Sartaj Aziz on Pakistan's Foreign and Security Policy

Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Caren Firouz/Reuters
Sartaj Aziz

Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Shirin R. Tahir-Kheli

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Sartaj Aziz, adviser to Pakistan's prime minister on foreign affairs, joins Johns Hopkins University's Shirin R. Tahir-Kheli to discuss Pakistan’s role in the security and stability of the region and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s priorities for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Aziz discusses the challenges facing Pakistan as it continues to navigate an uncertain internal security environment. He addresses the country's role in facilitation peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Aziz additionally discusses Pakistan's relationship with India.

TAHIR-KHELI: Good afternoon. I’m Shirin Tahir-Kheli. It’s my great pleasure to welcome Mr. Sartaj Aziz to the Council for this morning’s conversation and his remarks on Pakistan, Pakistan and its neighborhood, and Pakistan and the United States.

So I want to let you all know that this is a meeting on the record, but nonetheless please silence cellphones and happy noisemaking gadgets. Other than that, I just wanted to take a minute to introduce the illustrious speaker, who really needs very little introduction.

Most of us in this room seem to have some connection with Pakistan. Therefore, most of us in this room have some knowledge or acquaintance with our speaker today. He has been a member of the Pakistan foreign policy elite, as he is currently, but he has also done something quite unique. I mean, he’s been an economist with very important positions, and in fact in the world of food and agriculture. And he has, in addition to that, been a vice chancellor at a university that started up and really took off under his leadership, the Beaconhouse National University at Lahore, of which he was the vice chancellor. Prior to that, he was Pakistan’s foreign minister from August ’98 to October ’99, and was elected to the Pakistan Senate in March 1985 and remained there until 1999.

The minister is here for conversations with the U.S. leadership on the strategic dialogue with Pakistan. And we are very pleased that you could take time out from your important assignments here and come and speak to the Council about U.S.-Pakistan and the region. Thank you.

AZIZ: Well, thank you very much. It’s always a pleasure and great experience to come to Washington, and also to come to the Council on Foreign Relations and meet such a distinguished group of friends and colleagues and observers of India—Pakistan-U.S. relations.

I think, since most of you are familiar with historical events, I’ll just gloss over them very briefly. I think historically Pakistan and U.S. have been virtually on the same page throughout the first 50, 60 years of Pakistan, starting with the first Foreign Assistance Act of 1954 and then CENTO, SEATO. And whether it was initially the Cold War years and then the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and then the—against terrorism, in all these phases I think Pakistan has squarely been on the U.S. side and we have had a very good partnership and very good relationship.

Then of course the Afghanistan issue, when that came that got us much deeper from moving forward and accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union in that phase. But unfortunately, when the Russians left, everybody else left Afghanistan. And that, I think, was a big historical mistake, because if—the people who had been fighting when there was no opportunity for reconstruction and alternative jobs, they started fighting each other.

And, in my view, if we had spent even 5 percent of what we spent after 9/11 in Afghanistan, the history of Afghanistan today would be very different. But when there were no jobs and no opportunity for reconstruction, then those very people started fighting each other and created a vacuum in which people like al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden were sucked in, and they created the problem that we are already familiar with.

So after that of course came 9/11. And those very people that were trained and funded and armed jointly were pushed into our side of the border in the tribal area, and that created another existential threat to us, which I’ll come to a little later.

But through all this period, our interaction between the Pentagon and our defense establishment, between our foreign policy establishment, our economic counterparts has been quite cordial and, on the whole, very, very positive, because U.S. has been Pakistan’s longstanding partner in defense cooperation as well as on the economy. And so these opportunities in which we worked together further intensified that particular relationship.

So in this context one of the key elements in the recent past has been what we call our strategic dialogue. And the effort to carry the process beyond Afghanistan and security issues into a deeper partnership which includes better economic cooperation as well as more trade and investment cooperation. So this strategic dialogue was started actually in 2010, and three quick sessions were held in March, July, and October that year. And then, of course, these were interrupted in 2011 and ’12 by a series of unfortunate incidents—Raymond Davis, Salala, and Abbottabad connected to Osama bin Laden—and the dialogue could not take place at that time.

So when our government came in in June 2013, Secretary Kerry came to Pakistan within two months, in August, and he suggested that we should now put the relationship back on the rail and revive the dialogue. So that was done and we had the fourth round in July—in January 2014, then the fifth meeting in Islamabad in 2015. And now we had the sixth session yesterday, in which we had—initially there were 10 working groups but now there are six, and each of these groups has a very important agenda.

There’s a group on energy, and that is done very well, and they have recently evolved a partnership on new and renewable energy, which is a very important dimension of the coming years because we all need clean and renewable energy.

Then there is a group on finance and economics and trade, and that has made good progress on some of the things, although our trade has not improved, for various reasons, but generally the U.S. is still our largest trading partner.

And then there is a group on counterterrorism and violent extremism, where we have cooperation on building capacity of the security and law enforcement agencies in counterterrorism techniques and equipment.

And we also have a group of nuclear nonproliferation and related subjects, where we have very good interaction between our teams and their team.

In each of these groups there is a Pakistani co-chair person and an American co-chair person, and they, throughout the year—once a year they meet at the strategic dialogue level, at the foreign ministers level. Each present their report, and we evaluate and say this progress has been made, implementation is OK, and how do we move forward?

So yesterday these six reports were presented. And we also, of course, discussed regional issues. So on the whole I will say it was a very successful session. We have identified very important areas.

A new group, which is a part of these six groups, is education, science, and technology. And I think the best export from America to Pakistan is education, because I think basically with education and the interaction between universities—so we are evolving a concept of what you call knowledge corridor.

In the last centuries, people concentrated on physical corridors, road connectivity and energy connectivity, but knowledge corridor, in our view, is a very significant concept in which, through the exchange of knowledge, expertise, and technology, you spearhead progress, which is not possible without that. In fact, gradually more and more economies are knowledge-based economy rather than only sort of raw material production-based technologies.

So this is a very promising group and there are proposals to increase the number of funded scholarships and our own financed scholarships. We have more teachers. We have more—in different fields we hope to do that. So these are the—some of the things which have happened.

Now, the regional agenda, there are three issues which dominated our discussion and also occupied the floor today as we look into the future of our U.S.-Pakistan relation. Now, in looking at the future of U.S.-Pakistan relation, the important thing is the change in Pakistan’s policies and ground realities which provide the basis for carrying this process further.

And these are areas in which our priorities coincide with U.S. priorities, and the progress we make provides the opportunity for better interaction. And the most important of these is counterterrorism, because, as I mentioned earlier, we inherited this crisis on our borders after 9/11, and they became a threat to us to a very large extent because our tribal area is ungoverned and very long, porous border. So when the terrorists from Afghanistan and those groups which are fighting Russians—Uzbeks and Tajiks and many other nationalities—they came to our part. They initially were looking for safety, but gradually they started expanding to other parts.

So by 2007-8 they had become a major threat to our—those areas. And there was the Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which joined hands with the people of Afghan Taliban, where it came from there, and some other groups also supporting them. So then the frequency of suicide attacks and bomb-blasting started increasing from 2004 onwards. And I think by last count, total casualties in these 12 years have been about 60,000, including 10,000 security personnel, and economic losses more than 100 billion (dollars).

So I think when we came in, this—and, of course, with this kind of security environment it affected investment climate, it affected trade relations and people could not come to Pakistan. So this was priority number one when our government came in, how to deal with this issue.

So I think in the last two and a half years we have achieved notable success in this. And we started with Karachi in September 2013, when we started the Karachi operation, because Karachi’s surroundings had become a hub of all the people who had escaped from the tribal areas, and they were trying to build their networks around Karachi.

So the problem was beyond the capacity of the police, so we have a semi-military establishment called Rangers, which is sort of a kind of local force which is officered by the army and is a specialized force. So they were given powers to investigate through a special law, and they, in about 12 months’ time, managed to apprehend about 12,000 of these extremist and terrorist groups, which was very providential, as you will see later on.

And then in nine months later, in June 2014, we started what is called the Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a major operation in the North Waziristan agency, the largest of our seven tribal agencies. And after the action in the first six agencies, everybody had converged into this and created their networks of IED factories, suicide training centers, communication networks, command-and-control system. So it had become a very major hub of—and—(inaudible)—had virtually gone.

So 15th June last—2014 this operation started, and in the last 18, 19 months they have managed to clear out about almost 90, 95 percent of the agency, and the infrastructure of all the terrorist networks have been totally destroyed. And that, I think, has been a very important factor in this whole process.

Then came, of course, the December 2014 attack on the Peshawar school where 140 children were killed. And that was a very, in a way, game-changer because it unified the nation against terrorism. Before that we did not have a total political consensus against terrorism because there were groups which were sympathetic with them for one reason or another. But after that incident, all the political parties came together and they joined hands and said: Enough is enough. There is no distinction between good and bad terrorists. They are all bad for us and we must move against them.

So that laid the basis for what is called a National Action Program of 20 Points, which was adopted within about two weeks by all the political parties, both inside the parliament and outside, including many religious parties. And this now is the platform which is under implementation. And the first part, of course, is after the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, an intelligence-based operation system.

This is a very interesting concept because, as I mentioned in the context of Karachi, police people know everywhere who has entered what place and where they are living but they don’t have capacity to take them on. So when that intelligence is combined with the force of the semi-military, the Rangers, and then the army, then the operation becomes more effective.

So this intelligence-based operation has been going on around all the cities of the country for the last 13 months, and they have apprehended almost 25,000 of these terrorists or extremist or groups—some killed, some arrested, some expelled. And so this has—as a result of these two things, the Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the intelligence-based operation, the terrorist attacks in the last year, 2015, were less than half of what they were in 2014.

So this drastic reduction has been a very welcome development, and the security environment in Karachi and many of the cities has improved and investors are coming back. And so generally it has been a very—and it’s a work in progress. It is not yet completed. But I think the next 12 to 18 months we think that the incidents will come down drastically.

The next phases of the National Action Plan is madrassas reforms and tightening of the system of their funding sources. We have about 7(,000), 8,000 unregistered madrassas. We have people who are trained, brainwashed, and prepared. All of the madrassas are not terrorist related but many of them are, so now those madrassas have been notified: Either close down or register yourself.

And we have now parallel funding control mechanism. The Federal Investigation Agency has a financial monitoring network which monitors where money is coming from outside and how it is used. So this will block off, choke off many of the places where these people either get training or get motivation.

And then of course we have, along with this effort, a new organization called NACTA, National Counter Terrorism Authority, which is the nerve center of intelligence coordination as well as different operations which have become our main arm against terrorism as we go along, because the combination of intelligence, political work, and military action has to be combined if you want to achieve results.

And the third phase, which is medium term, is de-radicalization, which means how do you win the minds and hearts of these people? It means curriculum reform. The whole counter-narrative for—the extremist narrative, and particularly the ISIL narrative, is very powerful and very catchy for the young people. So you can’t counter it by sermons from religious leaders. It requires a very different approach to identifying these messages and identifying the correct response to these.

So this is medium-term work, and we are cooperating with some other countries also through the Organization of Islamic Countries to find the counter-narratives because this is more relevant for many countries, not only Pakistan.

So I think this is one area in which is an area of strategic convergence between Pakistan and United States. And there is considerable appreciation that Pakistan has taken a decisive step in the world, particularly in our own region. The incidence of terrorism is decreasing in Pakistan. We are almost on the point where we can say we are turning the corner, and we hopefully, in the next year or two, will be one of the outstanding examples of a country that was able to control terrorism within its borders.

The second area where we have this convergence and where we have made good progress is the strengthening of the democratic process. As you know, Pakistan has suffered from military rule for half its independent existence, and that has been a major cause of many of problems.

So in 2006, the two main political parties, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Mr. Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League, designed a charter of democracy in London, saying in future we will never encourage—allow the armed forces to take advantage of our differences, because they always step in, you know, and try to do something. And the opposition would always invite the army to play its role in the country. And when they come, they don’t leave. They don’t arbitrate. They just find—they become the camel’s neck.

And so, therefore, it is something that was a very welcome development. And thank god that that particular agreement that was reached has been fulfilled after the 2008 election and democratic government had come. It was not performing in terms of going very well, but our leader at that time said that bad democracy is better than no democracy, so let the process go on. The people will decide whether they deserve to be elected or not.

So we had the first smooth transition in 2013, when one democratic government transferred power to another. But unfortunately, a year later there was a threat to democracy again when one of our political parties, with the help of another party, started a four-month agitation called dharna in our capital to bring own the government. And that’s the time when the test of this charter of democracy came.

And all the opposition parties, all the parties except these two parties, came to the parliament, and for two weeks they defended the democratic processes and would not allow this to be accepted. So that defeated the dharna, and I think the threat of instability that was looming at that time disappeared. So that, in a way, showed that the people’s commitment at large to democratic institutions and tradition is very strong.

But democracy is not just periodical elections. We have the other important prerequisites for democracy in place. We had an independent judiciary. As some of you would recall, there was a very big moment in 2009 to restore the independence of the judiciary, which Musharraf had dislodged. And then there was liberalization of the media. So we are very free and liberal in the media at the moment, which is strongly monitoring violation of human rights, violation of provincial rights, corruption, et cetera, et cetera.

And thirdly, of course we now have a strong and vibrant civil society. So different pillars of democracy that we need in the country are getting into place. It’s not dramatic, but the way these institutions are developing we can say that democracy is taking root in Pakistan, which is very important because all our problems in the past came in a military rule. Ayub Khan’s rule was excellent for the economy, but East Pakistan is now—they’re ruling their own affairs and it became Bangladesh, similarly, in West Pakistan after that.

When Zia-ul-Haq came, it looked very sort of elegant on the surface, but Balochistan liberation movement, Sindhudesh movement, they all started under dictatorship, because in democracy every constituent unit is managing its own affairs, and subunits also. So that’s why they feel involved and the breakaway dissident movements don’t come. So in that sense I think democracy is the guarantee of the strength of the federation. And so that, I think, has now taken root and so we are quite happy.

The third area where I think we have this convergence and our ground reality has improved is our policy of peaceful neighborhood. Since our prime minister’s main plank is economic revival, you can’t achieve economic progress if you have trouble with all your neighbors. So the policy to start with was we must improve our relationship with Afghanistan, which India, with Iran, with China, and all our neighborhood, because that’s the only way we can have true connectivity and, through various kinds of linkages, have better economic progress.

So with Afghanistan it was a particularly challenging task, because there was a perception in Afghanistan that whatever they achieved after 9/11 was threatened by the Taliban and they would succeed because Pakistan is supporting them. So as early as August 2013, within three months of our coming into government, we reviewed the situation. And I think we reached a unanimous conclusion that Taliban coming back to power in Afghanistan is not in our own security interests, because then all the people that I mentioned earlier who were becoming a threat to us, they’ll become even stronger. So ideologically they are a nexus.

So this was conveyed to—at that time to President Karzai and then later on to Ashraf Ghani, and that started the process of improving our relationship. There is still people who suspect that it’s not across the board, and we still have people who are sympathetic to Taliban, but I think this perception needs to be corrected, because the way we have carried on our process in the last two years, the starting point of that is very clear, that unless peace comes to Afghanistan, Pakistan will not become peaceful, and therefore our interest in restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan is as important for us as it is for Afghanistan. And that requires that there should be a political consensus between Taliban and Afghanistan, and not the other way around.

Now, it has gone through different phases, this process. Initially, when Ashraf Ghani’s government came on 29 September, 2014, there was very, very strong feeling of achieving the right relationship, and he came to Islamabad on the 14th of November that year, two months after he took over. And we had a very good arrangement how to start the reconciliation process.

But then insurgency broke out, and nobody should have expected after the ISAF withdrawal that insurgency would not pick up. But unfortunately, the start of the talks was delayed, and therefore the insurgency became much stronger than they expected. And that created a sort of perception as if we were responsible for that upsurge in insurgency. It was actually the ground situation after ISAF left. They were going to try whatever opportunity they had to capture more territory.

I must say that the Afghanistan National Security Forces’ performance has been better than our expectations and they have not lost any big territory in Afghanistan. They can lose in a couple of places. There were minor gains—losses in the short run but then they were recaptured. And so far they have held the ground overall. So everybody is now convinced that Taliban can’t overrun Afghanistan and take it back, despite all the difficulties they have in their ranks.

But the ability of these people to continue insurgency for five years, 10 years, 15 years remains undiminished. So without some kind of political reconciliation, the insurgency can’t stop and a durable peace can’t come. So that is why we persuaded them that some kind of effort should be made. So we did succeed in convening the first Afghan and Taliban meeting on the 7th of July in Murree last year, which was quite a cordial meeting because there were no preconditions, and it is the first time that Taliban talked with the Afghan government. Previously they were not recognizing them.

And they discussed amnesty and prisoners exchange and things of that kind, and agreed to meet again on 31st July, 24 days later, to have a more intense discussion on a broader agenda. But unfortunately, two days before the meeting on 31st, on 29th July, the death of Mullah Omar having died two years ago was announced from Kabul, and that derailed the whole process because they said on whose behalf are they meeting? And we still don’t know why it was necessary to announce that, or who did it to sabotage the talks, because if that was done a week later, the talks would have taken place and then the process would have continued. So that created a lot of misgivings and the talks could not be resumed.

Finally, on the 9th of December last year, at the Heart of Asia Istanbul conference, where President Ashraf Ghani came, there were intense discussions between Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and United States, and we agreed to resume the dialogue process under a four-country framework called Quadrilateral Coordination Group. So that group has met four times in the last two and a half months, first on the 11th, I think, of January, the 19th of January, then 6th February, then 23rd February. And they have prepared their terms of reference and a roadmap, which lays down how it is to be done.

So now we hope in the coming days—10, 15 days—the first such meeting could take place between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. And it is not going to be a very easy or smooth process, but if two factors operate successfully—one, the ground situation remains stable and they don’t capture more territory, and at the same time they see things at the table which is more substantial—then obviously there are chances of rapprochement. But our hope is that once talks begin, a reduction in the level of violence in Afghanistan will be one of the prerequisites. So this is an area in which Pakistan and U.S. are cooperating very closely to try to put more dialogue and try to achieve the desired results.

So these are sort of—and, of course, in the policy of peaceful neighborhood we have reached out to India, and the prime minister attended a ceremony, and we are anxiously waiting for the dialogue to be resumed. The Pathankot incident disrupted the process of two foreign secretaries meeting, but now that we have taken decisive action on this Pathankot incident the police report has been registered and an investigation team is about to go to India to collect additional evidence. The leaders have been apprehended and in protective custody, as well as their facilities seized. So I think now if they get more evidence the process will start. And it’s as prompt and active a response as we can get.

So once we begin the dialogue, I’m sure we’ll be able to at least deal with some issues even if we can’t solve all the issues and disputes. Our main purpose is that the line of control should remain peaceful. Normal relationships should start, whether it’s sporting links or other links, so the tensions don’t increase. That prepares the ground for dealing with more difficult and substantial issues.

With China, of course, as some of you are aware, we have deepened the relationship in a very major Pakistan economic corridor program, costing a total of $46 billion, which includes several power projects, several infrastructure projects. Development of Gwadar Port is under implementation. This will connect us not just to China, but also to Central Asia.

And finally, I think in this process, because of the improved security situation, the economy has started improving and the investment climate is improving. The growth rate has gone up. And this will create opportunities for more trade with the U.S. and other countries. So we are hopeful that this will happen. So these are the four kind of positive elements in this situation, on the basis of which our U.S.-Pakistan relationship will also improve.

Now, there are a couple of, what you call, question marks, and a question of issues that remain. One, as I mentioned briefly earlier, is the dealing with the Afghanistan situation. And there are certain groups, like Haqqani Network, which are still supposed to be—their remnants are still supposed to be scattered around, and they are attacking Afghanistan and the forces there. So in our case, of course, we have started taking action against these terrorist groups, one by one. Obvious, simultaneous action is not possible, both from the point of view of our capacity, as well as the fear of grow back.

But in this particular case, their infrastructure in North Waziristan has been destroyed. But some scattered groups or remnants may still be around, but the bulk of the capacity of these groups is within Afghanistan. So if we are, of course, whenever the opportunity arises, because the road map that we have developed requires to invite all groups for talks. So those who don’t come, then you can take action against them. You can’t prejudge who will come or who will not. So therefore, in terms of sequencing in the next few weeks, we will know what is happening so this issue can be addressed. But to the extent possible, we are still taking action.

The other concern, of course, is concerning our nuclear weapons, because nonproliferation is a standing agenda for the U.S. I think in terms of nuclear weapons and security and safety of nuclear weapons, and command and control, we have made outstanding progress in developing our command and control system. And globally all the international agencies and U.S. have acknowledged that Pakistan has developed a very good system for the safety, both export controls as well as command and control system. But the concern remains. But as most of you are aware, our nuclear capacity is a deterrent against Indian capacity.

So it is not something that—a deterrent is not a static concept. It’s a dynamic concept. If your adversary goes on expanding its capacity, then you have to respond. It’s not something that you can take it for granted. So we keep insisting in our relationship that India is the independent variable in this. We are the dependent variable. So if India were to restrain its regime, and the U.S. would not increase strategic and conventional imbalance between the two countries, then our task would become easier. Otherwise, we can’t even afford it, because in conventional terms, our imbalances increase enormously.

In 1990, our defense budget was $3 ½ billion, India’s was 11 (billion dollars). They have moved on—we have moved from 3 ½ (billion dollars) to 7 ½ (billion dollars) and India has moved from 11 (billion dollars) to $50 billion. So from one to 3 ½ (billion dollars) it has become one to 6 ½ (billion dollars), almost 7 (billion dollars). And so it makes our task much more difficult. So we keep urging U.S. this is our sort of complaint that you are welcome to develop your relationship with India the best way you can, but keep in mind this fact that you do not increase this imbalance between the two countries, or at least contribute to quieting the atmosphere so that we don’t need all these things. When the relationship are deteriorating and the imbalance is also increasing, then it becomes a double danger.

So these are the two, three—what I call the negative elements which we are still discussing, but I think the positive side of our agenda and our convergence of common interests how far exceeds them. Therefore, I hope that this relationship will continue, because especially for both of us, for both the countries, I hope this will continue to grow. So this is my brief assessment of U.S.-Pakistan relation. I’m sorry, I spoke a little longer than I was expected to—(laughter)—but I thought I should cover as many—as much ground as possible.

TAHIR-KHELI: Thank you very much. That was, indeed, a very comprehensive look and examination of Pakistani policy and its neighborhood.

Before opening it up to members’ question, I just wanted to start off on one aspect of the relationship and the neighborhood that you mentioned towards the end, the desire for a peaceful neighborhood. Given that the neighborhood and the even larger neighborhood is getting increasingly less peaceful, how do you manage, then, the—sort of the ability of spoilers to take you off the track, both vis-à-vis the India relationship, and then the growing difficulties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whom remain important for Pakistan?

AZIZ: It is a very good question, because the policy direction is clear but the implementation is not so easy. You see, if some of you would look at the analysis of what I presented will see that a great deal of our problem came from fighting other people’s wars. And should we have done that in retrospect? I don’t know. I mean, somebody—research institutions should examine. Now, Russia invaded Afghanistan. Well, there was a potential danger that they will come there. What would have happened if we had not joined that effort? Something would have happened. But look at the cost to us, both drugs, guns, threats. We have destroyed our economic potential in the last 20 years or 25 years because of this one decision that we took.

Ironically, the military dictators at that time needed this kind of support for their own survival and prolonging their rule. You kind of did that under the Cold War. They all had to do did this for the Afghan wars. Musharraf did it for the war against terrorism. So we have now decided that enough is enough. We must look after our own borders and our own country. We must develop our economy and not become a part of anything that does not directly affect us. So that policy is a policy of noninterference, therefore, means in simple words that. And that’s what I explained in relationship to Afghanistan, that we don’t want to interfere in by supporting one group or another, or engage in a proxy war in Afghanistan, otherwise we’ll never become peaceful.

So now, as a result of that, all the global issues in which we are not directly affected we take a neutral position, we don’t interfere—whether it’s Ukraine, whether it is Syria, whether it is Egypt, Libya. We are not—the U.N. position, the general international position, we support that and we are not taking any sides. A big challenge came in Yemen. And Saudi Arabia wanted us to join their efforts. And we said, it’s not something that is not covered by the U.N. resolution, there’s a sectarian dimension, a civil war situation. And so we were able—we took the issue to the parliament, and the parliament said no. There’s no need to interfere. You should support Saudi Arabia because you have long-standing relation, but you can’t interfere in Yemen. So that was a decision that the parliament made.

So but again, now when the Iran and Saudi Arabia tensions started, our role was to create some unity among them. So the prime minister and the army chief went to both Saudi Arabia and Yemen on the 18th and 19th of January last, and tried to emphasize the importance of unity, because the whole—if you look at today, all the trouble spots in the Middle East, whether it’s Iraq, whether it’s Syria, whether it’s Yemen, or Lebanon, or Bahrain, the sectarian dimension is there. And this is not good for the system. And we have to look forward. And Pakistan in a position to play a positive role. So instead of coming on one side or the other, it’s better for us to try to create that.

But Saudi Arabia, of course, we have special relation, and we are trying to improve their counterterrorism capacity, et cetera. So I’d say in my view a very sound policy. It will come under pressure from different quarters in coming. And I hope with the help of our parliament—because a dictator is very easy to convince on one telephone call, but the parliament is more difficult to deal with when you throw the ball in their court. So that’s another advantage of a democratic system, that one man doesn’t take decisions and the parliament takes decisions.

TAHIR-KHELI: But in terms of India and what happened in Pathankot, how do you try and sort of create a—some kind of a safety net that that doesn’t happen every time that talks or scheduled, or is that—

AZIZ: But the question is, obviously the people who want to disrupt these talks, and non-state actors, of course, you can’t—no country has totally control them. So for somebody to orchestrate an incident, there are all kinds of people floating on both sides of the border. This kind of incident always take place. So we have been urging India not to give a veto to the non-state groups, that one incident and the whole relationship collapses. So let’s—and we want to deal with them, as we have shown that we want to deal with them.

Terrorism is a common threat in India. There are many one or two incidents a year. We have had incident every week. And so we have suffered much more from terrorism than anybody else. And we also told them that their—in relation, they have been interfering not to non-state actor, but to state actors. So therefore, less—improve the relationship, and these things would not happen, as far as the state is concerned. So these are challenges that we have to meet.

TAHIR-KHELI: Right, right. Well, let me open this up to members. And please, if you are asking a question, keep it to a brief question. Wait for the microphone. If you don’t mind standing up and identifying yourself, and then ask the question. We’re going to start at the back there, and then come to you, Michael.

Q: Mariam Safi (ph), State Department.

In light of Sunday’s Oscar win, “A Girl in the River,” which highlights the issue of honor crimes in Pakistan, what are your thoughts on the amended honor crime legislation that’s set to be presented in front of parliament later this month?

AZIZ: Yeah. I think this—some of you may have heard, Obaid-Chinoy did a documentary on the honor killing issue in Pakistan. And one girl who was—managed to survive. The importance of this particular event is not just that a Pakistani received the first Oscar, but the fact that before this award was given, a week earlier, the prime minister invited her to come and show the film to the entire Cabinet and other elite of the city. So that event was held in Islamabad last week. And the prime minister made a public announcement that this is an issue which has been highlighted by this film. And within the next few weeks, we legislate special legislation to prevent this particular practice to go on.

And this, I think, was acknowledged in her speech at the Oscar ceremony. And yesterday, Secretary Kerry mentioned that this is remarkable, that films can influence policy. So a filmmaker draws attention to an issue and the country responds immediately to legislate on that issue, so that this kind of a thing attracts exemplary punishment and it’s not resorted to, because previously it was condoned. So this is the kind of the new framework that is emerging from the action that we have taken, in which the civil society, which is liberal and more tolerant, is asserting itself to counter the extremist narrative.

And we have had cases in which, if there is a religious perception about something, there is another perception which counter that, say how dare you say something. And by some coincidence, on the same day that the Oscar was being given, Punjab Assembly passed a new legislation on the protection of women, and this legislation was also signed on that particular day. And it’s a legislation in which if a husband commits violence against his wife, he is expelled from the house for two days. And if he repeats that violence, then of course the punishment goes up.

And some of our leader’s parties have objected to this, but the feeling was so strong in the Punjab Assembly that the resolution was adopted virtually unanimously. The parliament act was adopted unanimously. So these are the sort of new straws in the wind that show the shape of things.

TAHIR-KHELI: And may they multiply.

AZIZ: Inshallah. (Laughs.)

TAHIR-KHELI: Michael. Here, please.

Q: Thank you for giving us this time. I’m Michael Krepon from the Stimson Center.

You’ve been quoted in the press—following up on Shirin’s question—you’ve been quoted in the press as saying that the fellows who carried out Pathankot attack had called handlers back in Pakistan. So is this an accurate report of what you said? And if it is, would such evidence be admissible in a Pakistan court?

AZIZ: You see, in my one or two on the subject with an Indian newspaper, what I said was that so far the information given is telephone calls, numbers which are linked to certain people. Out of those three or four numbers, one was functional, and that has been traced to one particular organization’s head office, their line. So that persuaded us to take action against that—preventive detention of their leaders as sealing. But the next step is to identify the four people who carried out the attack. And there, the photograph provided and the fingerprint provided are not enough to link with our database. So the special investigation team, which is going to India soon, will try to get a proper photograph of the face, because those are people lying on the ground. You can’t match them with your database like that. And proper fingerprints, which will also enable us to see whether they are Pakistanis or not, and what is their link, and what is their identity. So that is step number one.

Then the link of those with the telephone number of the organization will be the next thing. So right now we cannot prejudge as to who is responsible, just because a phone—anybody can dial that particular from India. I mean, that’s not very difficult. Everybody knows what the number of that organization is. But to establish, we require further evidence, like the weapons they were using, the kind of communications that they had, because the telephone where the call came was somebody murdered and their telephone was use, the Indian telephone. So I think that’s the kind of thing. And in a very short time, we have prepared the entire requirements that we have for additional evidence that we require. So I think the answer to your question is that it will depend on the visit of the investigation team to Delhi next month—next week, I hope. And as a result of that, hopefully India will cooperate fully, give us this additional evidence, which will then enable us to proceed against whosoever is suspected can be linked to the crime.

TAHIR-KHELI: Yes, in the back.

Q: Rosie De Nachmi (ph), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

We’re deeply committed in supporting Pakistan and the government across a number of issues. And one of the areas I’m curious in your reflections on is in the area of financial services for the poor. In your remarks, you talked about how that’s one way to kind of map and follow acts of terrorism. And in our evaluation, we’ve noticed that there’s quite a bit of de-banking that’s happening at the individual and institution level, ranging from remittances, correspondence banking, and humanitarian aid. And I was just curious what the government needs, what the government has done in terms of that tension of trying to track illegal uses and flows, but then also protecting the poor and other institutions that are trying to use those financial flows for good.

AZIZ: I think the—I don’t think it’ll have any effect on the financial resources flowing to the poor. It was remittances which come from outside. As long as they come through banking channels, of course, there is no restriction and they are eligible. The problem will be for those people who are trying to send these resources to the hundi system or the informal channels. That will obviously come under. And that’s why our official flows are increased, because now it’s no longer feasible to do that. So more and more people are limiting their amount through. And I think last year it was about $18 billion which came through the normal channels. So that is going up.

But I think in terms of our own flows, we have this income support program which was started three years ago. And we have increased it allocations from something like 40 billion rupees, which is $400 million, to almost—more than a billion dollars this year. And that gives to very poor families, about 5 million people, an income of 1,500 rupees a month, so at least their food bill is covered. This is the largest social safety net program that we have had in our history. And this is directly reaching the poor.

Now a part of—a supplementary part of it is to give short-term loans for skill development and income generation activities. That program is also starting. And of course, a youth employment. So I think we are doing a number of things to help to poor, to mainstream them, and also the—to tackle the poverty levels. I hope in the meanwhile as our growth rate picks up, employment generation are the most important instrument of poverty reduction. So as jobs increase, then that will also help.


Q: Thank you. My name’s Simon Henderson. I work for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Many years ago I was the BBC correspondent in Islamabad, Pakistan.

There’s a new book out by Michael Hayden, who was the head of the CIA. And the line, at least according to the review in last Sunday’s New York Times, which I’d like to quote you, is that Pakistan is the ally from hell. Are you still the ally from hell? (Laughter.) And if you’re not, when did you stop being the ally from hell? (Laughter.)

AZIZ: Well, it so happened that the ambassador has presented that book to me two hours ago. I haven’t read it. (Laughter.) But I don’t know whether he has anything, probably, to supplement my answers. You see, as I mentioned in my conversation, there was this very big divide in our thinking after 9/11, because USA suddenly changed sides from those people that they trained to fight the Russians, from Mujahedeen, from holy warriors, they suddenly became terrorists. Now, for Pakistan, the switch was not so easy, because they were people who had partly gone from here, and unless they became a threat to us that was not them.

So throughout 2002, onward to 2012, ’13, this perception that Pakistan is on the one hand participating in the war against terror, on the other hand supporting some of these groups. And at that time, the narrative was that we are support against those people who are a threat to us. We can’t fight the Afghan war on our side. We are helping with intelligence and we—I think as far as al-Qaida is concerned we must have handed over almost 650 operators of al-Qaida to the U.S. and arrested them. So in that sense we were fully cooperating. But some of the groups, there was this question mark.

And that is the time when these kind of perceptions kind of emerged. But in my view, they are out of date. And as I mentioned in some detail, after our government came in 2013, there has been a significant change in our policy. We are now moving against all terrorists without discrimination. And I hope that we will, as a result, qualify to be ally from heaven rather than hell. (Laughter.)


Q: I’m Bob Hathaway at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Welcome back to Washington.

I want to ask you about Pakistan’s role in peace talks or peace process with the Taliban. There’s considerable skepticism here in Washington, as well as elsewhere, about Pakistan’s willingness to negotiate, or even to enter into negotiate, its willingness—and I’m saying “its” though, of course, it’s the plural, it’s their—but anyway, their willingness to negotiate in good faith. And then, perhaps most importantly, their willingness to abide by any agreements that might come out of this process. Can you give us a sense of the extent to which your government is able to encourage or even pressure the Taliban, various Taliban groups, to negotiate, negotiate in good faith, and to abide by their promises? And if you could talk a bit about the tools or the sources of your pressure or enticements on various Taliban groups.

AZIZ: It’s a good question, because this is a question which surrounds a lot of misgivings and suspicions that float around right now. I think—first of all, I think people who have dealt with this issue recognize that Taliban in the best of times were—did not listen to Pakistan always, whether it was the Bamiyan statues, whether it was the Christians actions, many other things. They would listen to use when it suited them, otherwise they did not. And the government in Kabul was powerless—(inaudible)—Osama bin Laden—(inaudible).

And now, we have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressurize them to say: Come to the table. But we can’t negotiate on behalf of the Afghan government because we can’t offer them what Afghan government can offer them. So actually, Pakistan, U.S., and China are committed on the road map to persuade them to come together. But then it is for the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate whatever they want to—outcome they aim at.

Now, Pakistan lever, as you said, what kind of hands we hold, one is freedom of movement. We already, before the 7th July meeting last year, we had to use some of these levers and restricted their movements, restricted their access to hospital and other facilities, and threatened them that if you do not come forward and talk, then obviously we will at least expel you, because—or give you the chance to go wherever you want to, because we have hosted you enough for 35 years. We can’t do any more. It’s now—the whole world is blaming us just by your presence here.

So that is the kind of leverage we have to bring them to the table. But to pressurize them, to negotiate, will depend on the parties which are actually negotiating. We can advise the Afghan government, if they want our advice, on what might be acceptable and so on and so forth, but in this task I think, and according to the road map, all three of us have to share that advice—U.S., Pakistan, and China—so that we collectively decide what is best. I don’t think we in the stage where actual negotiation strategy, et cetera. Right now the idea is to bring them to the table.

And they start talking, and then one issue will arise, and another issue will arise, in which our foreign secretary, who was chairing these talks, co-chairing with the Afghan counterpart—his role has—positive role has been appreciated by U.S. and by all the other countries, are being very sincere and very positive. And I think that’s an indication that—in fact, for us it took some time to persuade Afghanistan that, look, if you don’t—are serious about reconciliation, then Taliban won’t come. So last week then President Ashraf Ghani issued an open invitation to the Taliban to come to the table.

So these are the kind of advice that we do give to facilitate the negotiation. But all three of us are facilitators. We are not the actual negotiators. So I hope as we go along our sincerity in this task will be recognized, and with the hope that Afghan government will play a more active role for the success of these talks, because that is what really holds the cards, and not us.

TAHIR-KHELI: I think we have time for two quick questions from members. Yes, back there, sir.

Q: Hi, there. My name is Alexander Slater and I work at the World Bank.

You’re a development expert. And sort of one of the traditional theories of development these days is that you can’t make progress without good governance in terms of effective government services, high-quality government services, and people’s access to these services. We spent a lot of time today talking about the security dimensions of Pakistan’s role in the region. And these too are in some ways a reflection of governance, to the extent to which, you know, you alluded to this about the military-civilian tension. And so what is the plan of the current government to strengthen civilian control, to strengthen governance in the country, so that its ability to both improve the lives of Pakistanis and gain full control over its security profile over the next few years?

AZIZ: Well, I think our government’s commitment to good governance is spelled out in great detail in our manifesto. And we have been implementing it quite actively. The most important element of the—of good governance is merit-based system. And I think we have demonstrated that in the last two and a half years that all appointments are based on due process, they are merit-based, and they are not politically motivated or other considerations.

Secondly, the second important prerequisite for good governance is decentralization, that if you allow the process of decentralization to go to the grassroot level and then provincial level. So I think in the last two years we have taken some very important steps through the 18th amendment to delegate power and responsibilities from the federal level to the provincial level. And now we have local bodies elections in which local governments are being elected, and all the four provinces will deal with local issue and local power.

Thirdly, I think in terms of good governance, it is the strength of the institutions, which—whether it’s judicial institutions, electoral reforms, regulatory bodies, and so on and so forth. There we have a very serious challenge, because in the last few years most of our institutions have been dominated by recruitment which was not based on merit, and reports of large-scale corruption, et cetera. And once an institution is affected by these kinds of problems, it’s very difficult to clean them up. You don’t have enough people to replace all those.

You can’t remove them very easily because they all go to courts and ask for their rights, protection, and so on and so forth. So our effort to even replace the heads of big government-sector corporation has taken much longer than we would have expected, because of all these problems. So to that extent, I think we have. But gradually we are strengthening some of the institutions, particular those which protect consumer rights, which protect bank depositors, that protect shareholders. So in all these institutions we are trying to strengthen the regulatory framework.

So I think two years is not a very long time, but I hope by the end of our tenure in 1918 (sic; 2018) you will see much—many more examples of better governance. And with decentralization, I hope that the delivery of services will also improve, and we’ll be able to show—and education and some other things we have already made quite substantial progress.

TAHIR-KHELI: Thank you, Sartaj Aziz, for this time with us, and on behalf of the Council appreciate it. Look forward to seeing you at another venue. But thank you for being at this one.

AZIZ: Thank you very much. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR


The first summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin eased some of the tension in the fraught U.S.-Russia relationship. It also laid bare the difficult path ahead to resolving differences on many issues, including cybersecurity and human rights.

Human Trafficking

In the first-ever Council Special Report on human trafficking, Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein argue that trafficking is an urgent matter of national security, economic growth, and sustainable development.


A comprehensive U.S.-Taiwan trade agreement would benefit U.S. companies, bolster Taiwan's economic security, and underscore Washington's interest in cross-Strait stability.