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General perspective: Interview with Mahmud Ali Durrani

Updated Jul 28, 2016 12:56pm

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Mahmud Durrani (right) and his Indian counterpart M K Narayanan (left) shake hands at a meeting in New Delhi on October 13, 2008 | AFP
Mahmud Durrani (right) and his Indian counterpart M K Narayanan (left) shake hands at a meeting in New Delhi on October 13, 2008 | AFP

In the rough waters that make up Pakistan’s foreign affairs, navigating policy turns can run the risk of both crashing and capsizing. Major General (retd) Mahmud Ali Durrani – Pakistan’s 23rd Ambassador to the United States (between 2006 and 2008) and the National Security Adviser between May 2008 and January 2009 – has seen and faced these risks intimately.

Durrani’s journey from a missionary-run school in Abbottabad to brokering Islamabad’s relationship with New Delhi, in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, and with Washington DC against the backdrop of a Taliban insurgency in 2008, speaks of his calibre as a soldier and as a diplomat. After retiring from the military in October 1998, he devoted himself to steering a number of peace initiatives with India.

Sitting in his study in Rawalpindi, recently, he talked about some important issues related to Pakistan’s national security and foreign policy. Behind him were photographs – some black and white, others coloured – showing him standing next to the who’s who of the global political, diplomatic and military circles.

Here are the excerpts of the conversation:

Fahd Humayun. What are you reading these days?

Mahmud Ali Durrani. I have been reading In the Shadow of the Sword on Islamic history. What I have been currently struggling with most is religion. One sees the Islamic world in turmoil from one end to the other and one wonders what is wrong with it? Is there something wrong with [Islam’s] message or is there something [wrong] with the way that it's interpreted? ... I want to know what the real message of Islam is. Is it the Islam of the Taliban? Or is it the Islam of the Afghans? Or is it the Islam of the Iranians, or of the Turks, or of the Indonesians? As a nation, we need to give these things very serious thought.

Humayun. What do you think is the place of religion in the business of the state?

Durrani. The way Pakistan has evolved, it will almost be impossible to divert the state away from religion and bring it closer to the Westminster model ... I personally think religion should be kept away from the business of the state, but in the prevailing environment in Pakistan, we are bound to religion as a central theme. When you have modeled your state on the slogan ‘Pakistan ka matlab kia laa illah il lallah’ (Pakistan means nothing but a country of Allah, the only God), where do you run from there?

Also read: The lure of MIRVs- Pakistan’s strategic options

Humayun. Like religion, the army has been another constant in Pakistan. Traditionally, it has been averse to improving relations with India. Do you think this aversion is justified?

Durrani. Well, let me say two things. One, the army is not the monolith it is normally perceived to be. No, the army is a collection of people who come from all kinds of backgrounds. This collection may have someone like me who studied at an English medium school run by Christian missionaries and it may have someone from Toba Tek Singh who studied at a government school ... By the time you enter the military, your basic views on religiosity and morality are already formed. The army does put you in a straitjacket; it gives you discipline and provides you with a perspective on geopolitics ... but the individual thoughts developed at school and home stay with you. It is because of discipline that people in the army do not voice their personal feelings and follow the given line or narrative.

The way Pakistan has evolved, it will almost be impossible to divert the state away from religion and bring it closer to the Westminster model

Going back to your question, unfortunately, the military has been very suspicious about India right from the beginning. Initially [India] said they did not accept the creation of Pakistan and would try to undo [Pakistan] given half an opportunity.

Secondly, the military is not as hard-line today on India as it was in 1948 or 1965. Subtle changes have come about. I am a living example of diversity of opinions within the military. Since my retirement, I have been working on India-Pakistan relations and have also written a book on the subject.

They have a very strange name for me in India. They call me General Shanti which means General Peace. A journalist, Bharat Bhushan, gave me the name. When I was posted as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, he wrote, “General Shanti goes to Washington”.

Also read: Waseem Akhtar - The party man

But [the military] is welcoming new thoughts. Whenever I go to India, I take the military leadership into confidence. Peace with India will be almost impossible if we don’t take our establishment, particularly our military, with us.

Mahmud Durrani and Shah Mehmood Qureshi chat with US Senator John Kerry and US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson in Islamabad, 2008| AFP
Mahmud Durrani and Shah Mehmood Qureshi chat with US Senator John Kerry and US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson in Islamabad, 2008| AFP

Humayun. You work for peace [with India] and you also describe yourself as a realist. Is there tension between the two?

Durrani. As a Pakistani and as a realist, I say it is in our interest to have stability in our relations with India because all this tension has kept us behind the West. If we had spent the same money and thoughts we spend on India on development, on improving governance, on improving the justice system and on improving our political system, we may have been better off.

That is why I joined this bandwagon of peace. Initially, even my family was against it. They said, ‘You can’t be friends with India.’

Humayun. Is the military the biggest roadblock to peace with India?

Durrani. If it is not a roadblock then why are things not moving the way that they should be moving? But roadblock is a strong word that I would not use. The military has certain views and it has a strong influence on society ... It has some serious misgivings about India, about what India wants from us with regards to Kashmir, about how India wants to be a dominant power and how we should handle it. I do not think there is 100 per cent clarity on these issues within the Foreign Office, the military or even in the public.

Humayun. You speak of the confusion towards India. Who is in charge of making policy on India and Afghanistan?

Durrani. As far as our foreign policy towards India, Afghanistan and Iran is concerned, the military has a stronger role than the Foreign Office and [our] political leadership. I would, however, put it another way: if there are three people making decisions and two of them are weak, the third one will automatically dominate. If political leadership and other civilian institutions are weak and the military is better organised, then the military will naturally dominate ... It is all about the interplay of wisdom and strength of the institutions.

I said to Benazir Bhutto, “You are looking very nice.” I thought, like a Westernised woman, she would say ‘thank you very much’, but she blushed like a schoolgirl. I was surprised by that.

The military is said to have kept the civilian institutions weak. I do not agree with that. If the political leadership carries its own weight, if it shows wisdom, if it shows courage, the military will salute it.

When there are earthquakes or when there are floods, it is not the military’s job [to provide rescue and relief]. When there are riots, [the army] is cleaning up Karachi? What is the role of the military in all of this? ... These are the jobs of civilian institutions. When they do not deliver, they ask the military to come in. Once the military gets involved, it expands its role and starts thinking that it is superior. It is the weakness elsewhere that propels the military into such positions.

Also read: The pursuit of Kashmir

Humayun. How do you view Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s peace overtures to India?

Durrani. I am not a big fan of Nawaz Sharif, but the efforts that he has made for peace between India and Pakistan are a good step.

My only request to our political leaders and our establishment is that they should maintain their dignity. Pakistan must have good relations with India, but being a doormat will not help. They have to show some strength and dignity in international relations. Wanting peace is good, but national interest should be their foremost priority. That should be the guiding principle.

Humayun. Pakistan is constantly made out to be the fall guy for American misadventures in Afghanistan. What are your thoughts on this?

Durrani. Broadly speaking, I agree that Pakistan is being shown as a villain. The problem is that Afghanistan has become a very complex issue ... Today if you go to Afghanistan, you will find that the majority of Afghans do not like us and this includes the Pakhtuns, the non-Pakhtuns, the establishment and others. They all feel that 90 per cent of their problems are created by Pakistan.

Humayun. Well, there has to be a reason why the Afghans have such negative opinions about Pakistan.

Durrani. We blame the Americans and the Indians for our own faults. The Afghans do the same and blame us. There is another reason. When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, we recognised them and supported them. Maybe we went too far in advising and helping them. The non-Taliban turned against us and, alas, after sometime even the Taliban turned against us.

I was in Afghanistan when 9/11 happened. I was a part of an informal dialogue – initiated by the United Nations – among Iran, Russia, America and Pakistan. A few hours before the Twin Towers fell, I landed in Herat (Afghanistan). Later that evening, I was sitting with Pakistan’s consul general, whom I knew. He had a little transistor radio because the Taliban did not allow televisions. We heard about the towers and the attack. We were mighty confused.

My reaction was to predict that the Americans were to come into Afghanistan and hit the Taliban. My host said, “Why should the Americans do that? There is no proof.” I said, “From what I know of the American people and their political system, they will want revenge. Where will they go for that?”

Humayun. Does our military still have favourites or preferred outcomes in Afghanistan?

Durrani. They certainly will have preferred outcomes but a preferred outcome is one thing and methodology is another. Preferred outcome is that we should have some friendly and sympathetic government in Kabul. Full stop. The Afghan government should not be sitting in our lap, but there should be a government in Kabul that wants to have good relations with Pakistan. The preferred outcome, without doubt, is that we should live in peace and harmony.

I don’t think the military or anybody else wants to dominate Afghanistan. We can’t get our own house in order. How can we dominate another country? When we did try to dominate their policies, it was a wrong thing to do. We are still paying a price for that.

Humayun. How much influence does Pakistan really have over the Afghan Taliban?

Durrani. I will be guessing, but I feel that the influence of Pakistan over the Afghan Taliban is limited. I am quite surprised at how we offered to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. It amazes me. Remember when the Taliban were ruling Afghanistan and there was this issue of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan? The whole world begged the Taliban to let the statue be because it was a heritage site. They did not listen to anyone, including Pakistan. Similarly, we had criminals escaping from Pakistan to Afghanistan. We had our interior minister visit Afghanistan and talk to the Taliban, but they did not listen to him. The Taliban will do what they think suits their long-term interests.

If political leadership and other civilian institutions are weak and the military is better organised, then the military will naturally dominate

If we think, or the world thinks, that Pakistan can deliver the Afghan Taliban to the peace process then in my view there is a fallacy in that belief.

Humayun. The military is fighting wars on multiple fronts: in Balochistan, in Waziristan and in Karachi. How easy is it for a military trained to fight in plains against India to adapt and acquire the culture, training and logistics required to fight internal wars?

Durrani. Fighting an internal war for any military is a very, very difficult job — close to being impossible. It is like you are fighting with your own people. And I can assure you that the military did not go into these wars willingly. It went in kicking and screaming.

After 9/11, the Americans used the Northern Alliance, some Special Forces and bombings to drive the Taliban leadership into Pakistan. At that time the Americans were pushing us saying, “Go and kill them.” We were not interested in going into the tribal areas. We had no idea how to fight an insurgency. The military said going into the tribal areas would only increase its problems and this is what has happened.

The military has been involved in Balochistan and Karachi because there have been very, very unfortunate events. I wish the military had not gone anywhere, but if all the other institutions fail then the army goes in [to control the situation]. It is not going in on its own. It is going in on the invitation of the federal government or the provincial governments. In the military, we call it “in aid of civil power”.

When the military is in a certain part of the country and the chief minister or somebody tells it to do things in a certain way, the military says, “No, we will do it in our own way.” That is probably where the problem is.

The Congress, the media and the think tanks were blasting us for not cooperating — for not supporting action against the Haqqani network.

I’ll give you the example of Swat. The army went in and cleared the valley of militants [in 2007-2008]. Then the elections happened, the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa changed and the ANP [Awami National Party] came into power. The party said, “We are Pakhtuns and we know local culture," and other nonsense. The ANP signed an agreement with Mullah Fazlullah and returned some weapons to him. The provincial government also released some of his men. All those who had cooperated with the military were kicked in the back. Many of them were killed. Senior military officials were also killed by Fazlullah.

Then the military went into Swat again in 2009. These guys were bent upon taking revenge. I can very well say they should not take revenge and abide by the Geneva Convention [on prisoners of war] but they are also humans. Four of their colleagues were slaughtered and they wanted to exact revenge.

I have spent time in Wana (South Waziristan), Mir Ali and Miranshah (North Waziristan) before I went to Washington as ambassador. I met a lot of officers there; they were awaiting orders to go [after the militants]. It was [General Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani who kept procrastinating. His indecision could be based on the worries that the war may expand to the rest of Pakistan.

I see that as a big mistake because Pakistan let the Taliban operate in these areas for four to five years. They built their strength and power base in this period.

Also read: Fighting the Taliban- The US and Pakistan's failed strategies

Humayun. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Pakistan’s relations with the United States?

Durrani. The biggest problem today is lack of trust. Removing mistrust was the number one challenge for me as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, because it was pretty deep-rooted.

When the Americans took out Osama bin Laden from my hometown [Abbottabad], American mistrust of Pakistan went sky high. I remember the then incoming American Defense Secretary said Pakistanis were either complicit or incompetent. Both titles were not very flattering.

Then came the Salala incident, in which the Americans killed 24 of our soldiers. That increased our mistrust and anger towards the Americans manifold. There has been significant mistrust on both sides.

The Americans bombed Taliban leaders and almost defeated them, but then they did not block their exit from Afghanistan. Our planners thought the Americans should have blocked the Taliban and eliminated them, rather than letting them flow into Pakistan. The Americans left their work incomplete and we suffered as a consequence.

If we had worked together after 9/11, we could have developed some trust, but then we started having problems, for example, over the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), which was meant to reimburse Pakistan for security operations conducted in support of the American operations in Afghanistan. We sent invoices from here and the Americans thought those were inflated.

Mahmud Durrani in his home in Rawalpindi | Ishaque Chaudhry, White Star
Mahmud Durrani in his home in Rawalpindi | Ishaque Chaudhry, White Star

Humayun. Were you surprised by the 2011 American raid that killed bin Laden?

Durrani. Yes, I was totally surprised. I could not imagine bin Laden living [in Abbottabad]. Whoever had put him there was very smart because Abbottabad is not a standard military garrison like Sialkot or Lahore. There are no combat troops in Abbottabad; all it has are training institutions. It is an education city actually.

We arrested a few al-Qaeda operatives and sympathisers from Abbottabad [weeks before the 2011 raid]. They had placed him there — in a completely insignificant place.

A week or 10 days after the May 2011 raid, I got a telephone call from John Kerry. He was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at the time, and was in Afghanistan. He knew me because I had been Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington. He said, “I’m coming to your country tomorrow and I will meet your civilian and military leadership. Do you have any advice for me? How should I go about it?” I gave him my two cents worth. He then said, “I don’t believe that people in your establishment did not know that Osama was in Abbottabad.” I said, “John, trust me. They did not know. There is more Pashto spoken in colonies on the periphery of Abbottabad than Hindko, which is the native tongue of its residents. A lot of people from Swat and several other places have come to the city and settled here. They have brought with them their culture as well. I can show you a half-dozen houses which have big walls and some that have barbed wire around them. It is not unusual. The house where bin Laden was living was a typical Pakhtun compound.”

Humayun. What was your biggest challenge as Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington?

Durrani. It was a challenge to convince the US Congress and the media about Pakistan’s point of view. The Congress, the media and the think tanks were blasting us for not cooperating — for not supporting action against the Haqqani network. Washington is fundamentally different from other capitals. There are many power centres there. You have to humour them all or at least explain your position to all of them. You have to go and salute everybody.

The tragedy is that when I became close to the Americans through such great effort, people here started calling me a sell-out.

Once I went to the Pentagon, along with a visiting Pakistani general. Analysts there gave us their assessment: it was entirely opposite to what our analysts were telling us. I was a little flustered because it is the basic assessment of their intelligence agencies that goes everywhere. I said to myself: if that assessment is wrong then the whole of Pakistan’s case is doomed. So I asked this deputy director of the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] who had come to a dinner at my house that I wanted to meet his analysts. A couple of days later, I went to the CIA along with the defense attaché and met four analysts there. I said, “If your intelligence and our intelligence do not come to a common sheet of music, we’ll never be able to fight this war.” [Difference in intelligence analysis] is the mother of all problems because the people who take decisions at the White House feed off that intelligence.

Then we had challenges regarding the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). Those in Pakistan would pressurise me to get the money released immediately. One day, someone from the Pentagon came to me and accused us of fudging figures.

I knew America like the back of my hand. I had served there, in Fort Knox, at the Armor School, for a year. I had been Pakistan’s military attaché in the US for the unusual length of five years. I had been going there for meetings and seminars. When I went there as ambassador, it was nothing new to me.

Richard Armitage, former US deputy secretary of state, was a great help. In Pakistan, people were scared of him. They called him a bully. Even Pervez Musharraf said to me, “Sir, he had been rude to me. I’ll never spare him.” Armitage was known to be rough. I knew him from my attaché days. He was in the Pentagon then and was nobody, but I called him for a private lunch and he came. When he became the deputy secretary of state, he did not forget that Mahmud Durrani was his friend when he was nobody. Whether he met others or not, he would always meet me. Point is: you have to work on these relationships.

The tragedy is that when I became close to the Americans through such great effort, people here started calling me a sell-out. They said I was with America. I responded by saying that I would have done the same if I had been sent to the Soviet Union. Our people are very petty.

Also read: Pakistan's foreign policy betrays deep domestic insecurities

Humayun. You have been both the ambassador to the United States and the national security adviser. Which was the more challenging of the two jobs?

Durrani. Well, the national security adviser one was more difficult than the ambassadorial one. I was in the former position for only seven to eight months. All this time I was trying to establish the office of the national security adviser — acquiring office space and hiring human resources. I was battling the Pakistani establishment more than anything else.

I have nothing in common with the PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] and I am not a politician but a technocrat. Why I joined this position was because I wanted Pakistan to have the office of national security adviser. I had been studying security issues for more than 12 years. I studied the American model, the British model and the German model. Later, I also studied the Indian model. Because I liked the American model more than other models, I crafted the office along the lines of the American one.

Just to give you some background, Benazir Bhutto was in America about 11 months before she landed in Pakistan [in 2007]. A Pakistani businessman invited her for lunch and he also invited me. When I went there, the hostess plopped me next to Benazir Bhutto. We started discussing geopolitics and she said, “You know, Durrani sahib, you should be a national security adviser and not sitting here.” Our host said, “Make him national security adviser when you become prime minister.”

The military leadership may turn around and say, “You idiot, we are already doing that.”

About two or three weeks before she came to Pakistan, the same gentleman hosted a dinner in her honour in Washington. He invited me again. I called Musharraf to ask if I should meet her. I knew Musharraf very well. That was a big advantage as an ambassador because I could talk to the head of the state at any time. I called him and I said, “They [the PPP] have invited me for dinner. If you are talking to them, I can contribute something.” He said, “No, sir, please go ahead with the dinner. We are managing our relationship [with PPP] over here [in Pakistan].”

During the dinner, Benazir Bhutto sat right across from me and said, “Durrani sahib, you have to help me. Ask Musharraf to close these cases filed against us and he has to give us some space.” I said, “He doesn’t want me to get [involved].” She said, “No, no. You are a friend of his. You are like his brother.” I said, “But he doesn’t want me to get involved.” She insisted, “No, you must talk to him.” A little later, Asif Ali Zardari came and sat with us. He said, “General sahib, please take a look. There are so many cases against me. This needs to end.”

To change the topic, I said to Benazir Bhutto, “You are looking very nice.” I thought, like a Westernised woman, she would say ‘thank you very much’, but she blushed like a schoolgirl. I was surprised by that.

A couple of days after she died, Zardari called me. He said, “She made a promise to you and I want to fulfill that.” I said, “Are you talking about the national security adviser?” He said, “Yes.” It is because of a promise that she never made that I became the national security adviser.

I think I was a little naïve. When I was offered the job of national security adviser, I was thrilled that I could set up something new. I did not realise the political implications that unfolded gradually.

Before I became the adviser, I spoke to Musharraf. I told him about my conversation with Zardari. Musharraf said, “Yes, you should join [as national security adviser].”

Also read: General accountability

Humayun. He did not have any problems with this?

Durrani. No. At least not visibly. He said, “Look, if you join as national security adviser, people will say all my friends are abandoning me.” I said, “If you are uncomfortable, I will not join.” He said, “If anyone asks you, tell them Musharraf has cleared this.” I said, “I am only joining since you have cleared this.” Thinking back, I believe he gave me clearance, but in his heart he was not happy.

The military, deep down, was also not very comfortable with a general becoming national security adviser. It is a higher position than the army chief, who wanted a direct communication line with the prime minister and president. The military did not like the idea that a retired officer would come in between. This is just my personal assessment.

Kayani behaved nicely with me. I told him: “I cannot move forward without your support.” He responded, “Yes sir, that’s what it is.”

Humayun. What was your relationship with Kayani like?

Durrani. It was good. As a young officer, I read a book written by Heinz Wilhelm Guderian who was a German general during the Second World War. He is [considered] the father of Blitzkrieg (a method of warfare) and he commanded a campaign, called Operation Barbarossa, into Soviet Union. His book carries directives from Hitler’s office to various army commands.

Taking a cue from those directives, I made one to be sent from the prime minister to various agencies on how to fight the War on Terror. I spoke to Kayani and said, “This is what I have made. Have a look. I want to send this to everyone.” He said, “Sir, I’ll run it past the staff.” After two days, he came back to me with a very minor change. This was something very unusual. Political leadership giving direction to the military and everybody else had not happened before in the history of Pakistan.

I took the directive to [Prime Minister Yousuf Raza] Gilani. I do not know if he read it. I told him, “Sir, you will be the first political leader to send a written directive to everybody on this war.” He asked me, “Has the military cleared it?” I said, “Yes.” I wanted him to sign it or authorise me to sign it. He said, “Leave it here.” So I left the directive there and that is the last that I heard of it.

Humayun. What advice would you give the Pakistani military today?

Durrani. I would say: Don’t be too pushy. Have patience, try and help the political process. Don’t compromise fundamental issues of Pakistan’s security for promotions or extensions.

The military leadership may turn around and say, “You idiot, we are already doing that.”

The military should respect the civilian leadership but then the civilian leadership should earn respect. How can one accord respect to an incompetent, useless thief?


This was originally published in the Herald's June 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The interviewer is a researcher on foreign policy and tweets @fahdhumayun.