Pakistan's Charm Offensive

Islamabad is making friends -- just not with America. 

"It's been a difficult year," Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar acknowledged in an interview in her office in Islamabad last week. That's a bit of an understatement for a first year on the job in which she has had to weather a series of diplomatic crises including turban-bomb assassinations, terrorist extraditions, and friendly-fire incidents. Yet she was also eager to pass on the message that, despite the barrage of bad news out of Pakistan these days, she feels the momentum remains on her side. "I believe in proactive, not reactive diplomacy," she said.

A delegation led by her Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, was arriving in Pakistan the next day, and Khar spoke with a restless energy that betrayed both sleep deprivation and excitement. "I'm quite confident that with India we have it on the right track," she said.

For Khar, Krishna's visit was the culmination to more than a year's worth of efforts to normalize relations with Pakistan's neighbor and archrival, which had begun with a trip to New Delhi almost immediately after her appointment as minister in July of last year. The media scrutiny was intense as Pakistan's first female foreign minister and the 34-year-old scion of a prominent political family: The Indian press cooed over Khar's wardrobe and looks, while skeptics derided her as a neophyte appointed as a sop to Pakistan's military, which retains a powerful influence over key aspects of the country's foreign and security policy.

Since then, however, the two countries have made unprecedented progress toward re-establishing trade relations, despite continuing tensions over Kashmir and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari made a successful visit to India in April. Now Krishna was bringing a deal on a liberalized visa regime that would enable ordinary citizens of each country to visit to be signed during his visit.

Indeed, even as the country's relationship with the United States has plummeted over the past years -- battered by incidents like the unilateral U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Abottabbad, an errant American airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, and U.S. accusations that Pakistan supports militant groups like the Haqqani network in Afghanistan -- its relations with its neighbors in India, Afghanistan, and Iran have steadily improved, part of a regionally focused foreign policy pushed since 2008 by the Pakistan People's Party-led civilian government and backed by Pakistan's generals.

"I would give credit to the PPP, and to the military," said Ejaz Haider, an Islamabad-based analyst and columnist for the Express Tribune. "The military's made a conscious attempt to stay away from the political arena. The tail used to wag the dog -- foreign policy was dictated by security policy. I think that's changing."

In July, Khar traveled to Kabul with a high-powered Pakistani delegation that included Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, advisor on interior affairs Rehman Malik, and Pakistan's new spy chief, Lieutenant General Zaheer ul-Islam. After inaugurating a new embassy complex, the delegation was invited to lunch with President Hamid Karzai, despite tensions in the Afghan press and parliament over cross-border firing incidents.

Most significantly, the Afghans sitting in the front row at the ceremony for the embassy opening included Afghanistan's most outspoken anti-Taliban figures, frequent critics of Pakistan who once fought with the Northern Alliance on the opposite side in the civil war, such as the former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, Yoonus Qanooni, Mohammed Mohaqiq, and Faizullah Zaki, a representative of the Uzbek strongman, Abdul Rashid Dostum. Relations between Pakistan and the former members of the Northern Alliance had hit a rough patch when their preeminent politician, Berhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated in Sept, 2011, in a turban-bomb attack that many of these same figures had publicly blamed on Pakistan.

Their presence at the event was the result of months of careful diplomacy by Pakistan's gregarious veteran ambassador, Mohammad Sadiq, and then consolidated by Khar over the last year. "Three or four years ago we have very little contact with the political leaders of the North," said Sadiq. "Now we have a very public and open relationship."

According to Khar, then Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani made with the Northern Alliance faction during his visit to Kabul last summer, in the wake of Rabbani's assassination. "Then in February, I met each one of them extensively, you know, half an hour, forty-five minutes," she said. "This time the prime minister met each one of them, called on them, and then they were present at the embassy. They were all sitting there."

While Pakistan's relationship with Iran has always comprised both mutual interests and a rivalry for regional influence, Islamabad has refused to bow to U.S. pressure and has moved ahead plans for a gas pipeline with Iran, which Russia's Gazprom has expressed interest in building (Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, is planning to visit Islamabad next month). Pakistan and Iran also recently signed an agreement to barter fertilizer for wheat, an arrangement in part aimed at circumventing financial sanctions on Iranian banks. Relations also took a turn for the better in 2010, when Iran captured Abdol Malek Rigi, the head of the militant group, Jundullah, which had carried out bombings in Iran, and who the Iranian government had alleged was being sheltered in Pakistan. Rigi is said to have been captured with Pakistani help. (There have been allegations that Jundullah has links with the CIA's clandestine program in Iran, and in his televised confession from an Iranian prison, prior to his execution, Rigi claimed he was on his way to a U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan. The United States has denied any connection with him.)

But of course, India is always the central question in Pakistani foreign policy. At a press conference at the conclusion of their meeting on Saturday, Krishna and Khar both sounded upbeat as they promised future cooperation. Press coverage in Pakistan and India was generally positive, particularly the visa agreement, which will make it easier for ordinary citizens of each country to visit each other, including families separated since 1947 partition.

"What we need to do know is consolidate the relationship so that there are no setbacks," said Salman Bashir, Pakistan's high commissioner in New Delhi, and one of the key architects of the country's India policy. "It's very fragile. Just one incident that gets taken up in the press, and it can undo all our progress."

Very serious obstacles to Pakistan-India relations remain, most notably the territorial disputes over Kashmir, Sir Creek, and the Siachen Glacier. India also continues to allege that Pakistan's intelligence services were at least partly responsible for the devastating 2008 Mumbai attacks -- a claim Pakistan denies.

However, both parties have opted to table those disputes for the moment and focus on economic issues that offer the best possibility of immediate and uncontroversial gains, by easing restrictions on cross-border exports and investment. As a result, trade has gone from $300 million in 2004 to $2.7 billion last year, generating momentum that diplomats on both sides hope will withstand the inevitable tensions over security issues. "The only way to move forward is to work on all these other fronts," said Bashir, who was in Islamabad for Krishna's visit.

So far, Pakistan's military seems to be cautiously on board with the civilian government's rapprochement. The process has also been helped by the fact that engagement with India is a non-partisan issue in Pakistan, with support from all political parties -- unlike in India, where the government and the Hindu nationalist opposition frequently jockey for position over the issue.

"Post 1999, there's been a consensus across the political divide," said Haider, the analyst. "There's differences in opinion in terms of the relationship with the U.S., given the immediate situation, but not with India."

Indeed, while both Khar and the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, Sherry Rehman, have been smooth and measured advocates of better relations with the United States, hostile sentiment has been growing in each country. With general elections on the horizon in Pakistan, denunciations of the U.S. drone campaign in the tribal areas have become common across from political parties. In Washington, there have been calls in Congress to strip Pakistan of U.S. aid as a result of its imprisonment of Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani citizen who allegedly collaborated with the CIA in its search for Bin Laden.

Khar bristled when asked if the deteriorating relationship with the United States had pushed Pakistan to seek better relations in the region. "To suggest that this is a reaction, when in fact we've been very deliberate and purposeful," she said. "For us the cornerstone on Pakistan's foreign policy today is to be able to establish relationships within the region."

But Haider believes that Pakistan sees a need to hedge its bets. "Pakistan is looking at the situation with the U.S. This is why we're diversifying," he said. "But the deteriorating relationship with the U.S. has only acted as a catalyst for this. There's a deeper structural change here, in that we cannot rely on a single country."



AQ Khan Speaks to Foreign Policy

The worst nuclear proliferator in history sounds off on his political ambitions.

Abdul Qadeer Khan is the father of Pakistan's nuclear program -- and, according to Washington officialdom, the architect of the greatest violation to the nuclear non-proliferation regime that the world has ever seen. Starting in the 1980s and continuing for roughly two decades, the nuclear scientist oversaw the transfer of crucial nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Khan, for his part, asserts that he was merely acting on the orders of the Pakistani government -- in this interview, he rejects criticism of his actions as an example of Western "double standards."

Now, the controversial nuclear scientist is entering Pakistan's political arena. He recently announced the formation of the Movement for the Protection of Pakistan -- or Tehreek Tahaffuze Pakistan (TTP) in Urdu -- which he conceives as an organization that will back worthy candidates in the country's upcoming national assembly elections. He responded by email to questions posed to him by Simon Henderson about his political ambitions and his involvement in the spread of nuclear know-how across the globe.

Foreign Policy: Why are you launching this movement now?

AQ Khan: At the moment Pakistan is in an extremely precarious and dangerous condition - no law and order, widespread load shedding, a high crime rate, high unemployment, high inflation, target killing on religious, sectarian or provincial bases, extortions, kidnappings for ransom, etc. In short, it has gone to the dogs thanks to our most incompetent and corrupt rulers and their Western patrons. When there was mortal danger to Pakistan's existence and sovereignty after the first Indian nuclear explosion in May 1974, our successful nuclear and missile programme provided the country with an impregnable defense. At present we are in an even worse position than at that time. I can't simply sit back and see it destroyed. I feel that I must do something to try to save the situation, to make people aware of the importance and the sanctity of their votes and to use their vote judiciously and wisely in the next [national assembly] elections [due to take place in April 2013]. 

FP:What is the TTP's platform?

AQK: The aim of the Movement is to address the young generation (47% of the voters' bank), the educated, honest and competent government employees, businessmen (and women), lawyers, etc. in order to mobilize and prepare for the coming elections. They must be aware of the importance of selecting good, competent, qualified bureaucrats and technocrats to stand as independent candidates. A team put together by me will go from city to city to interview and investigate the antecedents of aspiring candidates and select them for the coming elections. We will then wholeheartedly support them. In the very short time of our existence, we already have more than two million volunteers.

FP: Do you have any particular prescriptions for Pakistan's economy and its energy shortages that can have an immediate impact?

AQK: As a competent and experienced engineer and scientist, I have ways and means in mind to solve these problems. Writing reports and forming committees serves little purpose. I am a go-getter and have always done my best to deliver what I promise to do. I am confident that we can solve many of these problems within a reasonable span of time.

My own knowledge and capabilities and the trust the people have in my abilities are the greatest assets. They know I am a competent, honest Pakistani and that I can solve problems and help them out of some of their miseries.

FP: How do you define success for your movement?

AQK: The people realize that things need to change and there is some change in their way of thinking already. If we manage to get a reasonable number of good people elected to Parliament, they can play a very important role. Currently the MQM [Muttahida Qaumi Movement, based in Sind province] with 25 seats (out of 342), the JUI [Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, an Islamist party] with 7 seats and the ANP [Awami National Party, supported by ethic Pashtuns] with 17 seats are blackmailing and determining national policy. We could play a restraining and positive role, blocking all anti-state policies and activities. If we can achieve this, and I am very hopeful of being able to do so, then it will be a big success.

FP: Isn't one of the problems of Pakistan the dominant role of the military in politics and public affairs? How can this change? What is your prescription for the Pakistan military?

AQK: The army has been used by corrupt politicians, just as was happening in Turkey. If promotions were made purely on a seniority basis and personal likes and dislikes are not allowed to play a role, then they would never dare to indulge in politics. Right from the time of Ayub Khan [military dictator from 1958 to 1969] down to the present Chief [of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani], the principle of seniority has been ignored and the consequences have been disastrous. 

FP: The acronym for your movement, TTP, is the same as that of the Pakistani Taliban. This is at best unfortunate or confusing. Was it intentional?

AQK: This is sheer coincidence and only came to my notice later. I have never been interested in the activities of the Taliban. The best word to convey our message was "Tahaffuz", which means "protection" or "safety". So the name became "Movement for the Protection of Pakistan", thus "Tehreek Tahaffuze Pakistan" (TTP).

FP: What are your own political ambitions? You are sometimes seen as a potential candidate as head of state (president) of Pakistan - would you take on this non-political role?

AQK: None. The love and affection the whole nation has shown me during all my trials and tribulations has given me what no money can buy. I want to help the country out of this rut and for it to become a respected, moderate, peaceful welfare state having friendly relations with all, especially its immediate neighbours, and enmity with none. I do not want this country to play mercenary to foreign powers. As far as the non-political role is concerned, if the majority of the people think I can help them in that way, I would not shrink from what I would consider as a duty to Pakistan. However, I do not aspire to the position and it would only be possible through overwhelming support and desire.

We are quite clear about my role. I am just a guide -- some sort of Lee Kwan [sic] Yew, the former PM of Singapore, Mahathir [of Malaysia] or, hopefully, Mandela. I will only advise on good governance.

FP: What does your wife and the rest of your family think about your current activities? Even if you are only partly successful, you are likely to face criticism from existing political parties or perhaps even threats.

AQK: As far as criticism is concerned, I am not bothered by it (but my wife is) and have become used to it. I have never been a blue-eyed boy of the West like [present President Asif Ali] Zardari or [former military dictator and President Pervez] Musharraf, but that didn't bother me. I do care about what the ordinary people of Pakistan think of me.

FP: What restrictions are you currently under in terms of where you can go, who you can meet, and what you can say?

AQK: Security issues do exist. I can go anywhere, meet anybody (except foreigners), can address meetings, functions,convocations, bar associations, etc. and can give phone interviews to TV and radio stations provided only that these are within the country and are notabout secret nuclear issues.

FP: You recently accused Musharraf of treason for handing over uranium enrichment centrifuges to the United States. Please say more: how many, what type, to whom, why? Also, was this somehow related to Iran or North Korea, or both?

AQK: Musharraf gave all our highly classifiedand secret information to the USA, the UK, Japan, the IAEA, etc. and sent invaluable centrifuge samples to the USA and the IAEA. He even gave them centrifuge drawings worth billions of dollars just to gain their patronage. Forthat he is a traitor.

FP: Following the recent terrorist attack onthe Kamra air base and earlier attacks on the military headquarters inRawalpindi and the naval air base in Karachi, are Pakistan's nuclear weapons safe? How can the world be confident in Pakistan's claims on this point?

AQK: Pakistan's nuclear assets are as safe asPresident Obama's black box. Nobody can even steal a screw from them. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, DG SPD [Director-General Strategic Plans Division (which controls Pakistan's nuclear arsenal)], and Gen. Muhammad Tahir, DG Security, are professional and competent officers and have established a very efficient security system. A real danger can arise only if there is a spineless military dictator or a stooge Army Chief who can order them or their successors to override the system. The world should worry about their own problems, not about ours.

FP: Your international reputation is that you were a rogue agent when Pakistan supplied centrifuge technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. How do you respond to this label? How would you prefer to be remembered?

AQK: I don't care what Western leaders think about me. To them a pirate like Francis Drake becomes Sir Francis; James Cook, who murdered innocent Polynesians, is a hero and those who murdered Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, and Koreans now have chests full of ribbons and medals. [Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, [former President George W.] Bush, [former British Prime Minister Tony] Blair, [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy, etc. who all caused (ordered) the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people are highly respected.

Whatever I did, I did in good faith and upon instructions from authorities. Since then, many senior army officers and politicians have openly said in TV programmes that I did not do anything wrong and that, by taking sole blame, I had saved the country a second time by thwarting Security Council resolutions against our nuclear programme. Nobody in Pakistan doubts my integrity, honesty, sincerity or patriotism. It is this that I care about. I am not going to live or die in their countries, hence I don't care. Pakistani historians will remember me by the nickname they have given me: "Mohsin-e-Pakistan" (Saviour of Pakistan). 

FP: Do you have any regrets about your role in the transfer of nuclear technology to these countries?

AQK: I did not do anything wrong, hence no regrets. I simply did as I was asked to do. Does France have any regrets about surreptitiously supplying nuclear weapons technology to Israel? Does Russia regret supplying that technology to China and North Korea? Do the British have regrets about stealing secrets from Los Alamos in the late forties or early fifties? There are many double standards in the world. What is good for me may be bad for you. What is just for you may be a crime for me. 

FP: Any other points you want to make?

AQK: My only hope is that my efforts to make people aware of the importance and sanctity of their vote, and to elect capable leaders, makes a difference in the next elections. I have noticed that Western countries are nervous about my Movement, possibly suspecting that I might be a fundamentalist or a jihadi. They forget that I studied in Europe, lived there for 15 years, have a foreign wife, have two daughters who studied in the UK and have two granddaughters studying abroad, one in the UK and one in the USA.

How can I then be an enemy of any Western country? I seek mutually respectful, friendly relations with all, sanctity of our sovereignty, non-participation in mercenary activities or allowing our country to be used for terrorism, either from within or from outside. This is my dream.