- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2016

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

Pakistan plans to step up its economic and military cooperation with Russia, hedging its bets despite hopes for a smoother relationship with the next U.S. administration, a top Pakistani diplomat said in an interview.

Members of President-elect Donald Trump’s national security team “know Pakistan paid a heavy price in terms of the successes of the United States” in the region, including Islamabad’s backing of the U.S. mission to push the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s and the post 9/11 era, he said.

“We will work closely with the administration,” Tariq Fatemi, a top adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told The Washington Times. “We believe Mr. Trump’s business background and strong interest in economic ties match the vision and policies” of Mr. Sharif.

After years of tension and inconsistency in bilateral ties, “there is an element of normalcy and predictability within the relationship” between Washington and Islamabad since Mr. Sharif came to power three years ago, Mr. Fatemi said.

The volatility that plagued U.S.-Pakistani relations under previous regimes in Pakistan has subsided, he said during an interview at the Pakistani Embassy last week as part of a postelection trip to Washington and New York. Mr. Fatemi reportedly was supposed to meet with Trump transition team aides in New York, but Pakistani press reports said Monday that the meetings had not been held.

To successfully deal with the serious challenges facing Pakistan and the U.S. in South Asia, the Trump administration must ensure that the relationship “stay on an even keel and continue to progress gradually,” he said.

Although Islamabad pledges to maintain strong military and economic ties to the United States, it is also making overtures toward establishing a similar relationship with Russia.

Pakistani Sen. Syed Mushahid Hussain, a top lawmaker and senior aide to Mr. Sharif, said in October that the country would conduct joint military exercises with Russia and begin buying arms from Moscow for the first time in decades.

As first reported by The Washington Times, the move is part of a “new regionalism” strategy that the Sharif regime is pursuing, in addition to infrastructure projects with Iran and China, and opening trade routes with its South and Central Asian neighbors, Mr. Hussain said.

Mr. Fatemi rejected reports of pending major weapons sales between Russia and Pakistan but said Islamabad “is exploring all options from all countries” to arm his country’s military. He said diplomatic outreach to Russia also is focused on burgeoning economic and political relationships.

Mr. Sharif’s goal is to “establish mutually beneficial economic ties with all countries and now we are reaching out to Russia,” he said.

Moscow’s prowess in developing power plants, electric transmission lines and regional oil pipelines is a key factor for Pakistan, which is struggling to provide reliable energy flows to major urban populations in Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar.

Mr. Sharif has introduced a plan to construct a major oil pipeline from Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi to Lahore, Mr. Fatemi said. Islamabad is weighing Russian participation in the creation of that pipeline, as well as power plant construction in the northern part of the country.

Tense times

But Pakistan is making overtures toward Russia at the tail end of tense relations with Washington regarding U.S. military support. The two countries have been uncomfortable bedfellows in counterterrorism operations tied to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, symbolized most notably by the secret U.S. military mission in 2011 that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the same city where Pakistan’s more famous military academy is based.

The relationship has been rife with accusations that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, has been covertly training and financing terrorist groups such as the Pakistani faction of the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

Islamabad has countered that Washington’s heavy military and political support for India has undermined regional stability efforts spearheaded by Pakistan.

Many Pakistanis suspect it was rising Indian influence in Washington that persuaded Congress to block the sale of eight U.S. F-16 fighters to the country’s air force last year.

Tensions were further inflamed last week when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter approved India’s designation as a “major defense partner” with the United States.

Among U.S. allies in the region, only New Delhi holds that distinction. The designation would give India access to some of the most advanced and sensitive military technology in the American arsenal, putting it on par with U.S. allies such as France, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Mr. Fatemi declined to comment specifically on India’s status with the Pentagon. “It is for them to determine [the relationship],” he said.

He rejected reports that Pakistan’s emerging military relationship with Russia was in response to India’s closer military ties with Washington, but he did warn that “whatever or whenever America engages in these types of [actions], it has to bear in mind what kind of impact it will have on the region.”

“Virtually all our weapons systems are American-made, which is what we would want,” Mr. Fatemi said, but the blocked F-16 sale and other scuttled arms deals with Washington have forced the Sharif regime to consider its options.

“Our first preference would be to obtain weapons from the United States,” said Mr. Fatemi. “We hope the administration will look at our request, with an eye toward what those weapons systems can do in terms of promoting peace and stability in a difficult part of the world.”

The Pakistani government caused something of a diplomatic incident by making public its version of the congratulatory call Mr. Sharif placed to Mr. Trump. The American president-elect praised Pakistanis in flowery terms and hinted that he would consider a trip to Islamabad and was ready to mediate Pakistan’s deadly dispute with India over the Kashmir province — an offer India has long rejected.

That incident and Mr. Fatemi’s difficulties meeting with Mr. Trump’s transition team in New York have some in Pakistan warning that relations with the next U.S. administration may not be as easy as some hoped.

“Those hoping that the new U.S. administration would adopt a softer approach toward Pakistan are likely to be frustrated in days to come,” the online publication Pakistan Today wrote in an editorial over the weekend. “There is more likelihood of America’s Pakistan policy becoming more hawkish and tough than before.”

On counterterrorism operations, however, Mr. Fatemi said Mr. Trump’s views align with those of Pakistan’s leadership.

“We want people from the Trump administration to come to Pakistan and see for themselves the areas that have been cleared of terrorists,” he said. “If you are engaged in militancy and terrorism, there is no place for you in Pakistan. We will eliminate you. It is as simple as that.”


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