On Sept. 10, The Washington Diplomat spoke with Asad Majeed Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, about the legacy of 9/11, the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship and, of course, the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Q: [This past Saturday], Sept. 11, 2021, marked two decades since the worst terrorist attack in US history. What are your recollections and thoughts on this day in history?
A: It’s time to reflect on the lessons we have learned over these past 20 years. Obviously, my heart goes out to the families of all those we lost that day. Pakistan has also suffered tremendously in the war on terror. We have had our own 9/11, one after the other. We’ve lost over 80,000 souls in this fight, and have had financial losses of over $150 billion, so we understand the pain of being a victim of terrorism. We can relate to the suffering of the American people. This only makes us more convinced and determined to work with our partners to make sure that we never see another day like that in our lives.
Q: You’re no stranger to Washington, having served here as deputy chief of mission of the Pakistani Embassy for more than three years—from March 2012 to September 2015—prior to your current appointment as ambassador in January 2019. How would you characterize the current relationship between the United States and Pakistan?
A: This has always been an important and critical relationship for Pakistan. Obviously, since 9/11, we have been essentially through the prism of Afghanistan. I can tell you that today, we are together on the same side in terms of our interests and expectations in Afghanistan. The United States wants to see the conflict end; that’s also what we want. And we would like to see that the gains Afghanistan has made over the last few decades are preserved.
Q: What are your thoughts on the US pullout from Afghanistan, and what impact is this likely to have on regional stability?
A: Our consistent position throughout was that there was no military solution to the conflict, and that a political dialogue was required. We also consistently advocated a responsible US withdrawal that would be synchronized with progress in the peace process. For that reason, Pakistan went out of its way to support the intra-Afghan dialogue. We feel that important progress was made. The developments of the past few weeks obviously took everyone by surprise, and have created a lot of confusion. But so far, at least on our side of the border, we have not seen the kind of refugee influx that everyone feared. We are also hearing that the security situation in Afghanistan is under control, that the Taliban have announced amnesty and have not so far indulged in revenge killings.
Right now, what’s really important is to basically not let things fall apart. Clearly, there is a new reality, which is a government under the Taliban. The international community has to make a choice: between engaging—and that doesn’t necessarily mean recognition—and abandonment.
Q: Under what conditions would Pakistan recognize the Taliban government in Kabul?
A: We have not recognized the Taliban government. No country has formally recognized it, but we are monitoring the ability of the new government in Afghanistan to respond to the concerns of the international community, and to deliver on the commitments and promises that they have been making over a period of time. Whether the Taliban actually abides by those is their call. But we have basically laid out our expectations, which is that we want the rights of everyone to be respected. We want that Afghani territory not be used against any other country, including Pakistan. We want human rights and women’s rights to be preserved. But we also believe that instead of indulging in give-and-take on these issues, right now what’s really important is to avert a humanitarian crisis.
Q: Some people in this country—including members of Congress—do not view Pakistan as an ally of the United States at all, but rather as a supporter of extremist groups like the Taliban. What do you say to those critics?
A: I’d encourage them to look more deeply at the facts. Pakistan has been a close partner and ally in decimating al-Qaeda, and in bringing about these peace negotiations. Many people see us essentially as a country exactly like Afghanistan in terms of poverty, education and social indicators. Unfortunately, Pakistan is associated with a lot of negative news. What makes things even more complicated is that because of the security concerns, foreigners have stopped going to Pakistan, and frankly our biggest strength is the warmth and hospitality of our people.
Q: Do you see any progress at all on relations between Pakistan and India, especially with regard to the issue of sovereignty over Kashmir?
A: I wish I had a good story to share, but unfortunately, we have a government in India which is fundamentalist and ideological, which believes in unilateralism, and which has regrettably rebuffed all our peaceful overtures. Our prime minister [Imran Khan], even before taking the oath of office, had publicly extended the hand of friendship to Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi. But unfortunately, he chose to indulge in military adventurism, which has resulted in misery and oppression. The situation in Kashmir continues to be very bad. Pakistan wants to resolve all its disputes through engagement and dialogue. Our two countries have no other options but peace.
Q: Politico reports that President Biden hasn’t yet spoken with your prime minister, even though Biden has been in office nearly nine months. What do you make of this?
A: President Biden hasn’t spoken to a number of world leaders; our prime minister isn’t the only one. We certainly don’t use the making or not of a call as a benchmark to evaluate the state of relations.
Q: How will Pakistan’s close friendship with China affect its ties with the United States going forward?
A: We do not want our relationship to be seen through any prism, be it Afghanistan, India or China. Yes, of course, our relations with China are close, but so is our relationship with the United States. As we speak, the US is the largest export destination for Pakistan, and our third largest source of remittances, around $3 billion a year.
Q: Early next year will mark the 20th anniversary of another sad event, the kidnapping and execution of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, who was investigating Islamic extremist movements. In early 2021, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the release of four men accused of beheading Pearl, whose elderly mother died less than two months ago. What are your thoughts on how this case was handled?
A: It was a horrendous crime. I have personally spoken to the parents of Daniel Pearl, and my heart goes out to the family. For any mother to experience that is absolutely terrible. That’s the other lesson: in this war, many mothers have lost their sons. That’s why it’s very important to mourn every life lost, and to make sure that these things never happen again.