ISLAMABAD - Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi sat down with VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem this week for an exclusive interview to discuss the impact on the region of the United States withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, how Pakistan sees its future relationship with its western neighbor, and whether putting forward a resolution in parliament to expel the French ambassador from the country, over French support for publication of caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, is dangerous.
The answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How do you see the impact on the region and on Pakistan of the United States withdrawing forces from Afghanistan?
A: It’s a very important announcement. The region has been looking forward to some settlement, and the Doha talks came to a culmination with an agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. forces. I think that’s the right direction to go.
The withdrawal also relates to the fact that there should be an agreement between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan on what is going to happen in the future. Pakistan wants stability on its borders because any instability, or any insurrection of any sort, is going to hurt us, it has always done so. Therefore, we are looking forward to a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
Q: But the intra-Afghan negotiations are not going too well.
A: That is important. Therefore, the efforts of the governments of the United States, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran are all important in trying to stabilize and encourage an agreement between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.
Q: Pakistan has the key influence since the leadership of the Taliban live here. Why isn’t Pakistan using that influence in this situation?
A: Pakistan is using its influence.
Q: President Biden mentioned Pakistan “especially” as a regional country that needs to do more for Afghanistan. What is he asking Pakistan to do?
A: I’m not aware of what the U.S. specifically wants Pakistan to do. Pakistan’s effort toward peace does not depend on the U.S. asking Pakistan. Our efforts are indigenous in their nature and in their motivation. We want peace in Afghanistan. We all have to do more, including the Afghan and the U.S.
Q: President Biden also mentioned the U.S. reorganizing its counterterrorism capabilities in the region to be able to hit the target from “over the horizon.” He is obviously talking about drone strikes and airstrikes. Pakistan at one time used to provide the U.S. bases to operate from. Has the U.S. asked for something similar?
A: I’m not aware, and I don’t think Pakistan will be in a position to offer that.
Q: Has the U.S. asked for any additional intelligence presence? Or a larger footprint post-withdrawal?
A: I’m not aware of that. We should be careful that Pakistan doesn’t become a base for U.S. actions in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants to play a peaceful role.
Q: What role does Pakistan want to play in Afghanistan?
A: Pakistan wants to help rebuild Afghanistan. Pakistan is in the best position to do so. We harbored 3.5 million refugees. Pakistan can play a big role in actual physical construction, in providing know-how, and in lifting the education and health sectors.
Q: What if intra-Afghan negotiations fail?
A: Pakistan would not like the talks to fail. We think there is a good chance of success, although we believe India has played a negative role. It has never accepted the Doha talks. It has never encouraged the Doha talks. We suspect that role will continue.
Q: Your foreign minister recently said in a joint press conference with the Russian foreign minister that Russia can help India play a positive role in Afghanistan. How can Russia do that?
A: Whoever is in discussion with India can encourage India to not remain negative.
Q: What about Iran? How do you see its role? Is Pakistan coordinating with Iran on Afghanistan?
A: Pakistan has always had good relations with Iran. During the COVID crisis, Afghan refugees were returning from Iran to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. There were consultations between the three on that. The role of Iran will always remain, especially as the Shi’ite in Afghanistan look to Iran in a broader context.
Q: Pakistan is doing backdoor negotiations with India. The UAE ambassador said he is facilitating.
A: He mentioned the fact that there may have been some consultations to arrive at a cease-fire on our borders.
Q: Under pressure from an Islamist party, the government is presenting a resolution in parliament to expel the French ambassador to Pakistan (in retaliation for France defending the right to publish caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad).
A: I think that the international ramifications of the issue are because of Islamophobia. I think we suffer from things that are said abroad and done abroad. Anything you say questioning the Holocaust is illegal in Europe. We want the same treatment. We have to reflect what our people think. Our people are very hurt.
Q: So, if the parliament approves this resolution, Pakistan will throw out the French ambassador?
A: I’m not making any comment on that because the debate will be going on, and let the parliament either approve or disapprove the resolution.
Q: Isn’t it a very dangerous thing to do, given Pakistan’s history of violence over perceived blasphemy? Any parliamentarian who opposes the motion puts his or her life at risk. And if the motion is approved, Pakistan risks its relations with the world.
A: I think the parliament is free. I think the parliamentarians are bold. I don’t think they will be risking their lives in discussing something that is essential to us.