It has been a busy few months for Asad Majeed Khan, Pakistan’s top diplomat in Washington — who submitted his credentials to the U.S. president in January.
At the beginning of July, the International Monetary Fund approved a $6 billion bailout package for his country that could be political kryptonite for his populist boss, Prime Minister Imran Khan. A week later, authorities at home arrested the alleged mastermind of the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, on charges of financing terrorism.
At the same time, Pakistan joined the U.S., Russia and China’s trilateral consultations on the Afghanistan peace process for the first time. A week after that, Pakistan’s prime minister met President Trump on July 22 in the first such official visit since the U.S. president suspended security aid to the erstwhile American ally and accused Islamabad of “nothing but lies & deceit” over the past 15 years.
And before the dust could settle from Trump’s abrupt flip-flop from trenchant critic to gushing fan or his controversial (and false) claim that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to “mediate” the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, Modi sent thousands of troops into the disputed territory and summarily revoked the special status the Indian-administered portion has enjoyed since the 1940s. The surprise announcement prompted Islamabad to expel India’s ambassador and suspend trade between the two nuclear-armed rivals, which have already fought multiple wars over Kashmir.
In fact, on the day of our interview with Ambassador Khan, about two dozen demonstrators had gathered in front of the Indian Embassy to protest Modi’s decision to eliminate autonomy for Kashmir, which has been under a security lockdown and information blackout ever since.
For Ambassador Khan, the frenzied activity is just the new normal — and the regional turmoil may even translate into a diplomatic opportunity.
A 29-year career diplomat, Khan (no relation to Prime Minister Khan) was Pakistan’s chargé d’affaires to the United States from May 2013 to January 2014 and deputy chief of mission in D.C. from March 2012 to September 2015 before a brief stint as his country’s envoy to Japan. But the change upon his return has been as dramatic as day and night — and perhaps day again, given the new bonhomie.
“It’s a different White House. When I was coming back, everybody said you are going to a familiar place,” he told us. “But I think Washington is defined by the incumbent in the White House. That way it is a different place, and like many other diplomats, I’m still in the process of discovering it.”
The envoy’s engagement with America has itself been a big change. Beginning his career in Pakistan’s foreign service in the 1990s, Khan requested a posting in Japan so that he could learn Japanese at the tail end of the euphoria surrounding the meteoric rise of its electronics and automobile industries. He learned the language, embraced sushi and completed his doctorate at Kyushu University in 2002 after it launched its first Ph.D. program in English. When he eventually returned as his country’s ambassador to Tokyo in August 2017, he described Japan as “a second home.”
“In diplomacy, they say that your first posting is like your first love,” said Khan, a trim, soft-spoken man who looks a little like a country lawyer in his light gray, summer-weight suit and polka-dot tie. “I was very lucky actually to have gone back as ambassador to the place where I started my career.”
That career has been divided almost equally between the two countries, he noted, saying that the first half was “all Japan” and the second half was “all the United States.” The differences between the two cultures are stark enough. But the differences between Pakistan’s relationships with the two governments and the work of its envoys in Tokyo and Washington are far broader.
In Japan, “the conversations are mostly focused on economics, business and trade issues,” Khan said, “whereas in the case of the United States … it is a kind of a security-focused relationship.”
That might be an understatement. Although the ambassador noted that America is Pakistan’s largest single-country export destination and one of its largest sources of foreign direct investment and remittances, security has long been at the core of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
The United States has had strong ties to Pakistan since it gained its independence from Britain in 1947. Washington favored Islamabad over New Delhi throughout the Cold War, when India’s prominent role in the Non-Aligned Movement prompted the U.S. to view Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi (his daughter) with a gimlet eye. In contrast, Pakistan eagerly allied with the U.S. and in the 1980s played a vital role in Washington’s now infamous efforts to thwart the Soviet Union’s expansion in Central Asia by helping to fund, arm and train the mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan.
Those rebels went on to become the Taliban and ever since Sept. 11, 2001, bilateral relations between Islamabad and Washington have essentially been defined by the so-called war on terror, which spurred the George W. Bush administration to immediately end all remaining economic sanctions on India and Pakistan related to their nuclear programs and to name Pakistan a major non-NATO ally in 2002.
For nearly two decades, the prosecution of the associated war in Afghanistan handcuffed the two allies together, even as the relationship soured, because the Pentagon needed routes through Pakistan to supply U.S.-led coalition forces.
But mistrust and mutual recriminations remain a hallmark of the relationship, particularly after 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was found hiding in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad in 2011.
The bin Laden raid bolstered Washington’s longstanding accusations that Pakistan tacitly supports certain radical militant groups, including the Taliban, as a counterweight to Indian influence in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. (India’s growing economic and military ties to the U.S. have also strained Washington’s relations with Pakistan, which has been forging stronger economic links to China.)
Echoing those frustrations, in January the Trump administration suspended nearly all security aid to Pakistan — roughly $1.3 billion — for allegedly sheltering Taliban militants and other terrorist networks.
Islamabad counters that it has sacrificed more in the war on terror than any other nation, with tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and soldiers killed by Islamist extremists and hundreds of thousands displaced as the government waged an offensive against militant groups at America’s behest. It also accuses Washington of discounting claims that terrorist groups that target Pakistan such as Tehrik-i-Taliban have found sanctuary in Afghanistan.
Despite the bad blood, neither side can afford to walk away from their uneasy union: Pakistan’s struggling economy needs U.S. assistance, while Washington needs to ensure the stability of a geostrategic, nuclear-armed nation (also see “Envoy Says Islamabad Wants to Continue ‘Exceptional Relationship’ with U.S.” in the July 2017 issue).
President Trump also appears to have discovered that he needs Islamabad (or the army leadership in Rawalpindi and their compatriots in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI) to help him negotiate the semblance of an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Ambassador Khan explained the situation more tactfully.
“The president has been consistent at least in terms of wanting peace in Afghanistan, of working toward a political settlement in Afghanistan,” he said. “Our prime minister also is someone who has over the years consistently maintained that there is no military solution, that the only way forward is through dialogue and reconciliation. The alignment is that we have two leaders, one in Washington and the other in Islamabad, who see eye to eye in terms of there being no other alternative but to work toward a political settlement in Afghanistan.”
At the same time, during his recent meeting with President Trump, Pakistan’s charismatic prime minister was also able to convey his conviction that no country, other than Afghanistan itself, has paid as high a price as Pakistan in the conflict — to the tune of 70,000 casualties and financial losses of more than $150 billion.
“The president’s thinking seems to have also evolved” since his pronouncement of Pakistan’s lies and deceit, Ambassador Khan said, noting that up until the prime minister’s recent visit, “there was actually this complete disconnect.”
The international community’s thinking about Pakistan’s archrival India may also be changing in light of recent tensions in Kashmir — which might well have been India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister’s response to the renewal of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance in Afghanistan.
Experts have also suggested that Modi’s decision to revoke Article 370 — which granted significant autonomy to the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir (a smaller slice is controlled by Pakistan) — was an effort to divert attention away from India’s flagging economy and recent skirmishes with Pakistan. A muscular approach toward Kashmir also helps Modi burnish his credentials with his Hindu base.
The prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long pushed to take away the special privileges accorded to Kashmir following the 1947 partition that established India and Pakistan. (Muslim-majority Kashmir agreed to join India after the partition largely because of the rights enshrined in Article 370.)
Modi claims the move will bring much-needed investment and jobs to the restive Himalayan province, but critics say his true intention is to allow non-Kashmiri Hindus to own land in the region in an effort to dilute its predominantly Muslim population.
Pakistani Prime Minister Khan, who says India has rebuffed repeated attempts at dialogue, is taking the issue of Kashmir to the U.N. Security Council and the International Court of Justice. He’s urged other countries to pressure India and threatened to “teach Delhi a lesson,” although he cautioned that Pakistan would only act in self-defense and not provoke a conflict.
Some have praised Khan’s restraint. “Khan has deftly managed two crises with India: one in February, when India conducted unilateral airstrikes in Pakistani territory, and the other in July, when New Delhi annexed parts of the disputed Kashmir region under its control,” wrote Arif Rafiq of the Middle East Institute in a recent brief. “Khan is behaving like a statesman, not a populist, in a time in which both Pakistan and the rest of the world desperately need more of them.”
But others aren’t so complimentary. Khan has been criticized for likening India’s actions to genocide. He also warned in a speech before parliament that the military crackdown in Kashmir would spark a backlash. But to India and many independent observers, the particular warning he chose — “incidents like Pulwama are bound to happen again” — hinted at the exact sort of state-sponsored cross-border terrorism he has pledged to eradicate.
Khan was referring to a Feb. 14 suicide attack on a convoy of Indian security officers in the Kashmiri district of Pulwama that killed 46 Indian soldiers. Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for attack, although the driver of the explosives-laden vehicle was a local Kashmiri.
“Regardless of what Imran Khan says or does, the ISI is going to ramp stuff up in Kashmir,” said Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly, who is also critical of Modi’s move to curtail rights in the disputed territory. “They’re going to suggest that this is simply the result of India’s actions and an aggrieved and disenchanted population is lashing out. I can write the script for them.”
That near-universal suspicion makes Ambassador Khan’s job a difficult one, even as reports of India’s harsh crackdown reopen a window of opportunity for Pakistan to seize the moral high ground after years of global opprobrium related to the alleged complicity of its deep state in the Mumbai attacks and double-dealing in Afghanistan.
But the envoy insisted that the abrogation of rights in Kashmir and two disproven stories of Indian triumphs in retaliation for the Pulwama attack — a so-called “surgical strike” in which New Delhi claimed to have destroyed a terrorist camp and killed 300 jihadists on Pakistani territory and a dubious boast that one of its outdated MiGs shot down a Pakistani F-16 — have badly dented Modi’s credibility.
Khan believes that makes the world more open to believing Pakistan’s contention that many, if not all, of the attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir are organized locally (in part by alienated youth) and that Pakistan does not aid groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad in crossing the border. The ambassador also hopes it makes other countries more sympathetic to Pakistan’s argument that Modi’s recent actions are a violation of the United Nations-brokered agreement that divided Kashmir along the so-called Line of Control and called for its status to be resolved through a plebiscite, whose outcome could potentially tilt in favor of Pakistan.
“There is always a story that is the real story, a truth at the bottom of everything. In the case of India, gradually with Prime Minister Modi, I think the reality is becoming more and more obvious to the rest of the world,” Khan said. “For us, it’s about having the truth come out. It’s about the international community seeing the reality on the ground, and the reality is that India is using excessive force in Kashmir, India is using a lot of repression in Kashmir.”
Indeed, as of press time, the region of 8 million residents remains severed from most communications, travel has been curtailed and hundreds of local activists have been arrested, although India denies claims that it has violently broken up protests and downplayed the size of those demonstrations.
In an Aug. 12 op-ed in The Washington Post, the ambassador praised Trump’s seeming willingness to mediate the dispute over Kashmir, saying that India’s unilateral decision to scrap Article 370 is “a slap in the face of this renewed American commitment to solve one of the world’s most dangerous and intractable conflicts.” He urged the U.S. “to do what it can to prevent India from precipitating another crisis.”
But Trump has repeatedly shown that he has little interest in becoming involved in conflicts abroad. And despite skepticism of Modi’s dubious claims about Kashmir, many others still see merit in Trump’s discarded narrative of Pakistani “lies and deceit.”
Tackling Terrorism in Its Backyard
But the ambassador says his country’s thinking about terrorism has evolved significantly since the days when Trump’s one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, referred to terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Haqqani network as pet snakes reared by the ISI in its backyard.
Khan told us that the sea change came not as the result of Trump’s freeze on security aid or the placement of Pakistan on the so-called “gray list” by the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in June 2018 for failing to fully implement plans to prevent local groups from financing terrorism. Pakistan’s thinking changed much earlier, after a terrorist attack on an army-run school in Peshawar by the Tehrik-i-Taliban killed 148 people, most of them children, in December 2014.
“The brutality with which the extremists killed those children and their teachers fundamentally shifted the curve in Pakistan, and it brought together everyone,” he said. And although Prime Minister Khan is sometimes described as handpicked by the same military-intelligence complex that India and many independent analysts say arms and finances terror groups to wage a low-intensity proxy war in Kashmir, the crackdown outlined in former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s 2014 National Action Plan has intensified during Khan’s administration, which took office in August 2018.
“The action actually started in January. The additional proscribed groups happened much before the visit, actions against the non-state actors and the groups that were likely to or actually abusing our territory,” Khan said, referring to the reinstatement of a ban on Lashkar-e-Tabia’s (LeT) political arm, which is still helmed by Hafiz Saeed, and another of Saeed’s charities that is widely viewed as a front organization. Those efforts culminated with the arrest of Saeed and several of his top lieutenants and the freezing of the organizations’ assets in July.
“We have taken a slew of measures. And it’s not just measures in terms of going after those [people]; it’s also measures in terms of stopping the financing part of it, disbanding the outfits, drying up their sources. The depth, the breadth and the degree of these actions is what makes them different from whatever we have done in the past,” said Khan.
“There is a growing recognition [in both the White House and the Pentagon] of that fundamental shift that has taken place in Pakistan, with our prime minister and our leadership being committed to putting our house in order, to pursue peace regionally, to create conditions domestically to enable the economic rejuvenation and revival of the country,” he added.
Strategic analyst Shuja Nawaz, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of several books on Pakistan, was more measured. But he agreed there is some reason for optimism that things could be different today from when former President Pervez Musharraf made a similar commitment but could not bring the country’s generals and spymasters on board.
“In this case both the civilian government and military seem to be working together, maybe largely at the military’s behest,” Nawaz said, citing a statement from the army chief that “only the state has the monopoly of power in the country.”
Other experts like Ganguly remain unconvinced, pointing to multiple instances in which Saeed was detained and later released, alleged terror groups were banned and unbanned, and assets were frozen and unfrozen.
“These are all cosmetic gestures and they’re entirely reversible,” Ganguly said, arguing that only the LeT founder’s conviction and imprisonment would convince him that the crackdown is genuine. (“What is good intelligence is not always good evidence,” Ambassador Khan countered, referring to the challenge of prosecuting the alleged terrorist in the court system.)
The FATF, too, appears to be skeptical. The multinational body formally placed Pakistan on its “gray list” last year despite the country’s claim to have frozen hundreds of accounts linked to terrorist suspects and extremist groups. The government says it has also registered 150-odd terrorism-financing cases and more than 2,000 terrorism cases since adopting the National Action Plan.
Yet over the past year, Pakistan has only managed to comply with around half of the 27 action items the FATF specified in August 2018, increasing the chances it will remain on the gray list or even be blacklisted at the upcoming final review in October — a development that might result in the revoking of its IMF loan, according to Bloomberg.
That could be disastrous for Pakistan’s economy, which, despite steady growth over the last decade, has been plagued by soaring inflation, rising debt, low rates of tax collection, endemic corruption and unemployment.
Khan, a former cricket star turned nationalist redeemer, took power on pledges to boost social spending and lift 100 million people out of poverty. However, those promises run counter to the unpopular austerity measures that the IMF will demand in return for its most recent bailout.
Yet even the prime minister conceded that Pakistan needs the IMF and “can’t afford to be blacklisted” by the FATF, according to an interview he did with Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times in April. “We have decided, for the future of our country — forget the outside pressure — we will not allow armed militias to operate any more.”
The Afghan Catch-22
But Georgetown University professor Christine Fair argues that Trump’s sudden embrace of Pakistan has nothing to do with its new commitment to fighting terror — or, more pointedly, to eliminating proxy groups that the army and ISI allegedly use to attack India, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, as well as groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban that target the Pakistani establishment.
Rather, the looming presidential election has made Trump willing to strike a deal on Afghanistan and extract U.S. forces from the war-torn country, regardless of the long-term consequences. It’s a kind of Catch-22. The reduction of America’s forces in Afghanistan makes the supply route through Pakistan less important. But the clear signal that all the Taliban needs to do to win the war is wait America out makes Pakistan virtually the only lever Washington has to push them to the negotiating table — because the families of many of the top Taliban leaders live in protected communities on the Pakistani side of the border.
Like Trump, Pakistan has a strong incentive to see the war next door come to a close, which would bring a measure of stability to its volatile border with Afghanistan. But some U.S. officials fear that Pakistan will use its bargaining leverage to prod Trump into rushing the troop withdrawal — while sidelining the Afghan government — in the hopes of returning the Taliban to power and installing an ally friendly to Pakistan’s interests (and antithetical to India’s).
At the same time, another reality may be becoming more and more obvious to Trump. And that is that Pakistan would like to leverage its importance in Afghanistan to move the needle on Kashmir — as illustrated by Ambassador Khan’s statement to The New York Times that Islamabad might be forced to move troops from its border with Afghanistan to its frontier in the disputed territory. While Khan told the newspaper that Kashmir and Afghanistan were separate issues, he said that tensions with India “could not have come at a worse time for us,” implying that the situation in Kashmir could throw a wrench into peace talks with the Taliban — and Trump’s plans to bring America’s longest war to an end.
“Trump, more than perhaps other presidents before him, really prizes making his campaign promises come to fruition…. It’s really important for Trump to get out of Afghanistan by the 2020 election,” Fair said. “[And] the Pakistanis have a lot of control over these guys.”
About the Author
Jason Overdorf (jasonoverdorf.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.