Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is a raw diplomat. Almost six weeks in the office, he is making an effort to mark his presence on the international stage with his un-ceremonial style and plain talk.
While his straight talk, many a times in blunt and uncalibrated language, may earn him admirers at home, and may be a few abroad, he may have found it hard to leave much of an impact at least on about 100 or so academics, journalists, businessmen, former diplomats, advocates and foreign policy experts who had gathered at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City on September 20 to listen to him.
During the Q&A session, Mr Abbasi echoed the emerging thinking in Islamabad that it’s time to say “No more” to Washington’s “do more” demands. During the hour-long conversation, hosted by David Sanger, Prime Minister Abbasi touched on Pakistan’s economy, Pakistan-US relations, Pakistan-India relations, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, India’s involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s fledging nuclear program, the South Asian nation’s controversial history of blasphemy laws etc.
Abbasi replaced his predecessor Nawaz Sharif after the country’s Supreme Court disqualified him from holding public office on corruption charges.
Abbasi was confident, composed, but at times sounded ill-prepared for a more diplomatic conversation at the CFR, addressing thorny issues bedeviling his country’s relations with its neighbors and the United States. Here is a summary of what he told his audience:
To the US, his message was clear and can be summed up in the following points:
- Pakistan is receiving insignificant military and civilian aid from the US and is not very keen to receive it any more. “The military assistance is very limited at the moment. In the past, if you want to do an accounting of the past, that can also be done. But I’m telling you that today, for example, over a million sorties are flown by coalition aircraft through Pakistan territory, and we never bill for that. Millions of tons of equipment moves through Pakistan territory on the ground. We never bill for that, because we believe in the war against terror. We supported that coalition, we continue to support efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan. So if we want to go back into history and start accounting for how many dollars were spent, Pakistan, as I said, post-9/11, the most conservative numbers: We lost $120 billion in economic growth.”
- Pakistan has fought and will continue to fight its war against terrorism with its own blood and money. “This impression that any resources came from abroad is not correct. We fought the war with our own resources and we defeated the terrorists.”
- Pakistan has suffered huge losses. “We have 6,500 martyrs in the army. We lost over 30,000 civilians, 50,000 injured. So it’s been a massive effort. It has been a very vicious war. And today over 200,000 troops are involved in that war to defeat terror on our own soil.”
- Pakistan will continue to engage with the US to sort out mutual differences. The two countries have identical goal of defeating terrorism.
- Pakistan’s relations with the US must be de-hyphenated from Afghanistan. “The relationship with the U.S. is 70 years old. It’s not a relationship that is defined by Afghanistan alone. We have engaged with the U.S. We continue to engage with them to resolve any differences that come up and move forward. And we intend to partner with the U.S. to defeat terror in the area, to find peace in Afghanistan, and provide stability to the region.”
- Pakistan will not allow US drone attacks on its soil. “We cannot allow that. I think the sovereignty of our territory has to be respected.”
He had few details to share about his meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence, which he said, took place at US request.
Prime Minister Abbasi said Pakistan desired peace in Afghanistan.”Let me say that nobody wants peace more in Afghanistan than Pakistan. This perception that there are sanctuaries is absolutely not correct. We have defeated the enemy on our own territory. We have destroyed the sanctuaries.”
He said Pakistan was open to any suggestions from Afghanistan to better manage the 2600 kilometers long border. He denied the presence of Haqqani Network on Pakistan’s soil and maintained that Afghanistan had sanctuaries for terrorists who were crossing over into Pakistan to cause harm to its forces and civilians. He said Afghanistan’s security is actually Pakistan’s security.
“…Today the cross-border incursions, if they happen, are from Afghanistan into Pakistan to attack our forces. We have suffered the terror described, and we are today implementing border management to control cross-border infiltration.”
He also maintained that Afghanistan issue could not be resolved militarily. “War is not the solution,” he said adding that only and intra-Afghan dialogue could pave the way for lasting peace. He said Pakistan had contributed immensely to Afghan economy, and mentioned that Islamabad continued to host three million Afghan refugees even today.
He accused Indian security forces of committing atrocities against civilians in Indian administered Kashmir. He said Kashmir was the core issue for tensions between the two countries. He reiterated that Pakistan would continue its moral and diplomatic support to Kashmiris and called upon the international community to take notice of human rights violations in Kashmir.
“The implementation of the Security Council resolution will be a great starting point, that will help address each other’s concerns and provide peace to the region and—between Pakistan and India. That’s the core issue that is just between our two countries.”
In reply to a question he denied Pakistan having developed tactical nuclear weapons. He however confirmed the development of short range nuclear weapons in response to India’s Cold Start doctrine.
Mr. Abbasi brushed aside concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. “We have a very robust and very secure command-and-control system over our strategic nuclear assets, and I think time has proved that it’s a process that is very secure. It’s a process that has complete civilian oversight through the NCA.”
Mr. Abbasi was hesitant to take a position on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, maintaining that only the Parliament can change it. “The law is in force. The courts can comment on the law. But until it’s in—it’s in force, it’s the job of the government to enforce the law.”
As for the role of India in Afghanistan, Abbasi said it’s “zero”. He was firm and categorical when a question related to India’s role in Afghanistan was asked from him. “We don’t foresee any political or military role for India in Afghanistan. I think it will just complicate the situation and it will not resolve anything. So if they want to do economic assistance, that’s their prerogative, but there’s no—we don’t accept or see any role politically or militarily for India in Afghanistan.”
Announcing his policy for Afghanistan and South Asia in a primetime speech on August 21, Trump had called for greater India involvement in Afghanistan. “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” President Trump had said. His statement fueled anger in Pakistan and has strained the US relations with its key ally in the South Asian region.
Changing mood in Pakistan?
The Pakistani Prime Minister’s relatively tough talk during his stay in New York City seems to be part of Islamabad’s response to President Trump’s newly announced policy. Many analysts in the US and overseas have warned that Trump’s approach towards Pakistan could backfire, and push Pakistan even closer to China, something already happening in that part of the world. China is replacing the US influence in Islamabad faster than the policymakers in Washington anticipate. It’s pumping 60 billion dollars in Pakistan’s economy through Pakistan China Economic Corridor, supporting Islamabad diplomatically and is serving as a bridge to warm up Islamabad-Moscow relations.
No wonder President Trump’s impact on US Afghan policy is already visible in Islamabad’s hardening position and narrative on its relations with Washington. Pakistan may have little to lose, but by alienating it, the US has much to lose. The biggest loss being Washington’s traditional leverage over Islamabad. The failure of President Trump’s signature muscular policy towards Pakistan risks even costing the US an ally in South Asia – so critical to its success in Afghanistan, many more billions in tax dollars drained in Afghanistan’s wastelands, public ire over yet another failure in Afghanistan and a possible second term in the office to the president himself.
Will Pakistan’s pushback over America’s new Afghan policy soften the US attitude towards it remains anybody’s guess for now. But one thing is certain – the mood is not just changing in Washington.