Few Pakistani diplomats have worked on as many important assignments as Riaz Khokhar has. He has been Pakistan’s envoy to Dhaka, New Delhi, Washington DC and Beijing before becoming foreign secretary in 2002.
He has served a long diplomatic stint in India, as Pakistan’s political counsellor and deputy chief of mission (DCM) for five years from 1980-85, and then as high commissioner for another five years from 1992-97. He was present in India when Indira Gandhi was tragically assassinated, and attended her funeral in October 1984, as well as during both of Ziaul Haq’s visits to India, once in 1983 and once to attend Gandhi’s funeral. He also accompanied former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral in 1992.
Khokhar’s diplomatic career also coincided with some momentous developments in Pakistan’s foreign and regional relations. He was posted in the United States when Pakistan conducted its nuclear tests in May 1998 to the chagrin of western capitals, including Washington DC. He occupied a ringside seat, as Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington DC, when Nawaz Sharif visited the United States for a hurriedly arranged meeting with President Bill Clinton in the summer of 1999 to bring an end to the Pakistan-India conflict in Kargil. It was also during his stint as foreign secretary that Pakistan and India agreed to a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir — an agreement that remained successfully in place for close to a decade. India’s then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to Islamabad to attend a summit of South Asian leaders in 2004 — again while Khokhar was our foreign secretary.
“There is no greater honour than serving and representing one’s country,” is how he comments on his own career.
The following pages carry excerpts of a recent conversation with Khokhar in Islamabad.
Simbal Khan. If we look at the current state of Pakistan’s international and regional relations, it seems like Pakistan has become isolated. We are facing more challenges than we have opportunities. What went wrong that landed us in this mess?
Riaz Khokhar. Pakistan has always had very interesting relationships with other countries. Look at our relationship with the United States. We have been allies; we have shed blood together. And now we distrust each other. Our relationship with the US has gone sour because there is mistrust on both sides. US President [Donald Trump] has not been very diplomatic in his choice of words while referring to his country’s relationship with Pakistan. The US is saying Pakistan is up to no good in Afghanistan. Even if we accept it for argument’s sake, what is the impact of the so-called role that Pakistan is playing in Afghanistan on the ground situation in Afghanistan? Are we creating the divisions [there]?
It has always been an unequal, and in many ways one-sided, relationship. The United States has always been dictating the pace of this relationship. When I was in Washington, we were facing wall-to-wall sanctions.
We should not be forced into a corner [by the Americans]. We should have a choice. We cannot take [any] dictations. It will be very difficult for Pakistan to deal with a situation where a riot act is read to it and it is asked to do this and that.
But this downward slide in bilateral ties is something that has to be managed. I am not entirely sure if we can be friends but we need to have a civilised relationship. We need to have a working relationship. The US is a superpower and the only way forward is to have a sustained diplomatic dialogue. But surely it is a matter of engagement, of being able to understand each other’s position. There have been occasions in the past when difficult situations and complicated issues were sorted out by mutual understanding.
We always had a complicated and tension-oriented relationship with India; it was never a normal one [with three wars and various skirmishes]. [The same can be said, somewhat, about our relationship with] Afghanistan, though the Soviet Union moving into Afghanistan in 1979 created a whole new situation for Pakistan. So, we have dealt with very important challenges and we continue to do so with even more complex existentialist challenges today.
We have historic relations with China that go as far back as the 1950s. It is a very solid relationship because its foundations were laid by very important leaders in China [Chairman Mao, Premier Zhou Enlai and Chairman Deng Xiaoping] and Pakistan. Clearly, there was a strategic understanding at the time that this relationship was going to evolve into a great partnership.
The difference between our relations with China and those with America is that the Chinese do not indulge in arm-twisting. That is not the case with our other friends. Our relationship with China, in my opinion, is wrinkle free. The Chinese will not say anything unpleasant to us. The US pressurises us rather crudely.
Khan. Do you think the difference that you have pointed out is tied to the structure of aid and assistance we get from the two countries? For instance, China’s support to Pakistan has been very different from what we get from the Americans.
Khokhar. Yes, that difference is there. But if you make a suggestion to the Chinese, they would not say yes right away. They take time and study that suggestion and then get back to you. If they accept it then they will go all the way. If you go back to the 1960s, you see many major Chinese projects being initiated in Pakistan: Heavy Mechanical and Electrical Complex in Taxila; a tank factory in Taxila; the Karakoram Highway which is an engineering marvel. They would not have touched those projects if they thought they could not do them. They stay the course.
The Chinese assistance to Pakistan has not been a wrenching experience. It has been a good experience. That is why there has been huge goodwill between the two countries.
One of the soundest things about the Chinese is that they do not offer an advice unless you seek one. If they ever give any advice, they tell us to build our relationship with other major countries including the US. They also have an able and wise understanding about our relationship with India. They put an emphasis on three things: focus on your economy, build your country first, do not get entangled in regional problems. This is their own policy as well. They are internally focused: they developed their economy and settled most of their border problems except India and Bhutan.
Our relationship with China was not all that warm in the early 1950s. Things began to change in 1955 at the Bandung Conference [of Afro-Asian countries]. I must acknowledge the contribution of some of the Bengali leaders [from East Pakistan]. Prime minister [Mohammad Ali] Bogra, for instance, met Zhou Enlai in Bandung. That was the first time Pakistan and China had really engaged at a high level. It convinced the Chinese that Pakistan was not hostile to them even if it was a member of Seato [South East Asia Treaty Organisation] and Cento (Central Treaty Organisation] — both essentially anti-communist alliances. Then prime minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy visited China in 1956 and received a very warm welcome. In the same year, Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai visited Pakistan. I was about 14 at that time but I remember that millions of people came out to see him. That created goodwill [between the two countries]. General Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto then laid the great foundation of Pakistan’s relationship with China.
We cannot ignore the fact that we became the only channel for the Chinese to connect with the outside world. All the senior Chinese leaders, including Zhou Enlai, travelled [to the rest of the world] through Pakistan. They made stopovers in either Karachi or Lahore. The Chinese very often expressed gratitude for Pakistan’s friendly support in their difficult days when China was isolated.
Khan. Let us discuss the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). We have seen that the early harvest projects under it have been completed but there is a lot of controversy within Pakistan – as well as globally – about what CPEC means for Pakistan-China relationship? Is it going to be something that builds the relationship further or eventually creates a fallout that both sides have avoided so far?
Khokhar. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings. Some of this criticism that you see in the media and coming from some individuals is partly motivated. There are elements within and outside Pakistan who do not want to see these projects sustain. Outside Pakistan, too, there is a lot of interest in CPEC. It has been taken as a threat [by some countries].
But I think blaming the Chinese is not right. They did not impose CPEC projects on us. They did not say here it is and you have to take it. It is us who kept asking [them for help]. Another important thing is that you have to keep your interest in mind when you are negotiating. My feeling is that we did not have serious and experienced negotiators.
For a plan that is now worth 60 billion US dollars, you got to have highly trained financial experts — economists, designers, planners. Strangely, negotiations were handled by party bosses, and not transparently. It is possible that all this spadework was done but my feeling is that the other side will naturally get the best bargain it is looking for if you are just too flexible. Maybe we were in a rush so we did not do the wrenching negotiations that were needed. You have to fight for every cent. You have to fight for every little thing that is in your interest.
Khan. Economists like Kaiser Bengali have been saying that our economy is going to face severe crunch once we start paying back CPEC-related loans.
Khokhar. I have not read Kaiser Bengali’s articles but some other economists, especially [former State Bank of Pakistan governor] Dr Ishrat Hussain, have done all the math; Hussain thinks that it is not going to be a problem if we improve and tune our economy in the way he and other economists are recommending. If we improve our export capability, lower government expenses and prioritise the right things such as focusing on education, health and science and technology. We have to transform into a knowledge-based society for hyper-economic development.
Khan. I recently attended an international conference where a lot of participants were comparing CPEC with the China-Sri Lanka collaboration on Hambantota port that has run into serious trouble after Sri Lanka failed to return loans taken from China. Some plans do drag countries into a debt trap when they do not consider how to make repayments in the long run. Do you think we have taken all this into consideration while negotiating CPEC?
Khokhar. The Pakistani government has not been transparent about CPEC. [The reason] why we are facing some issues is that there may be some sweet deals. We cannot know [about the impact CPEC may have] unless every single agreement is put on the table for everyone to see and to dissect. Only then we will be able to conclude whether the Chinese have been unfair to us or we did not properly negotiate with them. If something is not worth it then why should you accept it in the first place? We should have been far more careful and skillful in negotiations on various projects.
I also feel CPEC should not only be about north-south links [between Pakistan and China] but it should also have east-west connections [linking Iran and Pakistan with India and Afghanistan]. We had this in mind when we were talking to the Chinese earlier. Even the Chinese had this in mind then.
Even now, Pakistan and China should invite Afghanistan to join CPEC at some stage. I also think there might come a stage where Indian reluctance to join it [will also be softened]. Only then will Pakistan become a critical and pivotal factor in regional connectivity. If it works out, it will also bring a quantum improvement in our bilateral environment.
Khan. Do you think India’s stance on CPEC carries any weight since some of the projects linked to it are being built in Gilgit-Baltistan that India considers a part of the disputed territory of Kashmir?
Khokhar. We reject Indian claims and protests. The Karakoram Highway and many other projects are located in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. I think their intention is to sabotage CPEC somehow. They want to do so not only by their own effort but are also involving powerful elements in the United States [in their efforts]. They are producing literature in the West which portrays CPEC as a great threat to the United States and other western countries — that it will eventually help China gain a place in the Indian Ocean.
Khan. Do you think diplomacy can bring India on board?
Khokhar. If you look at it from an economic point of view, the Indians are trying to get into Afghanistan and Central Asia through [the Iranian port of] Chabahar at the moment. If CPEC includes an east-west connection then there are a number of economic advantages that India can get, including access to Central Asia and Afghanistan. This requires very serious and sustained negotiations.
Khan. India has always demanded a transit route through Pakistan for transporting goods to Afghanistan but we have always refused that.
Khokhar. We refused that because we want India to sit with us on the table first and work out its bilateral relationship with us. Is India ready to give Pakistan access to Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar? It has to be a quid pro quo but the Indians never talk about that.
Khan. There are reports that our security establishment has been sending signals to Indian policymakers, showing an openness to resume the bilateral dialogue. Do you think we are any close to resuming negotiations with India?
Khokhar. When our army chief made a statement in Munich [in February this year] about improving relations with our neighbours, he did not name India but I think he had India in mind. But the two countries are passing through a transition at the moment. We are going into an election. India is also going to have general elections in 2019 — state elections in Karnataka have recently concluded. We do not know where this transition will lead us but I do not see India being in the mood to talk to Pakistan even though Pakistan may still be ready.
Pakistan’s offer is on the table. We are ready to engage India for an unconditional dialogue. India, on the other hand, is very negative and has adopted a rigid position towards dialogue — having linked it with an end to terrorism. India is pursuing its so-called muscular policy towards Pakistan. There have been excessive ceasefire violations on the LoC [Line of Control in Kashmir]. The situation there has always been bad but we had a peaceful LoC between 2003 and 2013.
We should engage with India but we should not beg for a dialogue. A dialogue has to be in the interest of both the countries. If this is not the case then it is not worth doing.
The Neemrana Dialogue that has resumed recently is one of the oldest track-II initiatives [between the two countries]. This is good. But even in these initiatives, the participants, who are mostly [former] diplomats and retired generals, take a nationalistic stance. Being flexible is not easy for them. If I am a track-II participant then I cannot become flexible because of who I am — a Pakistani or an Indian. That is the attitude of these participants.
Track-II is important. Even backchannel talks are important. Ultimately, however, it is track-I that matters. I feel India is not ready for that. It displays an attitude of arrogance and is dismissive. Look at the steps it has taken. The Saarc [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] summit was an opportunity to resume dialogue but India systematically worked at sabotaging it. In my opinion, the failure to hold Saarc [summit in Islamabad in 2016] has been a great loss.
Pakistan and India both have become members of SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organisation]. It was rather nice of the Chinese and the Russians to invite both of us to it but I believe we must first try to revive Saarc and bring China into it.
Khan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently visited China and the two countries have had discussions on reviving Saarc and bringing China into it — as an observer not as a member. Do you think there is a possibility that one day China will become a member of Saarc?
Khokhar. If Afghanistan can be in Saarc, why can’t China? China is a neighbour to many [Saarc countries including] Pakistan, Nepal, India and Afghanistan. In a way, it is also a neighbour of Bhutan and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives.
I was foreign secretary in 2004 and we were preparing for a Saarc summit in Pakistan when India suddenly came up with the idea that Afghanistan should be in Saarc. We could not oppose the idea so we invited China to become an observer. So China became an observer when Afghanistan became a member. China has not really participated in Saarc the way it should have but it is India that has been shaking Saarc so hard that it has become difficult for Saarc to get back to what it once was.
I have met people from most Saarc countries — Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. They all want it revived. If China is included in Saarc that will add a lot of diplomatic and economic muscle to the organisation that is missing [and it will also create a balance of power]. Throughout the history of Saarc, small countries have been apprehensive of India.
I am one of the authors of the Saarc charter finalised in Bhutan in 1985. It took us two to three days to sort out the charter and even then there was a feeling that it represented a minimum common denominator.
As far as the Wuhan Summit between India and China is concerned, we must acknowledge that it is a special gesture that the Chinese have made to Modi in response to [Modi’s] hospitality.
No Pakistani leader has been given this privilege of meeting at special retreats. If China-India relationship improves, that improvement may also rub off on Pakistan-India bilateral relationship. So, I think we should not be apprehensive about the Chinese-Indian relationship and should not look at it negatively. I can vouch for it as an outsider now that China will not allow anyone to undermine its iron-clad relationship with Pakistan.
Khan. There is a widespread perception that the military establishment dominates the making of foreign policy in Pakistan and that this domination has had some huge fallout, both regional and international. What is your view?
Khokhar. Let us not forget that we have had four military administrations — run by Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and then Pervez Musharraf. These count for [more than] 30 years of military domination. So, it was inevitable that the military developed a role and a position for itself in the making of foreign policy.
I was a note-taker for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto so I have seen from the closest quarters that even during his regime, input from the military was there. It was not the conditioning factor for making decisions on foreign policy matters. But input from General Headquarters was important.
But the military’s role in foreign policy depends on how a civilian leader handles civil-military relations. Let me give you a specific example. If you remember there were many in-camera sessions of the Parliament during [former] prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s tenure. What happened at those sessions? The army brass came in and gave presentations on security issues and relations with Afghanistan. What happened eventually? Gilani turned to the army chief and said, ‘Do what you feel is right’. So, the civilians themselves give space to the military. I can say this because I have worked with four prime ministers.
I also feel our civilian capacity is extremely limited in terms of foreign policy except in the case of Mr Bhutto who was a towering personality and had command over foreign policy. Also, Benazir was very sharp but had difficulties in foreign policy matters.
It is important to understand who makes foreign policy. There is a lot of misunderstanding. The foreign office is a key institution. It’s strength is not more than 500 diplomats. I think sometimes media is unfair in its criticism of the foreign office. You cannot blame it because it is not the ultimate decision-maker of foreign policy. It is the head of government who is fully responsible for all foreign policy matters.
As foreign secretary, my job was to study and analyse a problem, look at its pros and cons and develop options to address it. My job was to develop policy options for the political leadership or the military leadership or whoever was in command. Foreign secretaries can and, I vouch for it, do speak their mind. They are not paper-pushers. They give very frank opinions and have the right to express their views and contest the views of others even at the highest fora. Once a decision is taken, however, you have to follow through. That is how it works.
Khan. What is missing in the civilian capacity to handle foreign policy?
Khokhar. I was foreign secretary for three-and-a-half years during Musharraf’s regime and I do not remember ever receiving a phone call from the GHQ or the director general of ISI or some other general saying here is what you have to do. Same is the case with my other colleagues. If some matter came up at all, we would thrash out the problems. I can tell you that we have had heated discussions at very high forums. I can give you an example. In January 2001, General Musharraf invited 10 of the most important envoys for consultation. It was before 9/11. Each one of us spoke with utter frankness. We told Musharraf that the Afghan policy we were following was not seen as saleable or marketable abroad. I was the first one to say that. So, we said we needed to change the policy. You cannot be impolite towards the president but we spoke with great frankness. Musharraf was a good listener but then he was the ultimate decision-maker.
In my opinion, if you put your foot down as a civilian, there is no reason the military will not listen to you but if you give them space by not taking the initiative, they will definitely fill the gap. It is as simple as that.
Khan. You have worked as Pakistan’s envoy in different capitals around the world. You have worked with different governments and leaders. What are the things you remember the most from your long career?
Khokhar. I was in India between 1980 and 1985 [as political counsellor and DCM] when I saw very interesting things. There were some plane hijackings involving India and Pakistan. Then there was the attack on the Golden Temple [in Amritsar] by the Indian armed forces. Two weeks before that attack, I was invited by Natwar Singh, who was additional secretary in the Indian foreign ministry at the time, to his house. It was a Sunday. I said no to seeing him at his home and went to see him in the foreign ministry instead. He was quite edgy and nervous and did not ask me to sit down. He read a paper in which he accused Pakistan of terrorism and interference in Indian Punjab. That was the first time India had accused us of interference in Punjab. Why? Because they were planning to attack the Golden temple [and wanted to divert public attention towards Pakistan]. The Indian protests were rejected by us.
Working in India was really an outstanding experience. Despite many misunderstandings, I was able to cultivate a lot of associations and friendships. Sadly, there were some unpleasant incidents that happened as well. For instance, officials and diplomats were beaten up on both sides. This was bad and uncivilised.
Then, of course, there was the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. We had anticipated that this was going to happen and, for the first time in the history of India-Pakistan relations, the foreign ministry issued an advisory to Pakistani nationals to leave Uttar Pradesh and especially the area where the demolition was to take place. Two weeks before the demolition, we sent 4,000-5,000 Pakistanis back home. That was a shocking experience. Then there was the massacre that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The way the Sikhs were killed on the streets, it was horrible.
[Another shocking memory pertains] to December 1971 when I was a junior diplomat in Stockholm. I received a message about the surrender in Dhaka on the night between December 14 and December 15. One of our most outstanding diplomats, ambassador Agha Shahi, was our permanent representative in New York at the time. When I communicated the surrender message to him on an open telephone line because there was no other way, he could not believe it. He froze on his end and I froze on my end. He said to me, his voice breaking, “I am sure there is a mistake. Why don’t you recheck?”