IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Interview with Stephen Cohen

The following is the full transcript of an interview by NBC News Producer Robert Windrem with Stephen Cohen, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies at the Brooking Institution.

NBC/Robert Windrem: Steve, A.Q. Kahn has confessed, but says he acted that really a possibility?

Stephen Cohen:  It’s a possibility, but I doubt if its the case, but I think it is everybody’s interest to agree that he did act alone obviously the Pakistan government does not want to accept responsibility for this and, um, I would be more alarmed if, in fact, he did act alone because that would mean that the government did not have the capability of supervising a critical element of a vital program.
So I think there will be a useful fiction developed that he did act alone he'll confess, he will be suitably punished, presumably done...too, too, too, hard, not to too, too painfully and uh, then we will go on after that.
The Pakistani government has evaded responsibility over these things and it’s in their interest and in this case it’s in America's interest not to be too angry with the Pakistanis over this.  We'll obviously urge them to be better, better behaved in the future and the critical question then is how reliable and how, how responsible are they in terms of protecting what other nuclear assets they have, hard assets such as weapons and warheads.

NBC: So basically it’s a diplomatic wink and a nod on, on Kahn?

SC: I think that’s what it'll devolve itself into, had the, had we, had the United States not been dependent on Pakistan had a, a normal relationship and no war on terrorism then I'm sure there would be very tough American sanctions on Pakistan.  But the view in Washington is rightly or wrongly is that we absolutely must have Pakistan's support in the war on terrorism  
And I wouldn't be surprised in fact to see that the Pakistanis increase their cooperation in the war on terrorism for example locating and identifying and perhaps capturing Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban or even Osama Bin Laden, head of al-Qaida, or some other senior al-Qaida figures as a way of, you know, making it up to us that they are a good partner in the war on terrorism.

NBC: Is it possible that Musharraf himself was out of the loop and did not know about Kahn?

SC: I would prefer to think that he was not out of the loop because if he was out of the loop then the Pakistani government is much less coherent and responsible than we, we gave it credit for.

NBC: And is this sort of a cover up by the Pakistanis?

SC: Oh I think this is not a cover-up but a, uh, an agreed upon fiction we tell stories to each other and to ourselves and this may be a story that they are going to tell to us and perhaps believe themselves so we can get over this problem and get onto another aspect of the relationship.  But it is, I don’t want, I don’t want to underplay the importance of this, but clearly this is how governments behave when they come across very embarrassing facts such as, such as this.

NBC: Is the U.S. itself, do you suppose willing to cover up certain facts to protect Musharraf?

SC: I don't know, uh, to be honest it’s hard to tell what more there is to reveal about this, I’m sure the U.S. would if there are other facts that haven’t been disclosed should the U.S. use this to put pressure on him to make sure that he does.
I think Washington sees that Pakistan's cooperation on the war on terrorism defined as rounding up Taliban and al-Qaida and also providing support facilities in Pakistan for operations in Afghanistan that is essential to the war on terrorism and if you embarrass Musharraf if you push him too hard or if you punish him for this then he might withdraw that support.  I don’t think he would, I think that Pakistan is just as dependant on us as we are dependant on Pakistan.  But I think that is a calculation of Washington

NBC: On Kahn himself, how important of a figure was he in Pakistan?

SC: He was not a great scientist he was no brilliant, brilliant  engineer or physicist, his great talent was  in stealing the plans from the Dutch plant for enrichment facility and persuading Sophie Gerhalie but not the military, but to that this route give Pakistan the nuclear weapon and he was correct in that sense.  He was a great organizer and administrator of a program which was very complex and very secretive for many years and quite successful.

NBC: Was it his lifestyle or his richness that gave him away?

SC: I’d have to be honest I don’t know what, uh, people knew his lifestyle was.  When you’d got to Islamabad they would point out his house across the lake, or his house was across the lake and joke about how his properties.  I suspect that that raised suspicions, but uh, my guess is that, uh, he was, he was, turned in by some, some underling, some subordinate, the real, the real, the real, the real turning point was when the Iranians told the International Atomic Energy Agency where they got the material from, where they got the appliance from, and that sort of spilled everything.  And then of course the Libyan program also got Pakistani support.

NBC: Was there any possibility, that uh, that Kahn could ship equipment, nuclear, equipment by military transport without any of the higher ups in the Pakistani government knowing about it?

SC: I doubt it very much.  I’m sure that they knew if he did that he was a man who was being guarded around the clock and his facility and plant was the highly guarded facility in Pakistan.  A number of years ago when the French ambassador went out there to, to try look at it he was taken off by the side of the road and beaten up.  So Pakistanis were very good in terms of protecting the security of Kahn.

NBC: And what would've been a possible impact if Musharraf himself was implicated?

SC: Well, implicated in what sense, in a court of law? Or...

NBC: Well even implicated by inference, that he knew that this was going on.

SC: Well I think he is.  Well, lets put it this way: I don’t know which would be worse, um, whether he knew about it, and, and therefore it was implicated, or he didn’t know about it and was therefore incompetent in terms of understanding what his own government was doing.  So it’s for me its toss up as to which is the worse alternative.  But I think that in either case the United States will, will have to get by this in the sense of trying to retain Pakistani cooperation and anti-terrorist activities

NBC: Isn't, um, difficult, tough for Musharraf to crack down on Kahn?

SC:  No I think that now that this has been widely publicized, he can, he can, he can discipline, uh, AQ Kahn, precisely and particularly, but I don’t think that cracking down would have implied a long hard jail sentence for AQ Kahn.  Might imply some moderate imprisonment in a probably a luxurious prison, and presumably would keep many of his assets, most of which are probably supposed of which overseas anyways.  So, I think in a sense that AQ Kahn will not suffer terribly from this, this event.

NBC: Let me turn to Musharraf questions: How is Musharraf doing now, he seems to have been boid by his recent meetings with the Indian leader.  Is he on top of his game now?

SC: He might be on top his game, but he's a minor league player.  He may be on top of his game but he's a triple-A player, he's not, or even a double-A player.  He’s not really in the major leagues as a leader.  I think he came to power by accident.  He fumbled his way through one decision after another.  He's, he's not improving the nature of Pakistani politics.  He's done a lot of the economy, but that’s because largely because, Shakka Decieez, the finance minister to manage this.  And I think, in a sense, he is over his depth in terms of the kinds of problems he faces. 
On the other hand, uh, he’s confronted by the Americans on one side, by the Indians on another side, by the Islamic radicals on the third side, by Pakistani liberals and also a failing Pakistani economy.  So, no matter how well he does or no matter how good he is, he's not going to look very good for long term - but the mere fact that he is able to juggle these things, keep these balls in the air, is something of an achievement.  But it doesn't seem to be moving Pakistan forward very fast.

NBC: Is he being strong enough on, uh, the Islamic extremists

SC: I met him in, right after the Coup, and my advice to him then was he should declare martial law and clamp down on the extremists, uh, especially those in Pakistan - but also those operating outside of Pakistan.  He rejected the idea and said we need to preserve our democracy.  Think he had the opportunity when they first came to power but it turns out that the army was using them.  The army saw that as an instrument of diplomacy and power against both India and Afghanistan and therefore was not interested on clamping down on them.  And I think at home he was under wire the scope of the problem of securing violence between different Muslim groups and Muslim phonetics...

NBC: Is there a way for him to clamp down on the, the madras' - these syndication centers that are in Pakistan?

SC: That's the wrong question.  The issue isn’t clamping down on them, because usually they are volunteer schools which provide meals and primitive education to young kids, mostly young boys.  The real issue is can he build a real public education in Pakistan, which would probably dry off the madras - and the real answer there is probably not.  He doesn’t seem to have done very much on previous government of any of that effect.  They ruined Pakistan's public education system, so the madras' are already response from the failure of the Pakistan public education system

NBC: And so in fact these madrases will continue to flourish?

SC: They will continue some of them.  A percentage of them teach hatred and violence, not many of them, but a small percentage of them do.  They provide the foot soldiers for a very radicalized Pakistan.  But the real problem I think is not among the madrassa students, who I think are not educated to take any kind of leadership.  But among upper class and middle class Pakistanis who are educated but have no job, frustrated, and angry, they are the future man power, woman power in some cases, for the al-Qaida type movement in Pakistan.

NBC: So, uh, with that premise, is not the radicals, the radical Islamic forces, are they not the greatest threat to a democratic Pakistan?

SC: No I don’t think they’re the greatest threat, the greatest threat is the army's continuing, continuation in power, uh, and the army's refusal to allow the normal political parties the more or less secular mainstream political parties to function normally in Pakistan - because they did in the past, they, they were not terribly competent but the army, Musharraf’s strategy was to keep them from coming to power by manipulating the elections so that they remained a minority for us.

NBC:  And then why the outreach to India now, has something changed to allow this sort of day taunt?

SC: I think the Pakistanis see India pulling ahead of them, economically, politically, strategically they're trying to do something to catch up with the Indians and slow the Indians down and normalization.  My guess is more of a tactic than a strategy - that this will buy some time for Musharraf.  You know that there’s this pressure on the eastern border, till they can regroup and rebuild the country.  But the rebuilding of Pakistan is going very, very slowly.

NBC: By easing some of the pressure on that border is Musharraf in fact abandoning his position on Kashmir at the Islamists that are there?

SC: I think right now the best you can say is a tactical shift, and I wouldn’t say abandoning; I would say perhaps temporarily putting in abeyance.  I think if the Indians respond however, if there was significant Indian movement, and a dial in Kashmir and it goes forth in Pakistan as well as in India.  You might in fact see Pakistan give up the notion of using radical Islamic extremists in Kashmir, but I think that’s a process that has to take place in a matter of months, even years, and we'll be lucky if we get through the next three months.

NBC: What are the possible repercussions of the strategies of turning away from the eastern front?

SC: Well, this, first of all this, reduces the threat of a new war with India and allows Pakistan to concentrate more on domestic affairs and, uh, and also on the western borders in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has been proactive and supporting some of the Taliban forces in Afghanistan where they also see a Pakistani factor in Afghanistan.  But I think Pakistan is socially finding a two front war, a two front diplomacy and a little peace on one side will help them pursue activities on the other side.  Also I’d say that he's come under tremendous American pressure to normalize with India, and presumably there would be some rewards if that peace process goes any further.

NBC: Not too long ago I think that was in '99, uh, Musharraf wouldn’t even shake hands with

SC: That's right.

NBC: Is the pressure that great for him to simulate uh, sort of, have they talked, or is this a real like...

SC: I think from the point of view of the Pakistani establishment, including Musharraf, they'd be willing to talk to the Pakistanis about Kashmir.  I’m sorry...for Musharraf and the Pakistani establishment they want to talk to India about Kashmir.  The Indians were not willing to have a dow on Kashmir.  The Indians themselves seem to have adjusted their position a little bit.   Musharraf has claimed to have given up a lot uh so they’ve reached a point where they can at least talk.
Now the next step has to be either the sense of further concessions on both sides, and word is as well as indeed for this process to continue.  It’s very much like the middle east process, northern Ireland peace process: decidedly stops, conflict resumes, and they are resumed again.  So I think that this attempt may fail, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn't picked up a year or two down the road, after, after, another crisis or two.  Question is can Asia afford one major nuclear crisis after another?  My answer is no.  This is running too great of a risk for all of us.

NBC: And if you can talk for a moment about, uh, Musharraf’s life expectancy.  Certainly there’s been a number of assassination attempts - the most recent ones, seem to be pretty well orchestrated, sophisticated.  Who tried to kill him?

SC:  Well, nobody knows - and its some mixture of Islamic radicals, possibly al-Qaida - you know, al-Qaida and Arabs wandering around Pakistan conceivably with contacts in the military, or securities elsewhere.  There is no clear identification of who the people were, but they were close enough to him to know where, what his schedule was and this led him to his army headquarters, to Islamabad,.  al Bindi, in a sense he will be moving to Islamabad also almost like a fortress like arrangement almost so it was harder to reach him.  This is good and bad because he will be protected, but bad because it shows that he is very fearful of his, of his, of his own security, and uh, this is not going to go down well with the rest of Pakistan.

NBC: Do you suppose, well it seems like there's a pattern here in terms of frequency of these attempts, obviously there will be others...

SC: There will be - but we don’t know how well the police in the counter-terrorism groups are in Pakistan that can round these people up - whether this is their effort, or whether there will be repeated attempts.  I wouldn’t want to begin to speculate.

NBC: And at this point if there is, in fact, a successful assassination of Musharraf is there a successor? What does it look like?

SC: Yeah.  His successor would be the current chairman of the Pakistan senate, Mr. Sumaru, and his successor of the army would probably be the vice chief of the army staff, General Yusif and between them they would carry on.  I don’t think there'd be any radical change in Pakistan, certainly not in Pakistani policy.  Both of these men sort of subscribe to the Musharraf view of things, maybe, maybe more liberal or more conservative in one way or another other way.  I think this talk of the fate of Pakistan hanging on Musharraf’s life is wildly exaggerated

NBC: And just a final question: is there any, is Musharraf beloved at all by the Pakistani people at this point?

SC: When he came into office in 1999 he was greeted with relief and not joy, but relief by most Pakistanis that they had finally gotten rid of what they thought was a string of corrupt civilian leaders.  I think over the years, um, as he has done a lot for the economy bit by bit, and he's moderated some aspects of domestic violence, there is still sort of, unhappiness with him as a leader.  I don’t think he is popular at all; but on the other hand, and more and more Pakistanis have actually come to hate him and dislike him very much for lining up with the United States in the war in terrorism.  
I think this major opposition comes from many normal liberal Pakistanis even some conservatives who see that he has sold out to the United States.  That we've used Pakistan out like a condom and thrown it away and Musharraf is the point man on this sell out to the Americans.  So I think that a lot of anti-Musharraf sentiment comes from this feeling that he has come close to the Americans.  Pakistan is, of course, the most anti-American country in the world.