Pakistan's Foreign Minister on Fighting Militants

Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister, runs a balancing act: on one side, Islamists and nationalists; on another, the United States; on a third, India; on a fourth, Afghanistan. Qureshi was in the U.S. last week for his country's strategic dialogue with the State Department, where he affirmed his government's willingness to fight the Taliban. Afterward, he stopped by NEWSWEEK's New York office to chat with editors about his military's "silent surge," the back channel with New Delhi, and the sacrifices Pakistan's intelligence agency has made fighting militants. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Tell us about this deal between the U.S. and Pakistan.
Qureshi: They were a breakthrough dialogue. We finally succeeded in putting the message across that we have been friends with our allies, and we've had a long relationship that has been cyclical and transactional. What we need to do is convert this relationship into a partnership. I have been hammering on this ever since I became foreign minister, but I think it finally has sunk in.

What do you think caused the breakthrough?
First, the recognition of the need of each other. Second, the realization in Pakistan that this menace [of the Taliban] is blocking the progress and the growth of Pakistan. The third factor is that for the first time, the democratically elected government gave the fight to ownership. Even the Army felt that we cannot fight the insurgency unless we have public support. Finally the Obama administration has been engaging more frequently and has been listening. The fact that they nominated a focal point for a constant engagement helped, and so did the fact that we demonstrated our seriousness through actions and sacrifices. Name one nation in the world that has had 31,000 casualties and has arrested, apprehended, and eliminated 17,000 terrorists.

Yet the U.S. position has always been until now that you need to do more. Is that part of the breakthrough?
Not once in this engagement has anyone said to me: "Do more." And for the first time there is the realization in Washington that their delivery has not matched the urgency that is required in the field. What we have succeeded in is converting public opinion and deploying 150,000 troops on the Western borders. Never in Pakistan's existence and history have we ever deployed these numbers there.

Has the administration asked India to take any measures?
Frankly, India has not been that helpful. They have been shortsighted. Terrorism is not geographic or area-specific. Do you think they will stop here if they can move on? They will not! The Indians must realize that it is in their long-term enlightened self-interest to see Pakistan succeed in defeating [the terrorists].

Skeptics will point to the traditional analysis that Pakistani support to the Taliban is a threat to Indian influence in Afghanistan.
I think they are out of date. Pakistan today does not consider [the] Taliban our friends. We do not want to see a Taliban control of government in Afghanistan.

Do you want to see them part of it?
That is to the Afghans to decide. For the first time, there is a qualitative change that people are not realizing. It was often said that Pakistani intelligence had an interest in who governs Afghanistan. You have had elections in Afghanistan. Ask the U.N. representative and the EU envoys there, "What was Pakistan's role?" We took a conscious decision of not interfering. Whoever the Afghans elect through the democratic process as their leaders, we will engage and work with them. There has been a change of thinking in Pakistan and a greater realization in Afghanistan that we are destined to be together. We share a border. Afghanistan is landlocked and trade has to go through Pakistan. That is why we are negotiating a new transit trade agreement. This is all new.

Some say that the offensive against the Taliban might have been short of going after Taliban leaders who are friendly with Pakistan intelligence.
You are misreading that we are differentiating between Pakistani Taliban who are hurting us and Afghan Taliban. I think the distinction that existed is diminishing. If you look at the late operations in South Waziristan, which was considered as the [Pakistan Taliban's] headquarters, the myth was that it had never been occupied by any force and that it was impossible to do it. We have done it. The next question is: "Fine, you have done that but you are not going into North Waziristan where the real bad guys are?" My answer is that we are, but do we have to announce it? It's a tactic again.

Are you sending troops there?
We have troops there. But we have to move according to a plan, in line with our resources. The strategy that has worked in Pakistan and that has not worked in Afghanistan is simple: we clear, we hold, once we have held we can only hold with the support of the population. Now we are at a critical phase of maintaining the momentum we have gained, which is build and then transfer authority from military to civilian authority.

Aren't those fierce Pashtun mountain warriors that have taken down every empire?
Every foreign empire. We are not foreigners. They do not look at us like aliens, but as saviors, because the people living in the tribal belt are sick and tired of the Taliban.

Are you saying that there is a military solution or at least a solution that begins with occupation?
No. The solution needs to be more comprehensive, but where force is required, force has to be used.

Do you think there will be visible action in the Northwest Frontier province in the next six months?
The allied forces call their surge the military surge. We are doing a silent surge.

What is the endgame? Occupy and hold the entire Western region?
On the Pakistani side? Obviously. We want to hold, clear, and frankly to amalgamate the tribal bit into the mainstream. But it will have to be done in a phased manner.

Is there a role for American drone strikes in the silent surge?
People understand that drone strikes are a precise and superior technology that has taken out some well-known targets. The problem has been the collateral damage. The issue of sovereignty remains. We have used airfire of late and nobody has complained. A missile fired from one of our planes can also target innocents. But when a U.S. drone fires and kills, people complain. That is why we have been talking with the administration about transfer of technology. When you give us the ownership, we will face the consequences, as well.

What do you say to those who say that you are taking off the battlefield certain commanders who might be more willing to enter talks and leaving alone those who are more hardline?
People can look at it in different ways. You can also look at the positive things. For example, we have this delegation of civilians and military and it is the first time that you have seen such coordination between the civilian and the military leadership of Pakistan. That is a positive thing. But some can say, "Well, the civilians are still not in charge." It is up to you the way you look at it.

Do you have a timeline for the silent surge?
You can't have a clear timeline. But we are encouraged by the fact that we have performed better than our expectations. How many in the West could have predicted that Pakistani troops would go into Swat and clear the valley in six weeks? Timelines have to be adjusted to ground realities.

For many Americans, the low-water mark of the fight was when the Taliban offensive came within 50 miles of Islamabad. Where is the front now?
You cannot clearly identify the front. They can operate in small pockets, a group of three or four can slip into a big town and carry out a terrorist activity and run away. Will you call it a front or a hit-and-run operation?

In what sense does the Army have ownership of the fight now that they didn't have before?
People's ownership. Initially it was felt that "It is not our war, why are we being sucked into it?" But we said, "This is a war that has a direct impact on Pakistan. Do we want Taliban to succeed in Kabul and target Islamabad with their ideological agenda and try to impose their agenda on us?" We don't. So if we don't, we have to stand up and fight them.

Did that change something in poll results?
Absolutely. Yesterday, the 22nd of March, in a place called Di-Khan, which has been a hub of activities of militancy, there was a by-election. A political party which had sympathies and was affiliated with the [coalition of religious parties Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal] was defeated by my party's candidate in free elections.

How did President Obama's announcement of the drawdown of the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan affect the way regional actors are behaving now?
The initial interpretation was "If they are leaving in July 2011, then just dig in, wait, create no problem, and once they leave come out of the woods." But that interpretation has been dispelled.

Why does the perception that the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continues to play a double game persist and what is the reality of it?
It has changed because ISI has performed significantly against the militants. In the last 18 months, we have lost something like 300 people and had at least 600 injured. Look at how many times their headquarters have been attacked: in Peshawar, Lahore, Multan. If ISI is helping them, why are they being attacked and killed?