Q&A: Former Pakistani Diplomat on Predator Drones

The Obama administration's much-heralded new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak, as the portfolio has been called) is to pour in piles of cash to develop the countries being rent by militias like the Taliban. But the plan is much more equivocal about the tactics for combating those groups. Under Gen. David McKiernan, the previous U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Predator drones were a primary tool for engagment, but since the man who replaced him, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has announced a mandate to limit civilian deaths, experts thought drone attacks would abate. Not so far, according to this week's news.

NEWSEEK's Anita Kirpalani sat down with Pakistan's former deputy representative at the United Nations, S. Azmat Hassan, to talk about the new strategy, drones, soft power, and India. Hassan, who worked on Afghanistan issues, also has 33 years experience in the Pakistani foreign service, including ambassadorial posts in Malaysia, Syria, and Morocco.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari qualified the new comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan put forward by president Obama as a "positive change." What do you think about it?
It does mark quite a large departure from the almost classic counterterrorism policy followed by the Bush administration for eight years: to flush out extremists and to confront them militarily with force and to kill them or capture them. The attempt is now to rebuild both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Do you think the use of soft power is good?
Any injection of soft power can only help. In fact I think that the overreliance on hard power has been a major problem. This was a problem in Iraq, and this is a problem in Afghanistan. This strategy will stem of the flow of recruits to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke said he wanted to "treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theater." Do you think it is a good strategy?
I have reservations about this, frankly. Because this again shows that not enough homework has been done about two totally different countries. It would have been like treating Cambodia and Vietnam together.

Analysts have compared the Predator drone attacks to the attacks on Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Do you think that the attacks might radicalize militants further?
No two insurgency situations are alike. The bombing of Cambodia was a secret event. But in Afghanistan and Pakistan the operations are overt. To me these drone attacks show some lack of coordination between the Pakistani security agencies, particularly the ISI, and the American authorities. Pakistan is supposed to be a frontline state. It is a major non-NATO ally and yet I think there is an element of mistrust. It would be much better if the Pakistani agencies were launching these counterterrorist operations as part of a wider operation to win hearts and minds.

Should the bombings be maintained but performed by the Pakistani authorities?
The question is: is it effective? Thirty-five or 40 drone attacks have taken place. According to the media, eight or nine top Al Qaeda operatives have been killed. Obviously, where innocent people die, the media, the newspapers, the local authorities, they all rally public opinion.

Are you saying that if these attacks killed some of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud's companions or even him, they would be effective?
If Mehsud is taken out by these drone attacks, yes, I think the majority of the Pakistanis would support such an operation … But the fact is that if a group of determined indoctrinated fanatical militants are willing to lay down their lives, there is not very much that a country like Pakistan or Afghanistan can do, frankly. So I foresee a rise in these violent incidents if the drone attacks continue.

So the drone attacks should be stopped?
On balance perhaps there should be a halt to these attacks. I think the drones are not a long-term measure.

How do you weaken the insurgents?
Through the lure of socioeconomic development. After all, in Iraq's so-called insurgent awakening, they were made to lay down their arms because they were given a monthly stipend by the U.S.

After the Mumbai attacks and in view of the Indian elections, what evolution do you see for the relationship between India and Pakistan?
Both countries have shown immaturity. The knee-jerk reactions that used to happen after such an event was nearly war. Now [they understand] that fighting will not solve the problem—that violent extremism is a common problem to both India and Pakistan and that it requires a common bilateral or even regional solution. President Zardari, to his credit, has proposed that combating violent extremism in south and southwest Asia should be a combined effort of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and Iran.

What do you think about the so-called diplomatic back channel between India and Pakistan that Steve Coll reported on in The New Yorker ?
That has been going on for a while. It will continue because it is in the interest of India and Pakistan that this long-term dispute should be resolved. Even with the BJP [India's largest Hindu nationalist party] the back channel was going on.