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The country is Burning

An Interview With Steve Coll on Pakistan, the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden and Bush’s Foreign Policy

Friday 15 February 2008, by WAJAHAT ALI

Steve Coll is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist. He is the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and The Bin Ladens, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

ALI: Benazir Bhutto was assassinated over a month ago; a suicide bomber near Peshawar killed 13 people this week; two officials with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission were kidnapped and a Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan disappeared at the Khyber Pass, and you have General elections in a week. Is the Economist correct in proclaiming Pakistan "the most dangerous nation on Earth," or is that an overblown statement?

COLL: Well, something is afoot in Pakistan that is really dangerous for Pakistanis. There is a real insurgency coming out now that the country has never experienced before, and it’s aimed at the Pakistani state and it’s gaining ground. It’s been cooking up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for a long while, certainly in the last several years it’s been gathering strength.

The more recent expansion of the insurgents into mainland provinces has particularly been in the North West Frontier Province; it’s a really striking change.

I’ve been coming and going to Pakistan for over 20 years and traveled in the Frontier, and it’s different now. I don’t think the insurgents are anywhere near a path to seizing power in Pakistan. Although, you can’t rule out the possibility that they won’t be able to organize some coup attempt in the next 3 or 4 years. But it really isn’t encouraging because they’ve been gaining, and the State has been losing in some of these areas.

ALI: Many people in America don’t know about the four different provinces of Pakistan. You’ve spent significant time in the two northern provinces, the NWFP and Balochistan regions, bordering Afghanistan. Explain to me why these provinces, more than any other, are susceptible to hard line, extremist ideologies and personalities? Why is this an impossible region to not only reform but also infiltrate either via Pakistani or American military forces?

COLL: Well, it’s been the site since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since 1979, there has been a deliberate buildup, first with American and Saudi support and then later with the Pakistani army in the lead, to build up Islamist militias that have been equipped, armed, and funded to fight guerilla wars in Afghanistan. The accumulative effects of these programs in these border regions have radicalized and spread Islamist ideology and empowered radical clerics in places where they didn’t hold such unrivaled powers in the past.

These are areas, especially in the NWFP area in particular, dominated by tribally organized Pashtuns who are very conservative, very independent people who have a long history of governing themselves and rejecting outside influences—this dates back to the [British] Imperial period. Their societies, while very conservative in the cultural sense, hadn’t been as radicalized by international Islamist trends as they have now, and that’s a result of the 25 years of war fighting as much as anything else.

So, the Pakistani state in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in particular was not very much present and that was by a constitutional design. It’s difficult for any government of Pakistan to suddenly decide to take these places over; where no imperial power has ever succeeded in doing so, and where the Pakistani state’s bargain was it would govern from a distance.

You know it’s very interesting that you hear in the FATA now that there’s quite a lot of appetite to be integrated into Pakistan. This is not a backwards place, although it is very poor and very isolated and its social and health indicators are very low. But, it is affected by globalization just like any other place in the world. They have uncles in Dubai and in the Gulf, and they are ready to be a part of Pakistan, many people are, but how do you pull that off politically? I don’t know.

ALI: You’re this American, white journalist going into the tribal regions of the NWFP in Pakistan. What were your experiences with these Pakistanis? Were they mistrusting, or open and hospitable?

COLL: Pakistan is a very hospitable place. I feel very comfortable there. I recognize that I might not recognize, in any kind of Danny Pearl way, where I had crossed into some territory that’s not hospitable. I think I’d be the last person to notice it. But, I try to be careful in the sense I’m always with the people who I know and trust and I trust they won’t betray me. I’ve never had any trouble.

But, I would say what’s happening from a foreign journalist point of view is that you wouldn’t really want to run into any Algerians, Uzbeks, or Saudis, they won’t be hospitable [in Pakistan’s NWFP.] And they are likely to execute you. There’s a new generation of younger Taliban who seem willing to kidnap and in some cases execute some people whom they consider to be apostates. That would certainly include white skinned foreigners like me. Mostly, it’s trying to stay out of the way of this international brigade.

ALI: Let’s talk about the triptych relationship between the Pakistani Taliban, Afghanistan, and the United States. How has the Taliban made such a resurgent comeback in the Afghanistan—Pakistan region and what does this, if at all, speak of our Anti-terrorism and Iraq war efforts? Is this what you’d call a blowback or instead an independent phenomenon germinating on its own in that region?

COLL: I think it’s a combination of a failure of American foreign and counter terrorism policies that I think the Bush Administration, reluctantly, would acknowledge. Now the Pakistani state is directly threatened by Islamist forces the Bush Administration thought they had under control after the fall of the Afghan Taliban.

I think the cause of the Pakistani Taliban emergence has a lot of factors contributing to it. There is American policy and our blind support of President Musharaff, who turned out to be an ineffective leader of counter insurgency and pacification efforts in Pakistan - that was one mistake.

Musharaff’s rejection of plural politics, his inability to find partners in Pakistani democracy was another failure of his and of American support for him. I think the President’s Administration and the U.S. was really distracted by the Iraq War and really stopped paying attention [to Pakistan] until things reached a crisis.

As you know, big government has got a lot of funding, lot of people going to work every day thinking of foreign policy, but it’s remarkable how the Iraq War has drawn off so much of the capacity of the United States, not just financial and physical capacity such as the number of vehicles and uniforms, and blankets, but, it’s the attention span of the government. Every day, every meeting, the whole machinery of the Administration is drawn towards Iraq. As a result, this problem drifted, and if Musharaff had turned out to be a brilliant and effective partner then the fact the United States was so badly distracted would not matter so much. As it was, however, Musharaff was losing his grip on the country at the same time the Bush Administration was distracted with the war.

ALI: Let’s talk about these upcoming elections. Reports are surfacing that the PPP’s Zardari [Benazir Bhutto’s husband] and Nawaz Sharif [Pakistan’s former Prime Minister who returned in the fall from exile] are talking of a united front against Musharraf’s allies. What is the likely outcome of this election? Will it be free and fair? What’s the pulse of the people and will the elections represent their desires?

COLL: The best evidence about the last question is provided by the most recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, which despite its name is pretty non partisan, civil society oriented, polling organization, who have polled pretty consistently in Pakistan. While polling is not a perfect science or art, as Americans have realized in this election season, it’s probably a pretty good approximation of public opinion in Pakistan. And Pakistanis are political creatures, and I think they know what they’re saying when they express their opinions.

By and large what it shows is an enormous amount of support for the PPP [Bhutto’s party] at about 50%, a number higher than I would’ve guessed. It shows PML-Nawaz [Nawaz Sharif’s party] at about 20-30% and shows PML-Q [Musharaff’s allies] way down, I mean, less than 20%. Musharaff’s personal popularity is at an all time low.

What’s important about the poll is that it sets a benchmark by which the results will be measured by the Pakistanis themselves. If the results are way out of line with what that poll shows then the inference will be obvious that a "fix" was put in. But, it also puts a lot of pressure on Musharaff’s government not to permit manipulations that produce results that are way out line with this polling. That’s why it’s clever of whoever scheduled the polls to essentially bracket this election with this information.

I think it must be discouraging and frustrating for Musharaff’s political allies that they have in fact fallen so low. And how they will react to that predicament and how their supporters in the military and intelligence bureaucracy will react is the big question for the next week or two.

I think they’ve been watching what’s happening in Kenya and they know that an illegitimate election that is rejected by a party as large and street oriented as the PPP could be a dangerous event. One hopes they will let the elections go forward. There is always, of course, rigging in Pakistani elections, as it is in India elections, when it comes to the local levels. Candidates figure out how to get 500 people together, put them in a bus, drive them around, and make them vote 10 times. You can’t have a perfect election. But, you need to have an election where those types of local manipulations are awash at the end of the day, and you have a result that is at least broadly responsive to public opinion.

ALI: Is Musharaff going to step down if he loses? Or, will he pull some dictatorship card and declare a State of Emergency again? What do you think he’s going to do?

COLL: I don’t know, but he has secured his 5-year Presidential term even though the next National Assembly is likely to reject that and agitate. That’s what he used the State of Emergency to do in the fall; it was to say, "Hey, I’m around, and you’re going to have to deal with me." Even if he, essentially, allows his civilian political allies to go down in this election, he’d be tempted to keep himself in power as civilian president by negotiating with PPP’s Zardari. And, this is a cynical point of view that Musharaff and his people around him believe that Zardari is a guy "we can do business with." [Zardari] has a reputation for being opportunistic in the past, and "we’ll" [Musharaff and his allies] be able to figure out a way to give him what he wants, the cabinets that he wants, give him the access to government that he wants, and by that "we’ll" buy some peace.
But by now, I think Zardari knows that’s his reputation. So, he may decide he’ll defy Musharaff and play it a different way by forcing Musharaff’s resignation. But, I think he’ll be under a lot of pressure from his colleagues in his party to come up with an approach that, first of all, the international community regards as responsible. Second of all, that gives his senior party people access to government, because they’ve been out of power for a long time, and they’re hurting.

So, I think Musharaff could figure out a way to hang on with the PPP government. I hope not in the sense that I feel his unpopularity is so strong that it is a source of instability for the country. And I think if he loves Pakistan as much as he says he does, if he wants to defend its integrity and promote its prosperity as much as he says it does, he really ought to get out of the way at this point.

ALI: I want to talk about Bhutto’s assassination. We heard a lot here in U.S. that she was the best and only hope for a democratic reform in Pakistan. You have an interesting quote in your most recent New Yorker article describing your last meeting and conversation with Benazir. You wrote:

"This was vintage Benazir: perfect pitch liberalism and at the same time, formulation barely distinguishable from the American foreign policy of the moment."

So, questions, what was American foreign policy in regards to promoting Bhutto in Pakistan, and was this alleged relationship with the United States the cause of her untimely death?

COLL: The answer to the first part of the question is that the Bush Administration in particular wanted to use Bhutto to save Musharaff - initially. I think the aggregate effect of the policy was a way to use her as way to shore up Musharaff rather than to develop a more broadly based approach to democracy promotion in Pakistan. She allowed herself to play that role. Her primary interest wasn’t pleasing the Bush Administration; it was her interest to return to power and return to Pakistan. She saw herself as using the U.S. in order to achieve her goals and the goals of her party. But, it was an instrumental relationship in the sense that it was dominated by how each party could use the other to accomplish their own goals, rather than a deep and sustainable approach to trying to revitalize Constitutional democracy in Pakistan

Did this kill her? There were lots of things going on at the same time as I described in my New Yorker article. But, I mean the ambivalence the United States had about her, the mixed feelings they had about her, did, I think, contribute to the lack of security she had at the ground. Americans would say things like, "How could you hold us responsible for her security? After all, we did everything we could to warn her about the threats she would face! We met with Musharaff and asked him repeatedly to provide security and so forth."

Ok, those are reasonable defenses, but I really don’t think it is entirely convincing. Because when the United Stated wants to protect the leader of an ally government who might not be able to protect him or herself, it gets the job done. Look at the government in Iraq, in the context of the suicide bombings, most of the national leaders have remained safe and the United States has played an instrumental role in devising security regimes that have kept them safe. Yes, they [the leaders] end up isolated in many cases, but they’re safe.

ALI: Karzai for example. [Hamid Karzai the President of Afghanistan.]

COLL: Karzai—an even better example! I mean Karzai was flanked by American military bodyguards for a long while and then they handed him off to diplomatic security services, and the United States still plays a crucial role in keeping him safe. Well, one can say, "he is an elected leader of a country who made a request to the head of a government, that’s different with the case of an opposition leader [like Bhutto.]"

I mean, come on, if you really wanted to get it done, if it was really an urgent priority, I think the United States could’ve done more. I think it’s entirely reasonable for Bhutto’s family, friends, allies, and supporters to feel aggrieved that the United States did not do more to ensure she had the basic, technical security of someone, who took the physical risks she was taking, deserved.

ALI: Who do you think killed Bhutto? She named some names before her death and ultimately blamed Musharraf about his indifference in an earlier prescient email to her friend essentially foreshadowing her death. What’s the evidence suggesting who killed her?

COLL: Of course an obvious answer to the question is that a suicide attacker killed her and that suicide attacker was almost certainly Al Qaeda, or Pakistani Taliban, or some affiliated sub-cell that seems to be a Pakistani national, but we don’t really know.

It isn’t who was at that moment standing in front of her ready to detonate an explosive device to assassinate her. That isn’t the most important question. The real question is how did that attacker reach her? By what safe houses? By what logistical support? With what money? From what camp? What is the circumstances surrounding that camp? Who is aware of the existence of that camp? To what extent has the Pakistani State, at any level, been involved in protecting the organization from which that suicide bomber arose?

I think those are questions she had in her mind after she was first attacked in Karachi. It was, in a way, an accurate forecast of her own death. She was killed by Al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban. But that isn’t the end of the story. I do think the Pakistani government themselves in their reaction harbored a guilty knowledge that they weren’t involved, almost certainly, in an active plan to kill her, but they were probably implicated by some of these contextual questions. So, they’ve been very careful in controlling the investigation. If it turns out that the camp from which this particular suicide bomber emerged was in fact known to the army, or had in the past collaborated with the army, or did have an ISI [Pakistan’s Intelligence Agency] handler of some kind, then they don’t want an independent investigation to these types of questions.

ALI: Let’s talk about the power of the ISI and Pakistan’s military in dominating and spearheading the domestic and foreign policy of that country. Are they aligned with extremist, Anti-American members partial to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda? I mean the Red Mosque was just 1 mile away from ISI headquarters and it was stockpiled with weapons, so how could they miss it unless the ISI were somehow supporting the extremist students who took over the school?

What’s your take on the ISI and the Military?

COLL: Certainly, there is no doubt that the ISI has a continuing relationship with some Islamist militant groups on Pakistani soil. The most obvious relationship is with the Kashmiri oriented groups, which still operate, more or less, openly. You have the Lakshe Tayyiba, which operates with its bank accounts; they have a big campus outside Lahore; they operate many, many offices around the country. Now, that’s not Al Qaeda, but it’s an organization whose members have sometimes overlapped with some of the groups in the West and some members of these groups were present in the Red Mosque [during the Red Mosque standoff between extremist students and Pakistan’s army leaving more than hundred, mostly students, dead.]. So, that’s the most obvious sort of collaboration.

There’s also no doubt that the ISI has continued to tolerate and protect the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar. Their relationship with the Afghan Taliban has bled with their relationship with the Pakistani Taliban. As to Al Qaeda, the smaller group of mostly Arab and Uzbek fighters who are led by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, I don’t think there is much evidence of a current relationship between ISI and Al Qaeda. There may be individuals within ISI who had such a relationship, but the institutional relationship isn’t too strong.
First of all, Al Qaeda is very suspicious of the ISI. They think ISI is an instrument of the Americans. Nobody who is trying to protect Osama bin Laden from getting caught is going to tell the ISI where he is. Just in historical terms, Al Qaeda’s relations with the ISI have been more indirect; they did collaborate on training camps for Kashmiri groups back in the early 90’s. It’s not anything like the relationship the ISI has with Kashmiri groups or some of the Taliban groups.

ALI: We have one of the most interesting elections in recent times with the tightly contested Democratic race between Obama and Clinton. We know now that McCain is all but sealed as the Republican nominee and he’s a hardliner who doesn’t mind if we’re in Iraq for another 100 years. Clinton also voted for the Iraq War and the strong resolution against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Obama, now infamously, took heat for saying he’d use military intervention in Pakistan if necessary. What should we expect any different in our foreign policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan if Clinton or Obama are elected President?

COLL: I think some of the answers are clear enough even though you wouldn’t be able to know it from the campaign trail. Overall, I don’t think you’d see a dramatic change. I think they would both attempt to rebalance U.S. aid to Pakistan to emphasize civil society, education, infrastructure, safer drinking water, poverty alleviation, alongside support they would continue to provide to the Army for specific operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They would attempt to support Constitutional democracy more explicitly than the Bush Administration did. They would be very skeptical about Musharaff and his role, but they wouldn’t force him out in some way that would look heavy handed. They would leave that to the Pakistani Army to decide. I don’t think they would offer the same rhetorical personal support for Musharaff that Bush has offered.
Overall, the basic idea will be that U.S. support for Pakistan is for the long run and we are not going to repeat this pattern of "coming and going;" that we’re going to build trust, we’re going to help the Pakistani Army defeat this insurgency. And, that we’re going to change strategy and not be so militaristic, but try to take a broader approach. That’s basically what both of them as Presidents would do.

There are some questions around the edges I’m not sure of. [There’s the question of] a return to policies of "conditionality of U.S. aid to the Pakistani Army", where we would threaten to withhold aid to them if they didn’t do what we wanted. There’s been a debate whether or not that approach has been effective or not, and that approach has backfired in the past. But, there are many people, and I’m one of them, who think that the past policies of "conditionality of U.S.A aid" are so discredited in Pakistani eyes that you really ought to be cautious on using that method again. Because, you’re really going to anger everybody and not accomplish anything.

ALI: You have a book coming out on Bin Laden in the Spring [The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century], and I’m assuming you’ve spent significant time researching his history, politics, childhood and ideology. How does Bin Laden and others like Zawahiri, products of education and economic well-being, transform from a lanky, well intentioned son of a multi-millionaire to the most wanted terrorist on Earth? Is it accurate to simply think of him in black and white terms as a Jihadist superhero defending the oppressed, according to a few Muslims hardliners, or the Arab manifestation of the devil himself according to everyone else?

COLL: (Laughs.) He’s a really complicated figure. In some ways, he isn’t complicated because he’s so stubborn and not very self-reflective. As guerilla leaders go, he’s nowhere near as interesting as Che Guevara, or someone who murdered quite a lot of his own people like Mao. He’s kind of a one-note thinker and in that way he’s not very interesting. In many other ways, he’s fascinating because he’s a modern man. He grew up in a very modern setting. He was always around and interested in technology and the technologies of globalization whether they were telephones or satellite phones or airplanes and jets. All of the tools of modernity that we’ve all gotten so used to. He fully embraced them, but he just adapted them to a different cause.

After he went and fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, he developed a vision of himself as a leader. But, he might’ve just faded away if he hadn’t been this modern figure who knew how to use technology and build diverse coalitions around him. The other thing that is very interesting about him is the lesson his father provided him about diversity. His father ran these multi-ethnic, multi linguistic labor camps in the Arabian desert back in the day when he was building his fortune as a construction magnate. That’s very un-Saudi. Saudis tend to be very clan oriented, very concerned about genealogy and bloodlines, and very racialist, and I don’t want to say racist, but [they have] racialist concerns about racial profiles.

The Bin Ladens lived in multi ethnic, multi linguistic Jeddah, big, sort of, "men of Mecca," in the sense of Mecca as a gathering place for the whole Muslim community in all its diversity. So, Bin Laden, much more than many of his Egyptian or other colleagues, was always comfortable with a many splendors of following: lots of different people, lots of different places, lots of different languages. He never exhibited bias towards people’s national origin or their social or economic status the way his colleagues did. That made him a great leader. That combined with his comfort with technology made him quite effective.
Of course in the United States, he is just seen as someone who lives in a cave, and I think that is a complete misunderstanding of his success.

ALI: Right, we think he’s just chilling and releasing music videos from Tora Bora Caves.

COLL: (Laughs.) Right, right.

ALI: So, what’s up with this guy, Bin Laden? Is he alive? Dead? Is he in the caves? I mean, where is he?

COLL: Yeah, I think he’s alive, I mean, he’s living where, more or less, everyone thinks he’s living which is up around the border, the territory around North Waziristan, where I guess he would spend some of his time and days. These are people he’s known for 20 years. This is his territory. He’s lived there for a long while. The area is deeply radicalized. It’s entirely Taliban country. So, he’s amongst friends. I think he moves around and probably very few people know where he is at any given moment, and the only people are those in his inner circle. But, he’s obviously in touch with Al Qaeda’s media operations to put these videos together. They obviously have enough comfortable space to operate in to pull these things off without getting caught.

ALI: You think anyone is going to catch him?

The history with these things is eventually somebody takes the money usually. In his case, people have been reluctant because he is seen as such a mystical figure, larger than life. In that part of the world, it’s sort of hard to act as individual if you are, essentially, known as the person that ratted out Osama Bin Laden, then your village, your family, and your clan is going to suffer even if you are going to end up in Arizona with 25 million dollars. So, it’s hard to motivate people to accept the reward money. But, usually, that’s how it ends, and that’s how it ends in the past. I think it’s sort of 50/50 whether someone will walk in and rat him out, or whether he’ll eventually just die of old age or some horrible disease of having to run around and hide all the time.

ALI: O.K., last question. A genie comes to you and says, "Coll, congratulations, you’re in charge of shaping U.S. policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan for a day. You’ve got 2 magic wishes in the form of policy changes you can make. Go for it." What would you do to ensure the world doesn’t go up in flames in the next 10 years?

COLL: (Laughs.) First thing I’d do is invest in a stable Pakistani democracy. I think that’s the only way that Pakistan will realize its own potential. I think Pakistan has a lot of potential. Between what is likely to be India’s enormous economic and political success and with the money flowing to the Gulf these days, Pakistan is well positioned to develop a truly prosperous middle class, democratic, constitutional society where the army is still there, but like Turkey, it’s out of the way. I think the United States can adjust its policies so as to make that more likely; we can sure do a lot better than what we are doing now to facilitate it.

My second wish would be to take on the problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a whole. Right now, all of U.S. policy is stove piped as if these were two completely separate problems, but of course their destinies are tied up with one another. So, the United States, its allies, and its international partners and Europe should respond to this as it is: a regional problem. It’s going to be difficult to get it done. But, that’s a place to start anyway.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, "The Domestic Crusaders," is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at