Pakistani Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani, a scholar and former general, says the government of President Pervez Musharraf is being unfairly blamed for the failure of U.S. intelligence to locate Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. In an interview last week with NEWSWEEK’s Michael Hirsh at Pakistan’s Embassy in Washington, Durrani attacked as erroneous the recent National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Al Qaeda has “regenerated key elements” of its ability to attack the United States. The ambassador also argued that the agreement that Musharraf signed with North Waziristan’s Pashtun tribes in September 2006, which gave pro-Taliban tribal elders full control in the Pakistani region, is still intact, even though senior U.S. officials such as Homeland Security Adviser Frances Fragos Townsend say it hasn’t worked. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Critics say Pakistan is not doing all it can to take out the Taliban and Al Qaeda. What’s your response?
Mahmud Ali Durrani: When [U.S. forces] act there’s often more collateral damage than killing the bad guys. We cannot afford that. Second, many times [American] information is faulty. It’s not timely. It’s inaccurate. It’s the same intelligence you’ve been getting in Iraq. People here [in Washington] take it as the gospel truth. We challenge that very seriously.
Why is the United States getting such bad information?
I don’t know. Sometimes the warlords will use you. There are many people in Afghanistan for whom continued violence and debstabilization works for them.
What about the National Intelligence Estimate and what it says about safe havens for Al Qaeda in North Waziristan?
It’s absolutely incorrect. There are no safe havens. Now, what is the definition of a safe haven? It is a place where they can stay and plan and operate from, and there is a kind of tacit approval by the government of Pakistan. This is preposterous. We will agree there may be odd people in hideouts. But there are no safe havens. And whenever we get information we take them out. Five or six times we’ve gone into Waziristan and Bajaur this year. We went after the training camps.
There are supposed to be these mud-hut compounds where the Taliban and Al Qaeda do their training.
This is an absolute fallacy. There is no compound like Fort Knox or Fort Benning. What a training camp in our area entails is a room about this size [pointing to his spacious office] where people can sleep at night. And then there is some space outside where they can train. And from the air it may just look like an innocent hut. … It’s not a compound, that’s totally false.
As you know, Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, suggested in a speech on Wednesday that if Musharraf doesn’t act in the tribal areas, the United States will have to. Your response?
I think [Obama] is a very able person, and I respect his views, but I totally disagree with him. I think he is misinformed as far as this goes. I mean, he qualifies it nicely in his speech. He says if Musharraf doesn’t act on information which is 100 percent accurate, then we will. Well, if it is 100 percent accurate and we get it, then we will take them out. [For the record, Obama said, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.”] This seems to be a favorite topic—hitting Pakistan. It will weaken the position of the government in Pakistan if the Americans go in and hit bad guys, because even now the public in Pakistan feels the government is doing too much for the United States.
Where do you think the NIE judgments came from?
They must have been some Sigint [“signals” intelligence from the super-secret National Security Agency]. Some chatter that there is some movement, which is possible. But there are no safe havens, no planning cells.
Although some Britons of Pakistani descent who were allegedly involved in the July 7, 2006, bombings in London did go back to visit madrassas [Islamic religious schools] in Pakistan, that connection has never been confirmed.
That’s correct. Hypothetically, there may be some education there. There are people who have connections. But it’s not an operational center. You may go back to your high school. The planning doesn’t start there.
After the Red Mosque operation [when Musharraf sent in Army troops to clear out a mosque taken over by a radical cleric and his followers], there were indications that Zawahiri is more determined than ever to kill President Musharraf.
Because Musharraf is committed to doing what he has to do. We want to take out high-value targets whenever we can. There is cooperation between [American] intelligence and ours. … In the tribal area the agreement was signed with 35 elders, but there are spoilers in every movement. You have to understand the tribal culture. Even today, there are tribal leaders who are literally begging the government not to destroy this agreement.
So is the agreement still intact?
I think so.
Why haven’t we been able to get bin Laden and Zawahiri?
That was a failure of intelligence. As much a failure of [U.S.] intelligence, which has far greater resources, as ours. The track record is not very flattering.
You’ve heard the allegations that the Pakistani government will help to take out second- or third-tier Taliban or Al Qaeda, but because of the legendary status of bin Laden that there is unwillingness by Musharraf to target him.
This is not logical. We take second tier and leave the first tier, which is targeting Musharraf? Are we crazy? Are we nuts? People make fancy theories based on thin air. We would be happy to take him out in a second if we knew where he was. If we knew [where] Zawahiri was.
Where do you think they are?
I think they are floating. Nobody knows. Let’s say he was in Pakistan and [U.S.] intelligence had definite information. Do you think they would let us sit on our rear ends and do nothing about it?
Are you frustrated by the criticism of the NIE and Obama when you know there is so much cooperation going on behind the scenes? Particularly in the context of the new U.S. nuclear deal with India, and big aid packages going to Saudi Arabia and Egypt without any apparent conditions?
Afghanistan too. Absolutely. It is frustrating for Musharraf and everybody around him when people do this to Pakistan. Even the preamble to the NIE says that most of these assessments and judgments are not 100 percent accurate.
Though I will say there is solid reporting that in the wake of the Waziristan agreement there has been a re-establishment of Taliban and Al Qaeda-sympathizing elements in that area.
Yes, but whenever we get intelligence we take them out. What irritates us is that we are doing so much, much more than [the Americans are] doing. The threat to us is far greater.
Particularly in the wake of the Red Mosque operation, is there a new push now?
There is a new push for the last couple of months. Because we thought some of it was creeping outside the tribal areas—the terrorists and extremist thinking. We are going to upgrade our police forces and our paramilitary forces. That, we have determined, will take about six months. I think about 20,000 paramilitary we are going to add in tribal areas. In fact right now if you include FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] it’s over 120,000.