Interview | National

Yet to see irreversible steps for change on the ground in Pakistan, says U.S. envoy Alice Wells

U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells.   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

The US has seen Pakistan take some steps against terror groups, though none that are irreversible, says U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells, who has been travelling in the region for the past two weeks.

Tell us about your meetings in Delhi, both bilateral and trilateral with Japan.

The momentum to this relationship is anchored by the two policies that govern our approach to the region: the U.S. South Asia policy and the Indo-Pacific policy. In the South Asia policy, the U.S. is working very aggressively to stabilise the situation and work towards a peaceful resolution that involves unprecedented engagement with Pakistan, and one in which India is playing an essential role as a net provider of assistance which is very different from a few years ago. On the Indo-Pacific side, that’s where the ambitions of the relationship lie. Our shared security interests are to see that the region doesn’t fall prey to some of the predatory practices being seen in the South China Sea, and how to offer alternatives.

On Afghanistan… the fact that this region has no regional trade is noteworthy and until we resolve that core conflict and open up the east and west, the potential for South Asia is not going to be achieved. We are deeply appreciative of the Indian efforts to use Chabahar to provide alternatives to Afghanistan to open up a channel to Central Asia. And we need to be creative in the absence of peace to ensure that Afghanistan can stabilise and grow.

Are you saying that the Chabahar route, with the port owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC-owned Khatam Al-Anbia) meets with the U.S.’s approval?

The standard set for Chabahar is that the deals should not benefit IRGC members, that’s for sanctions not to be imposed, and for business deals to go through. The legislation originally passed (JCPOA) has a specific carve-out for Chabahar and that’s an acknowledgment of the necessary role of giving land-locked Afghanistan access and alternatives as it seeks to build its economy. We have seen with the shipments of wheat that India has really helped to open up trade with Afghanistan including air corridors. Its been striking that Afghanistan-Pakistan trade has declined 50% in the last year. India has provided options, and Afghanistan now needs the support of India and Central Asia.

You were in Pakistan last week for several days. Are there any indications yet that Pakistan is taking action on terror?

As General (Joseph) Votel has testified, we see initial constructive steps and we want to build on that. Our conversation with Pakistan is about the unique influence it has and the unique levers it has in helping to shape Taliban expectations and to convince the Taliban to walk through what we all recognise is an open door. Those conversations are ongoing. We are not walking away from Pakistan, but we do not believe that yet we have seen the kind of sustainable and irreversible steps that are required to really change the situation on the ground.

Pakistan PM Abbasi was in Kabul to meet President Ghani on Friday, while you are in India. Is that part of the ongoing South Asia consultations?

I think it is an excellent initiative between the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan to strengthen their bilateral relationship as until they have more normal relations its impossible to talk about broader reconciliation. We fully support the framework agreement that they are seeking to formalise and the action groups that are embedded in it and would like to see concrete steps to improve the relations whether it is on trade or aid or border management or refugees, all of these are issues that require greater coordination and collaboration, so we welcome this step.

Yet here in New Delhi, it looks as if since that tweet from President Trump on New Years day, India’s hopes from the U.S.’s new policy have not been realised. Terrorists targeting India like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar still roam openly, issue statements, with no specific action taken against them except what is mandated by the U.N. Do you still think there is reason to hope that will change?

I was heartened by the press comments by General Bajwa where he said things like the ‘state must have the monopoly on violence’, and there is ‘no role for non-state actors’, and that ‘Pakistan cant be a normal states if there are extremist groups’. Those are extremely positive statements and now I think the challenge is to see them implemented. We are certainly in a very good faith conversation with Pakistan. We want the policy to succeed and for Pakistan to be both law enforced and economically secure country. We understand Pakistan is also a victim of terror and more than 400 civilians were killed by the TTP or other groups like AQ and ISIS operating in Pakistan. I always say that terrorists who attack Pakistan are also enemies of the United States. We have an agenda, we believe we have shared interests and Pakistan has a stake in a stable Afghanistan. So how do we make that calculus work?

But you’re basing all this on General Bajwa’s statement… this year marks 10 years since the Mumbai attacks, and there have been ten years of such statements. So what gives you hope that this time is any different from the past?

I think the South Asia strategy and the stance of the U.S. administration gives me hope. This is a strategy that has been implemented with greater force. It notes that this is a different world, and it is no longer acceptable or understandable to rely on proxy forces. And we are prepared, as we demonstrated with the suspension of assistance, to act on our concern when we don’t see sufficient action taken. The Trump administration has gone into territory not been entered before by the U.S. and that sends a very powerful message. We have a leadership role to play to close the chapter on proxy forces in South Asia. There is an urgency to this because of ISIS. We see ISIS in Afghanistan consists largely of Afghans and Pakistanis who have switched over from other terrorist organisations, but imagine if an insurgency became a nihillistic campaign that recognised no borders. We can’t afford the conflict and the ideological stew there to metastasise.

Yet eight months into the U.S. South Asia strategy, four months after CSF and FMF funding cuts, FATF action, IMF squeeze, the designation of Hafiz Saeed’s party MML as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, there’s seems no impact on Pakistan actions. What are the markers that Pakistan should take, for the U.S., and possibly India to acknowledge they have taken some action?

We fully share your concern over Hafiz Saeed. He is a terrorist, with money on his head, he should be in prison, not on the streets, and we have concerns about his ability to operate freely..... [pause] This is a process, and while I know that’s not a satisfactory answer for a country that has suffered significant acts of terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

The U.S. has suffered as well, Americans died in the Mumbai attacks….

Absolutely…but this is a process. And it is a serious process, and even our Indian friends recognise the seriousness of purpose of the United States in adopting and implementing its strategy. So I would say, bear with us, this isn’t the end of our diplomatic game. We are continuously engaging in Pakistan because we do see the need for change.

Is there a timeline? Or a point at which the U.S.’s patience runs out?

We are evaluating as we go, in consultations with our allies and friends. But this is a process.

What are the markers of what you would like to see Pakistan do in the next few months?

I think Pakistan knows what it can do to change the calculus and to disrupt and make it harder for Taliban or family members [other groups] to take advantage of Pakistan’s territory. That isn’t a mystery. There will soon be a new civilian leadership in Pakistan, and we will see how the new government will take steps to demonstrate to the international community that Pakistan is serious about curbing terror financing and money laundering.

Again, there we have seen some positive steps: whether it is on the (LeT-owned) charities, whether it is the executive order designating U.N. terrorists under the Anti-terrorism Act, this is what we are going to be looking for. I believe that the international consensus was that the greylist was necessary as these were not irreversible actions, but I have to say, in my consultations in Islamabad, including among the business community, there is a lot of support for moving forward on terror. This is in Pakistan’s interest, as a big country that needs foreign investment, the way to attract it is to have a stellar reputation and stellar record. So many people I met welcomed the double-edged sword of FATF.

One of the outcomes of your visit has been the new engagement between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In your talks with Indian officials, have you encouraged India to consider reviving talks with Pakistan?

I wish I could take credit for that, but the Afghanistan-Pakistan talks have been underway ever since General Bajwa went to Kabul in October 2017. We are very supportive of that, but it is not a U.S. process. We always encourage India and Pakistan to sit down and resolve issues, and we recognise that there is a level of dialogue taking place, whether it is at the routine level for prisoner release or buses from Kashmir, or whether at the level of DGMOs when we see the very worrying violence and shelling across the Line of Control. I hope that through the stabilisation of Afghanistan, and enacting the South Asia strategy, that conditions can emerge that will allow for a more productive exchange between India and Pakistan. But we’re not getting in between the two country’s ability to speak to one another.

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