Former Ambassador of Pakistan to the U.S. Husain Haqqani left that position six years ago amidst controversy over a memo he was accused of orchestrating, urging U.S. help in preventing a military coup in Pakistan following the Abbottabad operation that killed Osama bin Laden. An advocate of civilian government in the country, he’s become a sharp critic of the Pakistani establishment. Mr. Haqqani is based out of the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.
Last year, he launched South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH), which earlier this month held a conference in London and issued a strongly worded statement condemning the “widening circle of repression” and attempts to mainstream extremist and terrorist organisations in Pakistan. His book, 'Re-imagining Pakistan', will be published in 2018. In this interview, he speaks about SAATH, Kashmir, and the impact of the recent change in the U.S. policy on Afghanistan. Excerpts:
What is the need for SAATH? And what can it achieve?
There are many voices in Pakistan and of Pakistanis living in the diaspora that can only be raised effectively outside Pakistan and we hope that these voices will start having a resonance back home. It is important that the discourse on Pakistan that has been streamlined and subject to specific parameters defined by the Pakistani establishment opens up. That people start asking questions that they are not allowed to ask.
What we are worried about is that a hyper-nationalist discourse is being encouraged in Pakistan in the media and by silencing dissent. At the same time, we already have school textbooks that teach history in a particular way that only creates anger, bitterness, bigotry and hatred. Unfortunately, that process is also taking place in India now — that feeds off each other. The hardliners in India say all Pakistanis are terrorists; the hardliners in Pakistan say all Indians are out to destroy Pakistan. Somebody has to start telling people to talk rationally, and our purpose is to try and rekindle a rational discourse back home. We are not going to possibly affect day-to-day politics but we will affect the battle of ideas.
Not all of us agree on everything. There are people, for example, among the liberal, progressive milieu of Pakistan who take a very hard line on subjects like Balochistan. They talk about independence. And others say what we need to do is reform Pakistan and not change its geography. I think the dialogue should include both for one simple reason: marginalising people does not solve the issue of identity ever. If Catalans can feel like Catalans after three centuries and if the Scots can reassert their identity after a union for almost three centuries, there is no way we can completely suppress Baloch identity. We would rather talk to them and let them say their piece while maintaining our view that it is better to reform Pakistan than to talk about drastic solutions. We really believe in a pluralist Pakistan.
What role do you envisage for other South Asian nations in SAATH?
The region’s problems are interlinked. We hope we can get more Pakistanis on board first because Pakistan is the more difficult member of the South Asian community at the moment. Once we can get enough Pakistanis, then we can start bringing our Afghan, Indian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Nepali friends as well.
South Asia is the least integrated region in the world. Half of Europe’s trade is within Europe and half of ASEAN’s (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is within ASEAN. In South Asia, intra-regional trade is only 5% of the total trade of the countries in the region, which is abysmal.
What are your thoughts on the road forward for India and Pakistan?
We can’t let the relationship be hostage to dispute. The approach should be ‘let us become friends first and discuss things we disagree about later’, whereas the Pakistani state has taken the position that it wants a resolution of dispute first and get to friendship later. That never works anywhere. Taiwan is considered a renegade province by China but that does not stop China from having $200 billion worth of trade with Taiwan, without conceding the legal status. Now the Chinese have invested in Taiwan and the Taiwanese too have invested in China sufficiently enough for neither of them to have any reason to embark on conflict. That is the best model for Pakistan. Germany and France fought many wars, including two World Wars. Both sides claimed Alsace-Lorraine, and in the end, they reached the conclusion that resolving this dispute over who this territory belongs to is going to become irrelevant when you are both part of the European Union.
What can India do to break the impasse?
I think the Indian side can really help by constantly signalling to the Pakistani people that India has no conflict with the Pakistani people and make sure that the Pakistani people are no longer fooled by an establishment that no longer describes us as neighbours but as eternal enemies. If they can help change that psyche, then it becomes easier for those of us who advocate normalcy of relations to put more pressure within.
In the end, Pakistan’s status as a semi-authoritarian state determines its policies. It’s a country where even when we have elected governments, they do not have a free hand. We have a diverse media, but we don’t have a free media. Our media is many, many voices saying more or less the same thing. That is a recipe for brainwashing people and the lines are very strictly drawn in Pakistan.
And on Kashmir?
My basic point is that when something is too intractable, the sensible way to deal with it is to not insist on dealing with it before anything else. Then circumstances themselves present a solution. At the end of the day, it comes down to whether you have the will to resolve the problem or whether keeping the problem alive is more important to you than finding a solution. Both sides have contributed to the problem and both sides have made it difficult to resolve it, but a better approach might be to not insist on resolving it before we can have normal relations.
How significant was the recent Quadrilateral Coordination Group meeting on Afghan peace of the U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan in Oman?
I’m one of those who believes all talks are good. That said, unless there is flexibility and credibility in negotiations, nothing moves forward. Pakistan has a credibility problem with Afghanistan. We have promised many things that have not been delivered. Deep down the Pakistani deep state is still too suspicious and too bent upon chasing phantoms to reach a reasonable settlement. If Pakistan’s concern is that Afghanistan is going to be used by India against it in the case of war or to foment trouble, there are ways to resolve that. There can be an agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan in relation to what Afghanistan can do in relation to India. But if you in your heart of hearts decide the only good Afghans are the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, then it will be hard to resolve. General (Pervez) Musharraf destroyed Pakistan’s credibility because after 9/11, everybody assumed he’d genuinely taken a U-turn. Now he goes around telling people we did support the Taliban, but we did it for our own national interest. With all due respect, when you do something like that — you say one thing and a few years later you say another — you are creating a huge credibility gap that cannot be easily fixed.
You’ve been an advocate of a tougher U.S. line on Pakistan. What do you make of the changes in Afghan policy and the comments by the U.S. President following the rescue of the Canadian American family?
The lack of trust between the U.S. and Pakistan was not created by a single tweet and it won’t be resolved by a single tweet. It’s a problem that has arisen over many years as a result of broken promises and unfulfilled expectations. Possibly on both sides. Pakistan has promised to help stabilise Afghanistan since 9/11, yet it has not yet fully clamped down on the Taliban, and the Haqqani network has already been described by former U.S. joint chief Admiral Michael Mullen as a veritable arm of the Pakistan army. It will take time for the Americans to believe Pakistan has turned a corner. On the other hand, Pakistan has a valid point: if the U.S. is going to be a virtual neighbour to Pakistan by having forces in Afghanistan and if it uses Pakistan as a corridor for supplying its troops, it has to listen to Pakistan’s perspective too.
Pakistan’s interlocutors are not always clear with the Americans on what they want. They very easily accept what the Americans are saying because they depend on America so much. It’s my experience that aid clouds Pakistani judgment. And aid clouds American understanding of Pakistani motives because Pakistan ends up over-promising, which creates a trust deficit. So let both sides have a more realistic discussion.
I personally feel that the desire to install a government of Pakistan’s choice in Afghanistan is overly ambitious and unrealistic. The best-case scenario for Pakistan is to come to an understanding with the government of Afghanistan that it won’t in any way let its territory be used against Pakistan, but Pakistan needs to spell out what Indian influence it is bothered by. India has been reasonable by saying ‘we will not put boots on the ground in Afghanistan’, and the other part of it is the fear of what I call intelligence games. There are inconsistencies in Pakistan’s argument on the subject... Pakistan has to explain to the Americans why they have so much fear of India’s alleged presence in Afghanistan when the only person they ever caught never came from Afghanistan.
Will these be the themes of your forthcoming book?
I talk about how Pakistan’s discourse has been constructed around paranoia and an obsession with India. At the end of the day, Pakistan has to build a foreign policy that is not ideological but pragmatic. You can’t have an ideological view that so and so is out to destroy us. Pragmatically you have to say this action harms us — you can’t constantly base it on a view of ill intentions; you have to specifically identify the acts that harm you. And negotiate solutions in which those actions cease.
It’s time for strong voices on Pakistan from Pakistan and from the Pakistani diaspora to point out what it is that needs to change in Pakistan. How it can be a country at peace with itself and its neighbour.