On October 26, 2020 Pakistani politician, and former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar spoke with SAV Managing Editor Brigitta Schuchert and SAV Deputy Editor Sunaina Danziger on issues related to Pakistan’s foreign policy. This included Pakistan’s stake in the intra-Afghan peace process, tensions in Pakistan-Indian relations, and the impact of U.S.-China competition on the region, among other subjects.
Recently, the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators began the intra-Afghan negotiations process. Given Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with the United States for the Doha Agreement, what is Pakistan’s stake in the outcome of the current talks, and how is Pakistan preparing for a range of possible future scenarios in Afghanistan?
I think the right language would be that Pakistan is not really bringing the Taliban to the table but encouraging the Afghans or the Afghan Taliban to come to the table. This includes all the other non-Taliban and Afghan government members. The consistent position that Pakistan has had is that the conflict in Afghanistan needs to be sorted out through negotiation, and the negotiation will be eventually successful or unsuccessful because of the intra-Afghan dialogue that takes place.
This puts Pakistan’s interest in some ways higher than even that of the United States, simply for the reason that we have thousands of kilometers of a traditionally porous border with Afghanistan. It is now being fenced, and hopefully border management is improving, but we still see incidents in the border area. Our stakes are, I believe, the highest after Kabul. Any peace there will have a positive impact here, war there will have a negative impact here. We have seen history prove this logic and our stakes are exceptionally high.
[Pakistan’s] stakes are, I believe, the highest after Kabul. Any peace there will have a positive impact here, war there will have a negative impact here. We have seen history prove this logic and our stakes are exceptionally high.
Personally, and I do believe I represent most of the thinking in Pakistan right now when I say this, we genuinely believe that this is a unique moment which has been reached through decades of efforts that has happened in various capitals—in Kabul, and in Islamabad and elsewhere—to reach a point where everybody, at least agrees that negotiations are the way forward. It is a unique opportunity and a unique moment, and we hope that petty reasons and small-mindedness will not take away the opportunity that lies at the table right now.
During your time as Foreign Minister Pakistan and India took substantial steps in their bilateral relationship, in terms of confidence building measures and easing trade restrictions, but currently relations between India and Pakistan are arguably at their lowest in years. What are the risks of this low point in relations, and steps that could be taken by both sides to address the trust deficit?
I am someone who unambiguously believes that even if your neighbors are taking a mad route, you remain consistent in your offer to negotiate your way out of whatever crisis happens. I now believe that it is virtually impossible to expect anything to happen on the positive side with Prime Minister Modi, and the smart option is to be prepared for the unpredictable worst-case scenarios. To be looking for any giveaways, or movement forward in the positive direction is actually not being aware of the surroundings that you are in. I think Prime Minister Modi comes in the coterie of leaders that we have around the world today who are able to inflict long-term pain on their country to get what is popular for them as a person right now.
Any country that is being led by a person who decides to divide people into various factions or religious groups, rather than unite people, has the wrong leader, and will go in the wrong direction. I believe Prime Minister Modi is fast undoing the decades of work that people like Nehru and Manmohan Singh, and even Indira Gandhi, and before that Gandhi, had done to make India the shining example that it was. We, in Pakistan, used to quote India as the example of the secular way forward, and as an important example of a country which took its constitution seriously, which went by the rules. I am at a point where I feel we can do everything right and the equation will still not change for the better. The results will not change, because we have what I consider to be a “divider in chief” in India.
I think the impact of what is happening in India right now almost matches whatever has happened in Afghanistan. This is a very big statement. I used to always say in my role as Foreign Minister, that even more than the eastern border, it is the western border that should give us sleepless nights. Now I will not rule out anything. Sending warplanes into Pakistani territory was unprecedented. This could have easily triggered a war and the war could have easily triggered some sort of a nuclear conflagration. Modi’s personal politics feed his country’s choices and the region’s future, and that is a dangerous place to be in.
Are there further concerns about crisis escalation in the future, or the absence of potential channels of communication?
From zero to ten for how precarious the situation is, I would put it at an eight. I say this because of the unpredictability of actions that may be taken not out of interest for the country, but because of their political expediency.
What Modi has done in Kashmir is taken a situation which was on the back burner, and conflagrated it and ensured that there will be chaos, bloodshed, and further division and unrest. The tools that he has used are going towards state terrorism. These are dangerous trends. With all that has happened in 2019, it does not leave much hope in terms of what is not within the domain of possible. I think everything is within the domain of possible, a full-scale war, possibly, looking at nuclear conflagration. I take a lot of pride in how Pakistan responded by returning the pilot in 2019, because there was no chest beating because we wanted the situation to de-escalate.
In some ways, the crisis of 2019 was a missed opportunity. Although Mr. Khan likes to play politics, he became quite logical when it came to the question of India, and he led in the right way during the crisis and the opposition fully supported him taking that route. In some ways it is a missed opportunity because all political parties in Pakistan, I think, are on the same page, in terms of normalizing with India and normalizing the region. We have learned through history that we need to have normalized trade and people-to-people movement. I am very proud to have negotiated the visa agreement with India during our tenure. I am very proud to have negotiated the normalization of trade, which was the first time since 1965, and a very big deal.
That is the direction that we could have possibly taken if the era of politics under Mr. Modi had not come in. He is holding back not only Pakistan-India relations, but the entire region’s growth as a unified region because of his policies.
The United States has increasingly framed its strategy through the lens of great power competition. As China remains an important partner for Pakistan, what are the implications for Pakistan of this more competitive framework from the United States, and how might Pakistan respond to increased U.S. scrutiny over China ties?
First, I do not believe a country like Pakistan should be asked to choose between the two. Pakistan is a country which has had longstanding strategic relations with China. Strategically, the value of Pakistan being a country which has good relations with both is only proven by the Nixon administration’s opening to China, which Pakistan enabled. Even when you want to make enemies out of countries, you do want to have other countries who you consider to be partially friendly, to remain friendly with the other. Strategically speaking, from a purely Pakistani perspective, Pakistan should never find itself in a place where it has to choose one over the other, because Pakistan’s relations with China are completely different than its relations with the United States. Both are important, and I think it is perfectly plausible, feasible, and viable to carry out both in their due form. They are not contradictory.
I believe that the path the United States has chosen is going to bring instability and war-like tendencies to the world—and I believe this is a path that leads to the end of the United States being a leader in the world and portraying itself to the world as fearful of losing its role as a superpower, which is currently unchallenged. The way the United States is framing competition with China is actually putting itself in a lesser position than it deserves.
For example, I remember being shocked when Secretary of State Pompeo spent much of the 30 minutes he had to speak in Munich to downgrade and bad mouth China. It felt like a small power trying to compete with what it considers to be an emerging power. It was really the opposite of what a leadership role should be.
China is seen as a good power in our region, and I am not only talking about Pakistan. However, within Europe and the United States, the conception of China is so different, and the scale of China is so blown out of proportion that it is clouding every other challenge that we need to look at and deal with together. How the United States has chosen to deal with China, and Iran—reneging on the JCPOA—was actually a policy of disengaging and sidelining adversaries while expecting them to be brought down to their worst possible behavior. This was in contrast to the Obama strategy, which was to engage with them and make them part of the world order, organizations, etc., and use them as much as possible for things like climate change, which are common goods.
The current approach in U.S. policy is having an impact on the entire world, and has already had an impact on the world order, and has already had an impact on what we consider to be common goods, such as climate change and trade.
What in your view are Pakistan’s main foreign policy goals over the next two to three years, and how have these shifted since your time as Foreign Minister?
Currently, a key part of Pakistan’s foreign policy is normalizing the situation within the region. But we are one country in the region. Other leaders—how they act and react—has a huge impact on what will happen.
The first, secondary, and tertiary goals when I was in office were to normalize the region and our relations within the region as much as possible. I used to openly say that I seek better relations with Kabul and Delhi before I seek better relations with D.C. and London.
I think the goals remain similar, at least in an ideal scenario. The region has not normalized, if anything it is conflagrated more. I think normalizing the region will remain the major policy goal until this is achieved.
The other goal for Pakistan is the balancing act between the United States and China, which is exceptionally important. Pakistan also has its own goals. Our foreign policy goals should start with the immediate region, which is our immediate neighbors—Iran, India, Afghanistan, and China. As I used to say as foreign minister, we do not have an option but to pursue the best of relations possible because we share a border with them.
Our foreign policy goals should start with the immediate region, which is our immediate neighbors—Iran, India, Afghanistan, and China. As I used to say as foreign minister, we do not have an option but to pursue the best of relations possible because we share a border with them.
Then we have the greater region, in which you have Turkey, Russia, the Central Asian Republics, Bangladesh, etc., which should be priority number two. Then, of course countries which are further away but are exceptionally important and therefore we need to maintain friendly relations with them. The challenge in Pakistan-U.S. relations currently has been the role that the United States has decided to give to India as the preserver of this region.
This is obviously part of the U.S. containment of China policy and has an adverse impact on the relation Pakistan has with the United States. It should not be as divisive as it has been in the past and I think it should and can be managed better.
While COVID-19 has slowed significantly in Pakistan, the pandemic is still likely to have ramifications on economies globally. What are Pakistan’s greatest challenges regarding COVID’s economic impact? Are there any silver linings in terms of economic opportunities?
There is a lot that needs to be done before the silver linings or economic opportunities start to seem realistic. Pakistan’s biggest challenges right now are in being able to become a country that is self-sufficient in terms of its tax revenue resources, and to stop being a country that needs to go to the IMF every six months after it is done with an IMF program. This has to do with having a balance-of-payment problem and that has to do with your ability to have exports which are substantial and for those exports to grow.
For that, the inherent competitiveness that the Pakistani economic climate offers to investors, whether they are from Pakistan or abroad, is crucial. This means clean and especially efficient energy opportunities, taking government’s regulation out as much as possible. We are an overregulated economy right now.
The reason for much of this is social challenges as well. The creation of employment is both the biggest social challenge and also a big economic opportunity, but you cannot falsely create economic opportunities and employment. Prime Minister Imran Khan promised 10 million jobs, and so far, he has taken a million jobs away because of all the organizations that he had to close, and there is not enough opportunity being created in the private sector.
This requires a lot of things to come together, both at the international level and at the national level. I am not seeing a silver lining right now. I would just think that we hope that the second wave of COVID-19 is not going to hit us any more than the first one did. We were very lucky with the first wave, and that at least if we cannot grow, there is no contraction in the economy, which we did experience in the first year of this government, so let us hope for the best.
Click here to read this article in Urdu.
Image 1: Usman Ghani via Wikimedia Commons