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Pakistan: 'Terror State' Or American Ally?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Relations continue to deteriorate between the United States and Pakistan, a country some described as a nominal ally. A Senate panel voted last week to reduce aid to Islamabad after a doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden was sentenced to 33 years in prison. And Pakistan continues to refuse to reopen U.S. supply lines into Afghanistan that it cut in response to American air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year.


National Journal correspondent Michael Hirsh writes: Washington and other capitals continue to watch helplessly as a middle-sized developing country defies a superpower and the NATO alliance with virtual impunity. Some argue it's time to offer Islamabad a stark choice: Cooperate fully against the Taliban and al-Qaida, or become an international pariah.

How should we conduct relations with Pakistan: 800-989-8255. Email: You can find us at on our website. Michael Hirsh joins us here in Studio 3A. He's chief correspondent for the National Journal, wrote several articles on our complicated relationship with Pakistan. Nice to have you with us today.

MICHAEL HIRSH: Happy to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you describe U.S. policy as paralyzed by a Pakistan that promises cooperation on one hand and uses the other to support groups that kill U.S. troops and threaten the entire American enterprise in Afghanistan.

HIRSH: Yeah. I was particularly struck by this because of a trip that I just made to Afghanistan in early May, about an eight-day trip. And one of my impressions was that, actually, there were some signs of hope in Afghanistan. The psychology there among the Afghans had changed dramatically after president Obama committed the U.S. to remaining in that country in some fashion, not with troops in large numbers.


CONAN: Combat troops, yeah.

HIRSH: Combat troops, but nonetheless in a training capacity, special operations, and the Afghans respond to that. This is a country whose national trauma is really abandonment, in the same way that our national trauma, say, is 9/11 or Japan's national trauma was Hiroshima. And so you saw that psychology change by the commitment the U.S. had made under Obama, and as well, the NATO allies. But on the negative side, there was this paralysis over Pakistan. Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan are probably worse than they have ever been.

Most of the discussion has been about the closure of this over-land routes and issues like that, and not even really touching on the deeper issues, which U.S. officials have gotten more and more forthright in pointing out, which is that the ISI, the intelligence service and the military of Pakistan are helping, supporting, funding the very same terrorists that are killing our troops, not just Americans but French, British, you know, Germans. And it really is quite a spectacle. I mean, to think that this mid-sized country is essentially standing down the mightiest alliance in history.

CONAN: Admiral Mike Mullen, on his way out as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Haqqani Network, which is one of the worst of these groups, is a virtual arm of the ISI, the intelligence services of Pakistan.

HIRSH: That's right. That was a very blunt statement. And I heard other officials, including Ryan Crocker...

CONAN: The ambassador.

HIRSH: ...the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who's now leaving, which may explain some of his bluntness, say that, you know, that there's no question that the Pakistanis have been helping these insurgents, Taliban and allies of the Taliban. Indeed, when I raised the subject with Crocker, whether the U.S. should issue an apology over the NATO strikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, which has been debated about endlessly over the last several months inside the U.S. government, he said, you know, I don't think so.

I mean, these Pakistan-supported insurgents twice tried to hit me, U.S. soil here, which is the embassy in Kabul. So there is this diplomatic paralysis about what to do about Pakistan at a time when, absent the Pakistan problem, things could actually be looking up in Afghanistan.

CONAN: Yet Pakistan has a fragile civilian government. I think fragile is a good word. The military is viewed as the principal power, the - in the country. Its intelligence services are also very powerful, beyond the reach of President Zardari.

HIRSH: No question that there is something of a split there, that this policy of supporting the Taliban and other Islamist, jihadist groups comes from the military and intelligence. It's about trying to deliver a countervailing force to India's influence in the region. India is Pakistan's great rival. And so for many, many years, since well before 9/11, the Pakistanis have seen the support of Islamist groups as a way to deal with India. We know that. We know all this. And yet right after 9/11, the U.S. - at least for a time - did successfully deliver a very tough message (unintelligible) to then-President Pervez Musharraf, saying, look, you know, you're with us or you're with the terrorists. We really need you to stop supporting the Taliban. This is now our enemy.

And that was effective for the time, but then things sort of went adrift. Diplomacy has been seriously lacking, especially since the untimely death of Richard Holbrooke, who was Obama's special representative, you know, a major figure in diplomacy. And since then, things have been described to me by a variety of officials in NATO and even inside the U.S. government as paralyzed, adrift. We simply don't have a good overarching policy for this region that is commensurate with what now have become our commitments, and these are serious commitments. So this is a serious commitment of money and time for more than a decade.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for National Journal. He wrote the piece, "Pakistan: The Terror State We Call our Ally." Well, that's one of the title of the article.


CONAN: I know it's been published in different versions.


CONAN: And he's with us here in Studio 3A. 800-989-8255. Email us: And let's see if we can get John on the line, John with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JOHN: Hi, Neal. Thanks so much. I enjoy the show. Yeah, I would just kind of like to hear a reason or I'd like to know why this doctor, he's sentenced with - I think it was - 32 years. A $1 million fine for every year that he's in prison, the U.S. Congress has, I guess, levied on Pakistan. You know, I think we send more than $1 billion a year right now to Pakistan. I'd like to know why we continue to support them if we're pulling out of Afghanistan and we don't really need their help with Osama bin Laden or these, you know, Pakistani militants anymore. Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks.

HIRSH: Well, we are going to continue to need their help. I mean, that's part of the point. When I was in Afghanistan, I spent a good amount of time in the east, which is where the - most of the violence is occurring. It's close to the Pakistani tribal regions in the border there. And this is like an ever-replenishing toxic spring, if you will, with the Pakistan ISI, the intelligence services and the military continuing to fund jihadi activity.

And once U.S. combat troops leave, the remaining 68,000 or so we'll have after the final withdrawal of the surge troops this September, once those leave by the end of 2014, then we're leaving this entire area completely up in the air. And, you know, I think we have to bear in mind that this was a region of the Earth where, after previous total abandonment by the United States, the Taliban grew and became a host to al-Qaida, which culminated in the attacks on 9/11.

So I do think we are going to, you know, remain there, and whatever the aid program to Pakistan turns out to be, there's going to continue to be this back and forth. You have to remember, this is a country that is still nominally secular. They do help in some areas in terms of restraining the worst of the jihadists, particularly al-Qaida. And they have nuclear arms, which is something that the U.S. has to be concerned about. So there is reasonable concern about a complete cut off of relations.

CONAN: Well, let's see if we could go next to - this is Paul, Paul with us from Orange Park in Florida.

PAUL: Yes, I'm 62 years old, and I'm tired of our government trying to work with other governments like Pakistan who are double-faced. And they're our friends on the one hand when they're taking money, and they're our enemies on the other hand when they're telling our - the insurgents or whoever is attacking our soldiers. It's time, you know, to come to realization that Pakistan is not our ally and to treat them as our enemy.

CONAN: Treat them as our enemy?

HIRSH: Well, that's - it's not really such an either-or as that.

PAUL: You know, that's the same damn thing they said in Vietnam, too, and it's come to the same stupid, ridiculous end. So, you know, just go ahead and have your fun.

CONAN: Paul, well, thank you very much for the call. And you can hear his anger. The patience of the American public is not unlimited.


CONAN: This anger - these are people killing Americans.

HIRSH: Well, I agree with Paul in one respect. I mean, it's the point of the article that I wrote which we're discussing here today, there needs to be a much tougher message, a clearer message from - not just the United States. And one of errors here, is this continuous to be seen as a U.S.-Pakistan problem. No. This is the U.S. This is NATO, this is ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, which is 22 additional nations, including Australia. These are all countries whose interests are now in this region because they put down troops and money there, and whose interests - and their very soldiers, the lives of their soldiers - are being jeopardized by the situation.

There's no reason why you could not create a united diplomatic front and deliver this tougher message to Pakistan. Look, you know, we cannot tolerate this any longer. You have a choice. Do you want to be like Iran, which is to be something of a pariah country, sanctioned, and therefore, losing ground to your archrival India economically and militarily? Or do you want to be part of the international community? I think that kind of a message is the kind of thing that, you know, Richard Holbrooke was working himself toward, but he died in December 2010 before he could implement it.

CONAN: We're talking about U.S. and NATO policy towards Pakistan as the war in Afghanistan winds down. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And, again, you can go to our website, Click on TALK OF THE NATION. There's a link to Michael Hirsh's article there. And let's see - time for another demarche, another instruction, which would be seen as a humiliation by many in Pakistan.

HIRSH: Oh, indeed. Look, anti-Americanism is very high in Pakistan. There's a lot of controversy - not just over those errant NATO strikes that killed 24 Pakistan soldiers, not just over the raid that took out Osama bin Laden and where we didn't consult with the Pakistanis about the time and circumstances of the raid because it was right there in Abbottabad, this military enclave, and people still don't know how it was that bin Laden was living under the eyes of (unintelligible).

CONAN: Still haven't explained it, and...

HIRSH: They have not.

CONAN: ...nor did they explain the United States' concern that if they were told, they would then tell Mr. bin Laden.

HIRSH: And there is anger, as well, over the U.S. drone program, which has been considerably stepped up under Obama. So all that, you know, is understandable. There's bad blood. There's tension. There's going to continue to be. But that doesn't mean that we can keep on as we are without any kind of an overarching diplomatic vision for the region, a strategic concept that basically says, look, to Pakistan and to India. This is the way it's going to be. You know, the interests of the United States and these other countries are now here to stay for some time to come.

And as I say in my article, it's not just about Pakistan. It's about also forcing India's hand. The U.S., under both Bush and Obama, has forged new relationship with India, with asking almost no quid pro quo. The issue of Kashmir, the province that lies between India and Pakistan, has been festering for decades. And there have been fitful U.S. efforts to get involved. The Indians continue to reject that, and we continue to stand down whenever they raise issues about it. I think that what you need is some really, you know, strong and tough diplomacy for this region that we simply don't have in the same way we have it, frankly, for Iran, for, you know, China or even South America.

CONAN: Let's get Mike on the line, Mike calling from Columbus. Mike, are you there?

MIKE: Yes. Hello. This is Mike. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MIKE: Yes. I'm just wondering, like, why are we, like, so dependent on Pakistan? Like, OK, Pakistan is helping Haqqani. It's fine. Let them do it. Why not, like, we put like our own forces on the border, like on the other side in Afghanistan and stop, like, these terrorists who are, like, supposedly coming from Pakistan? Like - just like - to give you an example, just like we did with Mexico. Like in Mexico, we put, like, this long, like, border with Mexico. And we put a lot of border patrols, and we increased border patrols and we increased, like, other things, so - to stop, like, people who are coming from Mexico. So why not do the same thing in that region and - so that we won't be so dependent on Pakistan?

CONAN: Well, Michael Hirsh, that's a pretty rugged frontier.


HIRSH: It's very rugged. It's also very far away, unlike the border with Mexico. We're talking about policing it with our own border police and domestically here. No, I mean, the main point obviously is we want - we do want to get out of there. We've had now about 100,000 troops there, including the Obama surge troops of about 33,000 since 2009. This is now officially America's longest war in Afghanistan, and there' no question that the U.S. is pulling out, as Obama has announced.

So that's not an option. And in the absence of a major U.S. troop presence there, you know, there really is no alternative to getting some kind of cooperation from Pakistan.

CONAN: Let's get Dan on, one last caller, with us from Carson City, Nevada.

DAN: Hi. I'm calling because I've been upset by the amount of demonizing of Pakistan that's been happening on this program and others. I think that the Pakistanis have done in regard to the doctor who ran a fake a vaccine program to collect the DNA of people who wandered into his clinic, was guilty of spying. And I think that the - what will happen in this case is the next time that a doctor gets killed, that the U.S. will be responsible for it because we have made doctors into spies. And, of course, this person should be arrested and held because he has endangered the lives of some of the best doctors on Earth, the doctors who go over...

CONAN: Dan, I don't mean to cut you off, we just have a few seconds left. I wanted to give Michael a chance to respond.

HIRSH: Yeah. No, I sympathize with these points being made. In fact, some of the facts of this case are not really clear at this point. There are additional reports now. The tribal court may have tried him on other charges than simply treason. It hasn't been fully clarified yet. And it's also not clarified, frankly, how long he's really going to remain in prison.

CONAN: So his charges against him - as you say, it's unclear that he was charged for treason. It may have been for contacts with...

HIRSH: Right, right. So I think we need to sort out the facts of this case before we can render any final judgment.

CONAN: Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for National Journal. Again, there's a link to his article at our website, Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at why one neuroscientist says ignorance drives science. We'll talk to you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.