big billion dollar question is, if there were to be an Iranian nuclear weapon, would the Saudis ask Pakistan for a nuclear umbrella? In other words, not a covert secret transfer of technology, but an overt Pakistani nuclear umbrella, the way we did in NATO days. We flew protective missions for a lot of NATO countries. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have very close ties, and I would not be surprised if a year or two or three years from now, if the Iranian nuclear bomb becomes real, the Saudis wouldn’t cash in their IOUs with Pakistan. IA-Forum: On April 16, McClatchy newspapers reported that, “a growing number of intelligence, defense and diplomatic officials have concluded that there’s little hope of preventing nuclear armed Pakistan from disintegrating into fiefdoms controlled by Islamic warlords and terrorists, posing a greater threat to the U.S. than Afghanistan’s terrorists did before 9/11.” The article goes on to say the Pakistanis do not feel this level of alarm. Would you agree? Dr. Cohen: I think that’s hyperbole. David Kilcullen has said Pakistan could break up in three months. Why three months? Why not two months? Why not six months? I don’t think that the army will allow this kind of scenario to take place. So I think looking ahead, you have at least four or five years before the army itself cannot prevent this. After that, the danger would be that the army itself could be infected by Islamic extremists. There were Islamic or ideological divisions. Then in that case, they would be unable to prevent a sort of cataclysmic scenario. But I think that’s wildly exaggerated. IA-Forum: There are deep connections between Iran and Afghanistan in terms of shared language and culture. How does Iran influence the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship? Dr. Cohen: What I gather is that the Iranians are deeply concerned about the rise of Sunni extremism, both in Afghanistan, which means the Taliban, and to some degree in Pakistan. And there’s been an historic rivalry between the Iranians and the Saudis, between the center of Shi’ism and the center of Sunni’ism, radical Sunni’ism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sort of an Islamic “Cold War” being fought in other countries. And of course, the Iranian intelligence operations have been active in Pakistan itself, and it may have contacts with certain Pakistani Shia groups. IA-Forum: What’s the narrative in Pakistan of how Afghanistan and Pakistan got to this tense point in their relationship? Dr. Cohen: The superficial narrative, voiced by the government and many newspaper types and others, is that it’s all the fault of somebody else, and in a sense, Cohen’s “first law of diplomacy” is to blame someone else. I think the Pakistanis have a long litany in which the Americans figure heavily in a series of catastrophic decisions, of which Pakistan is the victim, whether it’s going in against the Soviets in Afghanistan, or ignoring events in Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out, or supporting a dictator in Pakistan. There’s a Pakistani narrative. Now, the embarrassing thing for an American is that many elements of that narrative are true. Much of it is made up - much of it is hyperbole. But there are elements which are certainly true, and the fact that we pulled out of Afghanistan, left it to the warlords and left Pakistan alone after the defeat of the Soviets is certainly true. In other cases, I think it’s clear that the Pakistanis themselves were culpable, and they fomented radical movements in Afghanistan, although at one point we were supporting the Taliban. So there’s enough blame to go around to everybody. The phase I’ve been using is, “the sky is dark,” darkened by the chickens coming home to roost. IA-Forum: President Zardari has become fairly unpopular in Pakistan. Is there another change of leadership in the making, do you think? And would it be wise for the U.S. to court his rival, Nawaz Sharif, even if only in private? Dr. Cohen: It would be catastrophic for us to start playing Pakistani politics at this point. However, we should have contacts with all Pakistani politicians, especially those committed to the democratic process. I think that was the great tragedy of the Bush Administration. As soon as they saw that Musharraf was in trouble, they reached out to Benazir (Bhutto). But they did not reach out to Nawaz or to any other democratic politician in Pakistan, and that in a sense was her death sentence. We singled out Benazir as the American favorite, and that made her the target of everybody else. So I think it would be deeply incorrect to single out any single politician. Let the system decide who’s going to govern Pakistan. Now, I personally don’t think Nawaz is going to be much of a leader. He was, in fact, the guy who began to assume dictatorial powers before Musharraf’s coup. So I’m not optimistic that he’s going to turn out to be a savior for anybody. And the deeper problem is the failure of the system to throw up new leaders - new leaders committed to more or less democratic forms and norms, beyond Zardari, Benazir, and Nawaz. IA-Forum: What role can China or Saudi Arabia play in Pakistan’s internal governance issues? For instance, can the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have a major role in stabilizing the area? Dr. Cohen: The Chinese could play a major role, but they won’t. That is, they’re not yet the kind of country that sees this as something that’s on their plate. The Chinese ambassador in Islamabad gave a speech the other day which gave a useful data point. He said there were 10,000 Chinese scientists and technicians in Pakistan. That’s a much larger figure than anybody had ever heard before. So that means that they’ve got a huge commitment there, and most of them are down in the port city in Baluchistan. But they’re also worried about the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, and Pakistanis training Uighurs and other Chinese Muslims. So they have an interest, and I won’t say it’s a vital interest, but it’s a strong interest. Yet I don’t expect them to do much. But they could, and American diplomacy should spend a lot of time with the Chinese saying, look, this is your problem as well as our problem. The Saudis are intimately tied in with Pakistani politics in various ways, which I can’t detail. In a sense, they’re a partner in Pakistani politics, especially the more conservative politicians in Pakistan. But to ask the Saudis or the Chinese to support democratic forces in Pakistan is kind of hilarious. I mean, go figure. The American ambassador would actually go talk to the Saudis and say, we’re supporting these democratic elements. Well, forget it. The same is true in China. But that leads to India; certainly, India I think could be critically important. And there we do have a shared interest with India. But the Indians again, they’re sort of paralyzed when it comes to Pakistan. The Indians, put in simplistic form - twenty percent of Indians want to see Pakistan destroyed, the hawks. Twenty percent of Indians want to play cricket with Pakistan, go to eat Pakistani food, and go to Pakistan, or trade with Pakistan. The rest of the Indians want Pakistan to go away. They wish it would blow away and not bother them. In other words, their default option is to ignore Pakistan and let us carry the Pakistan can for them. In fact, since the Cargill conflict in 1999, India has turned to America to straighten out Pakistan, whereas before that, they did not want us in South Asia at all, but they realized that we have leverage in Pakistan. And they’ve learned to pressure the Americans, and the Pakistanis have always pressured the Americans to straighten India out in Kashmir. So we find ourselves in this peculiar role of being the go-between, each country wanting us to pressure the other country. That’s an opportunity for American diplomacy. It’s also an opportunity to make a big mistake. IA-Forum: How do you think the favorable nuclear deal between India and the United States was received in Pakistan? Dr. Cohen: It was a catastrophe. I favored the deal. I have some problems with the deal. One of the problems was that if we didn’t offer this to Pakistan, this would convince them, as it has, that we have selected India over them forever, and then secondly that we want to eliminate their nuclear weapons program. So we should have offered them a criteria-based deal. Say, here are some criteria: tell us about your past history; show us that your nuclear weapons are being guarded; and, cooperate in global arms control. This is the kind of thing we worked out with the Indians, although there weren’t formal criteria. We should have offered that to the Pakistanis and to the Israelis, the three countries that have nuclear weapons that are not in the NPT [nuclear non-proliferation treaty]. In other words, an NPT outside the NPT. I’ve been urging this administration to do it. The French [may] have already done this. There’s a French proposal to actually sell nuclear technology to Pakistan if they meet the criteria. But I think that’s a policy we should follow. Tom Pickering, who is probably the pre-eminent diplomat of his generation, signed a report done by the Asia Society a couple of months ago, and they argued in fact that we should have a criteria-based nuclear deal with Pakistan. That would erase a lot of Pakistani fears about both of unjust treatment of India/Pakistan, but also that we’re interested in stripping them of their nuclear weapons. Even if we were, they’ve got over 100 nuclear weapons, and technically it’s impossible to do that. And it’s used by Pakistanis to beat the Americans with. IA-Forum: Thinking about your 2004 book, The Idea of Pakistan, can you distill what you see as the “idea of Pakistan” right now? Dr. Cohen: This is a case where the idea of a state, of a nation, is really more important than anything else. I think that there are still competing ideas, and that they have not, after 60 years, settled on what kind of country they want to be. And so I think the Jinnah [the founder of Pakistan] idea was a valid idea. Even some Indians, like Jaswant Singh, said they could live with a Pakistan that was like Jinnah. They praised Jinnah. Of course, the Indian rank came down hard on them when they did that. But I think that the idea of Pakistan that Jinnah promulgated, after he became leader of Pakistan, not before, more accommodating, more moderate, and certainly tolerant of minorities, and very sympathetic to India after they got independent. That would theoretically be the best model. But the unknown question is whether they can ever achieve it. IA-Forum: Is there anything you understand about Pakistan that isn’t well-covered in the press or in U.S. diplomatic circles now? Dr. Cohen: What I think Americans lack is a sense of depth and resonance and history. When I come across Americans whose encounters with Pakistan begins two weeks ago or two months ago, I sort of shudder, because when they talk to Pakistanis, they have no idea of the back story that Pakistanis have in their own mind. And I’ve seen Pakistanis sort of invent a U.S.-Pakistan relationship on the spot, and the Americans believe it. The Pakistanis have this line - all countries do this, but they do it better than other countries - of how Americans have abused and neglected Pakistan, therefore it’s our fault. American diplomats who have relations with Pakistan either tend to polarize them as brutal demagogues and dictators, or else, hopeless Islamists. And most Pakistanis are more centrist. We don’t understand that; we can’t see behind the extremists in Pakistan. So I think lack of history is very important in the case of our dealings with Pakistan. I will say that I met some officials, such as the present ambassador in Pakistan, Ann Patterson, who got it right away. She is just superb. I’ve never seen a diplomat pick up on a country so quickly. She’s a real asset to the United States. The reason I wrote my book was, in fact, to provide people like that with sort of a history of what they’re getting into. IA-Forum: Thank you. Stephen P. Cohen is a senior fellow the Brookings Institution and author, co-author or editor of numerous books, including 'Four Crises and a Peace Process: American Engagement in South Asia' (2007) and 'The Idea of Pakistan' (2004).

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