Ambassador William Milam on Imran Khan, US-Pakistan Relations, and Bangladeshi Elections

This SAV Q&A is part of an ongoing series in which  SAV talks to scholars and practitioners to understand the trends and potential inflection points in South Asian security. 

In a conversation with SAV editors Emily Tallo and Reja Younis in Washington, Ambassador William Milam, a senior policy scholar at the Wilson Center, discussed the state of Pakistan under the newly-elected Imran Khan government, U.S.-Pakistan relations, and imminent elections in Bangladesh. While serving in the U.S. Foreign Service, Milam was a senior diplomat and specialist in South Asia and West Africa. He was formerly the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (1998-2001) and Bangladesh (1990-93) as well as Chief of Mission in Liberia (1995-1998). 

On Pakistan under Imran Khan:

Pakistan’s new leader Imran Khan inherited a dire financial situation: a record-high trade deficit $37.7 billion, $75 billion in debt, a currency that has been devalued by over 15 percent in the past year, and a plunging stock market are a few of the factors that have led the government to seek another bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). If this happens, it will be the 15th time since 1980 that Pakistan has secured a bailout from the IMF. How will another IMF bailout for Pakistan impact Imran Khan’s vision of Naya Pakistan and his ability to sell his populist vision to Pakistani voters in the future?

I think Imran Khan’s vision was slightly over optimistic from the very beginning. Naya Pakistan seemed to be centered on an Islamic welfare state. I don’t know what that is and I’m not sure Imran does either, but it’s a nice thing for a populist politician to say. That said, Imran Khan isn’t really in charge of Pakistan. None of the political leaders are really in charge of Pakistan. When it’s to their convenience, and when things are limping along okay, the army will allow the civilian government to take care of the economy, but right now I think the economy is a major national security issue, political issue, and an economic issue, and the army is going to have its say. It is going to get its share of the national pie, which already reduces the chances of a “Naya Pakistan,” or the Pakistan Islamic welfare state.

My economist friends who I respect believe that there is an extraordinary kind of “economic tsunami” coming for Pakistan. The balance of payments is only a part of it, but the balance of payments is certainly an immediate part of it. If you were to ask me this question, normally I would say that Pakistan will do exactly what it has done in the 15 previous IMF programs which is to, as Woody Allen said, “Take the money and run.” It would get the money, which would allow it to slide over the terrible deficit in the trade and current account, pay off its debts on time, but never fulfill any of the conditions of the program. That has long been Pakistan’s history.

Pakistan has lived beyond its income for at least the last three or four decades. I see no understanding of that on the part of the present government. I see no indications that it is looking at some sort of fundamental structural reforms. Without them, it will just keep the situation going. If they just get bailed out, and bailed out, and bailed out, nothing will ever happen. On the other hand, I am not suggesting that Pakistan shouldn’t be bailed out, because it’s strategically extremely important. History shows us that when we refuse to bail difficult and strategic countries out of this kind of problem, they affect us negatively.

On U.S.-Pakistan Relations:

Some have argued that the United States since 9/11 has seen Pakistan primarily through the prism of Afghanistan. Is this the lens through which U.S. policymakers and analysts should see Pakistan?  Why or why not?

I do think they look at Pakistan through the Afghanistan lens too much. I have trouble understanding it completely because it’s always been clear to me that Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan were not totally congruent with ours. There’s an overlap, of course. Pakistan would like a stable, peaceful Afghanistan on its western border. Even back in ‘98, Pakistan would have liked it because in those days the Pakistan military supposedly had a strategic depth policy, which was to use Afghanistan in case India attacked, as a fallback. I don’t believe that the Pakistan military is really wedded to that theory any longer. In fact, I think they probably totally discarded it.

Nonetheless, Afghanistan remains very important to Pakistan. The last thing they need is an unstable country on their border, or a country that harbors militants who are attacking Pakistan, which is the truth now to some extent. Also, even more, the last thing it will accept is an Afghanistan which has more than some level of Indian influence than Pakistan thinks is tolerable. No one quite knows what that level is, but there is a red line on Indian influence in Afghanistan that they do not want to be crossed.

The answer then is that yes, I do think we look too much through that lens. However, I think that it’s almost natural since we’ve been engaged in this Afghan war for 17 years now, that we find it very important that Pakistan, which is supposedly a strategic ally, is perceived not to be terribly helpful. I suspect that the Pakistanis are still happy with the Taliban and they wouldn’t mind seeing the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan. Pakistan does hold that there are good and bad Taliban and they think they know the difference.

I suspect that the Pakistanis are still happy with the Taliban and they wouldn’t mind seeing the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan. Pakistan does hold that there are good and bad Taliban and they think they know the difference.

When I was in the embassy in Pakistan [from 1998 to 2001], the U.S. embassy in Pakistan functioned as a surrogate embassy to Afghanistan at the same time. We had many Afghan exiles, like Hamid Karzai for example, with whom I became very good friends. Others who didn’t rise to such spectacular heights when the Soviets left, but who were very good sources.

Around that time, I was given the task–and this is a task that I didn’t relish and frankly still have a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth about because of who I was talking to—to be the main interlocutor with the Afghan Taliban. I used to meet a lot with some of their representatives who turned up in Islamabad. We were looking, and we knew through intelligence, about a lot of traffic back and forth through Pakistan, of Al Qaeda operatives which the Pakistanis, if not facilitating, at least looked the other way most of the time.

I remember talking to Musharraf several times after he took over. We knew that one of the operatives was a guy close to Osama Bin Laden. He used to go back and forth between somewhere and Afghanistan, and he went through Pakistan. We knew he was coming through the country. I was asked to go all the way to the chief of state, which was Musharraf, to see if we could get the ISI to stop him, arrest him, and give him to us. Musharraf, I thought, was favorable to it. He took the note I gave him, folded it up, and put it in his pants pocket as if he didn’t dare show it to anybody, and said he would try, but it never happened.

Do you see a way for U.S.-Pakistan relations to get back on track? If so, how?

That depends upon what the United States really has in mind in the next few months with this “economic tsunami” coming at Pakistan. Given attitudes in Pakistan about the United States and the realization finally that our interests do not coincide, particularly in Afghanistan, I think the best we could do is what we call a “transactional relationship.” You don’t necessarily work against each other, but you realize that you’re never going to get things done in that area.

I don’t see any way that we’re going to, suddenly, make our interests like theirs, or make their interests like ours, or convince the Pakistan military that they should really work more with us on Afghanistan. The military doesn’t see it in their interest to do so.

In my mind, the relationship we have with Pakistan is as back on track as it’s ever going to get in the present political situation. I don’t see any way that we’re going to, suddenly, make our interests like theirs, or make their interests like ours, or convince the Pakistan military that they should really work more with us on Afghanistan. The military doesn’t see it in their interest to do so. I think we just must find ways to lessen the tension and reduce the friction when it comes to Afghanistan. For example, we now seem to agree on a general approach to Afghanistan, and that the Taliban must be part of a political process. But I think the Pakistanis are not going to give up, because they see the use of proxies like the Haqqani network as being in their interest. Not the use of them so much, as keeping them on board with Pakistan, because the Pakistanis don’t really believe that our approach to peace is going to work.

On Bangladeshi Elections:

The recent student protests in Bangladesh have led to concerns that the country’s upcoming national elections, which are likely to be held in December of this year, will not be free and fair. Do you agree that Bangladesh’s national elections are unlikely to be free and fair? What does this mean for the country’s political situation, especially in the context of what some on South Asian Voices have articulated are the country’s “backsliding democratic credentials”?

The most recent election was 2014—and in 2013, I was writing in the Express Tribune in Pakistan about it, saying that this was going to be a one-party election, and it was going to really be a big human rights problem in Bangladesh. The Awami League’s serious mistake just came earlier, [in 2011] when they got rid of the caretaker amendment, which was in the constitution. That caretaker amendment was what guaranteed better elections in Bangladesh, it guaranteed that general elections would be overseen by non-partisan caretaker governments. Then there was a one-party election in 2014, and what does a Bangladesh political party do if they’re the only party in power? Well, they do their best to get rid of the opposition.

Something good is happening [in Bangladesh]. It’s the only place in South Asia that anything good is happening as far as I can see.

There have been thousands of human rights violations in Bangladesh since then. But we’ve got now an election coming this year, and I’ve started thinking more positively because something good is happening. There’s an alliance growing from the center [called the Jatiya Oikya Front, or the National Unity Front] led by people who have real gravitas in Bangladesh politics. This started with a group of small centrist parties, that allied with other small parties, so about 20 or 25 parties across the center, and now this group has joined with the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which has the troops and the voting bank that can make a difference. So something good is happening there. It’s the only place in South Asia that anything good is happening as far as I can see.

Bangladeshis are unlikely to accept, at least they’re unlikely to accept willingly, the way that Sheikh Hasina’s trying to take them toward a one-party state. So, as I said, the center has risen up. The Awami League will cheat on the election, but I’m hoping that the alliance, which is unlikely to win, is going to get enough seats to become a kind of a block to what the Awami League wants to do. We’ll see what happens, but it’s a good sign.

On India-Pakistan Relations:

If you had to make a prediction, which country—India or Pakistan—will likely be the one to alter its bargaining position on the resumption of bilateral talks so that dialogue can move forward? How far in the future do you think this will be?

I think the first country that would probably change its view is India. That’s because India is a democracy of sorts, much more so than Pakistan. Modi could lose an election and the Congress could come back to power. If that were to happen, I think the Congress would be somewhat more tolerant of Pakistan and probably want to talk. Modi doesn’t seem to want to right now. He’s got his own domestic problems, his own domestic forces. The far right of his party is very anti-Pakistan, and every time Pakistan does something, runs a terrorist raid or something, or seems to have run a terrorist raid, or allows a terrorist raid to take place or seems to have allowed it to take place, the far right of Modi’s party starts shouting for war.

Modi’s in a difficult situation regarding Pakistan. I don’t know how he really feels. I thought he felt moderate about it and was flexible. But certainly, India will make the first conciliatory move because the army in Pakistan is not going to change, not until there’s a big generational turnover of the leadership in the army.

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Image 1: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung via Flickr

Image 2: Roberto Schmidt via Getty

Posted in , Bangladesh, Civil-Military Relations, Economics, Escalation Control, Foreign Policy, History, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Military, Pakistan Elections 2018, SAV Q&A, Security, Uncategorized, United States

SAV editorial staff

SAV editorial staff


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