Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Leading Journalist Discusses Regional Implications of Afghan Conflict

December 9, 2010

The situation in Afghanistan “is a daunting challenge, and talk of American withdrawal is not going to help,” said Pakistani journalist and news editor Najam Sethi during a recent talk at the Institute. Sethi intertwined political commentary with personal stories of imprisonment and close shaves in the strongholds of terrorist leaders. Ultimately, he painted a nightmarish vision of Pakistan’s entanglement with the Afghani Taliban.

There was a time when Pakistanis looked positively toward the US, Sethi said. From his youth Sethi remembers ubiquitous USAID stickers and right wing Pakistani support for the US due to American resistance of communism. But when the Cold War ended, the US packed its bags and left. The US officials instructed Pakistan to either get rid of its links to terrorist groups or see its nuclear program destroyed.

Sethi sees the US treatment of Pakistan as having fueled the development of radical Islam, which he said transformed Pakistan at the ground level. The Pakistani military decided to turn its now unemployed Cold War fighters against India in Kashmir. Eventually, these same fighters would be “retooled” to aid the Taliban, he said.

Sethi got early insight into the limitations of US policy and the strength of Pakistan’s military government. In a special interview, Pakistani religious leaders told Sethi that the Pakistani military had commanded them to retain all links to the Taliban.

Sethi’s newspaper published the story, expecting a storm of public outrage at the military’s actions. This was a false hope; no news media picked up the story.

“The military pretended it didn’t happen,” Sethi said.

However, he did say that India and Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan are reconcilable. They both have something to fear if the Taliban continues to wreak havoc in Afghanistan, Sethi said.

The Pakistani military is far more powerful than the nation’s civilian government, Sethi added. He predicted that if the US were to leave Afghanistan, the Pakistani military would be left to address “total chaos and anarchy.”

Sethi acknowledged President Obama’s difficult position. The American public demands withdrawal, but withdrawal would devastate Afghanistan, he said.

“Obama is right that the cancer is in Pakistan,” said Sethi. “But Obama is only thinking about bringing the boys home.”

Sethi's talk was part of the South Asian Politics Seminar Series run by Brown, Harvard, and MIT. It was co-sponsored by the Brown Afghanistan Working Group. 

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend '11