- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2015

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

The top Pakistani diplomat in Washington says he is optimistic about prospects for peace in Afghanistan after the U.S. troop pullout, but asserts that the Obama administration could and should be doing more to foster peace in South Asia by pressuring India to embrace economic and counterterrorism overtures from Islamabad.

In the past year, Indian leaders exuded a “kind of arrogance not to engage,” said Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Jalil Abbas Jilani, who maintains that New Delhi has failed to respond to repeated Pakistani proposals to create a joint counterterrorism initiative between the two nuclear-armed nations.

While U.S. “cajoling” could open India to the initiative, Mr. Jilani said, the Obama administration’s increased attention to India appears to be having the opposite effect by essentially bolstering New Delhi’s confidence to continue ignoring Islamabad.

“If they don’t feel any pressure from any side, obviously they are a big country and they will say, ‘Why should we engage with a smaller country like Pakistan?’” the ambassador said.

Previously Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Mr. Jilani made the comments Friday during an exclusive interview with The Washington Times — his first major on-the-record session with a U.S. news organization since assuming the ambassadorship in Washington more than a year ago.

Despite his comments on India, the 60-year-old diplomat went to lengths to portray his nation’s relationship with Washington as stronger today than it has been at any other point since May 2011, when dialogue was halted as a result of the secret U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

After much hand-wringing on both sides over the extent to which Pakistan’s military or intelligence services may have known the former al Qaeda leader was hiding in their midst, the U.S.-Pakistani dialogue was resumed in 2013. Mr. Jilani said Washington and Islamabad are “on a very positive trajectory,” even as the pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan threatens to deepen a volatile security landscape along Pakistan’s 1,600-mile-long border with the war-torn nation.

“Despite the many ups and downs this relationship has witnessed, today there are more convergences than divergences in our bilateral relations, whether it is in the context of Afghanistan or other hot spots in the region, in terms of bilateral cooperation, our side is extremely happy with the very good cooperation that we are getting from the U.S.,” he said.

“Our intelligence cooperation has improved, our defense cooperation has improved significantly, and also on the energy sector,” he added.

The relationship got its biggest boost in June when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the onset of what has since grown into a massive Pakistani military campaign to contain and destroy Islamic militants in the North Waziristan corner of the nation’s infamous Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan.

The region has long been a hotbed for foreign fighters. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials for years urged Pakistan to launch the campaign, and its relative success over the past seven months has helped ease U.S.-Pakistani tensions.

Perhaps most notably, it put Pakistan’s own military on the front line of what had been a counterterrorism operation dominated by U.S. drone strikes. The collateral damage of the strikes triggered mounting public outrage in Pakistan toward Washington and Islamabad.

Mr. Jilani said Pakistani security forces are “stretched to the limit,” with some 175,000 troops along the border with Afghanistan. But he acknowledged the debate over the extent to which U.S. officials are putting unrealistic expectations on Islamabad ahead of Washington’s own pullout from the war zone, taking care not to criticize the Obama administration’s handling of the situation.

Supports U.S. pullout plan

The administration appears to be sticking to its plan to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 5,000 by the end of this year and reduce the U.S. footprint to a “normal” embassy presence in Kabul by the end of 2016.

Asked by The Times whether he is satisfied with the administration’s plan, Mr. Jilani responded with a resounding “yes.”

But he quickly added that the situation’s delicateness is part of “ongoing discussions” between Islamabad and Washington and that factors on the ground may change the calculus of the withdrawal.

“We have been saying that the drawdown should not be abrupt. We have been saying that it should be based on the ground realities,” said Mr. Jilani, who cautioned that too rapid a pullout would add pressure to the Pakistani military in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

“At the same time,” he said, ” I think that what we are witnessing is that from now to the final day of the drawdown there is going to be an increased level of cooperation and that cooperation will also result in something tangible emerging.”

The increased cohesion, Mr. Jilani said, is most palpable between Pakistan’s military and the 350,000-strong, Western-trained Afghan forces, whose units are operating on Afghanistan’s side of the border from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Hopeful about Afghanistan

“To give you one example, when we launched these operations in North Waziristan, which we started in June of last year, we were hoping that there should have been a coordinated response from the Afghan side,” the ambassador said. “Now we are witnessing for the last couple of months that there are coordinated responses.”

“We are hitting these groups on our side and the escape route is Afghanistan,” he said. “Previously they would simply disappear in Afghanistan. Now there is a coordinated response from the Afghan side as well, and there is a coordinated response from the U.S. side as well, which is something which is extremely, I think, beneficial to all the sides.”

The Taliban in Afghanistan launched a surge of attacks in recent months, and 2014 ended as the deadliest year so far for the nation’s military, with some 5,000 Afghan soldiers and police killed, along with an estimated 10,000 civilians killed or wounded. That is the highest annual total since the United Nations started keeping such figures in 2008.

Despite such factors, Mr. Jilani said, political developments in Afghanistan have given him “a lot of optimism and hope.”

He praised the “rational and pragmatic manner” in which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah reached a power-sharing deal after the tumultuous election that ended President Hamid Karzai’s nearly decade-long reign in Kabul.

“I think they are again following a very prudent and rational policy, including a very strong intent to engage with all groups in Afghanistan to contribute to peace and stability,” Mr. Jilani said.

Tensions with India

Apart from such developments, the ambassador said, Pakistani leaders are keenly aware that long-term stability in South Asia will depend on easing friction between their nation and its bigger neighbor, India.

As both countries continue a long-running territorial dispute over Kashmir, relations seem to have become more strained after reports that Russia approved the sale of heavy attack helicopters to Pakistan — very much against the wishes of India, which has long been a key buyer of Moscow’s arms.

What’s worse, many accuse Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of fanning the flames of tension in Islamabad by using anti-Muslim rhetoric to garner support from hard-line Hindu nationalists at home, where suspicions are widespread that Pakistan’s intelligence services support Islamic extremism inside India, including in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

Mr. Jilani told The Times that “terrorism is as much a concern to Pakistan as it is to India” and that the time is now for the two nations to “engage in a meaningful fashion rather than getting involved in propaganda against each other.”

“We need to have a mechanism of candid and discreet discussions,” he said. “We need to cooperate on terrorism. If they have concerns with regard to certain organizations, we are also concerned about those organizations.”

A breakthrough appeared to be developing in May, when Mr. Sharif accepted an invitation to attend Mr. Modi’s inauguration ceremony in New Delhi.

Mr. Jilani said Mr. Sharif took a “very bold” step by attending the ceremony because Indian leaders never showed up when he invited them to his own inauguration in Islamabad. Furthermore, while in New Delhi, Mr. Sharif made a push for diplomacy but was essentially spurned by Indian leaders.

“They were able to agree to the revival of the dialogue process at the level of foreign secretary and for absolutely no rhyme or reason — absolutely no rhyme or reason — the foreign secretary dialogue was canceled at the last minute,” Mr. Jilani said. “I think it [was] a lost opportunity to engage — to have meaningful discussions on all issues, including trade and economic relations between our two countries.”

Mr. Jilani said Mr. Sharif also proposed an initiative for counterterrorism discussions between the two nations. “Unfortunately,” he said, “we haven’t received any response to this very important proposal.”

The ambassador concluded that Washington has “played a very important role in the past in bringing the two countries together.”

“We have reason to believe that the U.S. will continue to play that role,” he said.


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