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?
Sherry Rehman: The facts speak for themselves. The ground lines of communications are open and the two sides also signed an MOU to govern their usage in the future. All interactions are mediated with full transparency, unlike before. Significant progress has been made on IEDs, something slowly but increasingly acknowledged by the US administration, although I am not sure the full briefing has filtered down to Congressional committees who audit our region.
Counter-terrorism cooperation has improved. A number of developments have taken place on Afghanistan, the meeting of the safe passage working group in Islamabad in Sept. 2012, the visit of Salahuddin Rabbani to Pakistan in Nov. 2012 and subsequent actions taken to spur the Afghan peace process, as articulated by our Afghan neighbours.
Similarly, there has been a fair amount of movement on the trade issue. The working group on finance and economy met in Washington only a few days ago. The Pakistan Private Partnership Initiative, a vehicle to promote and assist entrepreneurship in Pakistan, was launched in August 2012 by the US. A highly successful investment conference was organized in London in October 2012. It was jointly organized by the BOI and the US Trade Representative’s office.
Question: Is the US moving away from its Afghan and India-Centric policies?
Sherry Rehman: The US works with its own geo-strategic calculus, as all states do, and Pakistan is 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. Our job is to keep working for better relations, and to have Pakistan and its compulsions, its changing democratic texture, better understood.
In any case, the future of core foreign policy agendas will be determined by societies investing in each other’s people, business and human resources, not solely by states engaging with each other. So the shift to fostering greater public and economic ties between the two countries is of utmost importance.
Question: Recently, the White House rejected new congressional restrictions on Pakistan but attitudes on Capitol Hill are not changing. Why?
Sherry Rehman: Capitol Hill is currently locked in vital domestic issues after a long electoral contest. As Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, I believe my job is to intensively engage with all players in Congress, irrespective of their views and try to bring a combination of information, persuasion and strategy to a very busy power capital.
In all outreach initiatives, including the convening of the first meeting of the Pakistan Caucus in Congress in five years, which we pushed very hard for, we continue to present democratic Pakistan’s new policy agenda on important bilateral issues to a diverse range of US legislators. Of course, we hope to see an improvement in the perception on Pakistan when the new Congress comes into office next month, but we certainly cannot match the political and financial resources of various regional and other lobbies that operate on the Hill.
When Congress is in session, we maintain multiple outreach initiatives and interfaces with Representatives, their senior staffers, and even Pakistani-American groups and individuals with an interest in building bridges. Many Congressmen, and women, plus senators have even been kind enough to allow me to host them for dinner-talks and briefings to satisfy their misgivings and apprehensions.
We send a weekly Pakistan Casualty Count to all Congressional offices and committees, so now at least there is a clear sense of the cost of Pakistan’s sacrifices, but even so it becomes very challenging sometimes in the face of a fairly hostile media narrative.
As you know, the smallest negative news item from Pakistan becomes a headline here. Yet, suffice it to say we have been able to tide over a very difficult time with the help of friends on both sides and the guidance of our principals. The range of contacts and meetings between our two countries today, speaks of the distance we have covered.
Question: It seems that the change in the administration’s attitude came because of a strategic change in Islamabad’s thinking? Is it so?
Sherry Rehman: The change in Islamabad’s strategic thinking, and President Zardari’s regional trade pivot, is part of a democratic transition, which the country is undergoing. It only took time to register in the US, and for us to clearly and repeatedly enunciate it.
President Zardari articulated it and the Foreign Minister reiterated it, as did all our security officials. Other ministerial and working group interfaces also mirror the same message, and officials here do note that our side 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.
Credibility is key in all diplomacy, and our hosts respect that as well. In the hyper-media global environment, the age of empty posturing is over. Many interlocutors now do understand that in terms of policy execution the gap between commitment and capacity is not easy to bridge. I say with some caution and humility, that this change is registering in the US.
Question: What are our lobbyists doing to improve Pakistan’s image in Washington?
Sherry Rehman: Washington’s political environment and the organization of the US political system make the services of an able lobbyist a necessity. Lobbyists are their clients’ eyes and ears and their counsels. They also help their clients to communicate with the Congress and deal with the media. There is hardly a big embassy without several lobbyists in Washington. We only use one. Past governments have used more lobbyists, according to my information. In fact, even US domestic groups and corporations feel the need to hire lobbyists to amplify their message to Congress. We monitor the performance of our lobbyists continuously to ensure that the public money spent on them is utilized optimally.