Today’s US ‘terrorist’ can be US ally tomorrow – former Pakistani intel chief
The Taliban is gaining ground in Afghanistan, despite American efforts to stop the radical group. President Trump is asking India to get involved, while US-Pakistani relations grow colder by the day. The prospects of the government in Kabul are shaky. What can Afghanistan’s neighbors do to help? And will they? We ask former chief of the Pakistani ISI intelligence service, Asad Durrani.
Sophie Shevarnadze: Mr. Durrani. it’s so great to have you as a guest of our program one more time.
Asad Durrani: Thank you very much.
SS: There’s lots to talk about. President Trump has announced a new Afghan policy - and in regards to Pakistan, he said that he will cut aid to Islamabad if it doesn’t start doing enough to help the US in its fight against the Taliban. In your opinion is Pakistan not doing enough to combat Taliban?
AD: Actually, there’s no change in American policy. Trump’s job is only to either shout at North Korea or maybe some other countries like Iran and Pakistan. The policy still continues to be run by, to use a Russian nomenklatura, the deep state in the U.S. runs the policy. Obama used to speak softly and his representatives used to come and threaten us - Hillary Clinton and others, the generals. In this particular case, the roles are simply reversed, because Trump is not in the habit of talking softly, so they said “you can go ahead, see what you do, tweet whatever you like to, but we run the policy”. Essentially, the policy remains the same, and that is - you have dig in Afghanistan, stay there, keep the bases, keep the military presence, that’s more important than either peace there or settlement there or whatever else. No, peace in Afghanistan is not in their interest, peace in the Middle East is not in their interest, unless there’s turmoil a power like United States cannot play one country against the other. It loses clout. This argument about military-industrial complex is an old one, but it’s still valid. If the military is involved, it will continue to buy weapons.
SS: I understand what you’re saying, that, actually, the American policy doesn’t change, it’s the rhetoric that changes, yeah, the core of presidential face.
SS: But, Trump is a little different from every other president. He’s unpredictable, he’s not a politician so you never know - he might as well do what he’s saying, so if he does sanction Pakistan - just imagine, hypothetically, right, would that make - I mean, you would lose money?
AD: If that happens, it will have its consequences, it will have its cost...
SS: I’m not talking about invading, I’m talking about sanctioning...
AD: Sanctions are alright. Sophie, already there’s hardly anything we get from the U.S.
SS: Really? Let’s leave Trump aside. Is Pakistan ready right now to switch towards China? Because I’ve seen Pakistani foreign minister make visits to China, make visits to Russia right after Trump announced his new Afghan policy. Do you think China’s ready to be Pakistan’s new patron?
AD: If you’re looking for a patron, that’s in any case wouldn’t be our fault. We are not looking. We are looking for those people who can be allies or friends or cooperative relationship, economic development - in the region, like CPEC joining us to insure that this foreign presence from Afghanistan is vacated. That’s what one is looking for. Dependence on America - that finished long time ago. I think this is, again, one of those bits that have been created - this $1 bn never came.
SS: So it’s all a lie? The billions of dollars that America is supposedly giving Pakistan?
AD: No. This is a bit, because not the billions. Some hundreds of millions have trickled down, because that’s in their system - most of the money goes back to them. In Afghanistan, the development aid in its final stage, 90% of would go back, that was confirmed to me by the developers there, people who are in development business, the Germans and so and so forth. And then the Americans said “Yes, it is in our system”. So it’s never that money. And even if there’s money, I think we’re all waiting for that time when Americans unilaterally stop that aid so that some people in Pakistan who have been accustomed to this opium will get out of that, initially probably there will be some problems, but then learn to stand, number one, on your feet, and in any case, at this time much more is coming from other sources, especially China.
SS: So what is Pakistan ready to do in return? Because, you know, friendship is good, partnership is good, but you know, when people are investing money in a country, they expect something back. What is Pakistan willing to do in return for this favor?
AD: The discussion in Pakistan right now is hopefully we’re not giving away too much, because once you give this sort of passage to a country like China, where it can run its own containers and frighteners, start running other ports… This opening that they will have, Iran joining in in due course, in the CPEC - I think this is favor enough, this is not a favor in that sense, but it’s a return enough on their investment, and it’s not only Pakistan. They want to do that in very many different places, something through Myanmar, maritime so-called “Silk Road” somewhere else, so this openings, after all, there’s an overcapacity of certain things - and then China, it finds an outlet, cast down on plenty of sea mileage or distance to help the Chinese export their goods or import certain things, oil from the Middle East, they already get plenty of oil from Central Asia, but oil from the Middle East remains irreplaceable. So that is something. And, before one forgets, in return, we stand up with China against another nexus and that is India and the U.S.
SS: I want to talk about Taliban, because…
SS: Whoever American President is, it doesn't matter, stumbling point with Americans and Pakistanis is Taliban, because Pentagon always says Taliban leadership is finding sanctuary in Pakistan - and, I mean, observing from the side, I believe them, because we have Taliban leaders like Mullah Mansour, Mullah Omar who died in Pakistan, then you had his successor who was elected in Pakistan, Bin Laden died in Pakistan - I mean, they’re not dying in Afghanistan, right? They’re obviously finding shelter in Pakistan. So why do you think it so hard to kick them out from Pakistan?
AD: Why should we? They are not against us and that is one element, that if it remains potent, it might insure that the Americans would leave, because the other, the non-Taliban Afghans, the Kabul regime, they are acting as the let’s say the quislings of the United States, as their subservient regime, that is what it is…
SS: The Afghan Taliban?
AD: No, the Kabul regime. It depends on U.S. patronage for money, for military protection and for the political cover. Everything.
SS: So you’re saying Americans are financing the Kabul Taliban?
AD: Americans are giving $8 bn every year to the regime…
SS: In Kabul? The official Kabul?
AD: The regime in Kabul. They are spending some money on their own forces, but $8 bn is there. That is the investment, and without that, Kabul regime cannot sustain the infrastructure that has been created - such an expensive infrastructure! Afghanistan has never had to afford that type of an army, which asks for $4 bn every year, their own GDP, the Afghan indigenous GDP is only $2 bn. So that is the money they’re spending, that is the protection they’re providing. Without this umbrella of the U.S., especially the military presence, there will be no Kabul regime as we know it, because they would be taken care of by the Taliban, by the Resistance. This is also the history of Afghanistan. Ultimately the tribesmen who resist the other ones who prevail, they have the freedom of maneuver, they can move around in empty spaces. The regimes in Kabul, especially, a “client” regime that doesn’t enjoy that support remains confined there and wait for the day when the umbrella is gone so that they can either be disposed of or leave. If that be the same, there’s one side in Afghanistan that is supported by the world’s mightiest alliance - cannot sustain itself. On the other hand is the Afghan Resistance - we just call it “taliban” - that has withstood the onslaught of this powerful alliance for the last 15-16 years. These are those people, the Afghan Taliban, are the one who are resisting foreign occupation. TTP is one, basically mainly now, sponsored from elsewhere, supported from elsewhere, and that’s why in Afghanistan they remain nonperishable.
SS: What good does it do that they’re at your land?
AD: Because that is something… When there are so many different ways of provoking them to go after us - money is one. Our stance, let’s say, for ideological reasons, may be another one. It’s not islamic enough, that it is not indigenous enough, and of course, the old argument is the client of foreign power. But TTP and the Afghan Taliban. They might have acquired the name, but it certainly not the same agenda. And in any case, TTP s not that huge a factor. We can take care of it. We will take care of it.
SS: Why aren’t you? Because the way you speak about it, it seems like you are sympathetic towards them. In international terms, they are called terrorists, just like the Taliban. Tell me something that we don’t know about them. Why is Pakistan not doing enough to fight them and completely get rid of them?
AD: The terminology or the narrative is determined by the U.S., that it’s biggest plus point, call it the “soft power”, backed by the hard power. The “terrorists” are anyone - any group that resists the American design is a terrorist. It may be a terrorist today, it can be an ally tomorrow. That has been happening - Mujahedeen and then the Taliban and now the new Taliban. But this terminology is not going to impress either the Resistance, the Daesh for example - we all consider them as terrorists, but don’t you know how they came into being? Or what was the result of certain American actions in the region that have given rise to Al-Qaeda and ISIS? So just by calling someone a “terrorist”, that’s not going to be enough for people to like us to crack down on any group that the international community, which, in any case, you know, is subservient to the… when we talk of the international community, it’s subservient to the U.S., so if they call the Kashmiri liberation struggle as a terrorism struggle - everyone will jump on their bandwagon. But that’s not going to decide as to what countries do, if you go strictly by the definition of terrorism, I think there are going to be many states that will turn out to be bigger terrorists than the Taliban.
SS: The problem is, when Americans call someone a terrorist, and they go after them, it has precise consequences. For instance, American drone strikes on your soil, on Pakistan soil, they are making people very angry, but you cannot do anything about it, because Americans say “well, we’re fighting terrorists in Pakistan and Pakistani government isn’t doing enough to kick those terrorists out” - so what do you do with that?
AD: No, this what we have been doing for the many years. They have been targeting some people who they did not like or just to give a message to us by saying that there are terrorists. There was a stage when we decided enough is enough, you’ve done enough of this killing, so we seized their ground lanes of communication for 7 months and that brought them back to re-negotiate the terms of engagement in Pakistan. That’s what we do. If even without calling someone a terrorist they can continue to drone certain areas, that is possible. If we’ll find some response, we’ll use it. If we don’t -we will have to rough it out like the Taliban has done it, but in the meantime, actually what we have done is, more substantially, other than whatever I have talked about, is that we have found allies in the region, starting with Iran, Russia, China, now lately Turkey. Now, this is regional consensual alliance that is emerging not in the sense of an alliance, but at least they have started, let’s say, the handling of the foreign presence in Afghanistan, in a coordinated manner.
SS: Let me ask you something. Pakistan for decades sought a friendly government in Kabul. Should the Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, just imagine that - win the war, will that be better for Islamabad than having President Ghani there?
AD: I think this term, “friendly power”, was also not the right term to use by us. We should never have said that we are looking for a friendly power in Afghanistan. Today a regime can be friendly, tomorrow it can become unfriendly. Between neighbors the relationship changes. What Pakistan, especially those people who have handled Afghanistan, what they have been advising to the government is that our ultimate goal is not A, B or C, but a consensus government in Kabul, broad base - that’s what we used to say back in my time, after the Soviet withdrawal, a broad base government, all important factions onboard and that is the government that we want, because once that is accepted by the Afghans, that means it is stable, it will take care of its interests, Afghanistan interests…
SS: So you want a coalition government, Taliban plus the official government members?
AD: Yeah, this is the configuration of Afghanistan, that is how the country was created in 1747, a grand bargain between different ones. If that stays - that’s Afghanistan. If that splits - Afghanistan does not remain in that form. So that is the aim. It doesn’t really matter, Taliban alone won’t be able to control… in their best days they could not. And my assessment is, whenever we will have the consensus government, that will be the one that at time Pakistan and all other regional countries would say - “now we are out, we have now restored the status quo of 1979.”
SS: You should know this: does Pakistani intelligence have enough leverage in different Taliban groups in Afghanistan to help push Afghan peace talks, should they ever take place?
AD: Of course. We have pushed them very often, but whenever we pushed them, who sabotages it? Murrey-two was sabotaged by the Kabul regime, not by us. We were - the ISI and the Taliban - we keeping the news of Mullah Omar’s death under wrap for two years because he was a unifying figure: “Once the peace process starts, then we will see”. Once after Rasoul, after that scuttling of Murrey-two process that was end of July 2015, he re-established authority, he was the one who was the peacemaker, used to send the Taliban delegates to Doha rounds, to Murrey, because Mullah Omar was dead.. When he re-established the authority, he was eliminated by the American drone. So the peacefoilers are not the Taliban, Pakistan in any case no, because our stakes are very high - it’s either the Kabul regime that is afraid of losing its clout, because it does not have the ground support, or it is the U.S. that does not want that negotiation and settlement. It wants, if nothing else, if not the turmoil, its client regime to survive.
SS: There’s another turn in this whole story, because Trump is calling on India to involve itself more in Afghanistan. This is of course making Pakistani politicians very angry, people are marching in streets, very displeased with that. How will this affect Islamabad’s role in Afghanistan?
AD: People say a few things, just to express their displeasure. Because of the U.S., India will not get a greater role. India has a role, and it’s a pretty substantial role, it can invest money, it has a cultural ingress in the Afghan society. It is not going to send any military troops. The U.S. ability to give a greater role is so limited that it cannot even empower Kabul regime to, you know, establish a seat in that country. How it is going to help Indians to do anything more than they already do? And this is the place that has been allowed to them by the Afghans. If I were to give any advice, and I suppose more often than not, our country, except for making that diplomatic noise - quite comfortable with it. If they can play a role, go ahead, we can’t stop it, Afghans are though the ones that will give them the space, and if they can only invest money - that’s fine. And if they take their military in Afghanistan - Pakistan would be one of the happier countries, because then after that they will find out what happens to the militaries in Afghanistan.
SS: But for me, just as someone who’s observing what’s going on in the region - I understand all the intricacies between Pakistan and India. What I never really understood, maybe you can tell me, why was Pakistan so worried with the Indian involvement in Afghanistan? For instance, I remember, former President Musharraf saying that Pakistan has used Taliban as anti-India proxy group in Afghanistan. He said it! I’m not making this up.
SS: Yeah. I never really understood why Pakistan's policy in Afghanistan is all about its rivalry with India. Why Pakistan is so afraid of Indo-Afghan friendship?
AD: I am not, and most of the Afghans are not. As I said, the politicians may make a statement either, because it helps them politically by saying “well, they are a hedge against India and we are worried about India” or out of ignorance, because as I have explained, the Indians can go ahead and do whatever Afghans allow them to do. That is going to be up to us, and we have better cards in Afghanistan and we think that the Indian’s role now is harmful to us - it’s up to us to take care of that. And, as I said, we being the neighbors, with the history and so on, we should be able to take care of it. When people say that, it’s only because of these two reasons. But what Musharraf said, I do not have to justify. Right now I am sitting here, so I’m giving my view and I do not want, I do not agree actually when some of the Pakistanis, not only the politicians, others also, exaggerate the Indian influence in Afghanistan. The country is full of Pakistani goods, it’s hardly anything from India that goes there, or that is either Iranian oil or our goods - that is the influence that we have. India certainly has cultural influence - Bollywood is important, like Hollywood used to be once upon a time for us. And not having common borders with Afghanistan - that’s Indians advantage. Those who have common border, they know about the spillover and they get worried about other things and they get also blamed when the Afghan tribesmen resist a foreign force so much. They become the scapegoat. At this time, the scapegoat is Pakistan.
SS: I want ask you a last question about Russia and Pakistan that have recently held a regular joint military drills, training in mountain warfare. How is Islamabad working with Moscow to counter the terror threat?
AD: I don’t think it’s about terrorism, because that is a big scam that we play out. In concrete terms, Pakistan’s relation to Russia started improving many years ago, for a number of reasons. America also played, probably, a part in that, in that case we found out that we had a problem with them, Russia had a problem with them, so that is one. After Ukraine it has probably become a little more substantial. But, essentially, we cooperate with each other, and of course, remember the old steel mill in Karachi that was the Russian technology, that for the last few years, I think, people want to upgrade that. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline - I’m not sure that anyone than the Gazprom would build it - I don’t know about that. So these are those areas of cooperation, but essentially, our coming together means that we have to now join hands to find a solution for this regional problem, and that is - I’ve said that before - foreign military presence here, in the heart of Asia, Afghanistan, influence in Central Asia, the type of implications for Iran and Pakistan - that is where we cooperate. This is a symbolic one, carrying out exercises together does not make that we will make a joint force like NATO and attack the Americans, no it does not. It’s a symbolic gesture, how the countries are coming together. They continue to do that with India, and if there’s going to be anyone in Pakistan upset, I would say that is a foolish thing to do. You have your relations with India, you have your relations with the U.S., but we are also talking about the new relationship between these 4 countries, or 5 countries in the region, which is issue-specific, which is not a general type of relationship which you think you should nurture. That has its implications in economic cooperation and political cooperation in SCO, even though the SCO may not have done very much.
SS: Alright, Mr. Durrani, thank you very much for this interview. Best of luck with everything. Hopefully, we will talk to you next year.