September issue 2002

By | News & Politics | People | Q & A | Published 17 years ago

maleeha-lodhi-sep02“If we set our expectations according to hard realities, we would not end up being disappointed”

– Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Former Ambassador to the United States

Q: Where were you when you first got the news of the attack on the World Trade Centre?

A: Ironically, I was in the Capitol Building with General Mahmood, the head of ISI, who was visiting and we were having a breakfast meeting with Bob Graham, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and other members,discussing issues of mutual cooperation. An aide suddenly passed me a note about the WTC attack which had just been flashed on TV. Simultaneously one of Bob Graham’s aides passed him a similar note. We were all in a state of shock and immediately commiserated. Bob Graham’s first reaction was: “This is exactly why this kind of cooperation is so important.”

The Capitol Building was evacuated and there was mayhem on the streets when we got outside. Sirens blaring, billows of smoke in the distance from the hit on the Pentagon, which we heard about from our driver. The ten-minute journey back to the Embassy took two and a half hours — one of the longest journeys I have ever made. Phone lines between Washington and New York were down. As a mother my first thought was for my son who is working in New York, it was a few hours before I heard via Pakistan that he was alright. Till then I was frantic. It was very very difficult dealing with a catastrophe of this magnitude, caught between son and country.

Q: What is the story behind Pakistan’s decision to become a frontline state in the war against terror? Did Pakistan have any options?

A: Within 48 hours of 9/11, the UN Security Council passed a resolution asking member states to cooperate in the war on terror. So our decision was instantaneous in the sense that we were very clear on which side we stood, which was the side of the international community. Within a day of the attack President Musharraf offered Pakistan’s unstinted cooperation. I believe that sovereign nations do have options, and the option we exercised was the strategic decision which General Musharraf announced. Within eight hours we got a call from Mr Armitage’s office for a meeting with myself and General Mahmood. On September 12, Colin Powell called General Musharraf to ask for cooperation and on September 13, we had our second meeting with Mr Armitage after which the Director CIA, Mr George Tennet, also met General Mahmood. So things moved very fast. In the September 13 meeting Mr Armitage specified the kind of cooperation that was being sought.This was conveyed by the then DG,ISI to Islamabad.

Within days we were able to respond to the US.What people perhaps don’t understand is the nature of dialogue that took place as cooperation between the US and Pakistan evolved. It was not a question of one side telling the other how to cooperate. It was as much Pakistan explaining from its position on the ground how Pakistan could help the international community fashion a response. So it was never a one-way street. We were able, at critical times, to make our views known and those views were factored into the strategy of the international community.

Q: How did 9/11 change your role as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US?

A: Relations between Pakistan and the US have had their ups and downs and periodic freezes and thaws. Post 9/11 marked the latest transformation in that relationship. How this changed the way I functioned there was that overnight Pakistan was centre stage. So the public focus on Pakistan was intense. Even the Cold War focus on Pakistan was very different. Today, in the television age of instant information, the public dimension of my functioning became most important. I was on television constantly, I had to make many more public appearances at Think Tanks and in Congress to explain Pakistan’s position and defend it against stereotyping which we saw a good deal of. Above all, I had to act as a bridge between two different cultures and faiths. To explain realities beyond Pakistan, embracing the Muslim world and to challenge stereotypes — that was the most significant change for me.

Q: Did you find yourself on the defensive?

A: Not at all. In fact, American TV gave one the opportunity to be just as aggressive as the interviewer. To be able to define the issues as we saw them, rather than allow others to define us, was the greatest challenge. Television is not a context-setting friendly medium. One had to do it in sound bytes and sum up a very complex reality in a few minutes. I learnt to think on my feet.

Q: You had to fight on two fronts diplomatically, for Pakistan and also against the Indian propaganda machine…

A: 9/11 interrupted India’s dream to isolate Pakistan internationally. Indian frustration intensified when Pakistan became a frontline state in the war against terror. The Indians launched a bitter campaign. Then post December 2001, India-Pakistan tensions began to attract unprecedented media attention so one had to constantly articulate Pakistan’s position especially on Kashmir.

Like the Americans, who at that time were trying to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, we were trying to do the same in the west. We had to effectively put across the fact that the root causes of terrorism had to be addressed. In fact it was a triple-focus job: there was Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, countering the barrage of Indian mischaracterisation of Pakistan and third, to hold the hands of the large Pakistani community in the States. Particularly in the wake of 9/11, against some of the actions that seemed to target our community.

Q: There was criticism, however, that our embassy did not do enough for the Pakistani community…

A: Well as you know the situation was extremely confused for quite some time. In fact the exact number of casualties at the WTC was not known till months later. We were dependent on information reaching us so we were no different from any other embassy or even the Americans themselves. But certainly we were ahead of all other embassies in coming to the assisstance of many of our nationals who had been arrested in security and immigration sweeps. We quickly got access to some of these people and were able to help them. On day one we set up a hotline in the embassy and the consulate, which is still in place; but until information began to flow our way it was obviously difficult to act any faster in that kind of crisis.

Inevitably in such a sweep, innocent people too get caught up. We tried to do what we could for them.And for that we have been appreciated by the community itself.

Q: There were many instances where it was commonly perceived that Pakistan had given up its sovereignty: the use of bases, FBI presence at the airports…

A: International cooperation doesn’t mean loss of sovereignty.Implementing our obligations to the UN and to international law do not mean loss of sovereignity.This should not be confused with public sentiment and perceptions about Washington’s role and conduct at the end of the Cold War when people in our country felt the US had just walked away from the region. General Musharraf was very sensitive to that and I can tell you that in many of the conversations he had with the US leadership he always mentioned this fact ,stressing that the US must respect public opinion in Pakistan. This is why he elicited the kind of response he did from President Bush, who clearly stated that he understood what happened at the end of the Cold War and that now the US wanted engagement in the region which was for the long haul and not just tactical.

Q: How did Pakistan’s relationship with the US change?

A: I believe that the change was already underway when 9/11 happened. There had been a very substantive reengagement with Pakistan prior to 9/11 and the US government was moving towards lifting nuclear-related sanctions from Pakistan and India. Of course 9/11 afforded an opportunity to both countries to dramatically transform bilateral relations. This is different in three ways. First, we now have a more broadbased relationship; previously it just had a strategic anchor. Now there are more tracks: cooperation ranges from education, law and order, defense, economic assistance,trade and commerce. Second, we have set up many joint working groups which identify a number of areas of cooperation and this reflects the institutionalisation of the relationship. Third Pakistan seeks a relationship of mutual benefit rather than dependency which was what characterised the Cold War relationship. A foundation has been laid for future ties different from the past.

Q: There is a perception that once we have outlived our usefulness, we will be dropped once more.

A: I really have a problem with the question. First, I think the question presupposes that interstate relations are like interpersonal relations. In international relations, there are no permanent friends or enemies — only interests are permanent. We have to approach our relations with the US or any other country, on the basis of the extent to which interests and objectives converge. Unfortunately we betray a certain fragility about ourselves by posing such questions. Our geo-strategic location and the fact that we are the second largest Muslim country in the world gives us a certain importance which we should never undervalue in our own eyes. We should predicate our expectations in our relations with other countries on the basis of these attributes, not on the basis of emotion. International politics is not about feelings, it’s about hard interests. If we set our expectations according to hard realities, we would not end up being disappointed. We have to be sure what our own interests are and how to defend and advance them.

Q: Given our unqualified support to the international community, there is a feeling we got peanuts in return.

A: I don’t think we should minimize or trivialize the significant economic and political support Pakistan received. Nor the increase in Pakistan’s standing and stature in the comity of nations which obviously can’t be quantified. Still we should continue to strive for more. I did feel disappointed that the US did not respond adequately to Pakistan ‘s request for greater market access. The European Union gave us additional market access of about 500 million dollars for our textiles. We asked the US to match, if not better, this; but domestic politics in the US got in the way. Today’s paradigm is not aid. Today’s paradigm is trade, so the touchstone for us is a relationship based on trade. We owed 2.8 billion dollars to the US and they agreed to write off a billion. One can argue that they should have written off all of it; but if the only indicator of a relationship is nickels and dimes, it would be a very imperfect picture of what inter-state relations are all about.

Q: Dollars and cents aside, there were expectations that the US would play a more Pakistan-positive role vis-a-vis Kashmir?

A: Well, much remains in the realm of confidentiality. I think any answer to this must be put in the context of the international community’s unease with trying to change the status quo anywhere in the world. India is the status quo power and Pakistan the anti-status quo power. We have to persuade the international community to understand the historical, legal and moral context of the Kashmir dispute. The post 9/11 paradigm shift is to de-legitimise any use of violence to promote political objectives. I feel that you cannot denude an issue or a situation of its context: violence occurs as a response,in this case to foreign occupation. While one is in no way condoning violence, there is more to Kashmir than what India self-servingly depicts. We have to try harder to change perceptions.

Q: It seems that the rational voice of Colin Powell has been drowned out by the more strident tones of hardliners like Rumsfeld.

A: There are different views within the Bush administration and it all depends on the issue. On South Asia and Afghanistan, I didn’t find the Pentagon or the State Department clashing. There may have been a differing emphasis, but there have to be differing views within any government. I have always believed that the US foreign policy-making process is unique. It is the most staged inter-agency process in the world. At various phases of this very staged process, different views are expressed before a decision is taken. I am of course very disappointed with the position the US has taken over Palestine, and like everyone else I’m holding my breath as the US mulls over what to do in Iraq.

The US must continue to match its own words with actual deeds in wanting to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Lopsided policies will not do that. The US must help to address, as it said it would, the sources of Muslim injury and estrangement.

Powell is the Bush administration’s point-man in South Asia, so in our region Powell is very much in charge.

Q: It must have been very disconcerting to face a hostile media and government?

A: Initially, people perceived that Pakistan was aligned with America’s enemies but when President Musharraf went public with the decision to support the war on terror, the hate mail I recieved for a few days overnight turned into flowers left at my residence and the office.

Traditional diplomacy has its limitations in a city like Washington because there are so many power centres to hit. People who shape policy are so diverse and the public part is so critical — the media, the think tanks and so on. Public articulation perhaps comes more easily to a journalist. I have never confronted a greater challenge than in those weeks following 9/11.

We were up against certain lobbies and one had to ensure that one was not distracted by their negative propaganda. It is very easy to step into the quicksand and be on the defensive, responding to other people’s attacks instead of getting a positive message across. So one has to think on one’s feet in a finite time and take advantage of finite opportunities. One had to think strategically: ‘where can I direct my attention to where it will have the greatest impact.’ One had to define oneself, not let others define you. That really is the key. I got a fair enough opportunity to present Pakistan’s point of view, particularly on television, but there was no room for mistakes.

Q: There are hot rumours that you are considering fighting for a Senate seat with a view to being appointed foreign minister or that you might be going back to journalism with one of the big publishing groups.

A: I’m examining all options and I do believe you can serve your country as well in the private sector as the public. My natural calling is journalism, it is my first and last passion. So I’m not ruling anything in and I’m not ruling anything out.