Even with U.S.-Pakistani relations badly frayed over the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s new government wants to seize an opportunity for a political solution of that war, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said October 3. A “new convergence” of thinking among the Pakistani, Afghan and U.S. governments is creating much of that opportunity, Qureshi said at USIP in his first visit to the United States under the two-month-old government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Quershi
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Quershi

Qureshi spoke a day after meeting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the U.S. national security advisor, John Bolton. Those meetings were “useful, engaging and forward-looking,” Qureshi told an overflow audience of diplomats, policy specialists, journalists and others. He spoke and answered questions from listeners for nearly an hour and a half, stressing his intent “to reconnect and to rebuild … an important [U.S.-Pakistani] relationship.”

“I was expecting a very hawkish approach, a very, sort of ‘dressing down’ approach” by U.S. officials, said Qureshi. “That, pleasantly, did not take place. I felt that Secretary Pompeo was ready to listen.” Qureshi said that if he is able to return to Pakistan “with this impression that I’ve been able to halt the slide, to me, that will be an achievement.”

Afghanistan and Taliban

In Pakistan’s ties with the United States, “the last two years in particular … were difficult,” Qureshi acknowledged. The U.S. government last month announced a suspension of $300 million in aid to Pakistan over what it says is Pakistan’s failure to halt activities of terrorist groups in its territory—notably factions of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement. At the same time, Pompeo offered “the opportunity to reset” the relationship.

In Pakistan, which has been ruled for decades by its military, the armed forces play a leading role in foreign and security policies even under civilian administrations. The military traditionally has worked to maintain influence in Afghanistan in part to avoid a strategic encirclement by its more powerful rival, India. The United States for years has said that Pakistan’s main military intelligence agency supports the Haqqani faction of the Taliban—including in the faction’s attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Now, Pakistan is prepared to “use all its influence” to bring the Afghan Taliban to peace talks, Qureshi said. But he cautioned that “our influence over the Taliban is diminished.”

On Terrorist ‘Safe Havens’

On Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, Qureshi repeated many long-voiced themes of Pakistani administrations, including those under which he previously served as foreign minister from 2008 to 2011. He acknowledged the longstanding U.S. complaint that Pakistan has allowed Afghan Taliban factions to operate from Pakistan. “People talk of … [terrorist] safe havens in Pakistan,” he said. Addressing American interlocutors, he added, “we are concerned about eliminating safe havens that exist today in Afghanistan, under your watch.” Pakistan has accused Afghanistan of tolerating the presence of Pakistani anti-government militants in Afghanistan’s border provinces.

Qureshi told listeners that Pakistan has significantly stepped up its efforts against terrorist activities in recent years. “Public opinion shifted when terrorism hit us in the face and our schoolchildren were affected, our investments were compromised, and our daily lives were affected.” Pakistani Taliban fighters killed 149 people, mostly schoolchildren from army families, in a 2014 attack on an army school.

The military afterward escalated its operations in the border zone next to Afghanistan, where militant groups for years have been active. In the past year, a grassroots pro-democracy movement has protested restrictions imposed by the army in the ethnic Pashtun border zone, which still is governed under colonial rules inherited from the British raj. Qureshi said Pakistan is ready to invite members of Congress to visit the border zone to witness improved security there.

Defining Pakistan’s Policies

Qureshi’s discussion offered a chance for Qureshi and his questioners to define elements of policy that in many respects have yet to be articulated by the new government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement), or PTI. Qureshi, as vice chairman, is the second-leading official of the party, behind Prime Minister Khan. The conversation included these points:

On Pakistan’s interest in revising China’s massive investment plan in Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. “We are talking with the Chinese on how to focus on areas that are important to this government, and those are areas, not just infrastructure,” Qureshi said. “But we want them to help us in areas like in industrial development, agricultural productivity … alleviate poverty” to “improve lives and livelihoods.”

On rising intolerance for diversity in Pakistan. “Intolerance has grown everywhere. It’s not just Pakistan, look at the Indian intolerance,” Qureshi said. He called for statesmanlike leadership in South Asia. Qureshi was asked about the forced resignation of an eminent economist, Atif Mian, from a government advisory board because he is a member of the Ahmadi religious minority. “There was, we heard, an element that wanted to use it as a means to destabilize things,” Qureshi said, and Mian resigned to avoid disruption to the government. “Unfortunately, it happened.”

On Pakistan’s increasing legal restrictions against civil society organizations. “I hear you loud and clear,” Qureshi said. “Congressmen and others … have raised such concerns.” He said recent restrictions on the operation of non-government organizations had been imposed before his PTI government took office. He said he will advocate a loosening of those restrictions.

On this week’s appearance by Pakistan’s religion minister with the leader of the banned extremist group, Lashkar-i-Taiba. Pakistan’s religious affairs minister, Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, appeared at a conference of political and religious parties alongside Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, long identified by the United States and India as the planner of the 2008 terrorist attack by Lashkar-i-Taiba on the city of Mumbai. Qadri’s appearance with Saeed “could have been more sensitive,” Qureshi said, and does not mean that the Pakistani minister “subscribes to his [Saeed’s] point of view.”

On the longstanding turmoil and violence in Baluchistan province. “A healing process has to be undertaken. … The process has begun.” He said an increased turnout of Baluchistan’s voters in the July election and a political re-engagement of ethnic Baluch tribal leaders are positive signs. Still, Qureshi said, Pakistan must improve governance and reduce corruption in Baluchistan, which is Pakistan’s poorest province.

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