Robin Rafel Asks Pakistanis to Look Forward, Not Backward
By M. Shahid Yousuf

Ms Robin Rafel spoke at the recently concluded APPNA 2012 35th annual meeting at the Gaylord National Harbor area near Washington DC on June 7th, 2012. She was married to Mr Arnold Rafel who was US Ambassador to Pakistan and died with Gen Zia ul Haq in the air crash on August 17th , 1988. They had been divorced when Mr. Arnold Rafael died. Ms. Rafael is a career diplomat who is currently the coordinator for non-military assistance to Pakistan with the rank of ambassador.

Her initial comments were pertaining to APPNA’s role in the US and Pakistan. Talking about the Hepatitis C health awareness task force of APPNA she said, “I was very impressed to learn and talk to the leadership earlier in the week of the innovative public awareness campaign in Pakistan concerning Hepatitis C.” She went on: “Of your eye clinics where you have treated and restored vision of hundreds of Pakistanis.” She praised the vaccination campaigns of APPNA. She hoped that the Association’s efforts would eradicate polio from Pakistan which has the “dubious distinction” of being one of the only four countries in the world that still has poliomyelitis. “Your work may help to bring that number to zero.”

“So the State Department and USAID look forward to working with APPNA to develop and expand programs addressing some of the basic health needs of Pakistan. I am also impressed by how much you do for fellow Americans including providing humanitarian relief in the wake of natural disasters such as Katrina and the recent tornadoes in the mid-West.” “It mirrors the work that USAID has provided in Pakistan in the wake of the floods of 2010 and 2011.”

Regarding US-Pakistan relations she said, “We are too familiar of the challenges that Pakistan faces.” “Poor governance, economic stagnation that has been exacerbated by record high power cuts or as they call it load-shedding in Pakistan and all make the future for Pakistan very uncertain for many families and children.” She said that the US-Pakistan relations are also challenging and are likely to remain so given the regional context including the struggle against Al Qaida and related terrorist groups, the upcoming transition in Afghanistan. She said, “But we continue to look for opportunities to build trust and to build habits of cooperation on issues that are important to us both. We are pleased that after many months the transit routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan are again open. And that the issues that caused them to be closed in the first place are now behind us. When Secretary of State Clinton called Foreign Minister Khar this past week she reiterated our condolences for the death of Pakistani soldiers in the tragic cross-border incident last November and said clearly we are sorry for the loss suffered by the Pakistani military.”

This comment about Hillary Clinton expressing condolences drew applause from the audience even though the strict term apology was missing from Rafael’s speech. “She also reiterated to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and to work together in pursuit of shared objectives on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect.” She said that the US wanted to stop the threat of improvised explosive devices that indiscriminately kill Pakistani citizens and US troops in Afghanistan. She said that US wanted to create greater economic opportunity in Pakistan and the region through greater trade and investment so that the Pakistani people can build a greater future that they can be proud of.

She said that government-to-government ties are not enough. “They are never enough particularly in the stressful times that we face today.” She talked of building people-to-people and business-to-business links. Noting that government-to-government ties are strained from time to time in international diplomacy she honed in her message in the following statement, “Enduring dialogue and activities outside the government channels become all the more significant. And that is what makes APPNA so important. The services that APPNA’s members provide in healthcare professional development and humanitarian assistance help create enduring ties between Pakistan and the United States and lasting memories of friendship and mutual appreciation. We place a high premium on these personal links.”

She talked of the largest cultural and educational exchange program that the US government has. “The State Department brings more Pakistani visitors to the United States than from any other country.” This assertion drew some applause but not as much as it could have. The reality is that Pakistani doctors attempting to come to the US for advanced medical training have steadily declined despite years and years of efforts to rectify the situation by APPNA. Numerous assurances have been given by the US authorities including the State Department and other officials. The number of doctors coming from Pakistan to the US for training remains the litmus test and the one that the US government has yet to demonstrate its good faith. There is still a trust deficit, one that is founded in cold numbers and not mere opinion or speculation. The visitors who come under these many varied programs are just those visitors who may advance some US foreign policy objectives. On the other hand doctors who obtain advanced medical training and return to Pakistan can serve the Pakistani patients for several decades.

She talked of a specific three-year multiphase program for 128 Pakistani media professionals to come to USA and for 30 US journalists to go to Pakistan. “The journalists will study each other’s cultures and will be immersed in the news rooms of the other country.” She said that this will help to educate the audiences and help to dispel the myths and misperceptions that people carry in each country about the other. She said that many Pakistanis had wanted trade and not aid and this again drew applause.

She talked of the regional trade and also the “New Silk Road Vision”, a vision in which Pakistanis and others in the region prosper by building linkages along trading routes.

Towards the end of her speech she related an incident when she was asked by a Pakistani colleague of hers whether the relations between Pakistan and the USA could return to “the way they were,” referring to the ties in the 1950s and 1960s when US and Pakistan were allies in the Cold War with US Assistance Programs under execution throughout Pakistan. She observed, “The symbol of the handshake was found on the bags of grain and tins of milk. My response was Pakistan was every bit as important to the United States as it was now and that our commitment to the people of Pakistan is every bit as strong, if not stronger. However, we should look forward not backward in defining our relationship.

“We know that Pakistanis need to solve their own problems and make their own future and find their own way.” She expressed the hope that the relationship will become more deeper and more sustainable than the time when Pakistan was a young country. The use of the present tense read from a written speech should send her signal to those given to predicting the future course of relations between Pakistan and USA. In short they are unlikely to get any better. If that was an inadvertent error, then it is clear that her optimism is not shared by vast number of political observers given the recent events following the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border attack by US forces. The message is to look forward and not backward.


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