TNI executive editor Justine A. Rosenthal interviewed Pakistan's Ambassador to the United States, Mahmud Ali Durrani, on January 24.
TNI: Hoping you can tell us about how you see the situation in Pakistan after the Bhutto assassination. Do you think things are more politically fragile? Can you give us a look at the landscape from your perspective?
MAD: There has been a level of political instability since about March with the removal of the chief justice, culminating in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. There were two major arrows piercing the heart of Pakistan, which were causing the instability. One was the political development where the opposition party saw an opening, and they wanted to take advantage. The other was the insurgency and the increase in the militancy.
It's a matter of how much instability remains. I think since Benazir's death, a level of stability is emerging. It's not all there, but things have improved, I would say-marginally. Particularly now that the elections have been announced and almost everybody who's anybody is participating in the elections. That is on track.
The other is the war on terror, which is also moving in the right direction. I think if I were to compare December to now, things have improved. How? For example Swat in the North West Frontier Province, which was essentially under the control of militants for a couple of weeks, is now back in the government's control.
TNI: And what of the stability of the tribal areas?
MAD: The tribal areas are a restive area. It's nothing new, it's been like this for decades, even centuries. So there are problems. Initially the problems were in North Waziristan. But the military took very strong action there. It stabilized North Waziristan. Things are much better.
And the situation in South Waziristan is improving. As we talk there are operations going on, and the Masood area, which is surrounded by the Waziri area, is being squeezed from three different directions. From what I hear from the region today, they are asking for peace, a ceasefire. I think the government is not in the mood for that because this is the first time the extremists have come under serious pressure. Their supplies are limited, and they are being encircled. The government has a window of opportunity.
TNI: Now why do you think the government was able to counter the extremists this time as opposed to all the other times?
MAD: Well all the other times we had developed different strategies. The kind of reaction that we were getting was mixed from the tribal regions. We didn't want to have major casualties for the tribal regions. We didn't want to cause collateral damage, we wanted to use the stick very sparingly. There came a point where we thought if we didn't use the stick strongly enough, it was going to cost us too much.
TNI: What do you think was the breaking point? Was it the assassination, was it the growing instability?
MAD: Growing instability and the assassination. They were the same thing. The instability was expanding-and it was expanding out of the tribal area and I think then the government decided that you know, now we have to use force, and maybe we will not be as cautious about the collateral damage. We still want to use a multipronged strategy. That is, military force, development and empowerment of the people. We still believe that that will be the ultimate answer. Using force alone is not the answer.
TNI: How much do you think Pakistan's alliance with the United States has exacerbated these problems? How do you balance the costs and benefits of the relationship?
MAD: It's very difficult. Take, for example, what the U.S. has done for us and what they have given us in terms of support, in terms of money, and so on. We are grateful for that. That has helped us. But on the other side, the popularity of the U.S. is very low, and the caveats that Congress puts on the money creates problems. It's like giving somebody an ice cream cone and sprinkling a bit of red pepper on it. With so many caveats, good intentions get messy.
TNI: Why do you think then that the Americans weren't able to capitalize more on the aid they gave after the earthquake?
MAD: Some people called the United States "agents of mercy." But after at time that went away. When the things started going wrong in Afghanistan, then the blame game started: Pakistan is not doing enough, all the trouble is coming from the tribal areas. We think this is unfair. I think we get a lot of blowback from Afghanistan. We have footed much more in terms of effort, money, soldiers, fighting than anybody else has. And then we are criticized for somebody else's failings. People see this. People in Pakistan see what the government is doing, what the military is doing in terms of fighting extremism, and yet we have writers from the United States saying "you're not doing enough" and "the money is being wasted."
TNI: There has been criticism that a lot of people who are within the Pakistani military are born in some of the areas where they now have to go and fight, and that makes it almost impossible, potentially, for them to choose sides. Are these exaggerated?
MAD: This is a figment of the United States' imagination. They are fighting, they are giving up their lives, they are dying every day. They have to choose sides. This is difficult, but they are loyal to the military.
TNI: And what do you think are the potentials for the election? Do you think there will be more stability or will it be destabilizing? What do you think of the foreign presences that are going to be there for the election?
MAD: As far as the election preparations are concerned, I think this is going to be the best election in Pakistan as far as fairness is concerned. That has not been a strong point in the past. We all know that. In fairness this is probably going to be one of the best elections. Better than anything before, but not perfect. There are people who are going to lose, and habitually the loser is going to protest. So that could cause instability. Now that will depend on the people of Pakistan: how they take it, how they assess it, a lot will depend on the sentiment of the people. So I am not sure. I am only hoping that it will bring greater stability.