An Interview with the Honorable Riaz Mohammad Khan
By Imran H. Khan
I was offered “Pakistan Scholar” fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center which I have accepted and that will keep me in Washington until the end of the current year.
- Your project in association with the Woodrow Wilson Centre is focused upon Afghanistan and its history. Therefore, it would be extremely insightful to decipher in accordance to your research and interest as to the underlying principles (empirically demonstrated) that have historically been factors in the struggle for Afghanistan?
My project is the continuation of a book I had done in 1990 “Untying the Afghan Knot: Negotiating Soviet Withdrawal” which essentially covered the period of Soviet intervention in the country from 1979 t0 1989. My time with Woodrow Wilson Center will provide me an opportunity to work on a study covering the post-Soviet withdrawal period. It’s a large canvass and the study will take more than a year to complete.
The past thirty years are an unfortunate chapter in Afghanistan’s history riddled with violence and bloodshed, a simmering internal conflict that has been compounded by often divergent and competing interests of outside powers. Following 9/11, Afghanistan once again came under international focus with the US and other NATO forces engaged in the country against Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In principle, the prescription of national reconciliation and reconstruction remains valid but it has been applied with little success. Political reconciliation would have to be inclusive of all elements of the Afghan society, including those Taliban who can be engaged in a political process. Military approach even with enhanced foreign troop levels alone will not help. The problems in Afghanistan call for a comprehensive approach. Economic assistance is required on the scale of a mini Marshall like plan that addresses priorities dictated by ground realities and especially helps job creation and employment, rebuilding of infrastructure and rehabilitation of agriculture.
- How different are the Afghanis from the Pakistanis, both culturally and socially?
I believe that aspirations of people every where are the same. They want peace and development, well being and secure future for their families. Culturally and socially, the Afghans and Pakistanis have many common features and also divergences. In cultural terms, Afghanistan is largely Central Asian whereas Pakistan is essentially South Asian. But, there is a great overlapping with the Pushtun population and tribes straddling both sides of the border with strong affinities of a tribal culture and social customs.
- During your tenure in the corridors of power do you think the Pakistani Government sought to exploit those differences or harmonize the similarities?
Pakistan’s interests are linked to a stable Afghanistan. Apart from Afghanistan, the country that has most suffered from the continuing Afghan conflict has been Pakistan. It would be disastrous for Pakistan to try to exploit any of its differences with Afghanistan or the ethnic or cultural diversity that like in Pakistan also exists in Afghanistan. Indeed, the cultural and ethnic similarities that exist between the two countries can be an advantage for stronger cooperation and better relations.
- What was the role of Pakistan in the ‘war on terror’ at the inception of the war? Were the boundaries and the theaters of operation clearly demarcated? Was Pakistan tasked with specific criteria and objectives?
War on terror is a post -9/11 phraseology that broadly related to worldwide military action against Al Qaeda and in Afghanistan against the Taliban government as well because it was held responsible for providing safe haven to Al Qaeda. Pakistan had strongly condemned the horror of 9/11 and as a matter of policy never condoned wanton acts of violence targeting civilians. Soon after 9/11, Pakistan did try but failed to persuade the Taliban government to be responsive to the demands of the international community, especially the UN Security Council resolutions, for criminal proceedings against the Al Qaeda leadership. Later, Pakistan agreed to provide logistical support for the US military action in Afghanistan. As a consequence of the action when hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives fled into Pakistan, the Pakistani side was obliged to interdict and arrest them. The UN Security Council had adopted several mandatory resolutions for action against Al Qaeda. Pakistan also cooperated in intelligence sharing with other countries to prosecute terror suspects who may have links to terrorist activities in Pakistan.
Terrorism and extremism are serious challenges to modern societies as these tend to destabilize and disrupt progress and development in a society. There is an international consensus for joint efforts to combat this danger. Pakistan itself has suffered most as victim of terrorism. Over the years, terrorist attacks have claimed thousands of lives in addition to enormous costs in socio-economic development.
In fighting terrorism and extremism, there are no clear boundaries and front lines. The effort has to be holistic and pursued with a clear vision for the future of the country. Apart from military action where it becomes necessary, countering terrorism and extremism demands socio-economic programs for employment and education as well as political initiatives to contain and counter these trends in afflicted areas. It will have to be a protracted endeavor. At the international level, it is important to address the longstanding political disputes such as Palestine and Kashmir that have caused so much suffering and bitterness and along with other issues including Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise to deep anger and frustration vitiating the political environment in Muslim societies.
- With the mulling of time and the benefit of hindsight, do you think the political, economic and military decisions of the Musharraf government were appropriate and effectively managed?
The record of most of leaders has been a mixed bag otherwise Pakistan should have been in a better situation. Pakistan also has had more than a normal share of difficulties and challenges in its national life. What disturbs me at times is the tendency in the country to analyze matters in simple black and white terms rather than a more realistic and dispassionate assessment that has many shades of grey. There is also a habit of placing responsibility for all ills of the country on the preceding government. These attitudes are acute in our case and have not served the objective of good governance. A balanced rather than polemical analysis can always help avoiding repetition of mistakes and building on positive achievements of others.
If I were to look at the economic policies of the previous government, clearly there were many pluses as evident in the growth of economy at around seven per cent for several years until 2006 which also saw an unprecedented inflow of foreign investment of over 8 billion US dollars. If Pakistan were not afflicted with the problems of terrorist violence and extremist tendencies, this investment could have been several times larger. There were also mistakes, for example lack of urgency in the development of the energy sectors when the economy was showing sound growth.
- Distinguished commentators and journalists from all across world have attributed the excellent relationship that Pakistan enjoys with China as your crowning glory and diplomatic contribution to Pakistan. How would you reflect upon your time in China and the pertinence of building a sound bridge between Pakistan-Sino polities?
It will be wrong to make such an attribution. I did my job in the limited context of being an ambassador and other capacities at the foreign office. Pakistan-China relations have remained stable and politically on a very sound footing despite a radical transformation of the global scene and domestic changes. The challenge for any Pakistani ambassador in Beijing is not building bridges to enhance political understanding. It is to further strengthen economic cooperation, trade and people-to-people contacts. Whatever I have been able to do in this area will always be a source of satisfaction for me.
- You were a career diplomat on an international stage and thus exposed to a multifarious number of views and even consternations with regards to the state of Pakistani politics; what would you say in summing up your experience the overall global perspective was with regards to Pakistan?
The challenges faced by a Pakistani diplomat posted abroad are considerable because for a variety of reasons that include our checkered domestic politics, Pakistan is often a misunderstood country. Pakistan is a pivotal country in the region and has made contributions to the evolution of global trends in positive directions at critical junctures during the Cold War. Today that role remains unappreciated and lost to pervasive amnesia. Even at present while we are fighting our own battle against elements of terrorism and extremism, the world has an important stake in our success. Yet Pakistan often becomes target of criticism and hostility. As a diplomat such experience can be painful. At home, there are disappointments as well because we have yet to demonstrate our ability to address the challenges of modernity and move with the spirit of our times. In socio-economic development we have a long way to go. This realization is made more poignant because as a diplomat one is first hand witness to the phenomenal progress that many societies are making in this age of globalization and technological revolution.
- This new government under the aegis of President Zardari has been forced to negotiate a variety of precarious situations. With consideration to the fact that it was this present government that proved instrumental in forcing your earlier than anticipated retirement, how would you analyse the conduct and maneuverings of the Zardari appointed government?
I wish the government well because it has to steer the country through many challenges and difficulties. Personally, I am in no position to make a value judgment on the performance; Pakistan has a very vibrant and free press and keeps a close watch on every step of the government. Once again, I will say that this scrutiny should be exercised coolly and with a clear understanding of the enormity of the challenges that the country faces.
- The resilience and stout intrepidness of the Pakistani people has been the central component in the survival and evolution of the Pakistani nation. This is a nascent state, consummated in oppression, conceived in chaos and raised as an orphan. Therefore, when one considers the reality as it is, one is hard pressed to do anything but admire the Pakistani nation and acknowledge the facet of truth that Pakistan has managed to sustain alevel of growth that is above average. This is reflected in the level of coverage Pakistan is assigned by the global media. Pakistan is a key strategic player at the tables of global power because it has managed to sustain itself and survive despite the machinations of the prying enemies that lurk within its midst.
Thus with consideration to what Pakistan has overcome in order to establish itself as the seventh most powerful military force in the world what portents of peril and glory do you envisage for Pakistan?
I agree with you that Pakistani people are central to the survival and development of Pakistan, but differ from the view that as a nation we were consummated in oppression and were conceived in chaos and raised as an orphan. This is an overly negative perspective and personally I do not believe in self-pity or persecution complex or preoccupation with conspiracy theories. We in Pakistan are an energetic and dynamic people who are capable of accomplishing far more than what they have been able achieve so far. Yes we have suffered from difficulties but the source has been often internal than external, there has been at times leadership failure and an intellectual failure to set and readjust our priorities right and in step with changing times. Pakistan by any measure is a significant country on world stage and is militarily powerful. We need a better sense of global environment and contemporary trends, we need to reach out to and learn from the outside world and above all we need to move forward in the economic, education and technological fields so that we can stand together with other increasingly knowledge-based societies and ensure a better future for our people.
- Your observations provide for terrific analysis and debate. What does the future hold for you and are there any dreams left to be fulfilled thus far?
I am getting used to a more relaxed schedule and learning to find solace in ordinary things in life rather than being driven by some new ambition. I hope to continue writing and if nothing else revive my interest in painting.
On behalf of the Pakistan Link Management, editorial staff and its readers I would like to thank you for your time and great insight. Your contribution to Pakistan foreign policy and diplomatic relations are much appreciated and we would like to wish you the very best and hope that you will continue to provide your counsel and guidance to the next generation of Pakistani leaders.