Pakistan’s foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz this week spoke with VOA’s Ayaz Gul about how the new government in Islamabad views India’s role in Afghanistan, the Afghan peace process, and efforts to convince Taliban leaders to join Afghan peace talks.
Gul: In terms of reducing diplomatic tensions and overcoming the trust deficit plaguing U.S.-Pakistan ties, how productive were your talks with [U.S.] Secretary [John] Kerry when he was here in Islamabad last week?
Aziz: "Both sides agreed that so far in the last few years Pakistan’s relations with America were dominated by the Afghan issues and now that the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan in 2014, we emphasized and they agreed that we must develop our relationship in an independent manner and not through the Afghan lens or even the Indian prism because basically the relationship is important enough to stand on its own. And, finally, I think we both agreed that the transactional nature of the relation[ship] can become strategic if we build strong economic links and the future relationship will build on more trade, more investment, technology, education, energy cooperation and things of that kind. So, I think, in one sense we agreed that we will try to double the trade from $5.1 billion to more than $10 or $11 billion in the next five years to give strength to this relationship. "
Gul: Many in Pakistan insist their country has sacrificed more than others in the war against terrorism but received comparatively little U.S. economic assistance in return. How important are those U.S. funds for future bilateral relations under Prime Minister Sharif’s government?
Aziz: Not at all. I think, of course, first of all, the assistance that we received apart from half of it was Coalition Support Fund, which is not net additional assistance. It is compensation for the expenditure we have incurred in anti-terror operations in various ways and still amounts are outstanding. And the total aid of about $10-$12 billion over this period is, if you count in number of years, 12 years, it is not very significant in that sense. So, for us, market access in trade is more important. We will certainly judge this relationship on the basis of market access that we get, the way they facilitate American investors to invest here and much more importantly, transfer of technology and, of course, defense cooperation where we are wholly dependent on American equipment and technology.
Gul: In the wake of your talks with Secretary Kerry and your recent trip to Kabul, do you expect a revival of the Doha process for Afghan reconciliation anytime soon?
Aziz: Obviously, in this context we are working more in coordination to see that the Afghan reconciliation process moves forward and I think we have both agreed that it should be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process and we should not try to orchestrate it from outside. The Doha process got into trouble because of the controversy over the flag and the name of the office. But the important thing is for different Afghan groups, particularly the High Peace Council and the Taliban and some other stakeholders to talk to each other, whether they talk in Doha, Dubai or Istanbul or anywhere. That is not so material. So the Doha process actually had given the wrong connotation. Actually, the reconciliation process which should go on and that is our hope now but obviously Afghanistan is getting ready for an election next April and that will obviously create some hiccups and some lull in the activity. But some contacts I think have started in the last few weeks and let us hope they will continue.
Gul: Both the Afghan government and the Taliban are apparently unwilling to back down from their stated positions since the Doha process was grounded. What would you tell them to do to get them back to the negotiating table?
Aziz: Obviously, the Taliban have been saying that this government, this constitution is imposed by foreign powers and is not indigenous. But I think many of them realize that once they are part of the negotiating process, then they will be able to make changes if they require. So in that sense there are some groups which want to talk and take part, others of course do not believe in that. So I think if both sides show some flexibility because, after all, Afghans have been living together for centuries, different ethnic groups and people from different parts of the country, and they must live together because [their] future lies in a united, democratic and hopefully, a stable Afghanistan. But Pakistan has clearly told them that we are not going to interfere in [their] internal affairs and we have no favorites so we hope that [they] will find ways and means of sorting out these problems and achieving a settlement for the future dispensation within Afghanistan. We can only facilitate when [they] ask us to do so otherwise it is [their] own process.
Gul: President Hamid Karzai is expected to visit Pakistan later this month and this is apparently the outcome of your recent visit to Kabul. Were you able to address his concerns regarding the Doha peace process and will that top the agenda of your talks when he arrives in Islamabad?
Aziz: The purpose of that is not just to discuss reconciliation but improve relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan because these foreign powers come and go. The British came in the last century and then the Russians came and the Americans have come and gone, we are always together and we have to have [a] good relationship among the people of the two countries. So I tried to explain to the Afghan leaders that the hostile statements which come from Afghanistan have a very bad impact on the people of Pakistan because they think they have sacrificed so much in the last 30-35 years, and look what we are getting in return. So I think that message helped and I said that if there are any problems or differences, let us discuss them in diplomatic or other channels rather airing them in the media. So, [President Karzai’s] visit I hope will help us to further discuss the importance of improving relations between the two countries and that requires the commitment of the people on both sides to help each other because Afghanistan has suffered a lot in the last 35 years. Millions of people have been killed, displaced and all that, and Pakistan and its people do want to help them but I hope the atmosphere is improved to enable them to do that.”
Gul: Secretary Kerry also suggested that there will be enormous economic return in the region if Pakistan and India could confidently invest in each other. Moreover, Prime Minister Sharif also invited India to engage in the proposed economic corridor between Pakistan and China. Where do things stand between the new government and India, and are you close to resuming the stalled peace talks, namely [the] Composite Dialogue with India?
Aziz: In the last seven-eight weeks a lot of progress has been made because the two prime ministers [Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh] talked to each other immediately and then India sent its representative for back channel diplomacy immediately after Nawaz Sharif was elected, and we nominated very quickly Pakistan’s back channel representative, Sheharyar Khan, and he went to India and met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the 5th of July. In the meanwhile, I met the Indian foreign minister in Brunei Darussalam and we agreed to resume the composite dialogue by convening the [working] groups. We have now sent the time schedule for those groups to India and they have accepted. The two prime ministers are scheduled to meet in New York in September. So, initial steps have been taken to resume the dialogue. Now the outcome is difficult to judge partly because the Indians are preparing for the elections next year. So, a major stance or efforts to reach compromises may not be possible but a number of things are possible. So, we are hoping that these contacts and the groups that we are convening will make progress on their respective agenda. So at least when the new government comes we are ready for any breakthrough that may be possible.
Gul: Do you think there is a need for Pakistan and India to also have a dialogue on Afghanistan to address each other’s concerns and reservations?
Aziz: “Not a dialogue in that sense. Pakistan is of course the immediate neighbor. India is not a contiguous neighbor and India’s role has been mainly to help development of Afghanistan and to that extent they will continue to do so. But I think all the other contiguous neighbors of Afghanistan, Central Asian countries, particularly including Iran who are next door neighbors, they all have to adopt the same policy that Pakistan has adopted - that we all work together to ensure a stable and united Afghanistan and no interference and Afghan-owned process be supported. So I think that is what is required and I presume India believes in that. But India’s assistance to Afghanistan in the past to help build their infrastructure and some training remains important and I hope they will continue to do that.”