The Washington Diplomat / November 2007
By Larry Luxner
The ambassador of the world's sixth most populous country has an image problem.
More accurately, he has a problem with American media.
Mahmoud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's envoy to the United States, says major news outlets like the Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN are "getting the story all wrong" when it comes to his nation's efforts to root out terrorism and Islamic extremism.
"None of their information is correct," he complained. "We are more than victims of terrorism, but there are people who don't believe us. Pakistan has become a fall guy for all the bad things happening in the neighborhood."
Durrani spent an hour with the Washington Diplomat in early October, a week after U.S. ally Gen. Pervez Musharraf won a new five-year term as president. The assemblies that handed Musharraf his re-election victory were boycotted by many opposition parties but not by the Pakistan People's Party of Benazir Bhutto.
On Oct. 18, former Prime Minister Bhutto returned to Pakistan after eight years of exile, under a deal in which Bhutto will avoid facing corruption charges she says are politically motivated. In return, Bhutto who was welcomed by hundreds of thousands of supporters hopes to share power with Musharraf, her one-time archrival, as prime minister.
But just as quickly as she returned to cheering crowds, Bhutto was also met with a massive bombing that killed about 120 people and injured over 240 in one of Pakistan's worst acts of political violence.
"This is a very sad and tragic event, and it's shaken the whole of Pakistan," Durrani says. "I was hoping against hope that nothing would happen, in an environment like this where there were already threats."
Durrani insisted that the attack was carried out either by al-Qaeda or the Taliban, or a combination of the two. "Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf had the same agenda. They were two allies. These people did this have a very narrow vision of Islam. They probably think she's not a real Muslim."
Conceding that "our politics are very volatile," Durrani said "this pattern of working the crowds will change until we get rid of terrorism, which will take awhile." But there could be a silver lining to this as well.
"In the long term, liberal forces will galvanize and get together, leaving their differences behind to fight the common menace," he said.
Musharraf called the attack "a conspiracy against democracy." Like Bhutto, he too has endured his fair share of assassination attempts but so far, the persistent threats on his life haven't deterred him from maintaining his hold on the presidency. And to legally keep that hold, Musharraf agreed to give up his uniform as head of the army upon re-election.
"That's a commitment he's made," Durrani assured of his boss, who seized power in a 1999 coup and whose popularity has been declining in the face of rising violence by Islamic radicals.
"The government was committed to holding an election which was free and fair," the envoy explained. "This serves President Musharraf's interests, because ours is a parliamentary system with not only two parties, but dozens of parties. After the election, he now has an opportunity to form a coalition. This gives him far more flexibility than if he rigged the elections and got 90% of the vote, and everybody in the world would be howling and crying foul."
Durrani said the possibility of Musharraf forming a coalition with Bhutto is "very high" because the Pakistani government has exonerated her of any possible crimes
"By law, anybody who's convicted of corruption cannot run. But in those cases which were under investigation for 10 years and never proven, we give amnesty," Durrani explained. "The allegations of corruption against Benazir were not proven. The government wants a consensus so that we move ahead without any acrimony or mistrust."
And the first thing Durrani would like to move ahead with is Pakistan's uphill battle against Islamic radicals both at home and in neighboring Afghanistan.
"Anybody who sits and makes judgement in Washington or London should look at a few undisputable facts. For one thing, Pakistan has put its money where its mouth is. Today we have about 120,000 troops deployed to fight terrorism. You give me one example in the world which matches that," he said.
"No. 2, Pakistan has had the highest number of hits on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets, and No. 3, Pakistan has highest number of casualties in the world."
Despite those claims, Pakistan is often associated in the public's mind not with the fight against terrorism, but with the terrorists themselves. Durrani concedes that his country made some serious mistakes in the 1980s, and that "we are now paying" for those mistakes.
"Pakistan was in bed with the Taliban when they were governing Afghanistan, for an excellent reason. We always supported the government in Kabul, irrespective of who it was.
"But that's history now. We gave that up after 9/11, when we made a 180-degree switch, because we found that was in our interest," he insisted. "We joined the international coalition to remove them, but there are lingering doubts that Pakistan may still have another agenda, that we are keeping our options open. You can debate our capabilities or our inabilities, but it really hurts when you doubt our intentions."
Durrani, 66 and the father of three, is a career army officer. Born in the village of Abbotabad in Pakistan's remote Frontier Province, he graduated from the Pakistan Military Academy in 1961 and served in various command and instructional appointments, including that of Pakistan's defense and military attachι in Washington (1977-82), military secretary to the president of Pakistan (1983-86) and chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board (1992-98).
Durrani also advised the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London from 2001 to 2004. After retiring from the Pakistani Army, he was actively involved in the peace efforts between Pakistan and India. As part of a process sponsored by the UN, he worked with former senior officials from the United States, Russia and Iran to find a peaceful settlement to the Afghan crisis.
In addition, Durrani is the author of several books and studies, including "India and Pakistan: The Cost of Conflict and the Benefits of Peace," and "Pakistan's Security Imperatives: Year 2000 and Beyond."
Interviewed at Pakistan's $17 million embassy on International Drive, which was inaugurated four years ago, Durrani criticized recent Bush administration policies most notably the war in Iraq which he says has diverted attention from capturing Osama bin Laden and defeating al-Qaeda once and for all.
"We had almost licked al-Qaeda after 9/11 because of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. A lot of people streamed into Pakistan, but we captured most of the top al-Qaeda leadership. If the number of troops and the focus of the U.S. had continued to be the same, the al-Qaeda issue may have been resolved by today. But what happened? The focus shifted to Iraq big-time. Look at the money and the troops you have there, and compare it to Afghanistan. Not only that, this was a rebirth for al-Qaeda. They got new recruits and motivation. I think the war in Iraq gave a boost to al-Qaeda."
With 164.7 million people as of July 2007, Pakistan ranks as the world's sixth largest country in population; only China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil have more people. It remains a desperately poor country. Its annual per-capita income of $720 is lower than that of India ($820), though Pakistan is still much better off than Afghanistan, where per-capita income still remains below $300 a year.
"Afghanistan is a wide, open country, and there are only 40,000 troops there, not enough to fight a proper insurgency. This is totally inadequate," he complained. "For the people of southern and southeastern Afghanistan where a lot of the Taliban's strength lies all they've seen post 9/11 is the rough end of the stick. There's been very little development, so for them, a change in government hasn't made any difference."
And despite global pledges of assistance for Afghanistan, he said, "the international community has not provided enough money. If you don't give them an alternative way of life, they will kill. This is the only thing they know."
Another factor which hasn't gotten enough attention, Durrani claims, is a "growing nexus" between al-Qaeda terrorists and international drug cartels, which is now slowly emerging in media reports.
"Afghanistan produces 93% of the world's heroin, so it's in the interest of the international drug mafia to keep Afghanistan unstable," he said. "The drug money is like a transfusion for the terrorists; it is the blood which is supporting them."
Nowhere is Pakistan's involvement in the conflict more pronounced than in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. The seven districts that make up the FATA together have around 3.5 million people, or roughly 2% of Pakistan's total population. Only 3.1% of the inhabitants of the FATA live in established townships, making it the most rural jurisdiction in Pakistan.
To fight the radicals and stop the "Talibanization" of the tribal areas particularly in North and South Waziristan Pakistan has boosted the number of troops there from 80,000 to 120,000. Durrani vehemently denied recent press reports that the Musharraf government is giving in to Taliban demands and pulling troops out of the area.
"Our peace agreement has been totally misconstrued. What they're saying is a lot of BS," he said angrily. "We didn't pull a single soldier out of there. We reached an agreement with one tribe, and the agreement was that they would not the border for terrorist purposes or go against the writ of the government; would not support the terrorism going on in Afghanistan, and would not spread their creed. In exchange for that, we agreed to pull our military from the internal checkpoints, though the military will stay in the tribal areas."
Durrani said major U.S. newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times are "getting the story wrong" because it suits everybody concerned.
"There are serious misperceptions, particularly in the media and in some think tanks," he said. "I have the least problems with the American public; the common man here appreciates Pakistan's war on terrorism. And I have no problem with the administration. My problems are basically the perceptions created by the media."
Part of these "misperceptions" are driven by well-known cases, such as that of Wall Street Journal correspondent Danny Pearl, who was kidnapped in Karachi by Islamic radicals and later beheaded, or Mukhtar Mai, a 32-year-old illiterate woman who was gang-raped by five men in 2002 on the orders of a village tribal council.
Musharraf initially prevented Mai from traveling to the United States due to fears she might project a "bad image" of Pakistan, but he later relented after angry protests from the U.S. government and women's rights groups.
"Danny Pearl goes to meet the bad guys and gets in trouble. Tomorrow night, walk into some bad neighborhood of D.C., and you're also likely to get in trouble," he said. "One rape in Pakistan? There are more unreported rapes in the United States than the total number of rapes in Pakistan. If it happens in a village following some stupid custom, then people perceive that it's happening all over the country."
He was, however, quick to add that "the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis are broad-minded, liberal Muslims. We have some crazies, but all the madrasas which are teaching hatred and suicide bombing have been eliminated. They've been shut down."
Durrani told the Diplomat his government is pushing the remaining 15,000 or so madrasas "to broaden their curriculum and bring in more liberal subjects, so that students can get jobs."
He conceded that the United States is deeply unpopular in Pakistan today, but that "being a diplomat sitting here in Washington doesn't mean you're divorced from reality. This hostility is historically linked with the Palestinian issue, and aggravated by the Iraq issue and the failure in Afghanistan."
On the other hand, he said, "if today, you have a crowd of 1,000 people chanting anti-American slogans and somebody offers to give out U.S. visas, 900 would definitely accept, if not all of them. Pakistani people like American values and the American system."
He added that the Bush administration is giving Pakistan $3.1 billion over a five-year period.
"We appreciate all the help the United States has given to Pakistan in terms of funding, debt rescheduling and improving our capabilities. In the overall context, I think the U.S. has been a good friend of Pakistan. The U.S. today is our largest export market. We are looking to develop a long-term, stable relationship."
The ambassador disputed polls taken in early September showing that the majority of Pakistanis are disillusioned with the Musharraf government and feel their country is headed in the wrong direction.
"Those polls are skewed," he said. "After the president was re-elected, the Karachi stock market shot up. The stock exchange broke records, hitting an all-time high, and the market cap soared to a new peak. That is the biggest indicator of what the people want."
He added that the Pakistani economy is "thumping away," with GDP growth at around 7.5%. "If we didn't have this war on terrorism, we'd be flying. Our GDP growth would be 10% or 11% but that's the cost Pakistan is paying for this," he said."
Even so, Durrani claims only 23% of Pakistan's people are living below the poverty line, compared to 34% when Musharraf took power in 1999.
"We feel poverty and the lack of education breeds disillusionment. We have revamped our education system, we have modernized it, we have taken out all the hate literature and are improving literacy rates," he said.
"We have also done an unusual thing by empowering the people at the grass-roots level. Previously, the people were ruled at the county level by a government-appointed administrator. Now we have reversed that, and it is the elected people at that level who call the shots. So we have given power to the common man."
Pakistan's healthy economy has led to a booming in the banking, housing and construction sectors, he said and particularly in the telecommunications sector.
"Six years ago, there were 600,000 cellphones in use in Pakistan. Today, there are over 50 million," he said proudly. "Today we have a more modern cellphone network than the United States."
One area that deeply concerns Durrani is the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Adversaries for more than half a century, India and Pakistan have both carried out nuclear tests, and the United States recently concluded a nuclear cooperation agreement with India that angered many Pakistanis though the government in New Delhi recently suggested that the agreement might not go forward after all due to internal political concerns.
In the meantime, Pakistan and India have yet to resolve their long-running territorial dispute over Kashmir, a mountainous territory in the Himalayas that today is occupied roughly one-third by Pakistan and the remaining two-thirds by India.
"Things are not moving as fast as they should be, but I compliment the leadership of both Pakistan and India for taking some major steps of reconciliation in the last five or six years," Durrani told the Diplomat."I think that today, the possibility of war between Pakistan and India is at its lowest ever. I base that on the talks, and on nuclear deterrence. It's no longer profitable for either side, because the costs would be too grave, and our leadership is too mature for that."