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Interview with Prof Walid Phares

I recently interviewed Prof Walid Phares, director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and author of, among other books, Future Jihad. Given the constraints of space, only a vastly abridged version of the interview could be accommodated in my newspaper, Daily News & Analysis, in its March 1, 2009 edition. (You can read it here.) But given the expanse of the geopolitical strategic terrain that Prof Phares covered in the interview, I felt that only by reproducing the interview in full could I do justice to it. I am therefore reproducing it here, with many thanks to Prof Phares for sharing his perspective.

'Jihadi penetration of Pakistan’s armed forces is at the centre of all concerns in any new strategy'

The deal between the Pakistan government and pro-Taliban forces in the Swat valley is an ominous portent of Pakistan’s slide into jihadism, with strategic implications for India and other countries, warns Walid Phares, a counter-terrorism expert and director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. Excerpts from an interview he gave Venkatesan Vembu:

How different is the Obama administration’s strategy (vis-à-vis the Bush administration’s) in pursuing the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

As a matter of fact, the Obama administration hasn’t so far issued a strategic document outlining its difference with the Bush strategy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. People talk of a difference, but so far as we can analyse, there is no fundamental difference in the action to be taken or the general horizons of such a strategy. Regarding Afghanistan President Obama promised during his electoral campaign to send additional troops to Afghanistan when elected. But President Bush and candidate Senator McCain also committed themselves to send as many troops as needed to the battlefield. During the campaign, the Obama pledge to send additional forces to central Asia was in the framework of scoring a point that this was indeed the central front on the war on terror and that the US must withdraw its troops from Iraq. The pledge to increase forces in Afghanistan was intended to encourage the (American) public to accept the withdrawal from Iraq. The difference thus is that the Obama strategy doesn't believe that the US can and should fight on two fronts; its priority is Afghanistan. The Bush strategy, on the other hand, was that the US can sustain efforts on two fronts simultaneously. However after his inauguration, President Obama is now in charge of the war in Afghanistan and therefore he is consulting with US commanders, including with General David Petraeus, head of CENTCOM. So, one assumes that he is sending these additional troops to defeat the Taliban and the al Qaeda on the ground, inside Afghanistan. The real question is after this stage is performed, what comes next? One of the possibilities is that the Obama administration may think of opening a dialogue with a weakened Taliban. This will be a radical difference with the Bush/McCain strategy, which would call for defeating the Taliban and engaging alternatives to them.

With regards Pakistan, there are differences in the public stands between Obama and Bush's policies, but so far there is continuity in their methods. When President Obama was campaigning for office, he said he would order attacks inside Pakistan if needed to target al Qaeda infrastructure and membership. President Bush didn't take a public stand on this matter and relied on Pakistan President Musharraf to carry out the attacks. But in reality under both administrations, US military carried out and continues to strike inside Pakistan's borders, particularly in the northwest frontier areas. Will the Obama policy regarding fighting terrorism in Pakistan change in the future? We will have to wait and see how the strikes will evolve.

In the past month, US drone attacks inside Pakistani territory appear to have escalated. Does this mark a continuation – and possibly even an extension - of the Bush administration’s strategy?

The attacks via drones are ordered by the US command proportionate to their perception of the rising threat coming from the Taliban and al Qaeda. The military escalation does not reflect a change from one administration to another; it signals the same strategy of engaging the Jihadi forces implicated in attacks against US and coalition inside Afghanistan. The question is: how will the US strategy evolve after the additional US and NATO forces deploy and begin engaging the Taliban and al Qaeda. The expectation is that Jihadi forces will also escalate their attacks and Taliban-dominated enclaves inside Pakistan will send more forces across the border. Hence, the current strikes inside Pakistan will have to mutate. Either into a massive campaign or, let's not be surprised, a future attempt to negotiate with the Taliban. It could go in two different directions.

Are the Obama administration’s strategy more likely – or less – to succeed?

That depends not only on the military actions to be taken inside Afghanistan and across the border with Pakistan, but also and mainly on the regional strategy that the administration devises. An Obama strategy can be successful if it sends the needed support to Afghanistan and simultaneously crafts a campaign to isolate the Jihadists politically and broaden the coalition in the entire sub Indian continent.

Or will Afghanistan prove to be, as some commentators have said, “Obama’s Vietnam”?

The argument about “Obama's Vietnam" is being advanced by the Jihadi propaganda machine. They used it under the Bush administration and want to use it under the Obama administration. That message was initially sent by al Qaeda's leader, including Osama bin laden and Zawahiri. In reality, Afghanistan will become a Vietnam if the Taliban wins the hearts and minds of a majority of Afghans and is supported by a Pakistan falling to the Jihadists. So far, that is not the case. To avoid a Vietnam-like situation, the US and NATO must make sure that a majority of Afghans reject the Taliban's ideology and that Pakistan doesn't fall into the hands of Jihadists.

There are reports that the US is secretly training Pakistan military forces. Given that the ISI and the Pakistani military has been heavily infiltrated by Taliban and the jihadists, how effective will this strategy be? How should the Obama administration address the ISI/military complicity in sustaining the Taliban/Al Qaeda/Kashmir terrorists?

I believe that US assistance to Pakistan's military is not new, especially after 2001. The goal of such a support, however, is aimed at weakening al Qaeda and the Taliban. I am told it is very specific to the units and apparatuses that are engaged with the radicals in the Waziristan and other districts.

The fact that ISI and the Pakistan military has been inflitrated by Jihadists, not just al Qaeda and the Taliban, is well-known in the US and within the defence sectors. In my analysis, the penetration of Pakistan's armed forces is at the centre of all concerns in any strategy. Many Pakistani officials at very high levels, particularly those who view the Jihadi forces as a threat, know that many sectors have been penetrated, but say this situation has been inherited from previous years and decades. The Obama Administration must be very attentive to the internal threat coming from within Pakistan. In other words, the US must identify the elements that are already confronting the extremists and back them. In the end, it will be a political battle inside Pakistan between the Jihadists and secular forces who oppose them.

What are the merits and demerits of the Pakistan government’s strategy in consenting to the imposition of Sharia law in the Swat valley as part of a deal with the Taliban?

It is regrettable that the Pakistan government had to authorise the signing of such an agreement allowing the imposition of Sharia law on some districts of the country. This is a setback to democracy and pluralism in a country where the progressive sectors of society are known to be looking forward to modernity and secularism. This also reflects the ground reality in some of these provinces: the power of the Jihadi movements. But at the same time one has to admit that the current government has inherited a situation from past years and decades. The spread of fundamentalism… is half a century old and it has increased thanks to the spread of a radical ideology. Hence, the current government has chosen –apparently - to accept the de facto situations in some spots of the country so that it can re-evaluate the situation, perhaps reform some institutions and undertake some restructuring of the military and intelligence sectors so that in the future, there would be a comprehensive strategy to isolate fundamentalism and eventually reverse it with a popular support. If the Swat valley agreement is a prelude to tackle the problem comprehensively later, this would be understandable; but if this was a prelude to a retreat in front of the Jihadists, then obviously the future will be dark.

There is a perception that the US gave its tacit consent to this deal. What are the US’ gains and losses from this arrangement?

Yes, the perception exists, and many experts believe that Washington has given its okay for such a deal. But keep in mind that the US leadership is busy tackling the economic crisis and that its military commanders in charge of the Afghanistan battlefield haven't finished their plans yet. Perhaps at some diplomatic levels, a green light was provided to a Pakistani government inquiry for advice. Meaning, the idea is certainly Pakistani and it is possible that the new US diplomatic team dealing with the region may have consented to the move. But strategically, the US will lose from such a deal because the Jihadists will perceive the deal as a victory for them and will be emboldened to do the same elsewhere including in Afghanistan.

The argument has been made that there is a ‘good’ Taliban and a ‘bad’ Taliban. Is it a mistake to make such a disctinction? Has such a distinction ever yielded results elsewhere?

The notion of a bad Taliban and good Taliban is a myth created by those in the West, and particularly in America, who advocate engagement with the Jihadists. This reflects a poor understanding of the ideology and the nature of the Taliban movement. It is not about good or bad but about an ideology which is totalitarian, and methods that do not recognise international law. The Jihadist ideology is one, although its supporters play many tactics, including manoeuvering their enemies into believing that they can do business with some instead of the others. The Jihadists always teach their followers "al Harbu Khid'aa" ("war is deception"). Unfortunately, many in the West and in the US fall into a trap of war of ideas and naively come to the conclusion that one can do business with the ‘good’ Taliban versus the ‘bad’ Taliban. For example, when the Pakistani government signed the deal of Malacand, the Movement for the Implementation of Sharia didn't declare that would be on the side of the government against the Taliban. Another counter-argument is that if indeed there are the ‘good’ Taliban (who will make peace), what would be the plan to deal with the ‘bad’ Taliban? This is the kind of trap that the Obama Administration must not fall into. Everything will depend on the influence of the new experts in charge of explaining it to the White House.

What are the social and political implications for Pakistan of the imposition of Sharia law in the Swat valley?

It has tremendous implications. It will empower radical Islamists and the Jihadist movements to create a large pool of jihad-indoctrinated people. It is as if Islambad has conceded to the establishment of an Emirate in Swat. The Jihadists are unstoppable. Once they have Sharia control over a province, they will use it to spread their version of Jihad and thus levy a much larger body of youth to be recruited by the Taliban and other groups, such as Lashkar e Taiba. From there on, other provinces in the frontiers areas will follow. But beyond this, expect other districts in the far east, in the centre and the south (of Pakistan) to be impacted. If a movement is contracted to apply Sharia in one part of the country, it will spread till it eventually brings down the (Pakistan) government.

Is there a risk from a “creeping Talibanisation” or the spread of the jihadi culture and the retreat of secular politics in Pakistan? How can this be reversed?

The Malacand agreement is the first step in the so-called “creeping Talibanisation” of Pakistan. President Musharraf himself warned of this “Talibanisation”: he knows what was happening on the ground and inside his own military and intelligence. President Zardari, I assume, knows all too well that this Talibanisation is under way. It all depends on whether he has a plan to counter it. The only way to reverse it is to have secular and democratic forces in Pakistan unleash an awareness campaign to expose the radical ideologies. It is going to boil down to the efforts deployed by Pakistan’s civil society which is opposed to the Talibanisation. It is a war of ideas. The reversal can’t be done only by counter-terrorism operations or political negotiations but by a democratic revolution waged by the forces of democracy inside Pakistan. It is going to be hard and long.

The Pakistani government recently released from house arrest Dr A.Q. Khan, a confirmed nuclear proliferator. What message is being conveyed here, and why did not the US administration respond forcefully?

I would not want to speculate as I am not privy to the circumstances of the release. But my assumptions are as follow. First, there must have been some negotiations between the government and Dr A.Q. Khan about his future activities and a deal may have been reached. Second, whatever knowledge he had spread in the past in terms of nuclear secrets is not possessed by the circles who control these kinds of weapons inside Pakistan and North Korea, and even those who are rushing to build the Iranian bomb. Dramatically put, his knowledge is now bypassed by others. That may be the reason behind the US silence on the issue.

Any discussion of the war on terror in Pakistan appears to focus only on the terror camps on the Afghan/Pakistan border areas. The terrorism infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, from where much of the terrorism targeted at India is planned and implemented, is never addressed. Is this a ‘blind zone’ for successive US administrations?

The US government has already designated a number of violent organisations operating on the eastern border of Pakistan as terrorist. In 2002 a Lashkar e Taiba cell that was dismantled in Virginia was tried in court for training to attack targets in India. Its members are serving sentences in the US. The same can be said about Jaish e Muhammed and others. These Jihadi terror organisations have been designated as terrorists and are monitored under international auspices. But when it comes to pressing the Pakistani Government to go after them as well, Washington’s priority is to help Islamabad in countering those operating on the western border first, not because of designation but because they can affect the whole situation in Afghanistan and turn it into a nasty one, leading to the fall of the Karzai government. Knowing that the Pakistani government can barely deal with one front at a time, priority is given to Taliban/al Qaeda first. Besides, India can defend itself with its own forces if attacked by terrorists. But Afghanistan is still weak and needs to be solidified first. In the long run, however, the US administration cannot consider these Jihadi forces as a “blind zone” because eventually these “zones” will be used against all countries involved, beginning with India and Afghanistan, the United States and eventually Pakistan itself.

Pakistan has reluctantly acknowledged that the Mumbai terrorist attack was planned and executed from Pakistan. But there are lingering apprehensions about its earnestness in cracking down on the terrorism infrastructure within Pakistan. How should India respond?

First, I noticed that the architects of the Mumbai operations left all indicators on purpose to show that the road led to Pakistan. They could have mobilised Jihadists inside India to do it and they are available. The war room decided to use Pakistanis coming from the sea instead of Indian Jihadists coming from inland. This means that they wanted a clash to take place between India and Pakistan so that (Jihadists) can grab more power inside Pakistan. There is evidence to indicate that the terrorists had some sort of support in Pakistan from organisations, but also from people in the intelligence and defence apparatus. This brings us back to the realisation that Jihadi penetration exists in Pakistan. Hence, to be objective about it, perhaps one of the reasons the Pakistani Government didn’t unleash a massive crackdown on these circles (as India may have wished) is precisely the internal problem in Pakistan. If the infiltration was benign, I would have expected the Pakistan government to strike hard against the perpetrators’ backers. But because of this situation, one has to expect that the authorities won’t go full fledge in their measures. The bottomline is to understand the ability of the Pakistani Government to fight the Jihadists inside their country, particularly in light of a historic tension with India over Kashmir.

As for India, it can and should escalate its own campaign against Jihadi terrorists inside its own borders and internationally. After Mumbai, the international community is standing in solidarity with the Indian people. This is an opportunity for India to reach out to all anti-Jihadi forces in the world and form a coalition against the terrorists. A few will argue that this is a local feud over Kashmir, but most others will extend their hand to India in this particular fight. So, the best way ahead is for New Delhi to build a vast coalition worldwide: it will need it later when a bigger confrontation with Jihadists inevitably occurs. Regarding Pakistan, my advice to India is to be patient regarding the internal situation in Pakistan. It is more important for India to get a world consensus against terrorists, including from the US, the West, Russia and India, and many moderates in the Arab world, than to expect higher results from counter-terrorism operations inside Pakistan. For now, India should allow and encourage the counter-Jihadi movement in Pakistan to grow.

General elections in India are due soon. In the event of the right-wing BJP coming to power – either by itself or as the head of a coalition – it will likely take a more forceful approach against Pakistan, perhaps even launch pre-emptive strikes against camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. What are the implications of such an approach for the broader war on terror? Will they advance or undermine the Obama administration’s approach in Afghanistan/Pakistan?

To be candid about it, if India strikes inside Pakistan in retaliation against terror acts launched by Jihadists coming from across the borders, it will lead to a takeover by the Jihadists inside Pakistan and the country will be seized by Taliban forces with access to nuclear weapons. If the attacks are launched by the Pakistan government, no one can tell India what to do. But as long as the Jihadists aim is to drag the two countries into confrontation, the international community and India must not grant them that wish and engage in military activities on the terms of the Jihadi terrorists. Surely, India can and will evaluate its own national security situation but there are strategic matters to consider. The Jihadi war room in the region wants to strike India so that it will strike back at Pakistan at the timing of the Jihadists. If that happens, the Pakistan military, probably incited by radical elements, will remove its forces from the Waziristan areas and the border with Afghanistan and move them to the border with India. Besides, the moderates inside Pakistan will be isolated. Thus this will unleash the Taliban and free them to operate against the US and NATO in Afghanistan. The Jihadi strategy is clear. India – under any government - can and should act smartly by mobilising against Jihadists first inside its own borders. This will be the best answer to the war room and will create divisions among Jihadists. Second, India has great possibilities to wage a war of ideas with broadcasts and on the Internet in languages that the West has little skills in. Last but not the least, India should convene an international conference against the spread of the Jihadi ideology, inviting Muslim moderates, the US, Russia and the rest of the international community. This is a strategic response to the attacks in Mumbai. Keeping in mind that India will always have the military option open – but only after a strong international coalition is up and running.

© Venkatesan Vembu 2009