U.S. Diplomat Gerry Feierstein in Pakistan: 'Prevent Extremism in the First Place'

ABC News recently sat down for a wide-ranging discussion with Gerry Feierstein, the new deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.

Feierstein first arrived in Pakistan in August 1976, as a junior consular officer in the embassy, stamping visas into Pakistani passports. He married a Pakistani woman, moved back to Washington to sit on the Pakistan desk in the State Department, then returned to Pakistan in 1989 as the consul general in Peshawar, the largest city in the volatile northwest.

He is now on his third tour and brings more experience than most of his fellow U.S. diplomats. He is not afraid to admit that in the past 30 years, the United States has not always followed through on its commitments to Pakistan beyond the immediate strategic goal at hand, whether that was defeating communism -- as it was in the '70s and '80s -- or defeating terrorism, as it has been in the past few years.

"I think that, unfortunately, both here and, to a certain extent in the United States, there's been an overemphasis and an overfocus on the kinetic aspects of the war on terror [bombs and bullets] over these last seven years, and really not focused as much as we should be on the other components of it."

Anti-Americanism is at a peak right now. The Pakistani military and government have increased their rhetoric against the United States. And I recently traveled to the Bajaur tribal area, where anti-Taliban locals say they will shoot at Americans if they cross the border from Afghanistan. And it has never been more violent here. What's going on?

"I don't think that there's any doubt in anybody's mind that, ultimately, success or failure in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] is going to depend on the actions of the government of Pakistan. And we can have influence at the margins, but the fact is that until the government and the people of Pakistan make a decision that this is what they need to do, and that they need to stabilize the situation, they need to defeat extremism and militancy in Pakistan, we're not going to get where we need to go.

"[But we need to] help the government improve their capabilities. ... Until we give the people in that region alternative visions for themselves and for their children, there is always going to be this tilt toward these extremists' messages. That basically we're leaving the field open for extremism and for the success of their propaganda. And really what we need to do is give people an alternative narrative for hope for the future. And that's really much more important in terms of how we're ultimately going to achieve success in that part of the world than anything we're going to do in terms of kinetic activity along the borders or preventing bad guys from coming across into Afghanistan. What we need to do is rather than prevent them from coming across into Afghanistan, what we need to do is prevent them from being drawn into extremism in the first place, and you do that through education and economic growth and other kinds of development activities."

Does that mean military activity is hurting the cause here?

"Is there a role for the kinetic? Absolutely. Because there are people out there right now who are trying, who are planning, who are intending to do bad things, whether it's at the Marriott hotel here, or in Western Europe, or in the United States, and they have to be defeated right now. But over the longer term, you have to do these other aspects."

Do the policymakers in Washington understand that?

"When I came in the '70s, this was actually the largest [USAID] program in the world. ... But that was always kind of a secondary attribute. But what's happened now I think is the two issues have come together. Today, there is a recognition that in order to succeed in the larger regional peace, we have to succeed internally in Pakistan. And that it's not only Pakistan's strategic position, but it is Pakistan as a kind of key actor overall. And if we succeed in developing security and stability and economic development here in Pakistan, that that in fact will have very positive repercussions throughout the region -- Afghanistan, India and elsewhere throughout the world. Today, where we are is recognizing that Pakistan is the key to an awful lot of this puzzle. ...

"This time, if we've made a decision that Pakistan is important, that we really need to make a commitment to stay the course and to really stay engaged with Pakistan in a way that we haven't in the past. ... And I do believe that is a fair statement across the board, [including] at DoD, which obviously has critical interests here."

You say there's not as much interaction between American sand Pakistanis as there once was. But it seems that there's a genuine desire among Pakistanis to meet foreigners, no?

"This is one of the most accessible societies in the world. I've always made the observation that no matter what people think of you, whether they like you or don't like you, they're more than happy to have you over to their house and have a cup of tea, and delighted to sit down and tell you everything you've done wrong, or doing wrong. But it's always extremely gracious and cordial. ... What's changed is that our associations tend to be a lot more superficial now. ... Because of all these other aspects, you don't get out, you don't meet the people in the shops, you don't meet the people in the galleries, you don't have the interactions with the broader society we used to have. And that's really where the friendships are and where the real sense that you get of actually being part of the community and actually being integrated into the culture and the society. That part is missing, unfortunately."

Does that help produce the current wave of anti-Americanism we're seeing now?

"There is a historical narrative of U.S.-Pakistan relations that most people in this country have absorbed -- of the United States using Pakistan and then walking away from Pakistan when it became no longer important or inconvenient. It's not the whole story, but it is the story that many people feel here. ... It's a reflection of the fact that Pakistanis feel as though we've abandoned them on several occasions, and therefore they're reluctant to once again take that step of getting too close to the United States. And, without doubt, there is controversy over the war on terror and some of the decisions we've taken over the years. But I think if we stay engaged, and if we continue to try to get our message out about what it is we're trying to get accomplished in this country, that, over a period of time, those feelings are going to die down some, and we'll be able to get into a much better situation in terms of building understanding between the U.S. and Pakistan."

How has Pakistan changed since you arrived?

"Where I started in 1976 -- when this was a very kind of Western-oriented, almost socialist society. [Compare that] to the Islamization and this very conservative, religious characteristic of the country today. I really saw all of that unwind over the years of my experience. And now, of course, what we're seeing is that many of these things ... it's coming back into Pakistan and it's affecting society in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and the [Northwest Frontier Province] and, increasingly, here [in Islamabad]."

Why? What happened to make an almost Socialist society a conservative, religious one?

"[Under President Zia in the '70s and '80s], I think that there was a sense that emphasizing the Islamic culture and the Islamic aspects of the society were something that would be unifying, a unifying characteristic, something that would help build more of a national identity. [Then] the emigration of Afghans from Afghanistan into Pakistan because of the situation in Afghanistan ... they ended up in the refugee camps that were right on the outskirts of Peshawar, and began to have an impact on the culture and society there, making it more conservative, more religious. [And] beginning with the Soviet invasion in December of '79 and then on through the collapse of the government in '92 ... the influx of the guns and the whole jihad culture that really took a hold in on Afghanistan and then in Pakistan as a result."

How did you meet your wife?

"My wife worked at the embassy. And she was probably the very first Pakistani I met."

Today, meeting a Pakistani isn't exactly easy for an American. Was it easier then?

"Well, it's not easy. We would go to parties and see each other there, eventually we decided to get married. Got married here in Rawalpindi in the Catholic Cathedral [in] '78. ... We spent six weeks down in Karachi, then took off for the States."

What was Islamabad like back then?

"This was not a very Pakistani city. [U.S. Ambassador Arnold] Raphel's great line about Islamabad at that time was that it was 18 miles outside of Pakistan.

"People used to love to have dance parties here. And it was very relaxed. It was very open between Pakistanis and Westerners. A lot of mixing and people would -- the houses are great for it. People would have big parties and just hang out ..."

When you first came here, what did your patents say?

"My parents were unhappy with the fact that I joined the foreign service in the first place. I think my mother is still unhappy I didn't become a lawyer.

" I joined the foreign service in 1975. And I had never been out of the United States my whole life. I had never even been to Canada."

And what was your first impression of Pakistan?

"I got on the airplane in August 1976 ... and ended up in Karachi at two in the morning. And coming out of the airport into this sea of people ... I had a couple of suitcases with me and I had a cat that had come with me in my carry-on luggage. And when we got out of the airport, there were all these guys trying to grab your suitcase, carry it to the taxi cab and all that, and they were trying to grab this cat away from me, and I was holding onto my cat for dear life, because I was sure I would never see it again if I let go of it."

You were probably right.

"That first impression of being here was something that was so enjoyable and positive, and I knew right then that I was going to like it here."

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