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.
Q: In an article in Newsweek Pakistan, you had proposed the resolution of the controversy over drone strikes in Pakistan “in a way that recognises both Pakistan’s sovereignty and the national-security threat that extremists operating in northern Pakistan pose to the US and NATO”. Can you elaborate on your suggestion?
A: I support military, police and judicial actions that protect civilians. If and when the drones protect civilians against the people who bring violence to them, then it is an instrument of national security. What I would like to see is the forces of national security as the ones that protect the people of a nation.
President Obama has an obligation to protect his citizens and he is doing so. While, running for the presidential race, Obama had promised to his nation that he would do whatever it took to protect the American people against al Qaeda terrorism. The president kept his promise after his election by dismantling and weakening al Qaeda through drone strikes. He said he would do it and he did it. There was no surprise about his actions, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. In the same way, the Pakistani security forces are responsible for protecting the Pakistani people.
Q: Although the United States has historically granted assistance to Pakistani military and the military rulers, you belong to the breed of American diplomats who staunchly advocate civilian assistance for Pakistan. Why do you particularly demand civil assistance for Pakistan?
A: I think the American government must give balanced assistance in Pakistan. The civilian institutions in Pakistan are under-funded. The health care system and education sector are equally under-funded not only in terms of money but also in terms of knowledge, capacity and technology. The United States should be a part of any assistance that goes to the people of Pakistan to build public institutions.
I believe the American assistance should go to the most destitute and the weakest. My thoughts are always evolving. I think the best way to make use of the American assistance is to create jobs because if you have many businesses, people become employed and they can build their own lives. I am looking for entrepreneurship programs and enterprise funds, for example, that encourage Pakistani middle class instead of the truly wealthy and the military. I would like to see the American funds going in that direction to benefit the ordinary people of Pakistan.
Q: You have called for a “compact relationship” between the United States and Pakistan. What is that supposed to mean?
A: In 2001, the understanding the United States reached with Pakistan while starting a new epoch of cooperation was based on the promise that Pakistan would reverse its policy with regard to the Taliban and al Qaeda extremists. In return, we agreed to lift the sanctions, provide aid and restore military-to-military relationships. Pakistan asked for certain things such as not to deploy [international] troops on the ground. We agreed to this term hoping that Pakistan would not support al Qaeda and Taliban.
Over the years, that trust has been broken and it has been replaced with mistrust for which both the sides are a little guilty of violating that understanding. So, we need to seriously talk about it again.
Q: What do you think both the countries should talk about?
A: We need to reach a clear understanding. We [Americans] are not stupid. We know what is going on [with regard to the support provided to Islamic militant groups].
Q: But the Pakistanis argue that there is no change in America’s policy towards them. President Obama, they complain, is pursuing the same policies initiated by President George Bush vis-à-vis Pakistan by coaxing the latter to “do more”. Many say Washington’s unchanged attitude has compelled Pakistan to become a rebel ally in the war against terror.
A: That is not true. The policy has changed a great deal. For example, during President Bush’s time, Pakistan did not have a Kerry-Lugar Bill nor did it have a civilian aid programme. President Obama has been much more aggressive than President Bush in defending the American interests.
Q: Today, if you were the US ambassador to Pakistan again, what would you do to gain support for the controversial Kerry-Lugar Bill?
A: I would do what our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, does. He was given eight billion dollars to improve the American education system. Instead of sitting in Washington DC and designing a plan and telling the school systems what to do, he put out a notice saying that he has eight billion dollars and he will spend it on the communities and schools that come up with the best ideas and plans how to spend this money. He called his strategy “Race to top”.
Likewise, I would go to Pakistan with the civilian aid saying that we know you need this aid. You need curriculum reforms so that your schools will lead to jobs. You need a better health system so that your children do not die before reaching the age of five. You need reliable and sustainable energy so that your factories continue production without any interruptions so that you sell your goods abroad.
We share the same objectives but we are not going to tell you how to do it. You should tell us how we can help you. We will partner with local (Pakistani) money on projects that you think are worthwhile or your design to accomplish the goals that we collectively wish to achieve.
Malik Siraj Akbar, a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow based in Washington DC, is a visiting journalist at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a project of the Center for Public Integrity.