Steve Coll is a journalist and academic at the Dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He’s the author of bestselling books on Osama bin Laden and the CIA, winner of two Pulitzers, one of the world’s greatest authorities on international terrorism. He tells The Indian Express about the Chinese role in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and the American strategy in the region. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
You describe the US presence in Afghanistan in your book, ‘Directorate S’ as America’s longest war, longer even than Vietnam, but you end it on a despairing note. So what do you make of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s offer last week to the Taliban to hold unconditional talks?
It’s a positive development. Adding some talks to the fighting is essential to reducing the violence plaguing so many civilians. The reasons to talk are many, they don’t only need to include a path to political settlement. There are also tactical negotiations, to try to protect civilians, to make sure that humanitarian assistance reaches people in need even as the conflict continues. The absence of an open channel only exacerbates the suffering of ordinary Afghans. So its terrific to see some framework being considered for negotiations.
So you see some light at the end of the tunnel ?
It’s a difficult conflict to resolve. There’s no reason to be naïve about that. And its hard to be optimistic given the length of the Taliban insurgency and the uncompromising nature of its ideology. However, the Taliban have negotiated with various parties in the conflict over the years. They claim they have no ambitions outside the borders of Afghanistan. They’ve cooperated with the International Committee of the Red Cross, they’ve talked to the Obama administration as ‘Directorate S’ describes. So there’s a record there, there’s an opening. They want to be understood as a political entity, not just a guerilla force.
The former Afghan national security advisor Amrullah Saleh believes the offer of talks is plain and simple appeasement of the Pakistanis.
Yes, there is that view that he holds and he’s not alone, which is that accommodating Pakistan at the negotiating table is a form of appeasement. And I respect Amrullah Saleh enormously, as the book reflects. However, Pakistan and Afghanistan share a long border and this war has been going on since 1979, and the sanctuary the mujahidin and Taliban have enjoyed inside Pakistan is embedded in Pakistani state policy which is irreversible by pressure from the international community, as the international community has proved again and again.
And so there is no way to reduce the violence or stabilize the country without talking to Pakistan. Now what terms Afghans want to acceptt in these negotiations is up to the Afghans to decide, but you cant just put your head in the sand and pretend that this war is going to be won on the battlefield. Or whether the ISI is going to change its conduct because the US is going to impose sanctions or broadcasts some state of resolve.
So how does the ISI change its conduct?
Ultimately, in the long arc of Pakistani history, civilians have to regain power over the military. I think a civilian led foreign policy, from a growing middle class-buoyed Pakistan would be different from a military-led foreign policy and the ISI’s use of Islamist militias and terrorist networks to influence its neighbours would no longer be the priority. Civilian leaders and civil servants have had to accommodate the Pakistani military’s monopoly over foreign policy and often give voice to that policy, but when Pakistani civilians establish control over their country and Constitution, and the military answers to civilian power will be the day the ISI finds that its budget has changed and its mandate has been constrained.
Nawaz Sharif tried to do that a couple of times before he was ousted..
He was someone willing to challenge the status quo more boldly than some of his counterparts, but he never really had the leverage to speak out.
Do you think prime minister Narendra Modi should have reciprocated Sharif’s peace overtures to India?
I think its in India’s interest to strengthen civilian leaders in Pakistan and do what it can to create pathways to normalization. In that respect various efforts Indian leaders have made, going back to Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, haven’t been for nought. They’ve established an alternative vision of how these two countries could cooperate.
The other notion that many people hoped would be advanced in a Modi era was the Nixon-to-China framework, which is because of his political strength and the breadth of his domestic support he could afford to change the relationship politically, where others would have felt more vulnerable if they had attempted that. Although even from political weakness the Congress government was willing to try.
The Chinese have now offered assistance to the Afghan peace process. What does that mean?
I think its important. From time to time, the Chinese have been participating in efforts to get peace talks on track. Of course they are Paisitan’s most important ally and at the same time they have an interest beyond their relationship with Pakistan in a stable Central Asia and of course in a stable Afghanistan. The economic and security vision that China has for Central Asia almost requires a stable Afghanistan. So from Pakistan’s point of view, they need China to front for them in front of the great powers. And from China’s perspective, they need Pakistan to not over-reach in such a way as to set the whole neighbourhood on fire. For the Americans its always been difficult to bring this issue in US-China relations to the top of the list, because although the US and China have in many ways common interests in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, there are so many other priorities – the South China Sea, North Korea etc – so if China sees an independent reason to try and facilitate the reduction of violence, peace talk, stabilization campaigns, independent of its relations with the US, that would be a positive development.
From Pakistan’s perspective, the pressure the Trump administration has put on it, although rhetorical, reinforces what is already their strategy, which is to nest inside their relationship with China. And to try and draw as many other parties they can, including Russia, perhaps at America’s expense, but then that is the logic of their position.
So on the one hand, the Chinese are turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s double-cross or perfidy in the AfPak region, as you say in your book, and on the other they are offering to assist America’s protégé Ashraf Ghani to keep the peace?
Yes. From what I hear, the Chinese recognize there is a counter-terrorism problem in Afghanistan and the US military presence is carrying out a legitimate counter-terrorism campaign against groups that threaten everybody, including China. The branch of the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan as perhaps being the most notable, but there are others. And I think China is maybe less anxious than Pakistan or Iran that there are US forces in Afghanistan, because China is a rising great power and a base with 10,000 US soldiers is not particularly significant, especially when compared to other bases.
So in that sense there is no mystery about China’s interest in this. China also wants to have its own relationship with a constitutional government in Afghanistan. It would much prefer to have a partnership with a government that is much more interested in economic development and natural resource extraction and trade rather than an obscurantist, extremist government that wouldn’t be interested in that agenda. It all makes sense, and the fact that its moving is certainly encouraging.
The Chinese are a missing link in your book, Directorate S. Why were they missing, was it because they weren’t as relevant in the 15-year-timeline of your book?
There’s only so much I could include. You would have noted that it is 790 pages ! I think I noted in the Notes that I did participate in some Track 2, Track 1.5 meetings with the Chinese in the 2011-12 period, when the US was trying to figure out how to draw the Chinese in, so I went to China and also in the US. It was very interesting to listen to their take on the war and on Pakistan.
Two things really stood out. First, for them, for the Chinese, they really don’t have an alliance anywhere in the world as important as the one they have with Pakistan. They don’t have a lot of friends and allies. You know in the US we are used to having all these European countries as our allies, friends in Canada, India…we are a nation of allies. And China is not.
We were joking in one of the sessions, and we said, ‘You have all these other countries led by Communist parties,’ and they replied, ‘Those are comrades, those are not friends. Pakistan is a friend.’ So to them its not about covering up for Pakistan, this is a central relationship for them, and they’re kind of stuck with it. And they noted that they didn’t want Pakistan to collapse into extremism, or any more civil conflict than the US did, and just like the US they struggled how to enable Pakistan to be a more normal country. The other think about Afghanistan was that they recognized the geo-political importance of Afghanistan’s location and certainly worried about its long-term instability and certainly worried about its role as an incubator of violence and regional stability. They were very wary about being sucked in to Afghanistan. And for very good reason ! They’ve sat there and watched two great powers getting sucked into Afghanistan and pay a very high price for it. So why not learn a little.
In these backchannel conversations that you’ve had, do the Chinese understand the extent of the Pakistani perfidy? And if they do, why are they turning a blind eye to it?
They certainly have as much expertise on Pakistan as in the US if not more. They have specialists who spend their whole career rotating in and out of Pakistan. The more they invest and build these economic corridors, the more closely they negotiate with the establishment in Pakistan for security, and the more they understand how the Pakistani army is organized for what it can and cannot do. They have a long history of having their citizens kidnapped and caught up in one form or another of instability in Pakistan. So yes, they know the place. They have a realpolitik idea of the way Pakistan conducts its security policy. I’m sure they wouldn’t endorse the sponsorship of cross-border terrorism in India or Afghanistan. But they recognize that Pakistan is pursuing an asymmetric strategy against India and China’s own anxieties about its relations with India are inseparable from its deep alliance with Pakistan.
So why haven’t they used their leverage with Pakistan to pursue a different strategy? That’s a good question and I don’t know the history of what has gone on at the highest levels between Pakistan and China around those issues. The only history that we can glimpse is their nuclear cooperation. And the fact that the Chinese accommodated Pakistan’s effort to offset India’s programme with their own deterrene suggests how deep that relationship runs at the highest level.
And that emboldens the Pakistanis to tell the Americans – the Trump administration, before him Obama and Bush – that we don’t really care about you?
Yes, I think the Pakistanis can always fallback on that position and that’s where they are today. But if you look at the history of where they have positioned themselves between China and the US, you can see also that their generals consider the benefits of having strong relations with both countries. (ISI chief Ashfaq) Kayani certainly does that in the narrative of ‘Directorate S’ in 2010 when he starts to wade in with this strategic dialogue and writes all these papers about what it would take to have a different relationship.
And Pakistan during the Cold War had positioned itself as an essential interlocutor between the US and China at a time when the US perceived a Soviet-India axis and it was Pakistan that brokered Nixon’s opening to China. So in the long term, Pakistan has gone back and forth in these relationships. What’s changed is partly the events described in the book which have estranged Pakistan and the US. But the other thing that has changed is China which has become a much more important power in the world and much more economically significant since the Pakistan and China relationship first developed. So now when Pakistan nests itself inside its friendship with China, it (finds) a big nest.
You’ve said in the book and elsewhere that the Trump strategy isn’t that different from Obama and Bush, but if you look at Trump’s tweets on Pakistan and the US censure on greylisting Pakistan at the FATF, it seems as if it is?
Definitely, US policy has definitely toughened up, but the fullness of their strategy should be understood as more continuity than change. As we can see with this announcement of the peace initiative in Kabul and their support for it, is that they’re essentially trying to do in their own way what the Obama administration tried to do. And that is to put enough carrots and sticks together to find from the battlefield a way to negotiations. And now perhaps even to draw in regional governments like China into that process.
The other reason why I think its possible to overstate the significance of the pressure the Trump administration has put on Pakistan is that if Pakistan had been as stable in 2009 as it is today, the Obama administration would almost certainly have taken a similar course.
There was so much anger in the Obama administration about Pakistan. Why didn’t they act on it with sanctions and angry rhetoric? You remember that in 2009, Pakistan was going through its worst period of domestic terrorism and instability in its history. You had the Pakistani Taliban in marching out of Swat towards Islamabad, tens of thousands of people died in that period. And so its only since 2015 that Pakistan has restored a measure of domestic security and it no longer feels as dangerous to crack that egg that little bit. So I think the Trump administration is taking an understandable course by refusing to provide aid to a government which is attacking or killing American soldiers, that I think it has the luxury of a Pakistan which doesn’t quite look so fragile as it did during the Obama years.
Tell us a little bit more about ‘Directorate S’ after which your book has been named?
It’s the covert action arm of the ISI, its paramilitary arm, and from what I could understand about it, it really looks very similar to the paramilitary division of the CIA. Its officers tend to be ex- Special Forces commandos, they are specialists in military tactics and training and can teach guerillas how to operate and raise their effectiveness on the battlefield. They are civilian or retired military officers mixed who maintain relationships and are in a position to liaise with higher authorities and deliver messages. But by and large they are kind of militia trainers and cell trainers, and they would support operations as we saw in Mumbai, where they ran the headquarters operation. There’s enough evidence on the record to see how it works, but the operations of particular cells or groups are seen to be in flux all the time. Some are more visible than others. Right now, what’s going on in Afghanistan seems the most visible.
The attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and some months before that the death of the Indian defence attaché in Kabul, which you attribute you to ‘Directorate S’ masterminding those attacks, brings me to the question of Pakistan’s perception of “Indian influence” in Afghanistan..
The Pakistani perception of Indian influence and its anxiety about it in Afghanistan is a form of overreach. It was factually riddled with fantasies and inaccuracies about the structure of the Indian presence and the relationship between India and the Afghan intelligence service. It was just wrong, a kind of paranoid expression. Now I don’t think the Pakistani generals are ever going to relinquish their convictions and there were episodes including involving Baluch nationalist separatism and Afghan and Indian fingerprints were visible from time to time, just giving them enough evidence to confirm their conviction.
And also, as we now know and the book describes, the NDS having been at the receiving end of the ISI for so long, when it was unleashed and more or less independent of the Americans, they on their own decided to give it back. So that’s a reality. It’s a dirty war.
But the general picture of Indian influence is more one of soft power rather than covert action. During the Kayani years you can see in the book there were times when he changes his tune, he rolls back these overreach demands that Musharraf used to make, like ‘Get India out altogether, you cannot have any presence at all.’ And Kayani used to say, ‘No the Indian economic presence makes sense. ‘ You know they’re realists, they do a lot of bluffing. So yes, that’s the way I see it.