The U.S. needs Pakistan if President Trump’s war plan for Afghanistan is to have a chance of succeeding, Pakistan’s top internal security official said in an interview Tuesday, warning that bad blood between Washington and Islamabad risks triggering an era of instability across the region.
Uncertainty over the bilateral relationship — and the spillover effect in Afghanistan — has intensified since early January, when the Trump administration suspended at least $900 million in security aid to Pakistan. The U.S. said Islamabad was providing sanctuary to certain extremist and terrorist groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
Pakistani Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal vehemently denied the charges in an interview Tuesday and called for direct talks to address what he said was increasing mistrust between U.S. and Pakistani officials.
During a wide-ranging discussion at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, he also spoke of China’s growing economic influence in his nation. He stressed that Islamabad’s wish is to have a relationship with Washington that could one day grow “beyond the prism of security.”
“Pakistan’s partnership is most critical for the success of the Trump administration’s strategy,” Mr. Iqbal said.
He made the comments while the Trump administration scrambles to revamp the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, which shares a long border with Pakistan and has been the scene of increasing violence from the Taliban and from Islamic State elements over the past year.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has accused Islamabad of playing “a double game for years” with Washington over its support of such groups. The Trump administration’s South Asia strategy released last summer also highlighted Islamabad’s suspected backing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the extremist movement responsible for the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.
Mr. Iqbal spoke with The Washington Times as Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was telling lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the United States could resume security aid if Islamabad engages in “decisive and sustained actions to address our concerns, including targeting all terrorist groups operating within its territory, without distinction.”
Mr. Sullivan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. officials “acknowledge the enormous sacrifices the Pakistani people and security forces have made to combat terrorism,” but he suggested that the Trump administration is in no hurry to reopen the aid spigot.
Mr. Iqbal flatly dismissed the administration’s claims of Pakistani support for terrorist groups. He said Islamabad has responded with an aggressive four-year internal military campaign against extremists — including the Haqqani network — along the porous, remote border with Afghanistan.
“There is no good terrorist or bad terrorist,” he said. “We are going after everyone. We have no favorites.”
While expressing optimism that U.S.-Pakistani relations can be repaired, he pointedly noted that Islamabad could fill the gap in American security aid by purchasing weaponry from Russia and China.
“Obviously,” he said, “if security concerns are denied, every nation has a legitimate right to look for alternatives.”
Pakistani Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan made the threat even more explicit in an interview late last month with the Financial Times, saying Islamabad was undergoing a “regional recalibration” of its foreign and security policy.
“The fact that we have recalibrated our way toward better relations with Russia, deepening our relationship with China, is a response to what the Americans have been doing,” Mr. Khan said.
But Mr. Iqbal stressed that Islamabad prefers to buy from Washington.
“Our security infrastructure is very much based on U.S. support and equipment,” he said. “Pakistan and the U.S. have a long history of cooperation and partnership between our militaries. So there is a strong foundation, which I think we can easily rebuild.”
He said his government’s response to the Trump administration’s criticisms has been “very measured because we still believe and think that the solution in Afghanistan is not possible without close collaboration between Pakistan and the United States.”
“We recognize that the USA is an important stakeholder in Afghanistan,” he said, “but Pakistan is the biggest stakeholder.”
He said the U.S. military’s troubles with subduing terrorist groups in Afghanistan shows the difficulty of the mission.
“This whole metaphor of ‘Do more’ will not take us anywhere,” he said. “We both need to take extra steps to build confidence. …Right now, there is an all-time low on mutual trust, on both sides.”
A key first step, the minister said, would be to re-establish an Obama-era “structured dialogue” between U.S. and Pakistani diplomats on multiple fronts beyond security, which he said had effectively stalled more than a year ago.
Mr. Iqbal also expressed frustration with the one-dimensional nature of U.S.-Pakistani relations over the past four decades.
He said Americans fail to “appreciate and realize that what we are suffering from today is not our doing — it is the legacy of the U.S.-led war against the Soviet Union of the 1980s.”
“After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, everyone washed their hands and walked away, leaving the poorest of the poor societies with dumps of ammunition and a militant ideology that was used to fight jihad against the Soviets,” he said. “Now poverty, ammunition and militancy would not have resulted in Ford vans and IBM computers. They could only have rolled out more militancy and terrorism.
“On top of that,” the minister said, Washington should remember more than 3 million refugees fled the 1980s war in Afghanistan for Pakistan and “are still living in Pakistan.”
By contrast, China has emerged for Pakistan as a backer of “transformational” investment beyond the security realm — most notably through construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a slate of infrastructure projects bolstering Pakistan’s export potential.
Mr. Iqbal, who also serves as the Pakistani government’s minister for planning, development and reforms, said the project “promises us $46 billion worth of investment in pure economic infrastructure.”
The minister took extreme care, however, to avoid any suggestion that Pakistan had come to favor relations with China over the United States — even amid the meltdown in relations between Washington and Islamabad. The U.S. remains Pakistan’s largest single export market, although China is now the biggest importer.
“Pakistan has maintained a very steady balance between its relations with China and the United States,” he said. “For us, it is not either/or. We value our relationship with both countries.”
But, Mr. Iqbal said, “this is a new world, where economics have taken a very much center seat in the relationships of countries.”
Islamabad’s desire, he said, is for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship to be focused more on development. “The real powerhouse of the U.S. economy,” Mr. Iqbal said, “is not in its weapons but in its universities, [and] Pakistan has not benefited from that.”
Islamabad has allocated funds for a U.S.-Pakistani knowledge corridor with a goal of getting 10,000 Pakistanis to earn Ph.D.s at American universities over the coming decade. Mr. Iqbal said the increase would offer a great opportunity for the U.S. to promote its “values of liberty, freedom and democracy by allying our top talent to be educated in the United States.”