A veteran diplomat, Ms Wendy Chamberlin was serving as the US ambassador to Pakistan when terrorist struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. A former High Commissioner of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Chamberlin is currently the president of Middle East Institute, a prestigious think-tank based in Washington DC. In an exclusive interview with Dawn.com, Ms. Chamberlin talks about the ups and downs of the Pak-US relationship and the war in Afghanistan.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before the United States’ decision to withhold $800 million aid to the Pakistani military.
Q: Prior to 9/11 attacks, President General Pervez Musharraf was very unpopular with the United States. Post 9/11, he suddenly became Washington’s favorite man in South Asia. At that time, you were serving as the US Ambassador to Pakistan. How did the new relationship with Musharraf develop?
A: I had my first contact with Musharraf over a dinner weeks before 9/11. That summer, there was a terrible drought in Pakistan and a famine was developing in Afghanistan because the Taliban were preventing the United Nations from distributing food. The civil
war and the drought prevented food from reaching the Afghan people. Hungry people (from Afghanistan) were beginning to come into Pakistan and the Pakistanis would threaten to push them back across the border. So, I went to see the situation in a holding camp in the summer of 2001. I felt that Musharraf was a man who always wanted the best for his people.
Q: What were the first contacts like with Musharraf soon after 9/11?
A: I called on him. I was under instructions to ask him to give up support to the Taliban and join the United States with the determination to root out, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and those who support it. Thus, we started the conversation on how we could work together. The goal ahead was what Pakistan could do for us and vice versa. That year, we kept our promises to Pakistan. We lifted the Pressler sanctions and provided $600 million in immediate grant assistance that subsequently qualified Pakistan for World Bank loans, which otherwise Islamabad could not qualify for. Heads of different governments and states visited Pakistan for rest of the year. We agreed to help in the return of Afghan refugees.
Q: Did the dealings at that point take place with a harsh and threatening tone? Musharraf eventually revealed that the United States had warned to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if Islamabad did not cooperate in the War against terror?
A: That tone and conversation never occurred with Musharraf. I was not there but I think it occurred with the ISI chief General Mahmud [Ahmed] when he was in Washington DC after 9/11.
Q: Did the US government, at that point, imagine that the strike against Taliban, who had provided shelter to al Qaeda, would transform into a full-fledged war which continues even after ten years?
A: No one ever wants to go to war. However, we did realise (and you would be crazy not to realise) that societies change very slowly. Development is a process that lasts for several decades.
The truth is that Afghanistan has developed enormously since the beginning of the war on terror. No one is starving in Afghanistan today as they were in the August of 2001. Food is abundant, roads, schools and hospitals are built. Millions of children are going to school today in a country where only a few boys attended school. Many good things have happened in Afghanistan. The Afghan army is being trained.
This is not the end, rather only the beginning. The situation in Afghanistan is on right enough of a good direction. Now, we can withdraw our troops. Why should we stay in Afghanistan now?
Q: Do you think the war in Iraq diverted attention from Afghanistan?
A: Yes, it did. Personally, I did not support the war in Iraq. It diverted our attention from Afghanistan until President Barrack Obama got elected and brought our focus again on Afghanistan.
Q: Why did the Americans ditch Musharraf?
A: I don’t think we ditched Musharraf. I, like many Americans, still consider him a personal friend. In fact he has many close friends here. He is welcomed here. We had a reception for him at the Middle East Institute. It was the people of Pakistan who voted against Musharraf, not the Americans. The Americans pushed for democratic elections in Pakistan. But we did not push at all for Musharraf or his party’s (Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam) defeat.
Q: Ten years after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, what would you consider the major successes gained in the Afghan war?
A: Well, people tend to forget what a sorry state Afghanistan was prior to the war. Our analysts judged that by the beginning of 2002, six million Afghans would be caught in the midst of a famine. Today, Afghanistan has had two elections, although not fully meeting the international standards, a government and its own health and education systems. There is international trade taking place inside Afghanistan. It is a country that has risen from the rubble and we should take all these changes as our biggest collective achievement in Afghanistan.