Steve Coll Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Rise of al Qaeda: Conversation with Steve Coll, Associate Editor, The Washington Post; March 15, 2005 by Harry Kreisler

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Failure of U.S.'s Pakistan Policy

This way of not being imperial, not wanting to run an empire, led us to continue to defer to the Pakistanis -- the army, the ISI, the security agency -- with bad consequences, because over time their goals were changing. The goals of the various Islamic factions were changing, and we didn't perceive that until it was too late and kept exacerbating the policy by not attempting to moderate the mess that we had helped create.

The Pakistani army was fighting a different war than we were during the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. They were allies of ours but they had an independent agenda. They recognized, naturally enough, that first of all, they were more directly threatened by the Soviet invasion than the United States was, because if the resistance failed, the Soviets might well keep on coming. Secondly, they were very early on able to visualize a post-Soviet region, and as they began to push for Soviet withdrawal and began to recognize that it might occur, they began immediately to think, "What kind of neighborhood is this going to be after the Soviets pull out of Afghanistan?" In answering that question, their main concern was actually India, their existential rival with whom they had fought and lost three wars, the most recent one in 1971. They feared that the vacuum that Afghanistan might become would be a staging ground for Indian mischief and Indian hostility towards Pakistan. So, they began to promote radical Islamists for the purpose of controlling Afghan's politics in a postwar environment. It was not so much that they themselves believed in the ideology of bin Laden or his Afghan allies, but they saw this kind of Islamic politics as an effective way to contain Indian influence and to control an unruly neighbor to their west.

Now the United States watched this happening, watched the Pakistanis systematically promoting radical Islamic leaders who were hostile to the United States, who often denounced the United States in public speeches, and there was uneasiness about this, and as the Soviets left there was a debate, not very publicly available but it occurred nonetheless, about whether we ought to try to do something about this. But the prevailing view in the United States government, and particularly of the CIA, was, "Look, this isn't our neighborhood. If the Pakistanis want to promote clients who are hostile to the United States because that's the way that they're going to control post-Soviet Afghanistan, it might not be our first choice, but we don't have interests here sufficient to justify getting involved. Let's just go home." That argument ultimately prevailed by 1992, and so we shut down all of our involvement in Afghanistan and left it to the Pakistanis.

That failure and the Pakistani policy led to a development of a strategy on the part of the Pakistanis to use Afghanistan for strategic depth, and Kashmir then became mixed up with all of this. Talk a little about that, because the Pakistanis saw Kashmir as a vulnerability that they could exploit against India as they developed the strategic depth in Afghanistan by acquiescing to a fundamentalist regime there.

Everybody who participated in the war against the Soviet Union and Afghanistan during the 1980s felt a sense of triumphalism when the Soviets withdrew. "How extraordinary! One of the world's great superpowers has been defeated by Afghans and by the Pakistan army and intelligence service!" The Americans -- everybody had a sense of what they had accomplished.

The way the Pakistan army interpreted the lesson of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan was that this kind of guerilla Jihadist movement was a very powerful, low-cost, strategic instrument against larger adversaries. So they turned to their east and they saw India. Again, for the Pakistan army it's really all about India. They've had their country dismembered, they feel like they're in a perpetual state of war with India, and they began to think, "Can't we do to India what we did to the Soviet Union and Afghanistan?" Kashmir became the theater for that ambition.

There was a spontaneous rebellion in Kashmir that wasn't created by the Pakistan army, but once it got under way, the Pakistan intelligence service began to direct the strategies and the resources, and in many cases the people, that it had supported in Afghanistan across its eastern frontiers to tie down the Indian army in Kashmir. They discovered that this was a very effective strategic approach, because within six or seven years, they had 600,000 Indian troops bogged down in Kashmir, there were no Pakistani army officers or conscripts required, there were just a few thousand highly motivated Jihadist volunteers who were prepared to go do this work in Kashmir. And they began to use bin Laden in Afghanistan, and the infrastructure of training camps that he had built up, to train and develop these volunteers far from any place that India could harass or constrain them.

So, al Qaeda became an instrument of Pakistani Intelligence's regional policies, particularly in Kashmir. Their contacts with bin Laden, which did occur right up to 9/11, were not about a joint campaign against the United States. The Pakistan army didn't want to see 9/11 happen or wasn't trying to involve itself in that, though there were perhaps one or two generals who kind of went off the reservation. But mainly what the Pakistan army wanted to do was to use bin Laden to prosecute its campaign against India and Kashmir.

In this story that you're telling, one is struck how, in this part of the world, the interface between the global power of the United States and the state power of regional actors gets intertwined with emerging transnational groups that create a volatility with global implications that nobody understood in the beginning.

In the nineties, as terrorist attacks occurred that had connections to, or roots in, Afghanistan and the vacuum that Afghanistan had become, the FBI and the counterterrorism community in the United States had a powerful instinct to look for the government that was behind this. Because in the eighties it had always been governments behind the attacks -- Lockerbie, the bombing of the discotheque in East Berlin, traceable to Libya's government; and Iran's sponsorship of Hezbollah was integral to the terrorist work that they had done in the eighties in Lebanon. So there was an assumption that terrorism was an instrument -- a hidden instrument, a clandestine instrument -- of government policy.

It took a long while for a consensus to develop in the West that al Qaeda was something else, that it had contacts with states (and it certainly drew support from the Pakistan army in particular), but it was essentially a stateless, multinational, transnational movement that was drawing recruits and ambitions from lots of sub-national groups around the world. It was building a confederation of stateless organizations.

Now what's interesting is that yes, states interacted with al Qaeda, but you also had these in-between institutions, and the Pakistani Intelligence Service, ISI, is the paradigm. It's neither a state actor nor is it a stateless actor. It became like the Serbian militias in Bosnia and Croatia, these blended security service/criminal organizations, ideological, extreme nationalist organizations, really not manageable if you were running the government of Pakistan.

One of the problems, by the time you get to the last year or two before 9/11, as this attack was building and building, is that even if you were the commanding general of the Pakistan army, if you issued an order to the ISI bureau out in Afghanistan, who was working with bin Laden, to cease and desist tomorrow, you would have very little confidence that the person would actually do what you asked unless you physically went in there with a helicopter, grabbed him by the lapels and took him out, because ISI had developed into a power -- a state within the state. It was a power in its own right. It was self-funding, it was making money from criminal endeavors, from fees, perhaps from heroin manufacturing, according to some evidence, and certainly from transportation and other sources of corruption. And it was populated out in the field by people who had become very ideologically involved in the movement. It was a power unto itself.

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