Exclusive: Ambassador Hussain Haqqani talks to India Ink

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The India Ink staff recently got a chance to sit down with Ambassador Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States (2008-2011). Ambassador Haqqani presently serves a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and Director for South and Central Asia. In this interview we discuss a number of matters, from understanding President Trump’s designs for Pakistan and South-West Asia to better understanding the China-Pakistan relationship. We also get an insight into the controversy aroused in the Pakistani parliament by a recent opinion piece written by the Ambassador in the Washington Post.

I’m expecting that the Trump administration’s view on Pakistan is going to be even less sympathetic than the Obama administration.

India Ink: What direction do you see the Trump administration adopting towards Pakistan and the large South Asia region?

Ambassador. Haqqani: The Trump administration has three clear directions with relation to South Asia: first, they would like to win in Afghanistan rather than just leaving, second they are very clear that they want to forge a longer term partnership with India, with whom they think the US has greater economic interests as well as whom they want to see as a counterweight to a rising China, and third is that the Trump administration does seem to believe, clearly that America should not be taken for a ride. These three basic thrusts have implications for Pakistan. The willingness of the Trump administration to allow Pakistan to create circumstances for a pullout of the United States from Afghanistan without leaving in place a stable Afghan government is unlikely. Similarly Pakistan wants to portray itself to the US as India’s eternal rival and the American tendency historically in response to this has been to try and treat the two countries equally. I don’t think this equal treatment will be the case anymore. It is evident Trump has spoken to Modi much more than he has spoken to Pakistan’s leaders since the election. The Trump administration’s attitude is they are not to keen on giving aid. India is an economic partner and Pakistan is an aid recipient so Pakistan is at an obvious disadvantage. And then the third part of the Trump administration’s worldview is that the rest of the world should not be allowed to get away with saying one thing and doing another, such thinking will also adversely impact Pakistan. I’m expecting that the Trump administration's view on Pakistan is going to be even less sympathetic than the Obama administration. That said we must remember that President Trump prides himself as a deal maker, could there be a deal that the Pakistani establishment could offer him that would be sufficient for him to embrace? I think that is a possibility but I do not think that is a probability.

I think there is a stalemate on that issue vis-a-vis Pakistan, Pakistan has arrested Hafiz Saeed many times and then its courts have said there is no evidence. There is always evidence against everyone else, and there are many people who are arrested and kept in prison without evidence on other charge but somehow there is never any evidence against major terrorist figures.

India Ink: Do you see Hafiz Saeed’s recent house arrest as the Pakistani state’s reaction to this new administration?

Ambassador Haqqani: On terrorism I think Trump is definitely going to put an emphasis on all countries taking firms steps to crack down on terror groups. The groups that are already on terrorist lists and are being tolerated in Pakistan will find less tolerance with the Trump administration. That being said, I think there is a stalemate on that issue vis-a-vis Pakistan, Pakistan has arrested Hafiz Saeed many times and then its courts have said there is no evidence. There is always evidence against everyone else, and there are many people who are arrested and kept in prison without evidence on other charge but somehow there is never any evidence against major terrorist figures. So that I think will be something that will definitely become a bone of contention between the Trump administration and the Pakistani leadership.

A lot also depends on how India plays its cards, will India insist that the Trump administration treat Pakistan more firmly before India engages with the Trump administration in a warmer way. I think that India has interests beyond Pakistan in their US relationship so there is always a possibility that Indians may not make Pakistan the touchstone in determining their closeness with the United States. But Pakistan has worked itself into a corner by playing a zero sum game with India, something that I have criticised for many years. That might lead to a situation in which Pakistan in many ways recedes into aligning themselves with China instead of America, which even China is not doing. China does not want to compete with the US in such a zero-sum manner. If you read the Pak press you get the impression that there is this sentiment that we don’t need the US any more because we have China, I think that they will learn a relatively harsh lesson quite soon. Symbolic gestures such as detaining Hafiz Saeed are not going to be enough because the Trump administration is going to be a much more substance demanding administration.


India Ink: On the 10th of March in the Washington Post, you wrote an article, which started of sympathizing with what the Russian ambassador is currently going through, given your own experience as an ambassador to the US in trying times. In your piece you state:

the relationships I forged with members of Obama’s campaign team also led to closer cooperation between Pakistan and the United States in fighting terrorism over the 31/2  years I served as ambassador. These connections eventually enabled the United States to discover and eliminate bin Laden… 

From our understanding of the situation, your piece in the Washington Post has caused tremendous furore in Pakistan this week – where you along with the former high level officials and politicians  have been called Traitors, the PPP has allegedly disowned you and there are even demands for you to be brought back to Pakistan. What do you believe all this is about?

The Pakistani intelligence services and military have never fully trusted me anyway and to say that I would be able to do something of this magnitude behind their backs is a typical example of how Pakistan’s media makes mountains out of molehills.

Ambassador Haqqani: Very frankly I don't understand what the fuss is about in Pakistan over my Washington Post article. It is being presented there, by some, as an “admission” that I knowingly helped the United States in stationing intelligence and special operations people in Pakistan by deliberately not informing the Pakistani military and intelligence services about their presence in Pakistan. That is absurd. The Pakistani intelligence services and military have never fully trusted me anyway and to say that I would be able to do something of this magnitude behind their backs is a typical example of how Pakistan’s media makes mountains out of molehills. In the article, I stated that the close relationship that I forged with the Obama administration enabled the United States to have the presence on ground that helped them get bin Laden. No one on the Pakistani side was in the loop about the exact operation and what the Americans plans were and I mention that explicitly in the article too. But in Pakistan hyper nationalism overtakes all logic, Pakistanis are very embarrassed about the fact that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan and even more embarrassed that despite having the world's sixth largest military they could not stop the Americans from conducting a raid to eliminate him deep in Pakistani territory. Instead of examining the real issue which is why was bin Laden there? Who kept him there? Who helped him get there? And how were the Americans able to find him when Pakistani intelligence services could not? Pakistan’s national discourse has been focused on trying to make excuses. Instead of saying we are ashamed that he was in Pakistan it is all about we are angry that the Americans got him without informing Pakistan. I think this is a way of blowing off steam in Pakistan, and targeting me is a passion of some in Pakistan because they see me as someone who has consistently stood both against the jihadis, and a close relationship with the United States. If I was the Pakistani establishment I would be happy that Bin Laden was eliminated and we will investigate why Pakistani intelligence hadn't found him first. The more fuss they make about who helped America get Bin Laden the more the world suspects that Pakistan was formally and officially trying to hide bin Laden.

 

India Ink: In the recent past, Moscow has hosted a trilateral with China and Pakistan to deliberate on the security situation in Afghanistan impending the NATO withdrawal. Both Russia and China are showing increasing interest in the region and have discussed ways to deal with the situation different to that of the US. What is your understanding of the present situation vis-à-vis Afghanistan?

Ambassador Haqqani: The Taliban has proven that they are an irreconcilable enemy. The more they splinter, the less likely a grand reconciliation remains possible. The Taliban will reconcile only when they feel they are taking a hammering on the battlefield. Moreover, the Taliban simply cannot be effective in Afghanistan without external support – Afghanistan is a landlocked country, they do not manufacture any heavy equipment, and there is sufficient American military presence to be able to detect any large-scale training of Taliban, if that was taking place inside Afghanistan. Everyone knows that the major Taliban leadership has a safe haven in Pakistan, and as long as they have the safe haven it is not easy to militarily defeat them. So basically, the Trump administration has to find a way to inflict sufficient battlefield damage on the Taliban to force some of their leaders to start reconciling with the Afghanistan government, and in the process a settlement comes in which the Taliban who want to continue to fight forever, they diminish in influence. Similarly, the Pakistani safe haven has to shut down, so that the foot soldiers of the Taliban who are produced by the hundreds every few months, that addition to the number of foot soldiers comes to an end. As far as these tri-party negotiations are concerned, I think these are more for form than they are for substance. China can use its influence to persuade Pakistan to deny the Taliban a safe haven. The fact that they haven’t done so for so many years means that it does not see that as the subject deserving its attention. I think China only wants to make sure that the jihadis that spill over into Xinjiang from Pakistan are checked by the Pakistani army. It is not particularly interested in bringing to an end Pakistan’s meddling in Afghanistan. Russia is only trying to be a great power again, and that is why they want to fish in the troubled waters of Afghanistan. If the Trump administration increases the troop presence of the US and NATO in Afghanistan and uses both intelligence and force in a manner in which the Taliban face heavy losses and backing them becomes less and less feasible for Afghanistan’s neighbours, then I think there could be a settlement in which some of the Afghan-Taliban might enter the Afghan political process, and we might move forward.


 

India Ink: How do you presently see the triangular relationship between China, Pakistan and India? Is the China-Pakistan relationship a purely strategic one against India or is there scope for China to potentially play peacemaker between the two countries?

Ambassador Haqqani: We must understand what China’s relationship with Pakistan is all about. China has a long-standing policy of supporting countries that keep engaged potential rivals to China. Look at North Korea. What is China’s interest in North Korea? Their interest in North Korea is that North Korea keeps South Korea and Japan tied down. China’s interest in Pakistan is similar – Pakistan keeps India tied down, so therefore India does not rise to being a challenge for China. Does China have an inherent interest in the state and people of Pakistan? There is no evidence that that is the case. That said, Pakistanis have romanticized their relationship with China despite the fact that China’s leaders have tried on many an occasion to give hints that your romance with us is a little less realistic. It is interesting that when the Chinese President went to Pakistan last  gave a speech in which he cited the famous line that Pakistanis repeat – that our friendship is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest oceans and sweeter than the sweetest honey – but he said, as people say it politically, he did not say it was our policy. The previous president, Jiang Zemin who went to Pakistan and in Pakistan’s parliament said that problems that cannot be solved immediately should be set aside so that relationships can move forward. My interpretation of that sentence – and I have spoken to Chinese diplomats about it – is that they were trying to advise Pakistan gently not to let Kashmir hold back normalisation efforts with India. But Pakistanis did not take the hint. Pakistan’s establishment has created an ideology – that ideology is that India is a permanent enemy. I am a realist who believes who believes that there are no permanent enemies in international relations. Pakistan is a country, it has to think of its interests as a country, but that is not how Pakistan’s leaders think – they think in ideological terms. So if the ideology is that they have to do something against India, then China is the most logical partner and ally. And China does help Pakistan militarily as well as economically. But two things are important. One – China lends money, it does not give aid like the United States does and certainly does not provide budgetary support directly. So, very soon, Pakistan will be falling into a huge debt trap with China. Second, China has never actually done the things Pakistan expects it do in relation to India, because China has its own interests with India – the trade between China and India is $60 billion which is five times more than the trade between Pakistan and China. At the end of the day, China is evolving into a global trading nation – a major global trading nation. Will it formulate all its policies on the basis of the interests of Pakistan, which sees itself as a warrior nation? I don’t think so. So, what we will see, is China continuing to use Pakistan to keep India tied down in South Asia, giving Pakistan sufficient hope not to reconcile with India in a way that might be detrimental to China’s interests, and Pakistan will continue to derive small benefits from China including loans and military assistance, and this will continue in the way it is until either the India-Chinese relationship reaches a point where the economic ties are so big that China starts looking at Pakistan slightly differently, or the China-Pakistan relationship actually becomes economically productive. Right now, China does not derive economic benefit from Pakistan. The only benefit it derives is of providing a counterweight to India in the region.

 

India Ink: Domestically in Pakistan we’ve recently seen PM Nawaz Sharif celebrating Holi, we’ve seen legislation on Hindu marriage as well as the conduct of a cricket match in Lahore, Do you think that these events signal a changing atmosphere in Pakistan?

Ambassador Haqqani: Pakistan needs a fundamental shift in its attitudes and its priorities. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and to be fair, the PPP government before him also, have engaged in what I call symbolic gestures. It is good that Pakistan was able to have a major cricket match in Lahore, but that match was organised by mobilising the entire police force and security apparatus of Punjab province. A safe country is one where children can play in the streets without threat of violence. A safe country is one where people of various religions can celebrate their festivals without being attacked. That the prime minister attends Holi, it is positive thing but it is not the harbinger of change. The fundamental change will be when Pakistanis stop fighting and killing each other in the name of religion, and when being Pakistani is defined in terms of citizenship, not in terms of religion. Similarly, when all jihadi groups cease to exist and operate freely in Pakistan, will Pakistan find the peace that we have been looking for. And I hope that day will come, when cricket will be played at every street corner as it used to be, when international teams start coming to Pakistan, and when the various extremist groups are not able to dictate their agenda to the people, and people do not live in the threat of a fatwa against their faith. That situation has not yet arrived. That said, the symbolic gestures must be appreciated for what they are.