This story went to press before a series of bombings on June 23 killed over 85 people in Pakistan. This story has since been updated to reflect that development.
Last December, a month and a half before Donald Trump was even inaugurated, the president-elect had, to say the least, a rather bizarre phone conversation with Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. During their chat, he called Sharif a “terrific guy” who is “doing amazing work” and said Pakistan is “a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.”
Bizarre, considering that back in 2012 — a year after U.S. Navy Seals ambushed and killed Osama bin Laden at his fortified compound just outside Abbottabad, Pakistan — the future president tweeted: “Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. We’ve given them billions and billions of dollars, and what did we get? Betrayal and disrespect — and much worse. #TimeToGetTough.”
It should surprise no one that the White House has played down both Trump’s past pronouncements on Pakistan and the warm-and-fuzzy phone call, which have confused foreign policy experts and enraged India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy.
More recently, the White House seems to have reversed course yet again. On June 20, Reuters reported that the administration is considering toughening its approach to Pakistan, potentially expanding drone strikes, withholding aid or downgrading its status as a major non-NATO ally in an effort to prod Islamabad to clamp down on Pakistan-based militants launching attacks on neighboring Afghanistan.
Despite the mixed messages, one thing is clear: Islamabad is going to great lengths to portray the often rocky alliance as one of mutual friendship, trust and understanding.
Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, who presented Trump his credentials April 24, says he’s “very pleased” the Sharif government chose him to represent his country in Washington.
“Pakistan and the United States have enjoyed an exceptional relationship for the last seven decades, going back to the ’50s and ’60s,” he told us recently. “There’s a tremendous reservoir of goodwill on both sides, and a tremendous desire on both sides to deepen this relationship in every walk of life.”
With an estimated 200 million inhabitants, Pakistan is now the world’s sixth-most populated country behind only China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil. It’s also the world’s second-largest Muslim nation — and the only one with nuclear weapons — not to mention the fact that Pakistan’s 1,600-mile border with Afghanistan straddles one of the most violent, unstable regions on Earth.
That makes treading with caution advisable when it comes to navigating the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, something Trump apparently has a hard time doing. Yet Chaudhry politely declined to discuss the president’s past anti-Islamic rhetoric, his frequent inconsistencies — or the unusual phone call that raised eyebrows in Washington and infuriated officials in New Delhi.
“The conversation between our prime minister and then President-elect Trump was very positive,” he said without elaborating. “We had good cooperation under the previous administration, and we believe that a similar good cooperation with this one would be our goal. There are plenty of areas where we need to work together and make that happen.”
Chaudhry, who replaced Jalil Abbas Jilani as Pakistan’s ambassador here, has 36 years of Foreign Service experience under his belt. The 59-year-old diplomat was born in the province of Punjab and educated in the United States. He has a master’s in international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was posted from 1999 to 2000 as political counselor in Washington; he then moved to New York as Pakistan’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations for the next six years.
He next became spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, and from 2013 until earlier this year, he was Pakistan’s foreign secretary. Over time, he’s also served as ambassador to the Netherlands and been posted to Tehran, Cairo and Doha.
“We have great admiration for the values the United States represents,” he told The Diplomat. “Our people are yearning for the same things.”
‘Reality of Today’s Pakistan’
As ambassador, Chaudhry says his priority is “to bring the people of the United States up to speed with the reality of today’s Pakistan.” Over the last two or three years, he said, “We’ve demonstrated that the tide of terrorism can be reversed, with a great deal of sacrifice. The entire tribal area today has been cleared of all militants and hideouts.”
Experts remain skeptical of that claim, noting that Islamabad has long supported groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and Haqqani militant network as a hedge against Indian hegemony in the region and to ensure Pakistani influence over Afghanistan. Lawmakers in Washington perpetually criticize Islamabad for turning a blind eye to terrorist groups that further its foreign policy goals and say the U.S. has spent billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to Pakistan — with sometimes little to show for it. Islamabad counters that it has suffered far more from terrorism than the U.S. has, with tens of thousands of its civilians and soldiers dying in the country’s long-running battle against extremists. (For instance, a 2014 massacre committed by gunmen affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban on an army school in Peshawar killed nearly 150 people, including many children.)
Despite the mutual suspicion and bad blood, neither side can afford a permanent breakup of their uneasy union — Pakistan needs U.S. assistance, and Washington needs to ensure the stability of a geostrategic, nuclear-armed nation.
While Pakistan continues to be blamed for fomenting unrest in Afghanistan, where 8,400 U.S. troops remain stationed, Chaudhry defended his country’s relations with its troubled neighbor on March 29 in his first public appearance as Pakistan’s new ambassador here. At the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), he spoke at length on how to stop the fighting in Afghanistan and bring a lasting peace to the war-ravaged nation, even though Afghan-Pakistani relations are mired in a perpetual state of mistrust.
For years, extremist groups have made the mountainous area between Pakistan and Afghanistan their home, planning terrorist attacks in each other’s countries, crossing the porous border at will and complicating the Pentagon’s 16-year effort to crush militants in Afghanistan.
Each country accuses the other of harboring terrorists, and each has suffered from extremist violence. On June 23, at least 85 people died in a series of bombings, including twin bombs that ripped through a crowded market in Parachinar in the northwestern part of Pakistan and a smaller suicide bombing in Quetta. The Quetta attack was claimed by a breakaway faction of the Taliban and the Islamic State, while a sectarian Sunni group claimed responsibility for the bombings in Parachinar, a majority-Shiite city.
Earlier in Kabul on May 31, an enormous bomb ripped through the Afghan capital’s highly secure diplomatic quarter, killing over 150 people and injuring another 300. The Taliban denied involvement in the attack — one of the deadliest since the U.S.-led war began in Afghanistan in 2001. But Afghan intelligence said in a statement quoted by CNN that they believe Pakistan’s Haqqani militant network (which experts say is abetted by Pakistan’s intelligence services) was behind it — charges that Islamabad vehemently denies.
“This subject is extremely important for my country because there is a full consensus in Pakistan that peace in Afghanistan is an absolute imperative,” said Chaudhry at the USIP event. “Time and history have shown that whenever Afghanistan was unstable, we suffered. The instability invariably flows across that border into Pakistan, and therefore, we would like to work with any and every effort that is aimed at bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.”
At least 90 percent of the people displaced by Taliban fighters in what used to be called the “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” (FATA) in semi-autonomous northwestern Pakistan have gone back home, the ambassador said, adding that “we are now engaged in combing out the remaining terrorists who have been hiding out in various civilian urban centers.”
Since then, he said, terrorist attacks have dropped from an average 150 incidents per month to almost zero. “Today, the number of attacks a month cannot be counted on the fingers of a single hand,” said Chaudhry (speaking before the Parachinar and Quetta bombings).
This progress, he claims, has boosted Pakistan’s economy, with a projected 4.7 percent GDP growth this year and 5 percent in 2018 — an absolute necessity in a rapidly urbanizing country where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to a 2016 survey by the U.N. Development Program, a ratio that rises to 71 percent in Balochistan province and 73 percent in the FATA.
Yet in neighboring Afghanistan, the situation is much worse. Chaudhry, quoting figures cited by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, noted that only 60 percent of the Texas-size country is under the control of Afghan National Forces, while 10 percent is controlled by the Taliban and the remaining 30 percent is contested.
“Unfortunately, the security situation in Afghanistan is not very encouraging,” he said. “We are talking about huge ungoverned spaces that can be a magnet for militants of the world. The other worry for us is that the Taliban who fled from Pakistan after our operations have teamed up with other groups.”
Chaudhry said 7,000 Pakistani military personnel have already been killed in the effort to “clear up” the tribal areas.
“For any military commander, this is a huge burden to carry. Nevertheless, in deference to the wishes of the Afghan and U.S. governments, we started squeezing space for the Taliban and Haqqanis,” he said. “We had cautioned that once we do that, the leverage for us on the Taliban would diminish because we wouldn’t be able to nudge them toward reconciliation. Today, most of them have no space in Pakistan. They have fled into the high mountains. Some went into Afghanistan, and some to urban centers. This is not a very happy occasion. We could not make much success on the military track, or on the political track either, so the situation is what it is.”
Pakistan’s military sacrifices, however, belie longstanding accusations that Islamabad has coddled the very groups it’s now finally targeting. Speaking at a June 7 panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, noted that for years, Pakistan has provided safe havens to an assortment of terrorist groups, including the Taliban. The Pakistani Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in particular, view terrorist groups such as the Taliban as proxies in the regional scramble for power.
These terrorist sanctuaries have long been obstacles to peace in Afghanistan, according to Khalilzad. That’s why he said Pakistan “has to tell the Taliban that if they don’t enter a peace process, they will not be allowed to operate from Pakistan.”
Chaudhry, who also participated in that Atlantic Council discussion, argued that Pakistan is perennially used as a scapegoat for Afghanistan’s problems. “To say that Pakistan is responsible for everything is over-simplistic, and if you keep doing that I think you are barking [up] the wrong tree and will not be able to get to a solution.”
He warned that in the long run, there is no military solution to Afghanistan’s many problems.
“If there were one, it would have come when NATO forces were at their peak,” he said. “But after 15 years of huge military and economic investments by the United States and their partners, there’s not much to show. We believe we should not rely solely on the military option. The political track also has to be nudged forward. Unfortunately, it has not been satisfactory.”
Efforts by Pakistan to get the Taliban leadership to sit together with Afghanistan’s legitimately elected government and “come up with some kind of politically negotiated pace” began in earnest in 2015 — yet a string of political assassinations and U.S. drone strikes caused the collapse of those talks, and the insurgency has only grown since then.
“We are waiting for the new [Trump] administration to announce the outcome of its review,” said Chaudhry. “Based on that, we would like to engage with the U.S., which we still believe is the main player and has invested huge stakes in Afghanistan’s peace.”
Trump has given Defense Secretary James Mattis wide-ranging authority to come up with a new strategy for Afghanistan, with Mattis reportedly considering sending an additional 4,000 troops to the country (also see story “The Pros and Cons of Trump Giving the Defense Department More Power“).
But the president has yet to articulate a clear vision for Afghanistan — or Pakistan, for that matter — focusing instead on defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. currently has no ambassador in either Afghanistan or Pakistan; reports indicate that the State Department will do away with its special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan; and it remains to be seen when vacancies might be filled, given how slow Trump has been to fill government posts and the looming budget cuts to the State Department.
That has left Af-Pak watchers eagerly awaiting Mattis’s review, which is due later this month.
“Officials said the Afghan review has been broadened to include the policy toward neighboring Pakistan, particularly the question of how to prevent that country from being a haven for the Taliban and militants involved in the Afghan conflict,” wrote Michael R. Gordon in a June 13 New York Times article. “That in turn has led to a discussion within the administration about what steps might be taken to mitigate Pakistan’s decades-long anxieties over India. The result is that the Afghan review has turned into a larger review of American policy toward Southwest Asia.”
Pakistan’s Role in Afghanistan
In the meantime, with diplomats in limbo over the president’s unformulated policies, Chaudhry is stressing that Pakistan stands ready to work with Afghanistan to stabilize the region.
The first step is continued negotiations. “We should not rely solely on a military solution,” he said in his USIP speech. “Force is important, but wars are not the answer. In this day and age, we should have more faith in negotiations.”
Chaudhry said Islamabad and Kabul need to “talk at all levels, leadership to leadership, politicians to politicians, diplomats to diplomats, military to military and intel to intel. All approaches are simultaneously required to bring our two governments together in a mode to coordinate with each other for the common good.”
Those talks should include border management, or more specifically, regulating the movement of legitimate, bona fide travelers.
“People crossing in large numbers without any passports or documentation whatsoever has not helped. Pakistan complains that bad guys come from Afghanistan and create mischief and terrorism on the Pakistani side, and Afghanistan says the same thing,” the ambassador told his audience. “In order to eliminate cross-border movement of terrorists, it is extremely important that we have a managed border between our two countries. It is as important for them as it is for us.”
More controversially, Chaudhry defends his government’s decision to expel all Afghan refugees in Pakistan, some 3 million of whom have fled to Pakistan since the 1980 Soviet invasion of their homeland.
“In many countries, even 1 million refugees is a big issue,” he said. “For 15 years, billions of dollars of economic investment was made in Afghanistan, but never to create conducive conditions for people to go back.”
Ultimate responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan, he argues, lies with Kabul, not Islamabad.
“We believe that whatever works, we are ready to work with that. But at the end of the day, it has to be the Afghan government,” Chaudhry said. “Pakistan, the U.S. and China can only play a facilitative role. We can push the Taliban and the Haqqanis, but efforts have to be made to create conditions which would facilitate a negotiated peace in Afghanistan so that the U.S. — which has invested so much for so long in that country — is also able to leave with the peace of mind that it has stabilized Afghanistan.”
Beyond Afghanistan, however, Pakistan has plenty of its own internal problems to worry about. Poverty and corruption are endemic. The Panama Papers leak ensnared Prime Minister Sharif, leading to investigations about his offshore companies and assets. Political infighting is a constant threat to the civilian government, which has long been beholden to the country’s powerful military.
But Chaudhry says that thanks to a series of economic reforms and the improvement of what he calls “law and order,” Pakistan’s fiscal deficit has been halved, the stock market is booming and investments are flowing into the country.
“Big corporate names want to be in Pakistan, like ExxonMobil, GE, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble,” he said. “This is my top priority, to remove some of the prevailing misperceptions of Pakistan which are at variance with the reality on the ground — that we defeated terrorism at a time and in a region still grappling with these evil forces. That is the reality of today’s Pakistan. We are opening new chapters in economic engagement with different parts of the world, from China to Turkey to Europe to America.”
Yet Pakistan is still held back by religious and sectarian strife, as well as violence against the country’s Christian minority (which accounts for about 1 percent of the population) and enforcement of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws.
In early June, a court in Bahawalpur sentenced 30-year-old Taimoor Raza to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammad during a Facebook debate on Islam with a man who turned out to be a counterterrorism agent. The Guardian quoted Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, as saying that “the casual manner in which death sentences are handed in blasphemy cases coupled with the lack of orientation of Pakistani courts with technologies makes this a very dangerous situation,” where the mere mention of unfounded allegations of blasphemy can lead to mob vigilante justice.
Asked about the verdict, Choudhry didn’t comment on it directly, but said such cases are the “legacy” of Afghanistan’s struggle following the Soviet invasion of 1980, when the U.S. began funding Islamic extremists as a bulwark against communism.
“After the Soviets and then the Americans left, the militants took root, and after 9/11, the limelight was again shined on them. We are now focusing on that mindset which germinates extremism,” the ambassador explained. “We have also launched a national action plan, a 20-point agenda to deal with extremism in the country.”
Despite what outsiders may think of Pakistanis, Chaudhry said, “There is a nationwide consensus that violence or terrorism in the name of Islam is not justified. The message of Pakistan is peace.”
Rivalry with India, Crisis in Qatar
Archrival India would beg to differ. Delhi remains frustrated that Islamabad has not done more to bring the Pakistani perpetrators of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed over 160 people to justice.
Since the bloody British partition of the subcontinent in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought four wars, three of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Some 50,000 people have been killed over the last 70 years on both sides of the 700-kilometer “line of control” separating the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of this troubled land, with no end to the conflict in sight.
“We do not see any progress in the Indian occupation of Kashmir, and the brutal atrocities being committed against the people there. This is a human catastrophe. People are being killed, maimed and blinded. There’s not enough attention being paid to this,” Choudhry complained. “All these atrocities have been highlighted and documented by The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Economist.”
Meanwhile, a top U.S. military official recently warned that India’s policy to “diplomatically isolate” Pakistan increases the risk of a conventional conflict leading to a nuclear exchange.
Gen. Joseph Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee in mid-March that attacks in India from Pakistan-based terrorists and India’s reaction increases the “likelihood for miscalculation by both countries. This, he said, is especially troubling “as a significant conventional conflict between Pakistan and India could escalate into a nuclear exchange, given that both are nuclear powers.”
Votel, whose U.S. Southern Command overseas the Pentagon’s operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that to date, “the Pakistan military and security services have not taken lasting actions against” the Haqqani network despite repeated calls to “improve security in the FATA border region.”
With all the talk of “diplomatic isolation” and state-supported terrorism, before wrapping up our interview, we asked Choudhry — who has served as a diplomat in both Qatar and Iran — how the Saudi-led isolation of Qatar, in which several Gulf states cut diplomatic, trade and transport links with the wealthy emirate over its alleged financing of terrorist networks, would affect the balance of power in the Middle East. We also wondered if Pakistan, which despite recent tensions with Iran still has relatively good relations with all countries involved, might help to defuse this latest crisis.
“Pakistan has taken the position that the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran should be resolved through dialogue and mutual accommodation. To that end, my government is ready to play any role, and we have not broken ties with any country in the region,” Choudhry replied. “At this point, we need better understanding, better tolerance and harmony. The ugly head of ISIS [Islamic State] is still there. We must all remain more tolerant and understanding of each other against this common enemy.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.