Najam Sethi: A Pakistani Prescription for Af-Pak Peace

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Najam Sethi (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Photo: Juliana Friend

Najam Sethi is the man any of us would want to know in Pakistan. He’s the man we might like — on a very brave day — to be. He’s got the voice of a reasonable Pakistani patriot, also of a free-wheeling American sort of peacenik and liberal. Standard bearer of independent elite journalism in Pakistan, Najam Sethi has been arrested and jailed in the 70, 80s and 90s by Pakistani governments of different stripes. In the last few years he’s had death threats from Taliban thugs, too. Always his “offense” is that gabby critical openness we like about him.

There are people, oddly enough, who call Najam Sethi a stooge for the US and India, but listen here to his denunciation of American ignorance, neglect and hypocrisy; and consider the most appealing case I’ve heard directly for Pakistan’s interest. What Pakistan needs is a friendly “good Taliban” regime in Kabul, Najam Sethi is saying. What it cannot abide is an Islamist trouble-maker, or a foothold for Indian mischief.

I am asking my American question: why not bug out of an Afghanistan war we wouldn’t want to win; and, while we’re at it, end a dysfunctional affair with Pakistan that has produced mainly white-heat anti-Americanism. It’s a thought that doesn’t tempt him — to leave a failing democracy of 180-million people in an anti-American frenzy, with nuclear weapons and a mostly young population. “If you leave that,” he says, “… you ain’t seen nothing yet.” The American exit from Afghanistan will be slow and drawn-out. A good withdrawal will depend on a joint American-Pakistani mission to isolate “good” and “bad” Taliban from “bad” Al Qaeda — and then shoo-ing Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan — dead or in flight to Yemen.

My main concern is not patriotism or nationalism. It’s that Pakistan should not fall victim to imperialist policies by Pakistan’s military or by the Pentagon in the region. I’d like to see a prosperous, safe, secure, secular Pakistan. I’d like to see a rollback of radical political Islam. I think if you don’t give the Pakistani military a certain degree of security, it is capable of adventures in the area ruinous for Pakistan and for the region. I’d like Pakistan to build peace with India. I’d like the Americans to withdraw from Afghanistan. I don’t mind if the Taliban rule Afghanistan. But I would mind very much if they began to export their ideology to Pakistan. I’d certainly like to see the Pakistani military taking its rightful place beneath the civilians, not above the civilians. And I’d like to see the civilians in Pakistan flourish and prosper. The good news here is that civilians now across the board want to redress civil-military relations. They’re not happy with the Pakistan Army’s military adventures in India and Afghanistan. The civilians want to build peace in the region. They want to aid and they want to trade, and they want to build an enlightened country. And I want to be part of that process.

Najam Sethi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown, November 4, 2010

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  • Pete Crangle

    Thank you Mr. Sethi (human agent), thank you Chris (and I suppose The Watson Institute). What a great conversation. It left me more confused than before I heard. Which is how a difficult conundrum should operate. IMO, there is no easy exit for the U.S. or Pakistan on this issue. All options could lead to bleak outcomes. And high political causalities, which is what is driving some/most/all of the calculations. (So, how long has the U.S. been screwing around over there? It’s just so great to be the empire. You don’t have to think anything through. You just go ahead do stuff and hope to absorb the unintended consequences; leaving them for someone else to deal with.)

    I guess ATM machine oriented state/military/covert policy isn’t getting the ROI that was hoped for. It worked in Iraq. Right? Or was that was the surge? Danegeld can’t buy love I suppose. What else does Petraeus and the CIA have in the playbook? Which BTW, those poppy fields represent global power liquidity. Just saying…

    A Taliban with nukes? One wonders just how deep the destabilization would go if this were to happen. Or, perhaps this is fear pimping. But perhaps not. Of course, it’s worth noting the Europeans (east and west) and the North Americans let this genie out of the bottle. Blow back sux.

    These interviews with folks in this region are wonderful Chris. Keep it up. Look forward to more

  • Rick

    Finding a Narrative that “Sells”? even if it is not very true as long as it points the masses on a peaceful trajectory? Maybe, but….

    I would hope you include enough in your Narrative to sufficiently warn future generations of the Madness that is Colonial Empire.

    The utter waste of WAR.

    The dumbness of the statements like “The war to end all war”.

    Destruction tends to lead to more destruction.

    Q: In one part of the interview I almost heard a wistful homage to the good old days of the cold war as if those were the Halcyon Days for Pakistan, Firmly woven into the duty bunker, robed in the cloth of honor, senses heightened at the smell of secrecy and supremacy, yoked together, but salved with your own glorious aims of war, with the rest of the puppet states that formed the terrific (TERRIFYING) British/American Empire? Cheshire cat happy not to have suffered to the extent of the Not so lucky peoples of SE Asia? Must the new Narrative so distort these facts in order to squelch the fury, native to the hearts of honest simple people, at the thought of bullery, injustice and murder to bring a temporary calm only to be surprised once again down the road by the insanity that takes over the Human Race and directs its energy on its periodic self immolation.

    How to integrate the barbarisms of the past without its advocation or condemnation?

    I hope you include some words that talk of the importance of HUMAN DEVELOPMENT as opposed to human enslavement and exploitation.

    Good Luck


  • Potter

    I love Sethi’s characterization what of the British came to:

    these are ungovernable people, let them be

    Then this quote from towards the end of the interview:

    Something’s gone wrong, let’s listen to these guys.

    which I think is just what this series on this blog is about. And I am very grateful.

    I knew that it was too easy to say we should just leave Afghanistan even though I alternately fell into saying that. We kind of suspect, though few are saying so, that it would not happen even in 2014 and we’ll be there maybe for 30 years to come if not another 10 especially since the reset button seemed to have been pushed with Obama and we are “making progress”. We could use some leveling with the public.

    The question I had for Mr. Sethi was what if the Pakistani’s did not have nuclear weapons? Or what if we could somehow get them out of Pakistan? Would we still need to be there? It seems that Pakistan needs it’s nuclear arsenal not only to counter India but to keep us there for fear ( ours and theirs) of what might happen if we left at this point. So according to Sethi- and others – our being there is more a matter of how we conduct ourselves to a soft landing where we can leave without things going pear-shaped ( as the British say).

    • Jeech

      You asked “if the Pakistani’s did not have nuclear weapons? Or what if we could somehow get them out of Pakistan? ….”

      Then “Jehad” would remain the only deterrent against our enemies. If the US wants to get rid of such philosophy like Jihad (or how they percieve it) they must leave at least one deterrent for Pakistan.

      The story of “terrirusts are to get paki nukes” is now revealed by Russian intelligence that you might have reviewed.

  • Shehraam

    well i can see you have interviewed only those who doesn’t have good reputation in Pakistan… like they are paid for what they say, Hope you get some true patriotic Pakistani guy if you want to understand Pakistan’s POV. thanks

  • One would think that careless talk of falling dominoes would raise red flags in the US, but apocalyptic doom-mongering evidently is still in demand. Why else would anyone still want to listen to this advocate for perpetual war who had sagely forecast the immenent collapse of Pakistan in May 2009. So now he is trying to preempt any possibility of a US withdrawal by advancing an asinine theory about a post-war Afghanistan as a launching-pad for global terror? Nevermind that this view isn’t shared by anyone except a small band of Washington neoconservatives and some Pakistani liberal hawks (who get most of their news on Pakistan from the Wall Street Journal. Ask Sethi when was the last time he visited FATA, or even Peshawar?) Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of the war in Afghanistan knows that what is collectively labelled ‘the Taliban’ is an agglomeration of disparate mainly Pashtun rural insurgencies with a strictly regional (and sometimes ethnic) agenda. But of course Sethi, who knows little about the Pakistani North-west, and even less about Afghanistan, is merely talking out of the back of his neck. Take his comments about the North-west: he doesn’t know that prior to 2002, there was actually an institutional infrastructure which maintained a direct correspondence between the federal government and the tribal chiefs through the office of the Political Agent. But the likes of Sethi cheered on the Pakistani dictator Musharraf as he laid waste to the FATA region and emasculated the institutions. The only criticism that Sethi and his ilk had of Musharraf was that they was not heavy handed enough. They all cheered on the eminently avoidable military actions in FATA and Swat, contributing to the further erosion of the writ of the state. What should have been a law-enforcement issue was turned into a political problem with a military solution. This led to the greatest refugee crisis of the 21st century, endless suffering, an increasingly ethnicized war, and growing recruitment for the Taliban.

    I am frankly quite apalled that generally critical and excellent radio shows like this would give platform to the likes of Sethi, who franchises on his past troubles with the state t to conceal his more recent collaborations. Why not ask him his views on the devastation of the tribal regions, or the extrajudicial killings of civilians by the drones?

    As regards his domino theory, it is of course silly and contra-analytical, like much of his other proncouncments. It is also thoroughly debunked by Stephen Walt among others:

  • Jeech

    I love Najam Sethi but this time he sounds to appease Pro-war audiance. Or may be he couldn’t tell you that the fault actually is “wahabist wave” that ZIa introduced to the religious stake holders here.

    Unfortunately or ***’s plan, wahabism with different variations sounds to suppersede entire the Muslim territories. Apparently, it’s American failed foriegn policies round the world, but actually it’s been replaced with the US joint venture with “wahabism.”

    Sorry for too much conspiracies.

  • Asjad

    Great conversation – Najam Sethi is one of the most balanced and rational political analyst from Pakistan. Although I don’t like his notion about ‘good Taliban’ ‘bad Taliban’ but it is rather the wish of Pakistan military.