A Conversation With Shahid Khaqan Abbasi

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Don Pollard
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi

Prime Minister, Islamic Republic of Pakistan

SANGER: Good afternoon, and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. It’s wonderful to see all of you here, and particularly to welcome the prime minister—still new Prime Minister of Pakistan Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. I can’t think you enough for coming. People often say that United Nations week here is the closest thing to diplomatic speed dating that there is. (Laughter.) So we’re particularly glad that you’ve been willing to give us nearly an hour here to talk through these issues.

I’m David Sanger. I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion. And here’s our plan: We’re going to ask the prime minister to speak. He’s agreed to talk to us for just about 10 minutes. We’re just going to do it informally here from the chairs. And then he and I are going to engage in a conversation for about 20 minutes. And we’ve had a little practice at this, because we had the honor of spending a little bit of time with him earlier today. And then we’re going to take questions from all of you. When that moment comes, there will be microphones that will be distributed around, but we want to make sure that the questions really are questions, and short and pithy, so that we can get as many people as possible in on the conversation.

So, Mr. Prime Minister, you’ve been in office now for just about a month and a half, right? A little longer. I’m sure it’s seemed longer than that. So we’re interested in your early observations, and then we’ll get into a deeper conversation.

ABBASI: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.

And let me start with the economy. The Pakistan economy has done well in the last four years. All the macro indicators are doing well. The massive investment in infrastructure—highways, power, dams, gas pipelines, LNG infrastructure. We’ve been able to achieve over 5.3 percent growth. And we’ll be looking at 6 percent sustained growth over the next few years.

So stability is critical for us. And that’s what we tend to work on. Pakistan is a large market. And I think it will be—it’ll be a growing market. We are projected to have a middle class of about 100 million people by 2025. There are many institutions out there that predict Pakistan to be one of the top 20 economies in the world by 2030. We are a very youthful population. Sixty percent are less than 30 years old. So it’s a big market, consumer market. And we are looking for investment to come in from all over the world.

Democracy has taken root in Pakistan. On July 28th, we—when we had breakfast, we had a government. When we had lunch, there was no government. (Laughter.) So—

SANGER: It happens. (Laughs.)

ABBASI: So we got to the decision that we do not necessarily agree with, but we honored it, got implemented, the prime minister left office. The party met the next day. They took the decision to nominate me as their candidate, and three days later I got elected, and here I am.

So democracy and the stability of policy has taken root in Pakistan. We are already vibrant and free press. Most of us believe they’re maybe too free. But that’s the reality. So that is there.

The security situation has improved vastly. We have taken the fight on terror to the terrorists. We have fought them. We have defeated them. We have suffered a lot. We have 6,500 martyrs in the army. We lost over 30,000 civilians, 50,000 injured. So it’s been a massive effort. It has been a very vicious war. And today over 200,000 troops are involved in that war to defeat terror on our own soil.

We suffered economic losses because of this war. It’s estimated over 120 billion (dollars) of economic losses happened. We are today fighting active war against terror with our own resources. This impression that any resources came from abroad is not correct. We fought the war with our own resources and we defeated the terrorists.

And let me say that nobody wants peace more in Afghanistan than Pakistan. This perception that there are sanctuaries is absolutely not correct. We have defeated the enemy on our own territory. We have destroyed the sanctuaries. And today the cross-border incursions, if they happen, are from Afghanistan into Pakistan to attack our forces. We have suffered the terror described, and we are today implementing border management to control cross-border infiltration.

We are also playing host to over 3 million Afghans. We at one time played host to over 5 million Afghans. So we have contributed to Afghanistan’s development. We’ve hosted them. We’ve contributed to economic growth in Afghanistan. The regional connectivity that is there—the pipeline projects, the road projects, the power projects—we are working on them through Afghanistan. And we firmly believe that war is not a solution for Afghanistan. That is very clear to us. And we really want Afghan-led solution in Afghanistan, a negotiated solution. And we firmly hope that the Afghanis can sit together and resolve their differences and defeat terrorism on their soil.

The relationship with the U.S. is 70 years old. It’s not a relationship that is defined by Afghanistan alone. We have engaged with the U.S. We continue to engage with them to resolve any differences that come up and move forward. And we intend to partner with the U.S. to defeat terror in the area, to find peace in Afghanistan, and provide stability to the region.

So that’s my statement. We can go with the questions.

SANGER: Great. Well, thank you very much.

And let’s pick up on a couple of the themes. So just last month you heard President Trump give his first detailed speech on Southeast Asia, and particularly the American involvement in Afghanistan. But in the course of that speech, he was pretty harsh about Pakistan—harsher, I think, than I would have heard—did hear before from President Obama, who, of course, knew your country pretty well and had traveled in it as a young man, or even from President Bush, under whom Pakistan became a major non-NATO ally; got that designation soon after 9/11.

So I’m wondering first if you could give us your impressions of both the president’s speech and of the American strategy for the region, which seemed to be to keep American troops in Afghanistan as in a training role in relatively modest numbers, but for the foreseeable future. There was no—there was no deadline placed on that.

ABBASI: Let me just say that we’ve engaged with the Americans, with the American administration. We intend to move forward. The objective is the same: to fight terror and bring peace to Afghanistan. So that’s our policy, and I think our performance on the ground proves that—that we’ve fought terror, we defeated terror on our soil, and we intend to continue with that.

There can be differences on how we move forward, but those are differences that can be resolved. We do not believe that there is a military solution to the crisis in Afghanistan. The Afghans have to sit together and resolve the problems. So that’s how we look at that relationship.

SANGER: I had the chance this morning to spend some time with President Ghani of—Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan. The story he tells about the state of terrorist activity, and Taliban activity in particular, is at some variance with what you’ve just described to us. He believes there still are sanctuaries in Pakistan. He believes that the Taliban still move fairly freely over the border, that they still have a good deal of their leadership—not all of it—living in Pakistani territory, that there are other terror groups, not just the Pakistani Taliban, not just the TTP, who are based there. It strikes me just listening to you before that you and the Afghans just have a very different understanding of what the basic situation looks like, where the terrorists are located. How can that be?

ABBASI: Well, we’re already clear on the situation, that today the only cross-border penetration is from Afghanistan into Pakistan to attack our troops. We have had six suicide attempts in the recent past. Five were Afghan nationals who crossed over into Pakistan and attacked our people, including the deputy chair of the Senate who survived. Twenty-two people were killed in that attack. And we’ve asked the—we’ve told Afghans that if there is any sanctuary that they can give us coordinates for, we will take action against that sanctuary. As far as we are concerned, today no sanctuaries exist on Pakistani soil from which any activity takes place against Afghanistan.

SANGER: Hmm. You know, when we say that to American intelligence officials for example, they point frequently to places like Lahore, where they still see activity that they believe is directed at India and elsewhere. They frequently mention a political candidate who is—has declared, though he may not be able to actually run—Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a militant leader for whom the United States has a $10 million bounty on his head. He’s been in house arrest in Lahore. But when you travel around Lahore these days, you see his picture on political campaign posters. And so Americans say to us, how can the Pakistani government believe that, or expect us to believe that they have rooted out all the elements of terror if somebody like that, who has evaded American capture all these years, is running for office?

ABBASI: If you’re talking about Hafiz Saeed, he belongs to a proscribed organization. We have taken action against him. He’s in house arrest. In the recent by-election, the candidate did use his poster, his picture as an election poster, which is illegal to do, and action will be taken against him by the election commission. But he polled about 4 percent of the vote. So we do not condone such activity, and we will take action where it’s required. And we have taken action in the past. He has been under detention for over two to three years now.

SANGER: I mentioned before that you of course have the status of a major non-NATO ally, and yet it strikes me that the degree of engagement that I see now between Pakistan and the United States under the Trump administration seems considerably less than what we’ve gotten accustomed to since Pakistan got that status. There used to be a regular strategic dialogue with Pakistan. It seems to be on that list of strategic dialogues that Secretary Tillerson has cancelled. You used to see fairly senior delegations coming back and forth between the two countries. I think the meeting you had with Vice President Pence yesterday was the most senior meeting that we have seen yet between your government and the Trump administration. So tell us just a little bit about where you believe the Trump administration is in its engagement with you, and where you’d like to see that go.

ABBASI: Well, we are engaged with them. We’re engaged at various levels. And our objective is the same, to find peace in Afghanistan, to develop the relationship further. And relationships have their ups and downs. I think our narrative is very clear. Our story is very clear. And I think the engagement will continue. And I think any misconceptions will go away. We remain a partner in the war against terror. That’s the basic issue at hand here. We will continue to engage with the American efforts taken to fight the war against terror, and also to find peace in Afghanistan.

SANGER: Now, you mentioned to me earlier today that you’re really not eager to see continued American aid, certainly of civilian aid. In this room back in 2009, 2010, we had extensive discussion of the legislation that then Senator Kerry, later Secretary Kerry, was co-sponsoring. Ultimately went through, for $1.5 billion a year in civilian aid, on top of the military assistance. And the idea was to try to normalize the relationship. As you look back on that period of time, was that aid effort fundamentally a failure? I know you say now that you’re not really that interested in getting the aid.

ABBASI: We have really—there’s no substantial aid at the present time. And in fact, if you look at the war against terror, we fought it with our own resources. In fact, as I said, we suffered about $120 billion in economic losses. And I was just checking the record, and found we never billed the U.S. forces for ground logistics or for air logistics across our territory. So any conception that there has been a massive support to the Pakistan armed forces is not correct.

SANGER: Mmm hmm. Now, the United States was running operations in—toward Afghanistan, but also against terror groups from Pakistani territory. We had significant drone bases in the past in Pakistan. Is it your view that that is a helpful thing that you would like to see continued, resumed? Or would you rather see the United States not operate from Pakistani territory?

ABBASI: Well, we—I think all the forces operating in the region have to respect Pakistani sovereignty. That’s the way it should be. We respect Afghan sovereignty, they should respect our sovereignty. And bases are provided as requested. I don’t think there’s a need for bases anymore on our territory. So that relationship continues to be a supplemental relationship for fighting the terrorists in the area.

SANGER: Are you right now hosting any American bases on your territory, any American operations?

ABBASI: No, no.

SANGER: Regular bases? None?

ABBASI: None. No bases at all.

SANGER: None. And would you oppose having any resumption of drone strikes, other operations from Pakistani territory if requested by the Trump administration?

ABBASI: By U.S. drone?


ABBASI: No, no. We cannot condone that. We cannot allow that. I think the sovereignty of our territory has to be respected. And this is a decision that only the parliament can make.

SANGER: As we discussed earlier today, you are—in your new position, you sit atop the national command authority, which is the Pakistani name for the grouping of government officials who control your nuclear arsenal. There’s no nuclear arsenal in the world that is growing faster. And there’s no nuclear arsenal in the world, other than North Korea’s, that tends to worry American more, because they worry about the safety of the arsenal. They worry about the command and control of the arsenal. In 2015, there was an effort by the Obama administration to try to get into discussions about beginning to control the arsenal. They were particularly worried about what they referred to as tactical nuclear weapons—and I think you don’t refer to them in that way—that they were concerned would be deployed along and near the Indian border. So bring us up to date on the status of these conversations.

ABBASI: We have a very robust and very secure command-and-control system over our strategic nuclear assets, and I think time has proved that it’s a process that is very secure. It’s a process that has complete civilian oversight through the NCA.

As far as tactical nuclear weapons, we do not have any fielded tactical nuclear weapons. We have developed short-range nuclear weapons as a counter to the Cold Start doctrine that India has developed. Again, those are in the same command-and-control authority that controls the other strategic weapons.

So there is no question of it being not in secure hands. Time has proved, and it’s a very secure environment in which our strategic weapons are controlled and held.

SANGER: And in your time as prime minister, have you had a chance to go back, then, and sort of reexamine that system to assure yourself, as your—as I know your two immediate predecessors had to, about the security of both the vetting of the people who have the control, the rehearsal of command and control to make sure that you are in the loop, that it’s not entirely left to the military? Have you had a moment to review all of that? I know you’ve only been in office for seven weeks.

ABBASI: I can only share the nonconfidential information with you. We have periodic meetings—periodic meetings to review these processes, and those are held on time and as scheduled. So the civilian oversight on the process remains.

SANGER: I want to talk a little bit about India and the state of play with your discussions with India. So, first, give us your assessment of what’s happening up along the Line of Control and whether you think you have managed now what had been some pretty tense time up there in recent times.

ABBASI: There is Indian aggression along the Line of Control, mostly to draw attention away from the genuine struggle of the Kashmiri people, who have today risen against the Indian occupation there. And we fully support the right of self-determination. We’ve fully supported that at every forum since 1948, and we continue to support that. And that issue should be resolved as per the U.N. Security Council resolutions. There’s no two opinions about that. So we fully support the self-determination rights of the Kashmiri people, and we ask the world community to honor and defend that.

And the Indian occupation forces there have committed atrocities which are really beyond belief, and we expect the world community to take notice of those atrocities. These are very serious crimes against humanity in that region.

SANGER: And what are your plans and hopes for discussions, your next steps of discussions with the Indian senior leadership? Each one of your predecessors has usually had an initiative of some kind. Some worked, some fizzled out pretty quickly.

ABBASI: Well, I think we need to engage on core issues. Those have to be resolved first, and Kashmir is the basic core issue there. But unfortunately, in the recent past the aggression from India has continued unabated, and that is not acceptable. And we want normal relations with India, but on the basis of trust and respect.

SANGER: You saw how the United States a decade ago signed an agreement with India that basically looked past their—the fact that they were not members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and opened the way for greater U.S.-Indian trade. I think many in this room would probably tell you that American companies have been disappointed, by and large, with how that’s worked out. But at the same time, your predecessor, Prime Minister Sharif, said to me last year that he—that Pakistan was still interested in trying to negotiate a similar kind of arrangement with the U.S. to what India got in 2006. Have you pursued that? Did you discuss it with Vice President Pence yesterday?

ABBASI: That was not part of the discussion yesterday, but that is something that we always raise at various forums, that there should be equal treatment on such issues. And that’s what we intend to pursue.

SANGER: But you did not take it up with him. Did he give you any indication of where he would like to take the relationship—both the economic relationship and the diplomatic relationship?

ABBASI: This issue is part of our engagement with the U.S., but yesterday’s particularly meeting it was not discussed. But we have raised it and we intend to raise it again. The economic relationship, we want expanded relationship with the U.S. Like I said, it’s a historical relationship. It’s 70 years old. And it should not be Afghan-centric. It should not be limited to Afghanistan only. It cannot be limited to Afghanistan only. But that’s the way that we view that relationship, that we need to grow it and continue it.

SANGER: Now, you come to office with something of an unusual resume for a Pakistani official, because you spent 10 years founding what has been a very successful budget airline. And it has managed to be one of the—one of the bigger entrepreneurial successes in the Indian—in the Pakistani landscape. And it is one that I think many in Pakistan sort of wonder what lessons that you were able to bring from your business relationship to the way Pakistan’s economy can operate. So tell us a little bit about what you—what you believe.

ABBASI: That’s a fairly loaded question. (Laughter.)

SANGER: Yeah. Well, we’re in an era—we’re in an era where it turns out—business leadership turns out to be considered to be an important prerequisite, so. (Laughter.)

ABBASI: No, yes it’s working well so far, I guess. But, no, basically this is a dynamic business. So it helps you—decision-making helps—(inaudible)—and very quick. So I think it’s good training for politics in some ways, although I think Mr. Trump’s airline didn’t do so well. (Laughter.) So we can really learn some lessons there. (Laughter.)

SANGER: Well, as I said to you earlier, you know, there is no single qualification that I think a Pakistani leader could have that would win more points with President Trump when you have a moment to go sit down with him than your business experience. But truly, in Pakistan one of the complaints that you frequently hear is that there’s still too much state control of the economy to this day. And I’m wondering what your plans are along those lines.

ABBASI: I think those complaints are a thing of the past. In fact, there is probably a need for regulation now that did not exist before. So we have demand in several sectors to have a regulator which can help the industry grow, instead of unregulated expansion. So the government controls are very minimal in Pakistan, and we continue to reduce them as needed. We, for instance, have actually started the process of deregulation in Pakistan, of limiting state controls, back in 1990. And we’ve continued that process. He started privatization in Pakistan, very successful effort at privatization, and that has continued. Only a very few government-owned entities remain to be privatized today.

SANGER: Tell us a little bit about the internal politics right now in Pakistan. There was a sense when you were placed in this job that you might be in something of a caretaker role until someone else in the Sharif family got elected—Prime Minister Sharif’s brother—and might be able to run for office. Do you view yourself holding this office and running anew for several years? What’s your own plan?

ABBASI: Well, I’m here because my party decided to put me here. So, after the June 4 elections—and we hope to come back to power—the party again will decide. So it’s basically a decision by the party, and we have a very robust working committee of the party where these issues are discussed in detail and decisions taken. So I think this is a decision that lies with a party, not with a person.

SANGER: But if you had your way, you would stay in this job for a number of years, do you think? Are you enjoying it—

ABBASI: Well, you should never ask a politician that.

SANGER: A-ha. (Laughter.)

ABBASI: Exactly. (Laughs.) That’s a difficult question to ask.

SANGER: Difficult to answer. They’re very easy to ask. (Laughter.)

ABBASI: I can tell you I did not aspire for the job at that time. I was a reluctant candidate for the job. I can tell you that.

SANGER: Yeah, so I understand. Good.

Well, let’s open this up to a discussion with our members here. There are microphones around, so we’ll ask that you wait until a microphone gets to you, because we are livestreaming this so we want to be able to make sure that everybody—I guess we’ll start right here with this gentleman.

Q: Hello, Mr. Prime Minister. I’m Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch.

And my question concerns Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. I think you know just this past Thursday a Christian man was sentenced to death for a posting of a poem on WhatsApp that was deemed blasphemous. And just two months before that there was a young man who was sentenced to death for blasphemous—allegedly blasphemous content on a Facebook chat. You know, before that a Christian couple sentenced to death for a blasphemous text. And even the interior minister this past March said that blasphemers are enemies of the people, which has fomented some of this mob violence against alleged blasphemers. So my question to you is: As prime minister now, would you speak out against the blasphemy law, and certainly about this harsh application of blasphemy with death sentences and mob violence and the like?

ABBASI: The laws in the country are very clear, and it’s only up to the parliament to amend the laws. The job of the government is to make sure that the laws are not abused and innocent people are not prosecuted or prosecuted. So that’s my primary job. There has been debate on this issue in the provincial assemblies and in the national assembly, but it’s only up to the parliament to amend or change the laws.

SANGER: If I could just follow up quickly on that question, certainly it is up to the parliament, but you’re in a position of both great political and moral leadership now in your post as prime minister. And I think the core of the question was whether or not the leaders of Pakistan are willing to go stand up to what seems to be, at least through American and Western eyes at time(s), death sentences for what would clearly be protected speech in much of the rest of the world.

ABBASI: Well, I cannot comment on what is the law of the country. As I said, the only amendment that can happen to that law can be done by the parliament, and there are two houses to the parliament.

SANGER: But you can speak out on this issue.

ABBASI: Well, as I said, the law is there. The law is in place. The law is in force. The courts can comment on the law. But until it’s in—it’s in force, it’s the job of the government to enforce the law.

SANGER: OK. Right here. Ma’am.

Q: Masuda Sultan, Insight Group.

I was wondering, you talked a little bit about the role of India, the way that the Trump administration sees it. I was just wondering what you think the role of India should be in Afghanistan.

ABBASI: Zero. (Laughter.) India—we don’t foresee any political or military role for India in Afghanistan. I think it will just complicate the situation and it will not resolve anything. So if they want to do economic assistance, that’s their prerogative, but there’s no—we don’t accept or see any role politically or militarily for India in Afghanistan.

SANGER: Do you see a business role for them in Afghanistan—as investors, as—

ABBASI: That’s up to them. All countries have the right to trade with each other, invest in other countries. So if they want to do that—and India has invested in Afghanistan in the past.

SANGER: Ma’am.

Q: Carolyn Maloney, Congress.

What does Pakistan need to do, and what does India need to do, to achieve peace?

ABBASI: I think the basic issue is Kashmir. And we—the implementation of the Security Council resolution will be a great starting point, that that will help address each other’s concerns and provide peace to the region and—between Pakistan and India. That’s the core issue that is just between our two countries.


Q: Thank you.

Prime Minister, as I listen to you talk about U.S. aid, I began to wonder if you had something else in common with our current president besides a business background, namely also some alternative facts. As I understand it, $23 billion in U.S. aid was spent between—in Pakistan between 2001 and 2013. And my source on this is not the U.S. government, it is the nation, in Pakistan. The money has gone, among other things, in the civil assistance, of which there was $8 billion—just the Benazir Income Support Program and the reduction of maternal and child mortality—two of the successes of your government. What this means, in other words, is money had been going from the pockets of people in this room to the shalwars of people in Pakistan. Now we don’t really begrudge it, but are you telling us that this didn’t happen and are you telling us that you wouldn’t care if it was cut?

ABBASI: I think the question—

Q: Remember that you’re on the record and that the administration may be listening.

ABBASI: Yeah, no, I have no issue with that. The question was on military assistance. So I said the military assistance is very limited at the moment. In the past, if you want to do an accounting of the past, that can also be done. But I’m telling you that today, for example, over a million sorties are flown by coalition aircraft through Pakistan territory, and we never bill for that. Millions of tons of equipment moves through Pakistan territory on the ground. We never bill for that, because we believe in the war against terror. We supported that coalition, we continue to support efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan. So if we want to go back into history and start accounting for how many dollars were spent, Pakistan, as I said, post-9/11, the most conservative numbers: We lost $120 billion in economic growth. So—and that—if you relate to the American economy, it’s probably—it’s close to like $5 trillion in equivalent terms. So these are not small numbers for Pakistan.

SANGER: Now you’ve mentioned the military aid, but I think your question also went to the civilian aid programs. Are you saying that you want no more civilian aid as well, or do you want to continue those programs?

ABBASI: Well, the civilian aid programs continue. USAID has done tremendous work in Pakistan, and especially in my old ministry, they assisted us with the LNG program, and were very successful. So those programs have worked.

But you must also remember that most of the aid was given when there was no democracy in Pakistan, when there was a military dictator, when 9/11 happened, and most of this funding happened at that time. Was it good funding or bad funding? That only history will judge. But the reality is that the people of Pakistan really did not benefit much from those efforts. So I think that’s why we today do not talk about aid. We want the U.S. government to assist where we are able to provide a better future for our people, to assist in programs which are beneficial globally, and to assist in the war against terror. As I said, before the war against terror, we had all these sources. There’s been a tremendous—there’s been a huge effort. It’s not a minor effort. We fought the—we fought the costliest, the longest, and the deadliest war against terror that Pakistan has ever seen. And I—without any doubts today, if there’s one country fighting terror on the ground, it is Pakistan.

SANGER: Straight back on the aisle there.

Q: Omeed Malik, Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

For the benefit of those who don’t follow Pakistani domestic politics as closely, could you distinguish your vision for your country from Imran Khan?

ABBASI: I think both the parties have manifestos. We—as you talk about morality in politics—we believe in mutual respect between politicians. We believe in the sanctity of the ballot. And we believe in political change at the ballot box and not through the court system. I certainly hope Mr. Imran Khan and the other politicians of the country will also agree with that. And it’s only the people of Pakistan who will judge. And the people of Pakistan will have the right to judge next summer.

SANGER: Young lady in the very back row there.

Q: Holly (sp) with FoxNews.com.

I just wanted to find out, is there any updates on the progress of releasing Dr. Afridi. And if you can comment at all on his health condition, which has been in the news as not great.

SANGER: Just for everybody else in the audience, we’re referring to the doctor who had participated in a vaccination program and was also considered to be perhaps central to the location of bin Laden during the bin Laden raid in 2011.

ABBASI: Dr. Afridi is in detention and under trial for violating the laws of the country. And as far as I recall, there’s no health issues with Dr. Afridi.

SANGER: Tell us a little more about what—

ABBASI: His family has been meeting him, I believe, yeah.

MR.     : Yes. No health issues and his family has been meeting him.

SANGER: Tell us a little more about what laws Pakistan believes he may have broken and whether you believe in the end the core reason that he is in detention is because he may have aided American forces in identifying bin Laden, who your predecessor said was not on Pakistani territory.

ABBASI: Well, we certainly didn’t have knowledge of Osama bin Laden being there. And we only wish that we would have been taken into confidence so that any action would have been mutual. But Dr. Afridi was a practitioner of medicine in the polio program. And he should have been doing his job. If he had any knowledge, and brought to Pakistani security, they would have taken action.

SANGER: Can you imagine an alternative scenario in which he might be treated as a national hero? I mean, he helped you rid the country of a known terrorist that you said you were searching for.

ABBASI: Well, he was violating many laws in the country. So we have to uphold the law. Like I said, if he had any knowledge, he should have brought it to the knowledge of the Pakistani agencies who were available in that area.

SANGER: Also on the back row.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, this is Asid (sp) from Voice of America.

I have two short question. First is, you have a very robust suggestion from you of joint monitoring of Pakistan-Afghanistan borders. If Pakistan military is on board on this suggestion, and what is the response from Kabul, as you have met with Mr. Ghani as well? And second question is, you yourself and your top Cabinet members, they are advocating, like, to bring house in order. What does that really mean? What is a problematic area you want to fix?

ABBASI: Well, as far as the border is concerned, the border management is concerned, we are putting up a fence in parts of the border. It’s an expensive proposition. We are open to any suggestions with the funds we have. We propose joint patrol. We propose joint posts. Like I said, there’s 350 kilometers of the border today where there’s not a single Afghan soldier. And that has become a safe haven for infiltration by drug lords today who at random cross the border through our territory, move through our territory. We pursue them. But when the border is uncontrolled, it’s difficult to do that.

And what is the other question that you had?

MR.     : House in order.

Q: (Off mic.)

ABBASI: Oh, the house, yeah. The house in order means that Pakistan has to come first. That’s what we mean, that we want peace in Afghanistan, we want stability there, but Pakistan’s needs and Pakistan’s security has to come first for us.

I think Pakistan has suffered enough in the security efforts in that area, and that has gone unappreciated. At the end of the way, whenever these events have taken place in the region, the people who have suffered the most are the people of Pakistan. I just gave you the numbers, of the number of casualties that we’ve had, and those are not small numbers. So we just ask for appreciation of this by the Afghan people and the world community at large.

SANGER: Gentleman right back there. There’s a microphone coming to you.

Q: Mansoor Ijaz. Mr. Prime Minister, it’s good to see you again after so many years.

My question is, you answered a question about the nuclear program earlier, and you gave a very clear understanding of how the civilian and military compartments in Pakistan take care of the security there. But the world doesn’t worry about it quite in the same way. The world paints a picture of extremists that could get their hands on either nuclear assets or unregulated fissile materials, which are a big problem in Pakistan as well. Could you help us to understand and put our minds at ease as to how you deal with that problem?

And secondly, given the frosty relations between the U.S. and Pakistan right now, might it be a moment where you could stand up and help us deal with the North Koreans in some way, shape, or form?

ABBASI: As far as Pakistan’s nuclear program is concerned, I made it very clear that the command-and-control systems we have in place are as secure as anybody else’s in the world, and the last 20 years are testament to that. So let there be no doubt that any extremist element or somebody like that can gain control of fissile material or a nuclear weapon. There is just no possibility of that. And it’s time-tested, and it’s a very secure system that has been put in place. And it has civilian oversight, which is very critical, we believe, to the whole process. So Pakistan, I think, is a responsible global citizen, and we’ve shown a responsibility on the ground with this huge war on terror that we’ve been fighting for the last 15 years.

SANGER: I think part of his question was about unregulated fissile material. You are now building a fourth plutonium reactor. That’s a very large number of plutonium reactors for a country the economic size of Pakistan. There is a concern that you’ve got the fastest-growing nuclear program and nuclear weapons program in the world. Is there a reason it needs to grow at this pace?

ABBASI: We have diversified our power generation to add nuclear to it, and these are the four Chinese reactors that are operating. There are three that are small reactors, 340 megawatts each. So I don’t think it’s a source of major concern for anybody.

SANGER: The source of concern is not the addition of the reactors, it’s what you might do with the plutonium waste that comes out of it, which of course can become weapons material. Are you willing to commit that none of the waste coming out of the commercial reactors will be used for the weapons program?

ABBASI: No, we do have nuclear capability. There’s no doubt about that. And we know how to handle nuclear waste. We had a nuclear program in the early ’60s, one of the first countries—

SANGER: You did, mmm hmm.

ABBASI: —in Asia to have a nuclear program. So if we’ve managed it for over 50-odd years, I think we can continue to manage it.

SANGER: The question I was asking was not whether or not you’re concerned about—or a concern about the management, it’s whether or not the plutonium waste that comes out of those civilian reactors would then be built in to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. Can you commit that the civilian reactors will not be used for the nuclear weapons program?

ABBASI: I don’t have the specific numbers on how much nuclear waste is produced. I think only experts can provide information on that. But we are very responsible in that respect, and time has proved that.

SANGER: OK. Right here.

Q: Thank you. Robert Scott, Adelphi University. Thanks for being here.

My question is about the role and responsibilities of prime minister. In assuming your post, to what degree are you able to fill positions, keep those with important institutional memory, or create new posts responsible for some of these newer issues, whether it’s relations with India or terrorism or nuclear program, et cetera?

ABBASI: The authority and the responsibility of the prime minister is defined in our constitution and the subordinate laws and the regulations. And it’s very clear what the prime minister can do. Generally, the prime minister cannot take independent decisions in these matters. They have to be done by the Cabinet itself. It’s government by Cabinet. So that’s how we have operated and we continue to operate. As far as filling positions is concerned, the prime minister does have some authority. But again, there’s a process under which those—the candidates are scrutinized and the positions are filled.

SANGER: First you, then we’ll work our way right down the line. (Laughs.)

Q: Yes. Mr. Prime Minister, my name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer. I was in the U.S. government a couple of times.

Would you say a few words about the Haqqani Network in Pakistan, and its relationship, possibly, with the ISI?

ABBASI: The Haqqani Network—we’ve heard a lot about the Haqqani Network. But the fact remains that there are no bases from any of these networks to operate. So whether the network is there or not is—can be discussed and debated. But the reality remains that we do not condone any activities by any organization to pose a terrorist threat within Pakistan or to export it to other countries. We do not accept that. We do not condone that. And we will move against any such effort, especially to move across the border to Afghanistan. So I think you can rest assured that such activity is not condoned by the government of Pakistan.

Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.

In New York, we have a number of Waziri and other people from the tribal areas. And they complain that they are neglected by Islamabad, both in terms of representation in the government and also for budgets for schools and things. What do you think the future is of the integration of the tribal areas into real Pakistan? That’s one question. The other question is, I don’t know if you ever took the bus trip to China, but I really wonder what the future is for Pakistan’s economy over those mountains through China. They’re great railroad builders, but I really wonder how you view that.

ABBASI: Well, as far as our tribal areas are concerned, last week we moved the first-ever law in Pakistan to start the integration process for the tribal area into the rest of Pakistan, and to have the laws of Pakistan apply to the tribal areas. We started that process. It has general support within the political community and the people of FATA. The process is not easy. This is a system that has been there for over 100 years. But one of the elements to bring it into force is equalize the tribal area with the rest of Pakistan economically and as far as the infrastructure is concerned. So a tremendous amount of money has been committed for that. That process will start as soon as the parliament approves that bill. So Pakistan today is committing to integrating the FATA, the Federal Administered Tribal Areas, into Pakistan.

The CPEC is a major part of our economic development today. Over $60 million have been committed. And as I mentioned earlier, power plants are being built, highways are being built, other infrastructure is being built, industrial zones are being built. And it will evolve. Gwadar is a key part of—port of Gwadar is a key part of that, the CPEC process, and the trade into western China is also a key part of that process. And this is all a part of the One Belt, One Road initiative of the—in fact, today it’s the only visible part of that initiative that the Chinese have undertaken.

We have a long economic relationship with China. If you recall Dr. Kissinger, when he visited China for the first time in ’70, Pakistan supported that effort. And it’s part of the history which ties China, the U.S., and Pakistan.

SANGER: Gentleman in the back corner there.

Q: (Off mic)—from Reuters.

I wanted to ask about your meeting with Vice President Pence, and if anything was agreed to during that meeting in terms of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. I also wanted to ask about calls from Afghan President Ghani and for, you know, more integration between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and how that might look or be different from previous attempts.

ABBASI: As far as Afghanistan is concerned, we’re open to any proposal, any suggestion which brings peace to Afghanistan. That’s been our bottom line since this whole process started.

Yesterday’s meeting with Vice President Pence was actually the first with the U.S. administration, and basically to listen to each other’s viewpoint and find a way forward. And we put out a press statement after that. It was, I believe, a meeting that will allow us to engage each other more constructively and move forward.

SANGER: Sir? Right here.

Q: Thank you. Jeff Laurenti.

I appreciated very much your recycling of a term that President Trump used ad nauseum yesterday in saying that your sovereignty won’t allow you to accept American drone bases in Pakistan. But in rejecting any potential Afghan-Indian political role or cooperation, you seemed to suggest that Afghanistan didn’t enjoy quite as much sovereignty. So I wonder if you could share with us what you think Pakistan’s role is in helping secure and guarantee a peace settlement.

And with these Taliban whom American drones keep finding on your side of the border—and often dispatching to their eternal reward—what do you think is keeping those Taliban from being willing to negotiate with the government in Kabul? And how can Pakistan help in bringing them to negotiate seriously on a peace agreement for Afghanistan?

ABBASI: I think a basic fact was lost here that the Taliban are Afghans. So it’s up to the Afghan government how to deal with them. And the border is fluid. There’s a lot of cross-border movement. It has been there for centuries. Like I said, we are attempting border management through our own resources. We want the Afghans to also manage their own border. Because, like I said, today there is a substantial amount of cross-border movement by elements who are based in Afghanistan to attack our troops and our installations across the border, and that is not acceptable. And that’s the issue we’ve taken up with the Afghan government at various levels.

So we want to work with the Afghan government to find peace for Afghanistan, because peace for Afghanistan means peace for Pakistan. That’s what we—and I think that’s something that is often overlooked. We have 3 million plus Afghanis in Pakistan today. That’s not a small number.

SANGER: We are down to just our last few minutes, so we’re just going to take one or two more questions. We’ll take the gentleman right back here.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, this is Azim Mian from Geo TV, Pakistan.

And my question is, in the context of President Trump’s new revised Afghan-Pakistan policy announced last month, are you willing to go extra miles to reengage the United States and put your relationship back on the track? Thank you.

ABBASI: I think I already mentioned that it’s a partnership against terror. It’s a relationship that goes beyond Afghanistan. It’s 70 years old, and we view it in that context. And we are engaged today. We want this relationship to move forward. And I don’t see any obstacles in that process.

SANGER: We have time for just one more. We’ll take the gentleman right back here on the aisle.

ABBASI: There’s a lady here with one.

SANGER: Oh, is there?

ABBASI: Yeah, front row.


Q: Prime Minister, this is Nassir Kayum (sp) with Channel 24.

My question is to you, today you met with the World Bank president on the—and you discussed with the World Bank president on the water issue going on between Pakistan-India. Do you see any breakthrough in the near future on this issue between Pakistan-India?

ABBASI: There’s an agreement, consensus, or a solution, (but not released ?) on the technical issues. So there are provisions in the agreement on how to resolve that. So—and that’s been our stance from day one, that the issue should be resolved as per the provisions of the agreement, which are very clear. And I think the World Bank also appreciates our viewpoint. So there’s no—it’s a legal issue now. And it can be resolved within the context of the agreement.

SANGER: Truly last question, right here. Microphone’s coming to you.

Q: Thank you. Thank you very much, Prime Minister. My name is Lee Cullum. I’m a journalist from Dallas. And we appreciate your taking time to come by today. And, David, thank you for giving us quite a lot this afternoon. About five months before she was assassinated, Minister Bhutto sat on that same stage and pleaded for American help to go home and run for office again. What do you know now about how she was assassinated, and especially the role of then-President Musharraf, who some say didn’t provide the security that might have helped?

ABBASI: It’s an issue that unfortunately remains unresolved. The court case continued. Mrs. Benazir Bhutto’s own party came to power. They were there for five years. The issue still remained a mystery. Recently the court, a trial court, has taken a decision, which is questioned by many. So there will be appeals. In fact, Mrs. Bhutto’s party has filed an appeal in the high court against that decision. So it’s a legal process which continues. And it’s our job to implement whatever decisions the court has. It was a very sad incident for Pakistan. She was a political icon. And I think with great respect—she had great respect all over the world. It was a very sad event in Pakistan—(inaudible). So that’s how we view it.

SANGER: Well, Mr. Prime Minister, I can’t thank you enough for spending a full hour with us, answering questions from so many on such a range of issues. We hope you’ll come back again on your next trip back to the United States, and appreciate your being here. (Applause.)

ABBASI: Thank you. I’d just make one more statement, then—


ABBASI: Just a—just an off-the-cuff remark. It’s about the tie. I went to school in California. So in California, the said you only wear a tie on the day you get marry or you die. (Laughter.) So it’s neither of those events, so. (Laughs.)

SANGER: If I could be king for a day, that would be my rule. Thank you. (Laughs.) (Applause.)


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