Pakistan has become crucial to U.S. and international efforts to fight terrorism, with the Taliban and al-Qaeda safe havens in its tribal areas vastly complicating the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan. Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, a former advisor to the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, says Pakistan’s new democratic government is taking ownership of the counterterrorist effort. "I think that the great majority of Pakistan’s elected leaders believe firmly that fighting terrorism is Pakistan’s own war, and the war is being pursued with tremendous vigor," he says. On the question of economic aid, he says the international economic crisis is not bad enough to ignore a country that is crucial in defeating terrorism.
Islamabad has denied any U.S. military involvement in the country on sovereignty grounds. But we continue to read about U.S. air strikes in the country’s tribal areas. So has Islamabad given tacit approval for such acts?
First of all, I think everything you read is not always accurate. Second, I think that people often do not understand the difference between air strikes and between use of special strategic weapons, and so from the tribal areas people sometimes will come around and they will say: "An American air strike took place" and the wire services run with it. And that’s how these stories come. Most of the news services in the world do not have reporters in the area, they’re just basing their reporting on what people say. Are there air strikes in the tribal areas? Absolutely. Pakistan is deploying its air force against the terrorists in certain parts of the tribal areas. And, there is definitely cooperation between Pakistan and the United States in using strategic equipment that is used against specific targets. But American military aircraft are not being deployed on the Pakistani side of the border, and there have been no American airstrikes inside Pakistani territory. The last event in which American troops crossed over the Pakistani border, on September 3rd, has already been explained [by the Pakistani government] as one [Pakistan did not agree with], and we expect that the United States will no longer violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.
How about comments from Pakistani leaders denouncing some of these air strikes?
I think that in politics, politicians will always make many statements. We see many statements being made in the American political arena because of electoral considerations. And there are politicians in Pakistan who think that there is value in making statements on the conduct of the war, and in trying to arouse a nationalist sentiment.
In a rare move, we saw the military briefing the Pakistani parliament and some leaders of the opposition recently on the ongoing efforts to fight militancy in the tribal areas. Was there a consensus reached about what is going to be the country’s policy on fighting terrorism going forward?
Pakistan is in the process of transformation from authoritarianism to democracy, and it was an important moment in Pakistan’s history that Pakistan’s parliament was taken into confidence about a military strategy, military operation, and plans. I think that the great majority of Pakistan’s elected leaders believe firmly that fighting terrorism is Pakistan’s own war, and the war is being pursued with tremendous vigor.
"I think that the great majority of Pakistan’s elected leaders believe firmly that fighting terrorism is Pakistan’s own war."
Pakistan will look at all possible avenues of bringing an end to terrorism. This includes engaging reconcilable elements in Pakistan’s border regions with Afghanistan. It includes offering social, economic development in what is one of the most remote and undeveloped areas of our region. And, it involves military measures against those who do not accept the contemporary way of life, want to impose their views on others by force, and continue to engage in violence and terrorism.
There are new reports about the tribal people organizing themselves into armed groups to fight the Taliban. How big is this involvement? Are they getting any sort of support from the army? And how advisable is this plan?
I think that there is a tribal awakening in some parts of the tribal areas. The Taliban represent a very primitive lifestyle which is not acceptable to the people of the tribal areas. So now we do have a tribal awakening, we have seen it in Orakzai, we’ve have seen it in Dir, and we have seen it in Swat. And we are seeing it in Bajaur, and the tribal leaders and elders feel that these hardcore al-Qaeda-linked groups do not accept even the tradition of the tribes. For example, recently they attacked and killed a gathering of tribal elders; historically in Pashtun culture, a jirga as it’s called, is always sacrosanct, no one attacks it. And so the actions of the Taliban and al-Qaeda have antagonized large numbers of tribal people, and they’re rising up against them. Of course, the government of Pakistan wants to make sure that this does not become a new phase of violence of Pakistanis against Pakistanis. And while we look at these tribal awakening against al-Qaeda and the Taliban positively, we will certainly make sure it is disciplined and does not degenerate into chaos.
One of the fallouts of terrorism has been the country’s economy, and Pakistan is now seeking international aid to avoid bankruptcy.
First of all, the talk of bankruptcy of Pakistan is totally misplaced. Pakistan is not on the verge of bankruptcy. Pakistan has a balance of payments crisis which is actually a function of the rising prices of oil and of food over the last two years. The price of oil at one point went from $60 to more than $140 [per barrel], and at that time, the then government led by General Musharraf simply did not take any measures to either conserve the consumption of oil in Pakistan, or to make sure the global cost of oil is passed onto the consumer. By not passing on the price to the consumer, they created a second problem, which is a fiscal deficit, because if you’re subsidizing oil to that extent, that you are buying it at maybe $140 a barrel and you are still selling it at the price at the gas station that was fixed when per barrel price of oil was $60 to $70, then you are absorbing a very huge cost and you are giving a very large subsidy. On top of it, the terrorist attacks also have discouraged investment in Pakistan, so the government of Pakistan is working with the international community.
"American military aircraft are not being deployed on the Pakistani side of the border, and there have been no American air strikes inside Pakistani territory."
We are seeking external assistance, primarily to shore up our balance of payments position, and build reserves. At the same time, the government has an indigenous program, homegrown program of economic reform. The subsidies are being eliminated, the fiscal deficit is being curtailed, it had gone up to 9 percent of GDP, it’s being brought down to 3 percent of GDP. Belt-tightening measures are being taken. And, simultaneously, the privatization program is being restarted so that the government can also generate resources by privatizing many of the state-owned enterprises that have not yet been privatized. We also expect that international
cooperation will consider strategic investment in Pakistan primarily because the long-term potential of Pakistan as a major economic player in the region is tremendous.
Does the current U.S. financial crisis affect it in any way in terms of getting international aid?
I think that the current international crisis has ramifications for everyone, including Pakistan. In economic terms, the potential and the ability of many governments to provide resources for a foreign economy like Pakistan becomes somewhat constrained, but the fact of the matter is, when we look at the numbers, when the U.S. is bailing out an insurance corporation like AIG or some banks with hundreds of billions of dollars, what Pakistan is looking for is only $10-15 billion right now, and I don’t think that the international economic crisis is bad enough to ignore the fact that the country that is crucial in defeating terrorism should not be allowed to go under. If the United States and other governments can find the hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out banks that have come to the verge of collapse because of the mistakes of business executives, there is no reason why they should not pay attention to strengthening the economy of a country that is on the front line of the war against terror.
How do you see the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations, in case of a McCain or an Obama administration?
I think that irrespective of who is elected as president of the United States, Pakistan will remain a crucial ally to the United States. Pakistan is undergoing a process of transformation in its outlook on domestic politics, on regional politics. Pakistan is reaching out to Afghanistan and becoming friends instead of the past tendency of our leaders to blame each other for problems along our border. A new phase of cooperation has started between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the United States in ensuring that the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan are brought under control. Pakistan has also taken an initiative for better relations with India. I think all of those things are measures that will ensure that Pakistan and the United States continue to engage positively as friends, as allies, and as strategic partners.
What is Pakistan’s reaction to the new nuclear deal between India and the United States? Is Pakistan pursuing a similar deal with other countries, such as China?
Pakistan believes that every nation has the sovereign right to make decisions about acquisition of nuclear technology. We believe that the India-U.S. nuclear deal opens the way for a non-NPT nation, like Pakistan, to ask for a similar deal as well. I think in the future, there will be scope for Pakistan to get a civilian nuclear deal, because in the past both India and Pakistan were denied civilian nuclear technology on grounds of our respective nuclear weapons programs. Now that India has it, we have a case which we will pursue over time.