In August, Dan Feldman succeeded James Dobbins as the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Feldman’s mandate requires him to “align, focus, and implement policies and programs that support U.S. national-security interests in a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan and Pakistan.” We spoke with him recently about Pakistan. Excerpts:
Pakistan launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan in June. Is Washington confident this will deliver on its promise to deny space to militants in the tribal belt?
The United States has long pushed for an effort by Pakistan to extend the writ of its government throughout the federally-administered tribal areas. It is in Pakistan’s interest to have control over its sovereign territories. This military offensive is purely Pakistan-owned. Of course, the outcome not only affects Pakistan’s security but also that of the entire region. We greatly appreciate Pakistan’s sacrifices, both in term of the lives that are dedicated to fighting terrorism and the financial resources that go into it. However, what is most important, for us, is to ensure that the operation does not just temporarily disrupt extremist outfits, but denies them an opportunity to return to North Waziristan, or to reconstitute a safe haven elsewhere. I believe many in Pakistan were quite surprised by what they discovered in Miramshah and Mir Ali. These discoveries underscore the risk of allowing terrorists safe havens. There should not be any distinction between extremists groups. All such outfits need to be pursued. Pakistan and the United States enjoy a very robust counterterrorism relationship. The country has been our critical partner, particularly in pursuit of Al Qaeda. Today our joint counter-IED efforts are significantly expanded, as is Pakistan’s direct action to interdict and disrupt IED networks.
Pakistan has said that the Haqqani network, once described by Adm. Mike Mullen as a “veritable arm” of the ISI, is being targeted in the operation. Is there still some skepticism in Washington about Islamabad’s resolve?
Targeting all terrorists, with equal vigor, is in Pakistan’s long-term interest. Let’s not forget that these groups have a common nexus, whether that is through the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Al Qaeda or the foreign fighters. This common nexus threatens all of us, including Pakistan. And because the Haqqani network poses a specific threat to our efforts in Afghanistan, and to American lives, which means that our executive branch and the Congress are very focused on it. It is important to our key stakeholders to see continuing progress on our counterterrorism cooperation to best enable continuing progress in our broader relationship.
CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas have picked up again. Why does the U.S. feel the need to use drones when our Army is on the ground there?
We have a very strong, ongoing dialogue with the Pakistani government on a whole range of security issues. It is very important for us to continue to work with each other. On drones in general, I can refer you back to President Obama’s speech last year at the National Defense University where he laid out the legal and policy criteria that would govern the use of these aircraft.
Is there any concern that targeting these areas, where our troops are engaged, can lead to a Salala-like incident of friendly fire?
That is why the security cooperation is so important.
Pakistan has repeatedly requested for the Coalition Support Fund to be extended beyond its expiry date. How has Washington responded to this?
We and the government of Pakistan agree that the Coalition Support Fund program has been an important tool in expanded cooperation against common threats. As we transition from Afghanistan, we are working with Pakistan to determine what set of programs will be needed to continue our cooperation against the shared threats and common challenges that we face. Another factor is that our fiscal environment is very tough, and there are many competing challenges for scarce resources.
There is consensus among South Asia watchers in Washington, D.C., that Pakistan has been downgraded as a foreign-policy priority for the U.S. Do you agree?
It is certainly true that there are a plethora of very critical foreign-policy challenges today, making it difficult to get the global community to commit financial resources or personnel to any one of these issues. But Pakistan will continue to be of great interest to the U.S., and our national security. Even with competing priorities Pakistan’s future matters very much to the Obama administration. In the last five years our relationship has become more productive. We now have more honest and realistic conversations with each other through our Strategic Dialogue. There is already collaboration in the five areas the dialogue focuses on: economics and finance, defense, energy, law enforcement and counterterrorism, and nonproliferation. Soon we will be adding a sixth working group of science and technology and higher education.
What kind of assistance is the U.S. willing to provide Pakistan on the Diamer-Bhasha Dam?
The Bhasha Dam is an enormous, at least $12-billion project. The United States has helped Pakistan add 1,400 megawatts to its grid—about 7 percent of the total electricity production today or enough electricity to benefit 16 million people. By the end of next year, this would [go] up to 2,000 megawatts. For now, we are helping to facilitate and nurture Pakistan’s preparations for the Bhasha Dam. But a project of that size and cost is something that no one country or donor is going to be the lead investor for. We can’t commit further funding right now, as it must come from future Congressional appropriations. Yet, we have funded the initial environmental and social due-diligence effort. Personally, I think hydropower projects are some of the smartest energy choices Pakistan can make.
How does the U.S. see the antigovernment protests in Pakistan?
From the start, we have urged all sides to refrain from violence and to respect the rule of law. The United States strongly opposes any extra-constitutional means to change the political system. But ultimately, an element of a mature and democratic state is that it allows for protests, provided they are peaceful and constructive. Obviously, we are monitoring the rallies on a day-to-day basis. But it is for Pakistan to determine what to do next. We are in no way part of it. Despite the negativity there are reasons to be optimistic about the strength of Pakistan’s civilian institutions. A democratic government completed its constitutional term for the first time in history, and was succeeded through a peaceful democratic process. And there are signs of economic progress. Pakistani consumers can now access 3G/4G wireless spectrum for the first time. In addition, I particularly like the data point that Pakistan outcompeted China and others for the contract to produce all of the Adidas soccer balls used for last summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
What, if any, steps is Washington considering to help deescalate the border flare-up between Pakistan and India?
There is no relationship more critical to Pakistan’s future than its relationship with its neighbor. And I am convinced that India’s rise in prosperity and global leadership cannot be fully realized until it has a better relationship with Pakistan. We are very concerned about the violence on the Line of Control and the Working Boundary. I have spoken to senior officials in both governments, urging the two to engage and to exercise restraint. That said, the U.S.’s fundamental position on Kashmir has not changed. The pace, scope and character of the conversation on Kashmir should be worked out between India and Pakistan. The best way to deescalate is through direct conversations.
The U.S. has recently designated three Pakistan-based organizations as terrorist groups and announced a crackdown on their financial networks. Pakistan’s Foreign Office has called this a unilateral move. How do you respond to this?
This is a continuation of our ongoing effort to disrupt terrorist organizations from accessing financial networks. Both Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen are violent terrorist organizations and have ties with Al Qaeda. [Harkat] has been proscribed since well over a decade. This is not anything new. The U.S. Treasury has designated 27 individuals now. We want to make sure these designations actually mean something. It is important for us to apply these sanctions.
But is there a reason that the press release about this came just as India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, started his U.S. tour?
People read far too much into the timings of these things. To build cases and dossiers against individuals takes months, if not years; they are meticulously examined, analyzed. Then there is the inter-agency clearance. Any suggestion that it was anything but accidental implies something that is just not the case. There is no correlation whatsoever.
In Worthy Fights, Leon Panetta, former U.S. defense secretary, writes that, “Our uneasiness with Pakistan was unspoken. We grumbled about it in inner circles, but made nice in public.” Is this accurate?
There is a long acknowledged trust deficit. It runs both ways. In Pakistan, despite having spent billions of dollars in civilian and security assistance, a high percentage of Pakistanis have not trusted our motives. And similarly here, there has been a distrust of Pakistan in terms of it differentiating between various extremist groups. Initially, in this administration, the expectations were sky-high about where the relationship could go. They are more realistic now. Also, there were external shocks to the system, from Raymond Davis to Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden apparently lived peacefully for several years. These make it that much more difficult to explain to Congress why Pakistan remains such a close ally. But we have many common interests. One of which is to ensure that Pakistan is a stable and democratic country.
It doesn’t sound like Pakistan has many friends left in Washington.
International relations is not Facebook or Twitter. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship will be judged, like any other relationship, on how it addresses the core interests of each of our respective countries. I was Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s deputy; he was as committed as anyone has ever been in strengthening the relationship. But there are others. Secretary [of State John] Kerry is a true friend to Pakistan. When he was in the Senate, he sponsored a bill that, in practice, has appropriated an unprecedented $5 billion over five years in civilian assistance to Pakistan. Former Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton similarly cared deeply about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. There are many in Congress who want this relationship to succeed, with equal efforts made by both partners. Many Americans believe that the relationship is critical to addressing some of the most important challenges we face in the 21st century—from proliferation and terrorism to climate change and global poverty. How we perform together in addressing these will determine how Pakistan is viewed in Washington, and elsewhere around the world.
Is there any credence to talk that the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan may be scrapped?
My office was created to better organize resources given the challenges in the region. The State Department and the U.S. government can be quite bureaucratic. So when the Special Representative’s office was set up it was an effort to create a more nimble, entrepreneurial and creative response to a key area of focus. This position reports directly to the Secretary [of State]. The idea was never that it would be a permanent standalone entity. It was always temporary, and it was more about us and our ability to organize ourselves efficiently than about how we see or deal with Pakistan. I don’t know what will be decided when I ultimately leave the position, but I am convinced that U.S. foreign policy and national-security interests in the region have been well served by this office, and it has delivered real benefits for the people of the U.S. and Pakistan.
From our Oct. 25-Nov. 1, 2014, issue.