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Beyond bin Laden

Updated May 16, 2011


Former foreign secretary and seasoned diplomat Riaz Mohammad Khan – Whitestar

KARACHI:  Though Pakistan can do without American aid, it is “extremely important” for the nation to maintain a positive and constructive relationship with the United States, and the country does not have to sacrifice its self-respect in order to do this, said former foreign secretary and seasoned diplomat Riaz Mohammad Khan on Monday.

He was analysing the US-Pakistan relationship in the aftermath of the Abbottabad operation at a lecture titled ‘After Osama bin Laden’ held here at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs.

He candidly observed that it was “insane” for Pakistan to think it could place the Taliban “on the throne of Kabul after western troops leave”. He added that the Iranians, Russians, Central Asian states as well as the Indians were all opposed to the extremist militia’s return to power in Afghanistan.

“We need to exercise restraint. What they [the Taliban] may do would be hurtful to Pakistan. But we can play a role to facilitate reconciliation” between the Taliban and the regime in Kabul, he said. Referring to bin Laden’s death, the diplomat said several questions were swirling about the thorny issue that had placed Pakistan in an uncomfortable position. He said it “was not surprising he was there and that we were unable to find him”. In fact it was wrong for the establishment to categorically deny that Osama was on Pakistani soil, he added. “On matters of high policy, categorical denials work,” he said while referring to the state’s constant denial that Pakistan was pursuing nuclear weapons in the run-up to going nuclear. Yet he felt the bin Laden issue did not deserve such an emphatic denial.

Mr Khan said he did not believe Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus was complicit in shielding Osama, citing the fact that the security establishment had helped net major Al Qaeda operatives from the country. As to why the security establishment failed to pick up bin Laden’s trail, he said the advanced technology available to the CIA was not available to the Pakistani agencies. He added, “I would be extremely surprised if the intelligence agencies knew and were protecting” Osama bin Laden.

The diplomat said that the Americans only shared intelligence that was “necessary” with Pakistan. Since the bin Laden mission was such a “sensitive issue”, they decided to keep it under wraps as there was a great risk of failure in these sorts of operations. “In case it had failed, there would have been negative fallout for the Obama administration”.

He further said that despite the US’s huge resources, Faisal Shahzad nearly blew up his vehicle in New York’s Times Square. “These things happen”.

Concerning the violation of Pakistan’s territory, Mr Khan said that since it was the US that provided the Pakistani military with technology, “to think we could have outmatched their technology is naïve. The helicopters could only have been brought down by anti-aircraft guns”.

As for the security of Pakistan’s “strategic assets”, Riaz Mohammad Khan said these “are not like Osama’s house. They are protected and dispersed. That’s a different ball game”. Referring to the possibility of the Indians staging such an incursion, he said there was a massive difference between the technology available to the US and what India possessed. He added that as Pakistan’s military was concentrated on the eastern border, the likelihood of such an incursion was “highly improbable”.

The former foreign secretary said the suggestion that Nato’s supply lines be closed in case there was a deterioration in relations with the US was not practical. “They can take other, more expensive routes,” he said. At the height of the Afghan anti-Soviet struggle in the 1980s, the USSR was over-flying Pakistani airspace to transport supplies to Angola and Ethiopia, he recalled.

He observed that the world was no longer one of defence alliances; today, major powers competed and cooperated with each other, but did not confront one another. “We must move in step with the spirit of the times”.