WASHINGTON: Pakistan’s policies are not driven by any strategic over-reach to Afghanistan and this is appreciated in both the US and Afghan capitals, says Ambassador Sherry Rehman.
Ambassador Rehman, who recently completed her first year as Islamabad’s envoy in Washington, told Dawn that the United States and Pakistan had a “joint strategic motive” for stabilizing the region.
“As Pakistan would be the first to suffer the fallout of Afghan conflict, the US would not like to reverse all development gains in an irresponsible exit, or leave Afghanistan with a security vacuum,” she explained.
Ambassador Rehman said that although relations between the United States and Pakistan had improved greatly, sometimes it “becomes very challenging” to promote Pakistani here, particularly in the face of a fairly hostile media narrative.
Highlighting recent positive changes in Pakistan’s relations with the United States, she said now US officials were also acknowledging that Islamabad “demonstrates an appetite for change, and on many fronts, try to walk the talk too. It is not as if we say one thing, and do another.”
Ambassador Rehman said that Pakistan was an important country in its own right and would like the US to engage with it on the basis of its inherent strengths and potential.
Question: The US State Department says that Pakistan is “pressing forward” with the peace process in Afghanistan and no longer hesitates in enable talks between Taliban and Afghan officials. Why this change?
Ambassador Sherry Rehman: Pakistan will only move in lockstep with the government of Afghanistan in the lead. We are certainly readily to facilitate and enable a peace process, but as all stakeholders have concluded, peace can only have a chance if Afghans shape and build it as part of an investment in their own future. Pakistan knows fully well the cost of instability and conflict in Afghanistan. The recent visit of Salahuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghan High Peace Council to Islamabad, and other interactions and action take in support of the process is testimony to that commitment.
Question: What are we doing to facilitate this change?
Sherry Rehman: Afghanistan is going through a transition, and we must only support it, not meddle in it. Peace in the neighbourhood is vital to Pakistan, simply because its absence will add volatility to our border areas and even our mainland.
Today, all diplomatic and state contacts with Kabul have intensified, and care is taken to demonstrate that Pakistan engages at the highest levels with a broad base of Afghan leaders and groups, and that Kabul is secure in Pakistan’s friendship and motive. What has also changed is that our friends have stopped doubting our intentions. We have been trying to build trust with Afghanistan ever since this government came into office in Pakistan. Remember, President Karzai was the only head of state invited to the inauguration of President Zardari.
Perhaps now they see on the ground that Pakistan is not driven by any strategic over-reach in its approach to Afghanistan. History is a painful teacher, but we only profit if we don’t repeat at least what is in our control. And as many empires have seen, Afghan territory can only be governed by Afghan leaders.
Question: The US, Pakistan and Afghanistan now have a subgroup for providing safe passage to Taliban leaders. What does it hope to achieve?
Sherry Rehman: The safe passage group was established in April 2012, following the core group meeting held in Islamabad. It is again an illustration of Pakistan's commitment to work with Afghanistan and the United States to facilitate an Afghan-owned and led peace process.
Question: What steps are Pakistan and the United States taking to systematically identify their shared interests and act on them jointly?
Sherry Rehman: Cooperation defines the working dynamic between the two governments right now, as opposed to the stalemate we saw last November. Our joint strategic motive of stabilizing the region are obvious, as Pakistan would be the first to suffer the fallout of Afghan conflict, and the US would not like to reverse all development gains in an irresponsible exit, or leave Afghanistan with a security vacuum.
But we are also in the process of broadening the bilateral relationship independent of the Afghan equation. The Working Group on Counter-terrorism and Law Enforcement met in Washington on 5 October 2012 led by the Interior Minister. The one on economy and finance met on 30 November, led by the Finance Minister. A meeting of the two countries’ civilian and military leaders took place in Brussels on Dec. 3 and the Defence Consultative Group met in Islamabad the same day. The working groups on energy and security have just concluded their deliberations in Islamabad.
All of these meetings are forums for discussions on identifying shared interests and avenues for working jointly. This is what I call a full deck of sustained and intensive dialogue groups, and we hope they will build a productive pathway to re-building trust, and moving to an enhanced framework for cooperation.
Question: The United States says that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met President Zardari in Chicago, she outlined five key points: counterterrorism cooperation; working jointly on Afghanistan; reopening the ground lines of communications, focusing on obliterating improvised explosive devices and moving toward a relationship with Pakistan based more on trade, market access, and not aid. What have the two countries done so far to achieve these objectives?