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Straight Talk on Pakistan By: Ralph Peters
New York Post | Tuesday, January 29, 2008


'PAKISTAN'S democracy hasn't suffered because of the illiterate but because of the literate, because of abuses by the privileged who went to Oxford and Cambridge.

"Ninety percent of Pakistan's politicians are feudals. We have to break the hold of tribal leaders who won't permit development. India got it right when it broke up the great landholdings after independence."

The speaker wasn't a dissident student but Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Mahmud Ali Durrani, a retired major general. He once commanded his country's premier strike force aimed at India, but spent the last decade lobbying for a permanent peace between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Having dealt with a leprous swarm of diplomats over the years, I was prepared for a waste of time when I walked into the embassy. A Pakistan-hand Army pal claimed that Durrani was a straight-shooter, but honest ambassadors are even rarer than honest pols.

My buddy was right: From the start of our hourlong conversation, the ambassador routinely committed the diplomatic sin of telling the truth.

We discussed two key issues: making democracy work in Pakistan and our mutual problems with Islamist fanatics.

On the first subject, the ambassador didn't toe the party line. Instead, he suggested that Gen. Pervez Musharraf has outlived his welcome, that emotional term limits are as powerful as legal ones.

The Pakistani military "can't do two jobs well," he said. It needed to concentrate on fighting terrorists.

Of course, the ambassador's well aware of how corruption plagues his country's politics. He believes that Pakistan's military should play a role resembling that of Turkey's - a referee at the edge of the ring to make sure abuses don't get out of hand.

The former general is committed to making democracy work but warns that the process takes time: "People have a simplistic notion of democracy. It's not a switch that can be thrown overnight."

When it comes to the struggle with terrorists, Durrani is passionate. It frustrates him that every Pakistani setback makes news while successes go ignored. He'd just returned from Swat, a beautiful, remote region where extremists had driven out the local government. We knelt over a map as he detailed a recent multibrigade operation that shattered the terrorists and forced their leader into hiding.

There hadn't been a whisper about that campaign in the Western media. Pakistan is typecast in the role of shirker.

Lord knows the Pakistani military has undeniable problems and makes mistakes (we've made a few ourselves in a place called Iraq). It has serious training and equipment shortfalls - especially a shortage of helicopters to maneuver in mountains where there are no roads, as well as inadequate night-fighting gear.

Pakistan's army also has had to reset itself for counterinsurgency after six decades of preparing for war with India - a parallel with the tough adjustments our own military faced as we "re-cocked" from facing Soviets to coping with suicide bombers.

But the ambassador bristles at the suggestion that his military isn't fighting hard. Westerners who've never set foot in the country rant as though it's Delaware with ski slopes. Yet Pakistan's a vast state with 178 million people and some of the most rugged terrain on Earth, as I've seen for myself.

In the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan has 85,000 soldiers and constabulary forces deployed - twice the number of US and NATO soldiers in all of Afghanistan, which is 20 times larger. Tens of thousands more Pakistanis in uni- form serve in the adjacent Northwest Frontier Province, for a total of five divisions and 130,000 troops engaged.

The contribution in blood? Almost 500 Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary members were killed in action in 2007 as suicide bombings soared. We get it backward when we blame Pakistan for Afghanistan's problems: Our successes in Afghanistan have led the terrorists to view Pakistan as a preferable target.

That said, the ambassador expressed confidence that Pakistan's new chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, is the right man at the right time. Having met both men, he finds a marked resemblance between Kiyani and Gen. David Petraeus. Both are serious thinkers as well as rigorous, ascetic soldiers; like Petraeus, Kiyani will base military operations on a coherent, comprehensive plan.

But even with the best generals in charge, this remains a long-term struggle complicated by practical realities that Western pundits ignore.

"Two hundred thousand people a day cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan," the ambassador noted. "We need excellent intelligence, and we need hard-hitting mobile forces. The military must use both carrot and stick, but when force is used, you have to be very strong. In the tribal areas, they understand the language of strength."

Asked about our planned $2 billion training package for Pakistan's military, the old soldier reminded me that training alone takes years to be felt in the field: "Only equipment - helicopters and night-vision devices - could bring short-term results."

A stock military response? Durrani just doesn't fit the mold. During his term as the chief of Pakistan's military production, he fought corruption, improved efficiency and cleaned up arsenal towns, building schools and clinics for workers and their families.

That information came from my Army buddy, not from a PR firm. Queried about it, the ambassador beamed: "In the first speech I gave to my subordinates, I told them, 'Treat every individual with dignity.' " He was also proud of breaking traditions of nepotism in the system (something I'd like to see US generals do).

As the interview ended, I asked what message he'd like to send directly to the American people.

"Americans should know that we're doing the best we can. We are committed. Lack of trust hurts us all," he said. "Please don't micromanage Pakistan for us."


Ralph Peters is a New York Post Opinion columnist and the author of "Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World."


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