Interview with Hina Rabbani Khar - politician and former foreign minister
The News on Sunday (TNS): What does the house arrest of Hafiz Saeed really mean for Pakistan? Has it finally submitted to international pressure, from the US and/or China, to curtail the activities of JuD and various other related outfits?
Hina Rabbani Khar (HRK): We do not want Hafiz Saeed or people like him to be representatives of our country. There is always this unsaid or between-the-lines insinuation that the state of Pakistan has been supporting them. This is all completely against Pakistan’s national interest, internally as well as externally. And, I must say, I’m more concerned about the internal policies - if you sort out your house your international reputation will improve naturally. The image of Pakistan will change. Organisations banned by Pakistan should not be allowed to hold huge rallies in Islamabad. Any state is considered to be weak when it allows something like this to happen.
I’m very happy that this government finally mustered the ability to house arrest Hafiz Saeed, as you know he was arrested during the PPP time, but the courts let him go then. It would be embarrassing to know that the government has acted under international pressure, when it should have done so in the national interest.
TNS: With the arrest of Hafiz Saeed, do you see a shift in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy? Is it moving away from being India-centric?
HRK: I think Pakistan’s policy on dealing with extremists has always been between black and white. Presently, I see us in the grey area but I would like us to get closer to a lighter shade of grey, and ultimately get to white - to show complete unacceptability or complete elimination of space for entities like Hafiz Saeed to function on the soil of Pakistan. These people have not helped the cause of Kashmir, instead they’ve spoilt the moral high ground that should be the mainstay of our Kashmir policy.
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TNS: The extent of Chinese involvement in Pakistan is vast. Are Pakistan’s relations with China the only strong point of our foreign policy? Is it really ‘sweeter than honey’?
HRK: For the PML-N government, China remains the only strong point of their foreign policy. We’re all very proud of the investments China in making in our country. It carries immense value for Pakistan. But should it be the only relationship? During the PPP government, China was one of the focal points; in fact that’s when the foundation of the CPEC was laid by taking the Gwadar Port away from the Singapore Port Authority, enabling China to play a role in it. We called it the regional pivot, not the China pivot. So we were investing in transforming our relations with all our immediate neighbours, Afghanistan, Iran, India and China.
Regional pivot means that you are comfortable with your geography and are accepting of the fact that ‘peace within’ requires ‘peace without’, in the sense that you need to be at peace with your neighbours, invest in good relations and build trust. I believe countries closest to Pakistan are the most important -- then as you zoom out, the level of importance decreases. No country has prospered without accepting its regional reality. Traditionally, Pakistan has done the opposite, which is wrong. We first zoom out, the US is our most sought after partner, and then as we zoom in -- other than China no other country has seemed important to us. Historically, we’ve tried to manage all our regional relationships via Washington DC.
TNS: So, how do you see the regional scenario evolving with the change of government in the US? What challenges does Pakistan face in the emerging regional politics?
HRK: The US is not willing to invest in this region more than it already has. You see how Afghanistan was not even an issue in the Presidential debate. Afghanistan is not page 1 news anymore. So, the US is rather happy with China playing a strategic role in the region. We do see the US getting into a strategic relationship with India though.
However, a rather interesting development in the region is the developing Russia-Afghanistan-India-Pakistan-China nexus. These regional countries have a greater ability to have a solution-oriented approach to the Afghan issue. Many people will be uncomfortable with India being part of this group but it’s better to have India as part of the solution than part of the problem. In diplomacy we have to engage with countries that threaten you, not ignore them or wage proxy wars with them. I think this region has had enough of proxy wars and therefore all these regional players need to sit around a table and work on co existing peacefully.
TNS: Our relations with Afghanistan have turned for the worse in recent months. We’ve seen frequent war of words and guns too. In an attempt to improve the relations, Gen Bajwa tried to reach out to Ashraf Ghani to initiate talks between Afghanistan and Taliban. Will such friendly gestures help improve the strained relations between the two neighbours? What more needs to be done?
HRK: This government lost a golden opportunity with Ashraf Ghani’s overture when a memorandum of understanding was signed by which Pakistan would help train Afghan intelligence officers, take part in the interrogation of terror suspects and conduct joint operations, alongside many other long standing wish list items for Pakistan. They even offered to stop taking any military support from India. He came all out to cater to our concerns on his first state visit to Pakistan in 2015. This was very significant because we know the anti-Pakistan lobby in Afghanistan is very strong. That was really the time for Pakistan to support him and keep the timelines to various commitments. But sadly we didn’t. What does it show? Clearly lack of will or ability to invest in long-term policy.
During the PPP government, we made it very clear that we have no favourites in Afghanistan and we reached out to all kinds of people, Tajiks, non-Pashtuns, Hazara, etc. That’s what this government needs to do as well. This government has remained embroiled in occurrences; it’s a reactive rather than a proactive foreign policy management.
TNS: Where do you think the relations between Pakistan and Iran are heading? Can we afford to look at Iran through the lens of someone else’s rivalry?
HRK: The Iranian portfolio is being completely ignored. We embarrassed President Hassan Rouhani when he came to Pakistan last year. I don’t think we should view our relations with Iran from the lens of any other nation’s rivalry. Good relations with Iran are in our national interest.
It will be a fatal mistake for Pakistan to align with the Islamic Military Alliance. Why get into a fight that is not ours? Our soldiers are fighting on a daily basis inside Pakistan’s territory so what is our business to become allies in a faraway fight when we have not even sorted our house.
TNS: Who controls the foreign policy?
HRK: I’m at a loss. Educate me. Even the foreign office doesn’t know, I think. They do not know who to look to, Sartaj Aziz or Tariq Fatemi. In fact, by not appointing the foreign minister, the government has weakened the foreign office. Who is to be blamed if the government leaves a vacuum, and someone else comes and fills it?
This article was published in The News on Sunday on February 12, 2017 under the title "It’s a reactive rather than a proactive foreign policy".