Fighting In Pakistan Stokes Concern

Tensions came to a boil last week in Paskistan when the Taliban took over the Buner district, just 60 miles outside Islamabad. In his recent prime time address to the nation, President Obama highlighted American officials' concerns that the Pakistani government is not able, and perhaps not willing, to take firm action against the Taliban. Wendy Chamberlin, former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, discusses the delicate relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time for our Thursday international briefing. And we're going to have another of our conversations about the moral, ethical and political dimensions of torture. Last week we spoke with a top expert in military law and ethics. Today we're going to find out whether former head of the CIA's Bin Laden tracking unit has described President Obama's condemnation of torture as self- righteous and arrogant. That conversation is in just a few minutes. But first, Pakistan. At his press conference last night President Obama voiced concern over that nation's stability. Fighting between Pakistani government forces and the Taliban escalated last week when Taliban forces advanced into the district of Buner, only 60 miles from the capital city of Islamabad.

The Pakistani army says it reported yesterday that it has regained control of the area. However, the situation raises questions about the Pakistani government's ability, and some say willingness, to fight the Taliban, and U.S. government's role in supporting that fight. Joining us now to talk about all these is Wendy Chamberlin. She is a former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan and the current president of the Middle East Institute. She was kind enough to stop by our Washington D.C. studios. Welcome, thanks for coming.

WENDY CHAMBERLIN: Good morning. Pleased to be here.

MARTIN: In his press conference last night, the president expressed concern about the situation of Pakistan, as I said. I just want to play a short clip for those who weren't able to hear it. Here it is.

BARACK OBAMA: I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan, not because I think that they're immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan - more concerned that the civilian government there, right now, is very fragile and don't seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services - schools, health care, a rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of people. And so, as a consequence, it is very difficult for them to gain the support and the loyalty of their people.

MARTIN: Ambassador I want to ask you to this into a context for us. First of all, I want to ask why is President Obama so concerned about Pakistan? What's at stake here for the United States? And then secondly, I wanted to ask, to what you attribute the success of the Taliban? Is it simply military superiority? Do they have popular support among the people? So, set the table for us.

CHAMBERLIN: So, those are two very good questions. Pakistan is important to the United States - 170,000 Muslims, second largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia is the first. But the population is - more than half are illiterate, it's impoverished, economic problems, and it sits at a crossroads which is vital to our interests. And it is becoming more extremist and that is a wake-up call. Certainly the Taliban movement into Buner, 60 miles from Islamabad, was a wake-up call. Once again I think President Obama put his finger right on the problem. And just to put that in larger context, as you've asked me to - the military response, there is no military response. What we've finally seen from Pakistan military, in routing at least some of the Taliban from Buner, won't resolve the problem. There is a larger context. What is happening is, in Pakistan, the extremist groups - and there're many different flavors and varieties of them. You have the Pakistani Taliban, you have the Kashmiri terrorist groups who help the al-Qaida, etcetera - are forming a loose syndicate around a strategy provided to them by the al-Qaida. They have a goal - it's to impose sharia law. But the important thing, the point I want to make here, is they've the narrative, and the weak civilian government that Obama referred to, does not have the narrative.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that?

CHAMBERLIN: Well, it's based on, really two - three themes.

MARTIN: You mean they have the momentum, is that what you're saying?

CHAMBERLIN: They've an idea that will appeal to the people. First of all, they wrap themselves in the cloak of religion. You had Sufi Mohammed, the other day, saying that democracy in elections is un-Islamic. Well, that's patently nutty. But he appeals to the populous, very religious populous, wrapped around religion, which the government is not and cannot do. Secondly - a second element of their narrative is they're now appealing to the class divide. Pakistan is in many ways, a feudal country where you have very rich elites that have been elected to Parliament. President Zardari himself is a feudal leader. And the gap between the rich and the poor is very wide. The Taliban and the extremists are exploiting that.

And that is what President Obama is talking about. And thirdly and very disturbingly, the extremists have captured the nationalist flag and banner. They now are the ones that are appealing to the large Pakistani population around an anti-American, anti-Indian banner. You saw the Lashkar-e-Taiba, part of this extremist syndicate, attacking Mumbai. They now, rather than the army, can appeal to the population as anti-Indian. They are - on their radio stations, on their TV stations, which they still have access too, are able to criticize the United States for America's war along the border and our predator drone attacks. So they've captured the nationalist banner, and this is very disturbing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the situation in Pakistan with Wendy Chamberlin. She is the former United States ambassador to Pakistan and the current president of the Middle East Institute. So just for clarity sake, ambassador, before I ask a couple of more questions - is the Taliban's advance in Pakistan due to popular support? If there were an election, for example, would they win? If they would have laid down their arms and just run for election, would they win, or are they're imposing themselves on the population because of military superiority and tactical superiority - or both?

CHAMBERLIN: They're not popular, and they would not win an election. And in the past, religious parties have always faired very poorly in election - 14 percent is the highest they've ever gotten. And in fact, in the election held just a year ago, in February, the ANP in the Swat valley - which is a secular Pashtunar party - actually defeated the religious parties at the polls. The people spoke at the polls on election and voted for the secular ANP. They - second part of your question, they do use terror. Their strategy - they have a goal, which is to impose a harsh sharia law, which we saw is miserable for people. We saw the Taliban regime in Afghanistan during the 90s. It's a miserable regime, the people don't want that.

But they have a tactic of going in to remote areas, creating chaos and terror. In Swat, for example, they put bombs under over 200 schools where girls attended, they slit the throats of barbers who shave beards. They attacked the authorities, meaning the police and the ANP Party members. They created tactics and terror. What people want, you and I want for our families, is security. We want to be safe in our homes and communities. And the Taliban deprives us of that.

MARTIN: The U.S. provides about a billion dollars in aid to the Pakistani government each year, and the White House just requested about $83.4 billion more for military spending and other aid. And so, I think many people would ask what's that money going for? Why is it not achieving better, and what's not working in U.S. - the U.S. approach to Pakistan?

CHAMBERLIN: Well, in the past, during the Bush administration, much of that money, I think it was close to 10 or 11 billion dollars since 2002 to 2008, went into what was called Coalition Support Funds. The army itself said it didn't see a lot of this, I mean, that's what I'm hearing from many of my Pakistani army friends - a lot of budget support, etcetera. And - and a lot of it went into big ticket weapon items used to fight their traditional enemy, which is India. The army had - has not - had not and has not yet wrapped its mind around the fact, that it's - it's existential threat to Pakistan - the state of Pakistan as it sees itself, is really the extremist threat within rather than the traditional threat of India.

Now, what the Obama administration is proposing to do and which I support, is to - is to provide military assistance to the army but in areas which will help in its counter insurgency challenge right now, because that's the challenge that matters.

MARTIN: But what - but how would that - what would that look like. Would that be training and who would do that?

CHAMBERLIN: Training. Well, U.S. government, U.S. military would training - we would invite more Pakistani military, army officials to the United States to go to our schools, to go to training. We would provide night vision equipment that is specialized for counterinsurgency such as night vision goggles and helicopters rather than fighter jets. There is quite a bit we could do, but this is not - a military answer is not the only answer. What the civilian government with the Pakistan society has to do is to answer that narrative. Right now, it's a vacuum - nothing. The Talibani extremists have the march on what will appeal to people.

MARTIN: Does this government have the moral authority, if you will, the standing to answer that narrative, as you put it?

CHAMBERLIN: One would hope they would find it. There is criticism of the civilian government as being quite weak. President Zardari, who is the widower of - of Benazir Bhutto, is derided openly in Pakistani newspapers as being Mr. 10 percent.

MARTIN: Corrupt - in essence being corrupt.

CHAMBERLIN: In the past he was, his popularity, his approval ratings are actually lower than Musharraf's were when Musharraf was ousted. So, I don't know, can he redefine himself? Can Nawaz Sharif, his opposition leader redefine himself. We certainly hope so.

MARTIN: And finally ambassador, we only have about a minute left, next week, as I understand it, President Obama will be meeting with the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, who is up for election this summer. And President Zardari - Ali Zardari, as you mentioned. What - what do you hope will be discussed in this meeting - in these meetings?

CHAMBERLIN: Well, these are the trilateral meetings that the Obama administration and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke hope to hold periodically. It's important that Afghanistan and Pakistan leaders, military leaders and civilian leaders come together and understand that the enemy - the common enemy that they - they both face, in extremism, has widened the battlefield that it isn't a national issue, it's not a Afghan issue, it's not a Pakistan issue, it's a broader regional issue and they've to come together and cooperate more. These trilaterals were planned long before the current crisis in Buner and Swat, which will certainly be a topic.

MARTIN: To be continued, I hope you will come back and tell us more.

CHAMBERLIN: Thank you Michel.

MARTIN: Wendy Chamberlin served as the United States ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2002. She is currently president of the Middle East Institute. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington D.C. studio. Thank you so much for stopping by.

CHAMBERLIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Next, President Obama says the use of torture is contrary to American values, but some critics say that attitude puts the U.S. in danger.

MICHAEL SCHEUER: there is no greater value, no greater moral responsibility for any elected leader of any party than to protect the American people.

MARTIN: Former CIA Officer Michael Scheuer on torture. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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