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Photo by Mohammad Asim, White Star
Photo by Mohammad Asim, White Star

Aziz Ahmad Khan is one of Pakistan’s most respected diplomats. He has spent close to four decades as a member of the foreign service, dealing with regional diplomatic issues, specifically those involving India and Afghanistan.

He has served as Pakistan’s high commissioner in New Delhi from July 2003 to November 2006 and has been Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul between December 1996 and June 2000. In between the two postings, he has worked as the Foreign Office spokesperson and as additional foreign secretary.

Since his retirement from the Foreign Office, Aziz has been engaged in Track-II dialogues with working and retired diplomats from India and Afghanistan. He has worked as a consultant at the National Defence University in Islamabad and is honourary vice president and member of the board of Jinnah Institute, a think tank based in Islamabad.

By virtue of all the government and non-government positions he has held, Aziz has been immensely influential in the formation and conduct of Pakistan’s foreign policy towards both India and Afghanistan for more than two decades.

Highly knowledgeable about the history of South Asia and extremely skilled in the art of diplomatic trapeze, he understands the various nuances that inform Pakistan’s relations with both its eastern and western neighbours.

Here, he shares some of his insights with the Herald readers.

Simbal Khan. What keeps you busy these days?

Aziz Ahmad Khan. Well, since my retirement I have been devoting all of my time to myself. I do whatever I feel like doing — whether that is reading, meeting friends, travelling, visiting my children who live abroad or doing anything that catches my fancy.

The only digressions are the few [initiatives] that I am part of. [These concern] India-Pakistan relations, Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and trilateral dialogue between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan; these provide me an opportunity to get out of my day-to-day routine and do something exciting.

Simbal. During your long career at the Foreign Office you have worked under civilian as well as military-led governments. Do you feel there is a difference between how the two types of governments handle foreign policy?

Aziz. I joined the foreign service in 1969 when [General] Yahya Khan had just taken over power from Ayub Khan. After that we had Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government, followed by another long period of military rule.

One good thing about Pakistan’s foreign policy is that there has been a certain degree of consistency, regardless of the form of government. With the change in the type of government or, in fact, with any change in government, there is no shift in foreign policy.

You can see as an example how every government has [pursued] good relations with China once those relations were initiated in the 1960s. Resolving issues with India has also been a consistent policy, regardless of the government in power.

The Foreign Office is largely independent as far as the execution of foreign policy is concerned, but of course the formulation of foreign policy is not its exclusive preserve. It gives its input but then there are other institutions that also give their input. When it comes to security-related aspects, input from the security establishment is invaluable.

As far as commercial relations are concerned, the business community plays a significant role in policy formulation. People’s aspirations in foreign policy are represented by the parliament. When debates take place within the parliament on certain foreign policy issues, a note is made of its recommendations.

Simbal. Many observers say important foreign policy subjects remain the exclusive preserve of the security establishment. Even when we have civilian governments, our armed forces retain their dominance over foreign policy. That explains why the script does not change much. Do you agree?

Aziz. Yes and no. Look at the period of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. I don’t think there was any military interference in foreign policy during that time. It all depends on the leadership.

Yes, on certain issues input from the security establishment is given more weight. For example, the security establishment’s role becomes important [vis-à-vis] relations with India because of the Kashmir issue, because of India’s policy to keep [bilateral problems] unresolved and because of India’s objective to keep the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir hot.

If, however, issues such as Kashmir and Siachen were not there, then the entire emphasis would have been on socio-economic issues. Then input from the security establishment would hardly be needed.

[Who will have how much say] also depends upon circumstances. For example, I don’t think public opinion was taken into consideration before making the decision to join Afghanistan’s jihad against the Soviet invasion. Being the absolute ruler that he was, General Ziaul Haq was the sole architect of that policy.

Simbal. Why does our relationship with India keep on nosediving? I think it is worse today than it was immediately after Partition in 1947?

Aziz. One factor that has impeded improvement in our relations with India is Kashmir. Whether India likes it or not, the fact remains that Kashmir is the core issue between the two countries. If you look at 70 years of Pakistan-India relations, you can see that Kashmir has been at the centre of it all and has been giving a certain direction to the state of relations between the two countries.

There have been difficulties in resolving even easier issues. In June 1989, the defence secretaries of the two countries reached an agreement regarding withdrawal of forces from Siachen. In July 1989, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came to Pakistan for a brief official visit. Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s prime minister.

If you see the joint statement issued at the time, you can see that its two paragraphs were devoted to appreciating the agreement and its quick implementation. Yet, India’s military establishment refused to implement it.

We called the Siachen issue a low-hanging fruit, but now when discussions take place on it, I say it is the highest-hanging fruit.

Simbal. Why do you think India has stepped back from picking those low-hanging fruits?

Aziz. Indian leaders believe that India is an emerging global power and Pakistan is having too many internal troubles. They ask themselves why they should give concessions to Pakistan; why should they put in effort to resolve outstanding issues?

Simbal. Have there been moments in your Track-II engagements with India when you felt there could be a breakthrough? Has Track -II created any hope that relations with India can be improved?

Aziz. Well, Track-II dialogue provides a forum for discussion to people with experience in various areas — retired generals, retired diplomats, intellectuals, members of think tanks and the media, analysts, etc. Both sides have people who have held senior positions and hence are plugged into various aspects of their respective bureaucracies.

Photo by Mohammad Asim, White Star
Photo by Mohammad Asim, White Star

The concept behind Track-II dialogue is that the ideas discussed among participants are conveyed to official policymakers. Those involved in Track-II dialogue may seek consideration of their recommendations but they cannot force their ideas on their governments.

At one of the Track-II dialogues, for example, we deliberated on a very detailed plan on how to implement the Siachen agreement [reached in 1989]. Initially, the plan was kept private but later it was made public. Indians involved in the deliberations got such a scolding from their side that they were running for cover. This was because the official thinking was still hard line.

I have also felt that the Pakistani side is more open and innovative in Track-II dialogue and does not restrict itself to the official script. We also give our own ideas. On the other hand, I have noticed that the Indian side – with a few notable exceptions – by and large tries to keep the discussions within the official lines.

Simbal. What is the way forward with respect to relations with India?

Aziz. India is going through a great transition. It may no longer be Gandhi’s and Nehru’s secular India. A new India is emerging. We have to wait and see which direction it takes. If it takes the direction that it appears to be taking, then its relations with Pakistan will become even more difficult.

Also, there is nothing new left to discuss with India. We have discussed everything. Solutions have also been suggested. We know exactly what direction to take in order to resolve bilateral issues.

The whole range of problems, including Kashmir, can be decided in a short time if both sides sit down and start talking about implementing [the outcome of earlier talks]. If we just look back at all the things that we have agreed upon and start to implement them, then you would resolve most, if not all, the issues.

President Pervez Musharraf had suggested a four-point formula for the Kashmir issue. People have criticised it but I feel it was a very good step. What was being discussed quietly was not a final settlement but rather a period of 15-20 years of large-scale CBMs [confidence building measures].

This, in turn, would have eased bilateral tensions, helped remove heavy Indian military presence from Kashmir and provided comfort to the Kashmiri people. Once an atmosphere was created where tensions would dissipate and disappear, it would have become conducive for an ultimate solution acceptable to the Kashmiris, to Pakistan and to India.

I feel – and I hope I am proven wrong – India is not in the mood for any serious dialogue with Pakistan. Even if there is dialogue now, it would not be meaningful. If there is pressure from the international community on India then it may make a move but that would only be pro forma.

Simbal. Are you suggesting that Pakistan should accept the status quo in relations with India?

Aziz. If India is not willing to talk then there is precious little that Pakistan can do except continuing to try. We cannot say that we will do exactly what India wants.

Simbal. Do you think the lack of peace and the presence of low-level hostility between the two countries are sustainable?

Aziz. No. You have to resolve the issues. It is in India’s own interest to resolve these issues so that it can devote its attention to the betterment of around 500 million people living below the poverty line there.

Also, if India wishes to grow in power globally, it needs to be living in peace with all its neighbours. At the moment, it hardly has good relations with any of its neighbours except for Bhutan probably.

Simbal. So, it is basically for its status as an emerging global power that India should address its problems with Pakistan.

Aziz. Basically for peace in the region and also for its own sake. Look at the expense that India must be incurring in Kashmir — the expenses on the LoC, on all those troops deployed there and on the 750,000 [security personnel deployed in Kashmir].

If Kashmir was at peace, India would not need [security] forces there. The resolution, therefore, is in India’s own interest — and the sooner they do it, the better it will be for them.

India’s main interest is in discussing terrorism. It is in our interest also to discuss terrorism [because] India has been indulging in a lot of activities promoting terrorism [in Pakistan]. It is not something new. India has been doing that for decades now.

In Balochistan, initially, the trouble was being fomented by the Soviet Union. After [its own] dismemberment, Soviet Union lost interest and the vacuum was filled by India.

Photo by Mohammad Asim, White Star
Photo by Mohammad Asim, White Star

The most recent case is that of Kulbhushan Jadhav. Obviously, India will say that he is innocent and claim that some Pakistani agencies went into Iran and picked him up from there. The fact is that he has confessed [to being a spy].

Before Jadhav, there were similar cases of Kashmir Singh and Sarabjit Singh. Humanitarian organisations said they were innocent people who had crossed the border by mistake.

When, finally, they were released, they boasted the moment they crossed into India that they had come to Pakistan for spying and that they had done a lot of awful things to Pakistan.

Terrorism is an issue that India and Pakistan both need to discuss. It is also important to do so because terrorism has become a very complex issue with the rise of the IS [Islamic State]. India and Pakistan will have to cooperate with each other in order to prevent that menace from spreading.

Simbal. Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are experiencing a similar kind of a status quo — actually a downward spiral. You have extensive experience of working on this relationship. How do you view its current state?

Aziz. It is unfortunate how things have panned out after 9/11 and after American action in Afghanistan. The Americans completely neglected [the option of] reaching out to the Taliban after they had been removed from power in Afghanistan.

No incentive was provided to help them give up arms and join the mainstream. The Americans followed a wrong policy, thinking they would just smoke the [Taliban] out and destroy them. I recall that Hamid Karzai gave a call soon after he took over as interim president that all those who were against the state were welcome [back in the mainstream] if they gave up arms.

But he withdrew that statement a day later, probably under American pressure. Reaching out to anti-state elements was not done, particularly in the Pakhtun belt, the main area where the Taliban come from. No development work was done there either.

Also, the interim government formed [in Afghanistan] was heavily comprised of people belonging to the Northern Alliance who had very [strong] anti-Taliban sentiments. They thought they would be able to suppress the Taliban by force. They might have succeeded if they had paid more attention to governance.

Simbal. What steps can Pakistan take to improve its relationship with Afghanistan?

Aziz. There is tremendous mutual distrust. Each side suspects the other of playing a double game. The Afghans and the Americans think we are playing a double game. We think the Americans and the Afghans are playing a double game. As a result, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated.

The Taliban are on the rise; IS has started making its presence felt. Those elements of the TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan] we cleared from [our side] have found safe havens and refuge there.

Pakistan needs to continue to reach out to the Afghan government. There is no alternative. [The two sides] need to have an honest conversation and see how they can cooperate. The United States [should also join the conversation]. In a way, the Americans are the source of all the current problems in Afghanistan. The three countries need to find out how they can cooperate in order to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Simbal. You have participated in a lot of Track-II talks with the Afghans. What are the main roadblocks that come up during those talks?

Aziz. The Afghans feel the [Afghan] Taliban and the Haqqani group have safe havens in Pakistan; that they organise themselves from here for attacks in Afghanistan. We have told the Afghans that [the Taliban] do not have Aziz.

The Afghans feel the [Afghan] Taliban and the Haqqani group have safe havens in Pakistan; that they organise themselves from here for attacks in Afghanistan. We have told the Afghans that [the Taliban] do not have [safe havens]; that some of their leaders maybe living here but there is nothing more than that.

There needs to be some kind of a [mechanism here through which] we can convince them that no attacks are being launched inside Afghanistan from our territory.

Simbal. What do you mean by this mechanism?

Aziz. By that I mean quiet talks at the level of intelligence [agencies] and security forces — away from the glare of publicity. If there are any misgivings, those should be removed. It is in Pakistan’s interest because Pakistan has given a commitment that it will not allow its soil to be used against any country — be it India, be it Afghanistan or any other country.

At the same time, we need to tell the [Afghan] Taliban leaders living here to be cooperative. We need to ensure that their hostile activities are discouraged. The Afghan government feels that a lot of Taliban come into Pakistan quietly, live in refugee camps, and operate from there.

Since we have no control on all those activities, we have started pushing Afghan refugees out, but it should not have been done in such a harsh manner.

Simbal. Pakistan shut the Pak-Afghan border after some recent terrorist attacks that were allegedly carried out by the TTP. Border closure has created a huge amount of resentment in Afghanistan since it impacts traders and ordinary Afghans. How do you view this blockade?

Aziz. When Pakistan started Operation Zarb-e-Azb, it warned the Americans and Afghan security forces that the Pakistani Taliban were likely to move into Afghanistan. A counteraction from that side was not forthcoming.

Photo by Mohammad Asim, White Star
Photo by Mohammad Asim, White Star

Secondly, the Afghan areas where TTP is based are very difficult to access. You can hide there without anybody knowing. I don’t think the Afghan army has the capacity to fight in those areas. That army cannot control even the areas that are relatively more accessible.

The Americans have drones, they have other facilities. They need to see what more can be done in those [Afghan] areas to eliminate [the Pakistani Taliban]. Not for the sake of Pakistan but because I suspect that all these TTP elements will become members of the IS, which has the money to pay these rascals.

Even some of the Afghan Taliban may have joined the IS, particularly now that they have no strong central leadership after Mullah Omar.

The Americans also need to look into reports that [Afghanistan’s intelligence agency] NDS and [India’s intelligence agency] RAW are cooperating with each other in utilising these elements to keep needling Pakistan. This needling is in line with the nature of the relationship between India and Pakistan.

Simbal. You have dealt with the Taliban before 9/11. We all hear that they are extremely stubborn and intractable. Do you think they have become flexible or are they still the same?

Aziz. First of all, one has to look at how they emerged. It is simplistic to claim that Pakistan created them. When they emerged, Afghanistan was divided among a little over 450 warlords with their own little satrapies. The central government in Kabul did not even control one-third of Kabul, leave alone the rest of Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s rule was harsh; their attitude towards life was extremely medieval; they ran Afghanistan like a mullah or a tribal chief would run a small village. But whatever their demerit, one thing worth appreciating is that they restored law and order and eliminated all those warlords.

Simbal. What were your personal encounters with them like?

Aziz. They were determined and rigid, although there were some pragmatic people among them too. One could see that once they had finished with the fighting, there would be a certain degree of flexibility within them. We made attempts at that time to promote reconciliation between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

Our constant refrain with the Taliban as well as with the Northern Alliance was that they had to accommodate each other. When I was appointed the ambassador in Kabul, the first people I met, along with foreign secretary Najmuddin Sheikh, were from the Northern Alliance.

Simbal. Who did you meet from the Northern Alliance?

Aziz. At that meeting [Abdul Rashid] Dostum was leading the Northern Alliance delegation but it had representatives from all the parties. The following day we went to Kandahar and met Mullah Omar. We explained to him what was going on and what we thought should be done. Such meetings continued through that period with the Taliban and Northern Alliance.

The Northern Alliance was just as rigid and stubborn as the Taliban. The only reason why Taliban had the confidence of the people was peace and security [they had enforced]. People in Afghanistan felt that at least there were no rapes and murders and robberies. That is what they appreciated under Taliban rule

Simbal. Is reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan a key policy objective of Pakistan? Can Pakistan do anything diplomatically to push the reconciliation process forward?

Aziz. The process has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. It is the Afghan government and the Taliban who have to sit in a room and talk. We can only facilitate that conversation. The quadrilateral group [comprising Pakistan, China, United States and Afghanistan] was a very good construct to push that process forward.

It had the right membership — United States because it is one of the most important parties in Afghanistan; Pakistan because of its long association with the Taliban and the other side; and China because it is the only country that does not have any baggage vis-à-vis the Taliban.

China had established quiet contacts with them when they were ruling Afghanistan — not meddling in their affairs, not pontificating to them, just trying to help Afghanistan. I think the Taliban trust the Chinese and that is why you have seen several meetings of the Taliban take place in China.

I hope the group gets revived; it also needs help from other countries in the region to contact the Taliban’s office in Doha or whichever Taliban leadership is available for talks.

Simbal. How do you see this new opening up or broadening of relations between Pakistan and Russia?

Aziz. We have generally neglected our relations with Russia although there were efforts in this regard right from the beginning. If you recall, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited Russia during Ayub Khan’s time.

Then the Russians set up a steel mill here. But because of the Cold War and because of us being in the American camp out of necessity and perhaps out of choice also, the relationship could not move as well as it should have.

I think Pakistan should now take full advantage of this new opening because the world is becoming multipolar. There are tremendous prospects for trade and technical cooperation between Pakistan and Russia.

Simbal. How are Pakistan’s relations with the Trump administration in the United States unfolding? Are they going to be smoother than our relationship with the Obama administration?

Aziz. Trump administration has not made any policy announcements [vis-à-vis Pakistan] so far, so we will have to wait and see. Pakistan and the United States need to cooperate so as to bring peace to Afghanistan. The recent visit by America’s National Security Adviser Herbert Raymond McMaster is very significant [in this regard].

Simbal. Do you think Pakistan and the United State have the same objectives in Afghanistan in particular and in South Asia in general?

Aziz. There are a lot of conspiracy theories that the United States is finding excuses to stay on in Afghanistan so that it can control the resources of Central Asia. I don’t buy that. Central Asian countries want to exploit the resources they have, be it oil or gas or other minerals. [They will welcome] whichever country has the best resources to help them do that.

They will welcome the United States if the United States is interested in sending its companies there to dig out minerals, oil and gas. Why should the United States have to make huge expenditures on keeping its forces in Afghanistan [if it can access those resources through its multinationals]?

I am sure the Americans want to get out of Afghanistan. Their concern is that Afghanistan should not become a hub of terrorism the way it became when Osama bin Laden had started operating from there. They have concerns that Afghanistan may become an IS hotbed. It should be equally ours and the entire world’s concern.

Simbal. Do you think that growing alignment of strategic interests between the United States and India will have a detrimental impact on Pakistan's relation with the United States?

Aziz. That growing relationship can be good for Pakistan. If the Americans have closer relations with India, they should be able to bring India round to improving relations with Pakistan.

If the Americans realise that conflict in the Subcontinent is not good for their overall policies and they know that Pakistan is willing to go more than halfway to improve relations with India, they may quietly play a role in improving relations [between the two countries].

The United States is our largest trading partner. It is the largest aid-giver to Pakistan. The bulk of our military equipment comes from the United States. We will have to nurture our relationship with the United States. We should continue working on this relationship.

Simbal. What advice would you give to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, considering that our relationship with almost all our neighbours is experiencing a negative trend?

Aziz. I would advise the government not to be hard-handed with Afghanistan. Granted there are frustrations, but we must understand the difficulties Afghanistan is facing.

I am all for border controls. The kind of smuggling that takes place and all kinds of illegal activities [that take place across the border suggest that] the border needs to be controlled. But we should also keep in mind that a lot of people have been crossing it since ages.

Documentation is important but to expect members of divided families living in remote villages across the Durand Line to go to Jalalabad or Kabul to get a passport issued [is too much to ask for]. There can be some other innovative ways.

Let us be a little kind to the Afghans because it is not just crooks that are crossing the border. The way the border was closed was a harsh measure.

Similarly, refugees should go back to Afghanistan but a lot of them were born here. They have not known anyplace else. They have had their education in Pakistan. There are about 30,000 Afghans working in the government or private sector in Kabul who got their education in Pakistan. Let us see that they are not put in a difficult situation.

Instead of getting the goodwill of these people, however, we are earning their wrath. It is heartbreaking to see how everyone in Kabul is so anti-Pakistan.

The same applies to transit trade. It has been used for smuggling. But it is not just the Afghans who are smuggling. Pakistanis are equally involved. Let us see how that can be controlled. Perhaps we need more harmonisation of policy so that duties on imports are the same on both sides of the border.

I will also advise the government to be patient with India. India is in a flux. Let us see how much influence Hindutva will have there. Is this influence [akin to] Talibanisation of India or is it just a passing phase?

Let us keep conveying to India that we are available for talks whenever it is ready but at the same time we cannot force India to come to the negotiating table. Let us use our influential friends like the United States to impress upon India that peace with Pakistan is in its own interest.

This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2017 issue under the headline "The peacemaker". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a security analyst and South-Central Asia specialist.