Journalist Coll discusses Pakistan

March 5, 2010, 12:03 a.m.

For journalist Steve Coll, understanding “managed jihad” is vital to making sense of Pakistan’s role in the United States’ war in Afghanistan.

Coll lectured for an hour Thursday on “the globalization of terror” at Encina Hall, focusing especially on Pakistan’s role in — and perspective on — South Asian security.

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies presented Coll as the 2010 Payne Distinguished Lecturer. He has spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent, with his first news story on Al-Qaeda in 1993, and served as the managing editor of the Washington Post from 1998 to 2004.

Coll argued that the Pakistani army’s institutional memory of the cost-effectiveness of mujahedeen fighters, dating back to their employment against the Soviets in the late 1980’s, has made them a vital part of Pakistani strategy, not easily removed even under American pressure.

The Pakistani army’s tolerance for militant groups, Coll argued, emerged less out of ideology than out of practicality. For a Pakistani general in the Punjab region, Coll said, “jihad is something you do at the office. It’s not something you bring home.”

This has meant that Pakistan has long tried to maintain an often paradoxical balance between authorizing the actions of militant groups and maintaining the goodwill of its American ally.

“This sense of doing things simultaneously is literally embedded within the system,” Coll said.

Coll admitted that he felt Pakistan, for a long time, had not been wrong in its assessment of the practical benefits of the fighters, nor in its resistance to American pressures to crack down, at least among some parts of the Pakistani army.

Pakistani leaders, especially in the military, also remember the failures of American policy in the late 1980’s following the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan and an ensuing “lost decade.”

“U.S. policy has contributed to the problem U.S. policy is now trying to address,” Coll said.

He added, however, that the acceleration of political events in the region since 2007 had changed the merits of this assessment — and said that, slowly, a shift in Pakistani attitudes was resulting.

“Managed jihad” is also inseparable from Pakistan’s policies toward India, Coll noted. The army in Pakistan picked up the mujahedeen model and applied it to conflict with India in Kashmir in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

“And it worked,” he said, “600,000 Indian troops were tied down in Kashmir fighting a force of no more than a few thousand.”

Coll said that, for the United States, the most vital task was “to convince the Pakistanis that it’s in their interest to convert violence to politics.”

Coll also noted the disappointment of an effort in this direction in late 2006 and 2007, when India and Pakistan came close to reaching a framework for normalized relations. The two nations have been in conflict since partition in 1947, and Coll repeatedly emphasized that Pakistan’s concerns toward India drove many of its actions.

That diplomatic effort collapsed after actions by Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, precipitated a loss of his control over the country. The process destabilized politics within the country, leading to a democratic rebirth on the one hand, but on the other, complicating the process of foreign relations.

“One thing about Musahrraf was, you had one negotiator,” Coll said.

One story stuck in Coll’s mind as an example of the lost possibilities of that diplomatic effort, which collapsed. In the fall of 2006, a Pakistani businessman heard from his brother in the Pakistani army that negotiations were imminent. The businessman went to the border between India and Pakistan in the Punjab and started leasing transit stations, assuming that he could profit between the growth of trade between the two nations and the new economic opportunities it would offer.

“I think of that brother with the warehouses repeatedly,” Coll said.

“The goal of U.S. policy is to get back to that moment,” he added.

Coll noted that, despite the immense complexities of Pakistan, the capacity for normalized relations with its powerful neighbor remained strong outside the corridors of power.

“Fundamentally, the middle classes in Pakistan and India are way ahead of their governments on the reconciliation issue,” Coll said. “Way ahead.”

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