August Issue 2019
Interview: Najmuddin Shaikh
The optics of Imran Khan’s trip to the US were good, but what were the actual gains or takeaways?
Prime Minister Imran Khan had a good visit – he was able to address a large crowd of Americans of Pakistani origin, a gathering that was by all accounts spontaneous, and was thus able to establish that he has a base of support.
These people came together because they were enthusiastic about trying to see an improvement in relations between their country of origin and the country in which they reside, or are citizens of.
What was also good was that President Donald Trump accepted that Khan was a leader who commands a degree of support in his own country and is willing to talk about establishing common ground on what is required in order to bring stability to South Asia and particularly to the Af-Pak region.
I think an honest assessment would be that Trump and his advisors – the Defence Department in particular, but also the State Department – are aware that they need more cooperation with Pakistan, not only to resolve the Afghanistan situation, but also because stability in South Asia is one of the goals that the US seeks, as this is an area of particular concern. The two nuclear powers [in the region] are almost incessantly in disagreement with each other. They fear what this particular degree of disagreement between India and Pakistan may portend for the region’s future. These were the two objectives that Trump and his successors had in mind when he spoke of Kashmir and mediation.
No matter what the Indians say, I think Trump believes, that as a skilled negotiator, he has the [ability] to be able to try and work out a solution that will be acceptable to both sides. I don’t discount the fact that subsequently, the State Department issued a statement which seemed to suggest that this was a bilateral matter, in which the Americans would be prepared to assist, but only if both sides requested. The fact of the matter is that they have a concern and they know that unless something is done to ease the temperature between the two countries, there always remains a possibility of major confrontation.
No doubt, the Afghan situation was primarily what Trump was focused on, but then that too is a common interest. I think Trump was convinced that Pakistan does think of this as a common interest; that Pakistan feels its own position – the fact that there is no military solution – has been vindicated and that a political solution has to be reached.
In Beijing, Pakistan joined China, Russia and the US, in agreeing that they would use their influence to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. Obviously, all these countries felt that that the greatest influence could be exercised by the Pakistanis because of the relationship they have had with the Taliban and because the Taliban had a support base in Pakistan.
In that sense, we are approaching a moment of truth. Khan has talked about the fact that he will have a meeting with the Taliban and try to persuade them to come to the negotiating table. There are going to be problems with that. I think the foreign minister has already said that we can only be facilitators; we cannot be guarantors of Afghan-Taliban participation. The question is, are we going to use the leverage we have? One must not overestimate this leverage; one must not underestimate it either – in terms of the capacity we have to bring the Taliban to the table and handle the likely blowback.
Will the trip help serve as a confidence-building measure, despite the divergence of interests?
Where do you find the divergence of interest? Let us acknowledge certain facts drawing upon the past record of US relations with South Asia. We must remember that the US has, since the ’50s – when we first arrived at a defence agreement with the United States – sought and tried to get India as an ally and a partner in the alliance that they wished to build to contain Soviet expansion.
It was only when the Indians turned them down that they turned to us. So India has been the prize that the United States has been seeking in terms of a strategic alliance. This has acquired a greater salience, subsequent to what they believe is the Chinese challenge to American hegemony, or American supremacy as the sole superpower.
Obviously, Pakistan and China’s relations are, as we have been wont to say, ‘higher than the highest mountain and deeper than the deepest ocean,’ but I don’t think that there is necessarily a point of divergence. We have to check the fact that India’s strategic alliance will remain, but this does not mean that their relationship with Pakistan will not retain a certain importance. We saw the statements from General Dunford and McKenzie, saying that maintaining good relations with Pakistan is important in the defence field and it is important as a means of ensuring stability in the region. I think that when we talk of divergences, we must be careful to identify where these divergences lie.
The relationship between the US and Pakistan will not be of the same magnitude as the relationship the US is cultivating with India. At the same time, we must not exaggerate the degree to which this strategic alliance between the two will remain trouble-free. They will probably have disputes, given that India is not curtailing its relationship with Russia in the military field and will therefore invite sanctions under the American law.
In the context of US-Pak relations, the general impression is that it is the relations between the GHQ and the Pentagon that count and that the role of the civilian government is marginalised. Now that the army and the government are on the same page, would that put a different complexion on things?
I think there has always been a slightly exaggerated fear that US-Pak relations have been determined by the relationship between the GHQ and the Pentagon, or between the ISI and the CIA. This has always been part of the larger picture. We have been unfortunate that the Foreign Office has not been allowed to play the role that it should have played, in terms of tempering the expectations on both sides. Now I think, if Khan wants to run a successful government, he must let the Foreign Office acquire the salience that it needs to have to be able to determine how policy is made and how nuances of policies are to be handled.
What are the key challenges of Pak-US relations?
The key challenges of Pak-US relations are Pakistan’s own internal problems. The truth of the matter is that you need to keep your relations with the US on an even terrain. This is urgent, this is necessary, but your focus should not really be on foreign policy, but on resolving your internal problems.
Those internal problems will attract favourable international attention if the steps that you take are seen to be irreversible and are addressing the problems that you have identified yourself and on which you have taken action. Now, it has acquired even more urgency, with the FATF telling you that you have to take these steps. If we take these steps, we will not just have the support of the US but the US and its allies and Russia and China.
Afghanistan was the central plank of the Washington DC meeting. Do you believe Pakistan over-committed itself? Does it have the clout to deliver what the Americans want?
As I said earlier, this is the moment of truth. If, perhaps, there can be no agreement, then it would be good for the Taliban leadership – whether you call it the Quetta Shura, or the Peshawar Shura, or the Miranshah Shura – to move to those areas of Afghanistan where they have control. Helmand is one area in which nobody denies a degree of Taliban control. Then we should try and insulate ourselves as far as possible. Let the Afghans sort things themselves, but keep yourself as aloof as possible from this. I realise that this may be a difficult task, but that is what we should be aiming for. Fencing our border, and we have made considerable progress on this, is a good step. We must facilitate trade with Afghanistan even while preventing the misuse of the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement.
If the US-Afghan talks fail, will Pakistan be made the whipping boy for the US’ failure in Afghanistan yet again?
I think we want to live in a dream world. We, along with the Americans and the Saudis, created the Mujahideen. We invited the Egyptians, the Syrians, the countries of the Maghreb and all others to send their extremists to fight the jihad against the Soviets. We did this from the time of the Saur Revolution of April 1978. I was fully supportive of this, since we had a very real fear that after consolidating their hold on Afghanistan, the Soviet Union would move into Pakistan’s Balochistan, to reach the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. What was not necessary, however, was to allow more than five million Afghan refugees the freedom to settle wherever they chose in our country and to use the Afghan imbroglio to promote a Salafi version of Islam in Pakistan.
This was the doing of our rulers, as was our failure to repatriate to their home countries the extremists that we had invited into the country.
It is, of course, true that intra-mujahideen differences led to a civil war situation in Afghanistan, which probably did more damage to Afghanistan than the decade-long Soviet occupation and the one factor that contributed to this was that the USA walked away from the region leaving us to cope with the detritus of the war, giving rise to the strongly held belief that we were discarded once the US had achieved its objectives.
It is also true that when the Taliban emerged from their madrassa in Kandahar – and we had nothing to do with this – they seemed to represent a hope that they would bring peace to the war-torn country. We did not create the Taliban, but we climbed onto their bandwagon as did the Americans, who too seemed at that time to share our belief that they could bring peace to Afghanistan.
It is also true that there is no reasonable explanation for why the Americans allowed Bin Laden to move from Sudan, where he was under constant watch by the Sudanese and the Americans, to Afghanistan, where he was viewed as a hero by the very same people who had become rulers of almost the entire country.
We have, however, to acknowledge that the troubles we experienced came from our own misdoings in handling the Taliban.
On the issue of Iran, Pakistan is in a very tricky situation, vis-à-vis not just the US, but its friends, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. How does Pakistan walk the tightrope in case of further conflagration without antagonising any of the three?
Right now, the only thing we can do to help Iran is to ensure that our borders are secure. We have arrived at an agreement with them about rapid reaction forces. The Iranians have erected a wall, which makes penetration somewhat more difficult. This is all we can do. We have the capacity to increase trade with them – items that come under humanitarian grounds and will not lead to sanctions. I think we have explained this to the Saudis and the UAE as this has been our traditional stand. In a quarrel between two Muslim states, we take no sides, but we try to act as mediators to bridge the differences they have. This we will continue to do. This was established by the fact that the alliance that was termed initially as an anti-Iran alliance, is now an anti-terrorism alliance.
Do you believe the Trump-US meeting could bring some sort of relief vis-à-vis FATF’s threat to put Pakistan on the blacklist?
Yes, I see no prospect of Pakistan being placed on the blacklist, but I also see little prospect of it being removed from the grey list immediately. I think given what Marshall Billingslea of the FATF stated and given the fact that India will be trying very hard to keep you on the grey list at the minimum and to move you to the blacklist if possible, there will be problems. But if you take irreversible steps, those irreversible steps will be recognised.
Imran stressed on trade, not aid for Pakistan, in his talks with Trump. Do you believe that the US will give Pakistan access and certain concessions in trade, especially since everything hinges one our ‘good behaviour’ and their ‘do more’ mantra?
We love these phrases: trade not aid. Where is your capacity? Increase your capacity. Slogans and catchphrases are not what we need. What we need is [the] rebuilding [of our] economy and making sure that it delivers. The business community is up in arms. I hope Khan will resist their efforts at not paying taxes. They are the ones who have to be the catalysts to give us this capacity.