US is intentionally derailing Afghan peace talks with the Taliban-Pakistani intel ex-chief
After the death of the former leader of the Taliban, the militant group is refusing to continue peace talks with Kabul. Mullah Mansur was killed by the American drone on the border of Pakistan. The US military leadership admits that after this strike, further negotiations seem unlikely. This drone operation is not the first one that take place within Pakistani border – something that the people of the country have been protesting for a long time, citing high casualties among the innocent. Was the Pentagon's decision right, or it will just breed more trouble? What goals is Pakistan pursuing in their intricate relations with the Taliban? And, even more important, why does Washington prefer to ignore the alleged connections between Islamabad and the group, which the US deems terrorists. We ask the former Chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI – Lieutenant-General Asad Durrani is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Former Chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI, Lieutenant-General, Asad Durrani - welcome to the show, really great to have you with us. Now, General, the U.S. killed the leader of the Taliban,Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was tracked down on the Pakistani-Iranian border and targeted by a drone inside Pakistan. So, the Americans feel they can target whomever they want in Pakistan with impunity, because we don’t see them trying to fly drones over Iran, for example.
Asad Durrani: You see, Sophie, this has happened so many times, then whenever one is somewhere close to bringing people together and we find that some of the Taliban leaders - whether it's Afghani Taliban or Pakistani Taliban - that they are getting ready to talk to the state, Kabul and Islamabad respectively, a drone or some action from Americans subverts the process. That does not surprise me, Sophie, for the simple reason that I do not think that negotiations, settlement within a region, is in the interest of the U.S. They would rather have the area destabilized, in conflict, so that they can keep the leverage, so that they can keep their presence, and of course, conflict, generally, in so many areas, suits American politics. Other than a leverage, it gives them an opportunity to sell weapons to one side or another - sometimes to both. And the last three years, unity of nations in this area is something that the U.S. is not going to be comfortable with.
SS: General, actually, we’re going to go through all of that in detail, but let’s concentrate on this particular drone attack, for instance, because Pakistan has always protested against these drone killings, and the U.S. always ignores these protests, and just keeps doing what it wants to do. So, what’s the point of protesting? Clearly, it not enough. I’m even thinking, is the Pakistani leadership actually agreeing to drone activities and just can’t admit it publicly?
AD: I agree, I think the protests are made for public consumption, for diplomatic reasons. The real way to prevent the drones is - or the real means to prevent the drones are different. And that is just ensure that the objectives that they have, that they want to achieve through drone attacks, are not realized. Regardless of whatever they do, we go ahead with our peace efforts. If the idea is to intimidate Pakistan, then of course that has failed. There has been that famous year of 2011, when so many things used to happen and, finally, when Pakistan decided not to play ball, not to cooperate, cease the lines of communication for 7 months, only then not only the drones stopped, but I think, the relations also got a little stabilized. That’s the way to go. Protesting alone is not going to be a very important factor.
SS: Pakistan claims it’s working with Afghanistan against Taliban terrorism -so how could Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban leader, be hiding in Pakistan, then?
AD: I don’t know what Pakistan keeps saying and I have really no business to comment on the wisdom of these statements. The Taliban, are on both sides of the border, they come and go, there’s not very much that Pakistan can do about them. Their leaders also must be doing it, but Sophie, the main point is, Pakistan has no interest in targeting any Afghan group, especially the Taliban, because of the sympathy that the Taliban enjoys in Pakistan, but as well as in large areas of Afghanistan. According to a survey conducted by the New York Time, ⅓ of the Afghan population is sympathetic to the Taliban cause, they are seen as freedom fighters, as liberators, or at least as fighting for liberation. So, that may be one reason, but the second one I think is - if ultimately we want to bring all the factions to the table, we have to try to do that - we cannot burn our bridges with any of them.
SS: You know, with Afghan Taliban leaders easily finding shelter in Pakistan - what else the Americans are supposed to do, but target them however they can?
AD: Yeah, I mean, what they are supposed to do is really difficult for me to say: it all depends on what objectives they have. If the idea is to stay on in a very strategically important place, retain their foothold, then they are not going to change their tactics because of us. They will only change when their enterpise would seem to have failed, when they will stop getting support from back home, when they realize that the Afghan project is politically unsustainable, then they will change. Till that time - I think I mentioned that, I alluded to it earlier, that all that we can do is to help as many friends as we can in the region and within Afghanistan to ensure that that objective that they have, of continuing or perpetuating their stay here is not realized, that their stay remains as uncomfortable as possible, as unfruitful as possible.
SS: Now, General, you’ve called the fact that the U.S. and Pakistan are allies a “big illusion”, even saying that the countries are in a “low-intensity war.” Pakistan is considered a U.S. ally and receives a lot of money from Americans - I’m saying, millions - and that has been like that for years. Do you think that it’s normal, taking money from a country under the circumstances that you’ve mentioned? Or is calling this a “war” a bit exaggerated?
AD: I mean, when people talk about an alliance, Pakistan and the U.S., they have their reasons to say that, but the fact is, that we are not allies. Allies have the same objectives, they coordinate their approaches, they agree on certain strategies. In case of Pakistan and the U.S., in the region, in Afghanistan - nothing of that has happened. In fact, our interests are in conflict with each other. So, talking of alliance is an illusion. Those people who believe in that, they delude themselves. Maybe, there’s some sort of experience involved in this terminology, but the fact is that - and that what the events of the last 15 years have proven - that there seems to be no chance for the time being that the interests of both countries in the region can be aligned.
SS: But, are Americans crazy to give so much money to Pakistan over and over again? Washington funnels money to Islamabad and in turn Pakistan supports the American enemy Taliban in Afghanistan? How is Pakistan pulling this off? Are the Americans blind to this? But if they know that they are being fooled, why are they continuing to send money to Pakistan - that’s my main question.
AD: I think they’ll continue to pay the money, because that’s the only leverage that they have in Pakistan - sometimes stopping the money or sending some F-16 and so on. They can do that. Pakistan accepts some money because of the damage that has been done to their infrastructure, because of the damage that is done to the economy, because of greed of some people that cannot be satisfied. So, all the bad reasons, if you ask me, these are not very good reasons, but as far as for the nature of the international relations is concerned, you can go ahead and take money and take all of sorts of concessions, but you do not have to do the bidding of another country. I can give many other examples, but in case of Pakistan, if anyone thinks that for a couple of billion dollars Pakistan is going to do something against its own national interests, against its own core objective, I think one is making a very big mistake, one is actually underestimating the nature of the state in Pakistan.
SS: The U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said killing of the Taliban leader Mullah Mansour, “eliminates one roadblock to peace in Afghanistan” - now, from your standpoint, is that the case?
AD: You see, Mullah Mansour had been keeping the Taliban inclined or ready to ultimately achieve a negotiated settlement. That is Mullah Mansour. He’s the one who used to send the delegations to carry out dialogue. Pugwash Conference in Doha also took place under his watch. He’s the one who have brought the Taliban delegation to Murrey-one. So, he was not against the negotiations, against the negotiated settlement. Now he head to take a pause because he was not getting anywhere with his own groups, so for the sake of the unity of the Taliban, I think he was posturing, playing “hard” game - that’s what he was doing.
SS:But the Taliban’s new leader Mullah Haibatullah what do you know about him? Can peace be negotiated with him?
AD: I think this man will take plenty of time before he is fully in command and then he can steer the Taliban in one or the other direction - that always happens, and that may well be one of the objectives that… There are people in Kabul who are also not interested in negotiations and they will lose their perks, they will lose their special status if a negotiated settlement will take place. It suits them, but the Taliban now has a compulsion to wait, to weight so many things, bring about the unity amongst themselves and then see when they would be ready, and when, especially, Kabul would be ready to, re-start a meaningful dialogue. So, they will take time, but as far as the person of Mullah is concerned - I don’t know enough about that.
SS: Now, you have said that Pakistani support for the Taliban was necessary so that the Taliban stays in the game and aren’t defeated on the battlefield. Why is their defeat bad for Pakistan?
AD: You see, Pakistani support for the Taliban is exaggerated - highly exaggerated. I have said that we have no reason to target anyone. We will not the type of, or not undertake the type of operations that the U.S. wants from us, because we don’t want to create any more enemies, we already have enough within the country and outside. So that is the reason that Pakistan does not take any action. As far as the support is concerned, the Taliban depends on the supports of their own people. If anyone thinks that for the 15 years this rag-tag militia has withstood the onslaught of the world’s mightiest alliance just because a country like Pakistan has provided a little bit of support - reluctantly, covertly - then again, I think one is not understanding the nature of support that the insurgents need to achieve this objective. Pakistani support gets exaggerated or becomes a reason or… you know, Pakistani support is given as a rationale for the failure of counterinsurgency or the war imposed by the foreigners in Afghanistan.
SS: But just answer this one simple question: is the defeat of the Afghan Taliban bad for Pakistan?
AD: The Afghan Taliban have never been against us, they’ve never done anything to harm us, their fight is within Afghanistan, and whatever you know about the Afghans generally or Afghan resistance particularly, they remain inward-looking, their region lies inside their country and that has been so for the last 25-30 years.
SS: You also said that Pakistan’s goal in Afghanistan is to free it from “foreign occupation” and that’s why Pakistan isn’t confronting the Taliban directly. But the only reason foreign troops can’t leave Afghanistan is because they’re fighting the Taliban. Why keep the Taliban alive if that’s the only thing that keeps the foreign troops there?
AD: This is what we call...we can go around, in circles, that “this is because of that, their presence is because of the Taliban”, the Taliban, actually, also sells their agenda and Taliban then recruits on the basis of the foreigners being present there. Call it Catch 22, call it whatever it is, but there are factors that… under these circumstances, at least the Taliban does not seem to have any other option, because they belong to that country, to continue whatever they are doing. The others, especially, the foreign military, they have the option - they can leave. But, their region is within Afghanistan, many factions cannot leave except for those who came over under the cover of B-52s, who are only surviving because of that umbrella, and that is why they have a stake in the continued presence of the Americans. Other than that, other countries in the region, like Iran, Pakistan, some of the Central Asian countries - they could not be terribly impressed by whatever the foreign presence has achieved during the last 15 years. So they want, they work, they coordinate some others so that these people can leave.
SS: General, Pakistan is the part of peace talks in Afghanistan. How much influence does Pakistani intelligence now have over the Afghan Taliban. What’s your assessment? Can the ISI influence them to sit down at the negotiating tables?
AD: I think this is a very good question, Sophie. How much influence do we have? I remember, also, my own period - all the influence that Pakistan could exert at that time or can execute right now - we can only bring them to the table. As they say, “You can take the horse to the water”. After that, what happens - whether the horse will drink the water or the Afghans will agree within themselves - that is not going to be possible for us or for anyone else to determine. That is the reason that one keeps saying that bringing people to the table is just one part. It, maybe, it influences the cosmetics or the atmospherics, but the preparation for the meaningful settlement has to be done behind the scenes by some very, you know, meticulous, some very hard work, to be done by those people who can act as honest brokers, as interlocutors, who understand both sides and have influence with them. That type of work certainly can be done or can be sponsored by all the intelligence of Afghanistan, Pakistan included, and there are some other people too who are interested. That is for them to prepare. But the influence of Pakistan - that’s the question - is limited to sometimes persuading them, requesting them, cajoling them, coercing them to come to the table. Murree-one is one example, last year in early July.
SS: General, Pakistan has seen the rise of its own Pakistani Taliban, an off-shoot of Afghani movement. Why is this goal of freeing Afghanistan worth creating a dangerous insurgency at home?
AD: Again, a very good question, what about Pakistani Taliban. In the meantime, there are about 40 groups and taking care of them is of course all up to us - that’s our job. Not all of them are fighting Pakistan because of our support to the… presumed support of the Americans in the Afghanistan, but in the meantime, there are other groups with different agendas, local agendas, logical agendas, political agendas - they’ve joined them and then, what happens always in such circumstances, some groups also get supported by countries and forces inimical to our interests, outsiders in the region, beyond the region. That always happens. So that makes that a very complex one, but let me reiterate: taking care of those people, the Pakistani Taliban, is up to us. And that is what we trying to do in the last 10-12 years.
SS: And I wonder, my next question - why is Pakistan failing to contain them? Your country launched a security crackdown over a year ago after a Taliban massacre in Peshawar school that killed over 150 people, and then there was another devastating attack that happened this year and that targeted Christians in Lahore. Why is Pakistan failing to contain the homegrown Taliban?
AD: This is in the nature of this war, people remember these 150 casualties in Peshawar school, but the nature of the war indicates that... you take action against them, some of them hit back. Some of them will also hit back through the forces that they have sponsored, or they have sponsors because of certain forces that are inimical to our interests, that are hostile to our interests. So, you take action in one place and there can be a blowback somewhere else - and that is reason, as I said in the beginning, that we will not take any action against groups who are not against us, because then it becomes absolutely unsustainable. They’ve done that Peshawar, they’ve done that in Lahore - it is quite possible that they can do that in Karachi which now has the largest or the second-largest Afghan population than anywhere. So, that can be sown, and if there’s going to be enough number of efforts there for these people to carry out certain actions - it’s possible. That happens all the time. This is the nature of this so-called asymmetric warfare.
SS: Do you think the Pakistani Taliban can become part of the government in Pakistan at some point?
AD: I don’t think that’s going to happen, because of the so many reasons. But it is quite possible that some of these groups can won over, brought back into the mainstream, they can take part in the local politics, and if some of them joins such mainstream parties, it is possible that they can go in the government - that is not unprecedented. But to believe that those who are nowadays fighting the state of Pakistan with that little support - but even then can be very effective- that one day they can clinch power even in province of Pakistan, leave aside the state of Pakistan - that I do not foresee.
SS: And of course, then, there’s this huge, huge issue of Daesh. So you have the war in Afghanistan that’s nowhere near to be finished, in part because Pakistan won’t let one of its sides fall; Daesh, Islamic State, is gaining a foothold within Afghanistan, using the chaos and the power vacuum to its advantage. Is Pakistan in serious danger with ISIS? Can the group make inroads in your country?
AD: Islamic State, the so-called, or the Daesh, as some people like to call it - well, that’s also a phenomena which is an inevitable consequence of wars that start like in Afghanistan, which gave rise to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda, or the war in the Middle East from which Daesh emerged - now that is a phenomena, as I just said, which is almost inevitably happens. It has happened again. As far as our region is concerned, up to now - and I do not want to say that “no, they do not have any potential”, but up to now the only influence that they have or any part that they can play in the security situation, is providing an alternative platform to the hardliners, let’s say, amongst the Afghan Taliban or amongst the Pakistani Taliban. If they do not agree with the policy of their leadership, like the Afghan Taliban, or those Taliban within Pakistan who agree to talk to us, they it is certain that they will go and join the Daesh. That’s become some sort of a blackmailing factor that has happened here.
SS: General, thank you so much for this interview, for your insight. We were talking to Lieutenant-General, Asad Durrani, former chief of mighty ISI, Pakistan’s main intelligence bureau, discussing the intricacies of dealing with terrorists threats through the Middle East and Central Asia. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.