akistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif is not a diplomat. Diplomacy, some say, requires restrain and firmness, which Khawaja Asif admits he lacks at times.
What he’s known for is his candour. This attribute was in full display and played in his favour during his official trip to the United States. His candid remarks impressed his audience.
At the Asia Society in New York, he slammed the idea that Pakistan was comforting terrorist organisations. The US has called these groups agents of chaos and menace. Khawaja Asif agreed to that, and then pushed his point of view. “It is very easy to say that Pakistan is supporting Haqqanis and Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. They’re liabilities, I accept that they are liabilities. But give us time to get rid of these liabilities. You are increasing our liabilities further.”
Without mincing words, Khawaja Asif admitted, “there are people in Pakistan who can be a liability in times of crisis for Pakistan and for the region.” Referring to Hafiz Saeed and his organisations — LeT and JuD — he said, “It’s a proscribed organisation. The gentleman is under house arrest. But I agree with you that on that score, on that account, we have to do more.”
The US has designated Hafiz Saeed as terrorist and put a bounty of 10 million dollars. His groups — Lashkar-e-Taiba, Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation, and Jamaat-ud-Dawa — are blacklisted. The Unites States has been pressing Pakistan to take action against these groups.
Khawaja Asif did play up the old rhetoric that scapegoating Pakistan for all Afghan ills was neither fair nor accurate. “This will only help the forces that we are trying to fight collectively,” he said, reiterating the need for support from the US to counter such outfits. The refreshing perspective of this, however, was that he acknowledged the US support to Pakistan in building the capacity and overcoming challenges.
Back home, he was criticised incessantly and declared as a threat to national security for taking a clear stand. “With such a foreign minister, who needs enemies?” commented Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s leader Imran Khan in his tweet. The foreign minister was not bothered.
Like a seasoned politician, Asif played to two different audience. In public, he remained aggressive and in official meetings he kept his composure. “I will not be extravagant, yesterday’s meeting went very well, today’s meeting with Gen. McMaster in the morning, I would be a bit cautious about it. But it was good. It was good. It wasn’t bad,” he said when asked about his official engagements in Washington.
The two-day trip to Washington last week included meetings with the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and President Trump’s National Security Advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster. It was the first high profile engagement after Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s sit down with Vice-President Mike Pence.
The State Department tried to keep the dialogue under covers. “They talked about the importance of partnering together to establish peace and prosperity in the region. They talked about their mutual commitment to advancing a multifaceted relationship between the United States and Pakistan based on our shared interest in a secure, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan. The foreign minister and the secretary talked about the president’s South Asia strategy that was announced back in August. They also exchanged ideas about how our countries can work together to help stabilise Afghanistan,” the department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, told reporters.
She declined to comment on any specifics of the meeting, saying, “We typically don’t provide the fulsome types of readouts, we don’t do a play-by-play, a blow-by-blow of everything that happens in our private diplomatic conversations.” Yet, the conversations that must have taken place in the private settings between the two top diplomats seem more than just bilateral.
The secretary, Rex Tillerson, after the meeting, acknowledged relationship with Pakistan as “extraordinarily important regionally”. As expected, he said, “It is not just about Afghanistan,” and added, “This is about the importance of Pakistan and Pakistan’s long-term stability as well. We have concerns about the future of Pakistan’s government, too, in terms of them — we want their government to be stable and we want it to be peaceful.”
Tillerson then said that many of the issues “they’re struggling with inside of Pakistan are our issues.” He did not elaborate this point. The minister in his meetings also voiced various regional issues including Kashmir, India’s involvement and cross-border infiltration from Afghanistan.
Addressing a local think tank, the United States Institute of Peace, the minister stirred the pot once again. “We are living in hell,” he said referring to the post-Soviet war situation in the region. “The sad part is America went away chest-thumping, and Pakistan had to deal with what was left.”
He also mentioned President Trump’s statement that, “Pakistan has much to gain partnering with our effort in Afghanistan,” and agreed to it, saying that it would be beneficial for Pakistan. “How could we deny it,” he said urging the United States to also acknowledge Pakistan’s efforts and offer respect in return.
Khawaja Asif reiterated that a ‘trust deficit’ exists between the two countries for a reason. He repeated that terrorist outfits were liabilities and Pakistan needed time to get rid of them. “We can’t pay them off over night. They have been there for a long time. We need time to ask them to wrap up their business,” he said.
He said the burden of a 16-year long war in Afghanistan has been passed to the new administration there, while “for Pakistan, the timeline of managing the fallout of Afghan instability is 38 years and counting. It is more than half of our life as an independent nation.”
He also urged the US administration to quit playing to the gallery, and blaming Pakistan for its own failures in Afghanistan. “Let’s see this conflict in its entirety, in totality. Do not treat Pakistan like a whipping boy. That’s not acceptable. We want to cooperate with the US. We are the direct beneficiary of peace and stability in Afghanistan,” he said.
At times, he also appeared furious at the allegations levelled against Pakistan for supporting terrorist outfits and reiterated that the country was taking action against such organisations without any discrimination.
Quoting Robert Frost’s famous line, “Good fences make good neighbours,” he insisted that Afghanistan needs to eliminate safe havens from its territory and manage its border. Pakistan calls for effective elimination of these safe havens in Afghanistan, he said, “large ungoverned territories in Afghanistan under the influence of non-state groups pose a security risk to the whole region and above all to Afghanistan itself.”
Whether his point of view was taken sympathetically or not is yet to be seen. The trip has certainly helped melt the ice after President Trump threatened Pakistan of consequences for supporting terrorist groups. The slow process of considering each other’s limitations has started, and will continue when the US secretary visits Pakistan in the next few weeks.