The Prime Minister Is Taking the Long View about Secretary Tillerson’s Visit
By Pamela Constable
As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cut a sharp swath through the region last week — doubling down on charges that Pakistan is sheltering militants, warmly embracing its archrival India and sympathizing with officials in war-torn Afghanistan — some Pakistani officials have reacted with outrage and anger.
But Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi seems to be taking a longer, cooler view. While others were calling Tillerson's tour a slap in the face, Abbasi said in an interview Thursday that his four-hour visit for high-level talks here Tuesday helped the US official "appreciate our point of view."
Relations between the longtime allies have reached a historic low point in recent months. With the Afghan war dragging on, the Trump administration has accused Pakistan of harboring anti-Afghan militias and threatened serious reprisals if it continues. Pakistan has denied the charges while blaming Afghanistan and India as threats to its security.
Despite renewed US accusations of Pakistani support for militants, which Tillerson repeated in Kabul and New Delhi, Abbasi remained upbeat. "Our message is beginning to sink in," he said. "We are at war with terrorism,and we want peace in Afghanistan."
Other Pakistani observers were more critical in their appraisal. The Nation newspaper commented Thursday that the short, tense visit "can only be classified as a failure." Pakistan's "red lines with respect to India, Afghanistan and Kashmir," it added, "were crossed without much ado."
But Abbasi, 58, an affable career politician who was appointed in Julyafter Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court, shrugged off Tillerson's charges. "If they don't want to believe us, there is not much we can do about it, but it is the truth," he said. "Pakistan is not a problem for Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a problem for us."
In contrast to Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, who declared Wednesday that Pakistan would never surrender to US demands on Afghanistan, Abbasi's only harsh words were aimed at Washington's outreach to India, Pakistan's rival for a half-century. In New Delhi last Wednesday, Tillerson praised India as "a natural ally" in fortifying Afghanistan and the region.
"India," Abbasi said abruptly, "has nothing to contribute to the safety and stability of Afghanistan. We have a 70-year relationship with the United States, and we do not want it to be defined by either India or Afghanistan." His blunt comment reflected the depth of Pakistan's alarm over Washington's growing ties with India, which it views as a powerful enemy.
Both countries claim the mountainous border region of Kashmir, and Pakistan has long accused Indian forces of abusing Muslim protesters there. On Saturday, Pakistan marked an annual "Black Day" to remember the victims of violence in Kashmir.
Abbasi's outburst was the only jarring note in a low-key, at times jocular conversation, during which he quoted Mark Twain on how to keep from worrying too much and joked about his distaste for neckties. He said he acquired that aversion while a student at the University of California at Los Angeles in the 1970s and deviated from it only once, when accompanying Sharif to a formal meeting in China.
A wealthy businessman and longtime close aide to Sharif, Abbasi has been elected to the National Assembly six times from Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, and he held various cabinet posts during Sharif's three truncated periods as prime minister. He also spent two years in prison after Sharif was overthrown by the army in 1999 and sent into exile; both men were accused of trying to prevent the army chief's plane from landing from a foreign trip.
Sharif, who was ousted this time after a lengthy court battle over corruption accusations, now faces additional legal charges of failing to disclose assets and could be sent to prison along with other family members. But Abbasi predicted Sharif would lead the Muslim League to victory in elections planned for next summer.
"The people identify with Nawaz, and their emotions are with him," Abbasi said. "The party is strong, it has delivered on the economy, and Nawaz can deliver the votes." Sharif is banned from political office, however, and the Muslim League faces a strong challenge from former cricket star Imran Khan and his anti-establishment Pakistan Tehrik e Insaaf party.
Abbasi was initially described as a media-shy, "seat-warming" prime minister, a position he was supposed to hold for only 45 days. Instead, after weeks of confusion within the Muslim League, he found himself with a full-time job — at least until next year's elections — as the head of a government facing enormous international pressure and domestic political turmoil.
And despite his loyalty to Sharif, whose rifts with the military have persisted, Abbasi — the son of an air force official and the son-in-law of a former national intelligence chief — has also become a key figure in creating a united civil-military front as Pakistan faces unprecedented criticism and demands from its military ally and benefactor in Washington.
"In our history there have been problems. Prime ministers have been overthrown and even hanged," he said matter-of-factly. "But there has been an evolving process, and the political and military institutions have to trust each other. It has been a mistake for the United States to deal with us on different levels. Now we are at the same table."
(Pamela Constable is The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She previously served as a South Asia bureau chief and most recently covered immigration in the Washington area for several years. The Washington Post)