Taliban so fragmented it's hard to tell who is who – ex-PM of Pakistan

Extremist violence continues to ravage Pakistan, despite a major counter-terrorist operation against the country's Taliban militants. That’s as a deadly Easter attack in the Pakistani city of Lahore took the lives of more than 70 people, with the group that claimed responsibility earlier pledging allegiance to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). Meanwhile, the US is slowly losing interest in the region, as troubles in Syria and Iraq have taken the spotlight from the terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Has Islamabad reached a turning point in the war on terror, and will the latest tragedy make Pakistani officials change their stance on who are and who are not truly terrorists? We ask the former PM of the country - Shaukat Aziz is on Sophie&Co today.

Follow @SophieCo_RT

Sophie Shevardnadze: Shaukat Aziz, past PM of Pakistan, welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us today. Now, a Pakistani Taliban splinter group claimed responsibility for the latest terrorist attack in Lahore, which targeted a Christian Easter celebration, killing 72 people, mostly women and children. The attack took place far from any Taliban stronghold in the country. Now the Taliban said they wanted to "send a message" that they're "unstoppable". In your opinion, what makes them so strong today?

Shaukat Aziz: I think, incidents can happen anywhere in the world and anywhere in the country, so I don't think that is really the issue. The real issue is that we have people within the country who are not comfortable with the way the world is going and they way some things are happening in the country and so they express their frustration by doing such acts of terrorism which need to be condemned and need to be addressed by the government and by the country very seriously. This attack is a terrible tragedy, it happened on Easter day and it was directed against a minority. So these are extremists who need to be more tolerant and accept other faiths and other religions to coexist with their own faith, and I think the reason they have done this is feeling of deprivation - they feel their needs are not addressed, they feel that the society and the world in general is not listening to their concerns and demands and I think it is not a problem of Pakistan alne. This is a global issue, and we have to tackle this globally.

SS:But I'm just trying to figure out how strong Taliban is today, because this group is an offspring of Taliban, right, and it's responsible for the Lahore bombing - it has in a past proclaimed its allegiance to ISIS, and even though it is not distinguishable from a larger Taliban movement, could it have been following its own agenda?

SA: We don't know. Anything is possible in this situation. The only thing we know is that anybody who does something like this, which is a heinous crime, frankly, has no regard for human life, and blowing up people doesn't solve anything. So, I think we have to work with them, to play with their hearts and minds and tell them what they need to do, and also, obviously, look at it from a security standpoint and understand how they got into a center of a city on a very major day of Easter and did this. I think, the inquiries are going on, the fact is it's too early to say, really, what happened or who in fact did it. Claims can be made by anybody, but they have to be verified. That process is going on and I'm not present in the country so I can't tell you what the latest situation is, but it will come out, all these things come out when the inquiries are complete. It takes time and it takes deep analysis and investigation.

SS: This all happened while Pakistan launched a massive security crackdown over a year ago, right, following a Taliban massacre in Peshawar school that killed over 150 people - why aren't the militant groups being contained?

SA: They are. The number of incidents has reduced substantially, the amount of effort the government has taken, particularly the Pakistan army, has created a much better and a peaceful atmosphere around - but you know, the odd incidents will always happen anywhere inthe world. You cannot provide any policy which will stop the odd incident from happening. But if you look at it holistically, the number of incidents in Pakistan has reduced substantially. People are feeling safer, people are going out more, but the odd incident can happen anywhere and it's very unfortunate that it happened in a city like Lahore on a day like Easter; but having said that, the progress that government has made and the Pakistani army efforts have made is really really significant, and that is why Pakistan's' overall security situation is improving by the day.

SS: But then there's also ISIS, right? Intelligence officials report that the IS is recruiting in Pakistan, and that's as it continues to establish itself in neighboring Afghanistan - all that a Pakistani government has strongly denied - they say it's not happening. So, how long can these denials continue before something is done about ISIS in Pakistan?

SA: Yeah, I think the government denials have a lot of weight. I don't think this is being done. Giving a statement or giving comments and opinions by various people - they have a right to say what they do, but my own feeling is that this is not exactly true, and I agree with the government's position that just by listening to somebody's view that this may be happening or that is happening, doesn't really convert or change the situation.

SS: Alright, but does the resilient Pakistani Taliban pose a threat to the country's nuclear arsenal?

SA: Not at all. Our nuclear weapons have been well-secured. They meet all international and local standards, they are kept in a very particular way which doesn't make it easy for anybody to get to them. If you look at the history of Pakistan's nuclear capabilities, never has one incident taken place, even an attempt to go and allow that to fall in the wrong hands. Pakistan will never allow it. We have a C&C structure and a security structure which guards these weapons very properly and carefully, and that's why we have had no incidents - this has been agreed and commented on and the opinions of many countries who have looked at our security procedures is that this is a very robust system - and the results speak for themselves! No incident has ever taken place and no incident will, because there's a very fool-proof system which we follow, and we use all the modern technology and modern procedures to protect these assets.

SS: The press, the analysts, Afghan leaders, Pakistani officials - they all say that Pakistan has a close relationship with the Afghan Taliban, or a history of supporting it. Is it going to continue doing that despite recent years of Taliban terror attacks on its own territory?

SA: Pakistan was close to the Taliban when the activity was going on in Afghanistan. Since then, all these groups have gone into many sub-groups, and we don't know who we are talking about when you say "Taliban". The fact is, Pakistan has been close to the Taliban as a result of what has happened in Afghanistan, and that was long time ago and Afghanistan is back on its own feet and it's improving and increasing its activities and the economy is growing, so I think that whole past process which you are looking at is now behind us. We do have security challenges in Pakistan, and you really don't when an event takes place, who claims credit and who's really the person behind it. It is not that simple as you make it sound.

SS: Former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf admitted that Pakistan tried to undermine the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But now, he says cooperating with Afghanistan is the last hope for peace in the region. Do you think that's the case?

SA: I think we certainly don't undermine any government, let me say that we have always tried to work with Afghanistan, I always have said in many of my interviews that Pakistan and Afghanistan are joined - our objective for maintaining peace, having growth, having development are similar, and so it suits us to support the government which is in Afghanistan. We have done so, we have sacrificed a lot for that, when the tension took place in Afghanistan. Millions of Afghans came into Pakistan and we provided them with shelter, we provided them with homes, we provided education and healthcare. Now the country is coming back, slowly, to its own functioning like an independent state, which it is, so people are gradually going back, and Pakistan has always supported a strong, stable and peaceful Afghanistan - it's the best thing which can happen for its own people and for the people of Pakistan. That's what we are committed to do.

SS: So, right now, Pakistan is part of four-party peace talks in Afghanistan, along with the Afghan Taliban. However, so far, the Taliban has been refusing to participate - do you think Pakistan can use its influence to get the militants to negotiate?

SA: I'm sure that whatever influence we have, we will use for the cause of peace. The region needs peace, the region needs to have an atmosphere of peace so that we can develop and meet the needs of our people. I think we are very committed to helping anybody in Afghanistan who promotes the cause of peace. The Afghan government is also working hard to achieve that, and we want to support every effort they take.

SS: Sure. What you're saying is true, but these are very general words. What can make the Afghan Taliban abandon their claims to power and agree to cooperate? And how can Pakistan help them do that?

SA: Obviously, what Afghan Taliban do in Afghanistan is their domestic issue, and we will let their government deal with that. Our own advise would be that they work closely with the stakeholders in Kabul together to come up with a roadmap which will take a country forward, which will give them a better life, which will progress, which will show development, which will give education to their children. This is what Afghanistan needs. Too many forces have been at play in Afghanistan, so now we should allow Afghanistan to decide their own future and build this country, which I believe, has tremendous potential. A strong, stable, peaceful Afghanistan is what Pakistan wants. We want Afghanistan to grow, we want Afghanistan to be peaceful, we want them to live in harmony with each other and with their neighbors, and that is what Pakistan has been committed to doing for a long time and will continue to do so. We want them to release their true potential.

SS: Yes. But let me rephrase this question one more time: would Pakistan favor the Afghan Taliban to be part of the post-war Afghan government? Yes or no?

SA: We cannot decide who should be part of a government in a sovereign country. It's for the people of that country to decide. Whoever they decide comes into the government is acceptable to us. We cannot sit in our country and say: "we want A, B or C". That's not the way relations are developed between countries. It's up to the the people of the country to decide. They can bring in any leader - we will live with whoever comes in, because that's the choice of their people. We will protect our interests, they will protect the Afghan interest.

SS: Now, Pakistan has long been fostering and using extremist movements against its arch-enemy India. Yet, India appears to be prospering and, at least internally, relatively is peaceful. That's while Pakistan is still suffering from an upsurge of terrorism. What makes Pakistani officials believe they can manage terrorists in this way? Is sticking it to India really worth financing extremist groups?

SA: Pakistan does not believe in interfering in the internal affairs of any other country, and it is not our policy to create such circumstances as you've described in any country. If there are issues in a particular country, the people of that country then decide what they have to do. Pakistan does not believe in promoting extremism or terrorism. In fact, victims of it are ourselves. So we are not having other people adopt this - we are in fact protecting our own territory, and as you just noted earlier in our discussion, we've had incidents in our country. So, our focus is to make our country peaceful, to get after those who are creating trouble, try to understand why this is happening and take whatever action is necessary to protect our sovereignty and security.

SS: But for instance, there's the history of Pakistan supporting militant groups in Kashmir region, for instance.

SA: Well, you know, Kashmir is a disputed area, and there are parts of Kashmir which are in Pakistan, parts of Kashmir which are under Indian control, and that's an issue which we have had lots of discussions and dialogues with many stakeholders, including India, and Pakistan's position on Kashmir remains consistent and the same, which is that we want the Kashmir dispute to be settled in line with the wishes and aspirations of the Kashmiri people. This was in the UN resolutions, which have been passed and they are part of the record of the world. So, that is our position, that is what we stick to and that is what we believe in.

SS: Since we started talking about Kashmir, Kashmir militant leader has defected to the Pakistani Taliban recently. Terror groups act upon extremist ideology and they switch allegiances easily all the time. What makes Pakistani leadership believe this terrorism management policy won't backfire?

SA: As I said, and I'll repeat again: there's no such thing as our government trying to manage terrorism elsewhere. We are ourselves a victim. We are trying to manage our own territory. We are trying to manage our own area to prevent terrorism from taking place. And if an odd person comes here and goes there, that - you can't really stop these people from doing what they're doing. Our commitment is to protect our own territory against terrorism and extremism. We want the Kashmir dispute settled peacefully, we want it settled along in line with the aspirations of the people and the UN resolutions which exist today. We all members of the UN, we must respect what the resolution says. That's what all our demands are.

SS: Pakistan was originally founded as a country of religious tolerance - 70 years after its beginning, sectarian violence cut through it, being a Shia or Ismaili or Christian is a deadly business in the country. What was behind the rise of sectarian hatred in Pakistan? What went wrong?

SA: Obviously, the rise of terrorism in general is driven by a lot of factors, there's not just one factor. There are clearly elements who wants to create trouble, perhaps. There are elements who feel that their particular sect or their particular voice is not being heard. The whole issue of terrorism must be understood as to the root causes. The issue of terrorism is not a security issue, it is really an issue of hearts and minds. We must understand what the people need, we must understand why they are behaving in a certain way, and then take measures accordingly. It is not an issue which can be settled just by pointing guns at each other. So, it needs a very mature approach, it take time, and gradually, as I said, within Pakistan, the number of incidents is reducing and reducing by day. The situation today, in our big cities, is much better than it ever was in many years past - because the government has taken action, the government is going hard against the extremists, but also creating an environment where people will live in peace. To do that, you have to have a policy which understands the root causes of all this. Deprivation manifests itself in many forms: lack of human rights, lack of a voice, lack of income, a feeling of neglect, which leads to a feeling of hopelessness. So, when people feel they have no rights, or their demands are not being met - they react. The way to react should not be through extremism, it should be done in a civilized way. People must have the ability to talk, people must have the ability to express their views, but no need for violence. We are trying and I think our policies are succeeding gradually. It will take time, because some of these people are well-ingrained in this tough process in our society - we'll deal with it. If you ask any independent observer, they'll tell you that in the last 12 months we've seen substantial improvement in the number of terrorist incidents taking place. So, it means we are on the right path. That doesn't mean everything will stop overnight, but the trend line looks good.

SS: Pakistan is also a strategic partner of Saudi Arabia, yet Islamabad's own ministers accuse the Saudis of spreading religious extremism and spending money to destabilize Pakistan. Why keep allies who do that? I mean, is having an oil-rich friend worth having extremist problem in this case?

SA: I don't know where you get your information, but I have lived in Saudi Arabia and I've run the government in Pakistan. There's no truth in what you say. Saudi Arabia never interferes in our internal affairs, they are our very close allies and friends, and the same is true about Pakistan vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia. We have thousands and thousands of people living in Saudi Arabia, they're working there and they have a very useful role to play there. The two countries are very close - tactically, strategically, and diplomatically, and there's no question of any country trying to create trouble for the other. I totally reject this remark, because whoever has provided you with this information has no idea of ground reality.

SS: Good thing you clarified this for us. What about your other partner, the U.S.? I mean, relations of the U.S. and Pakistan are also very close, but at the same time, pretty uneasy, because, you know, Pakistan reeling from American drone strikes on its own soil. I get this information from various news channels, and that's kinda undeniable. You know, Pakistan still enjoys the military ties with America. How durable is this partnership now that U.S. has less interest in the region, having withdrawn from Afghanistan?

SA: The U.S. and Pakistan have long relationship. We have been allied to the U.S. for many years, and we've also been sanctioned by the U.S. many times. So it is fair to say that it is a complex relationship. It has many facets. One - of collaboration and cooperation, and the other of lack of trust with each other on certain issues. There are clearly some issues that the U.S. is not comfortable with, and some issues we are not comfortable with. But, generally, when it comes to peace or fighting terrorism, or doing things that make the world a safer place we are on the same page. Clearly, the U.S. and Pakistan, with the history we've had, their relationship has had many ups and downs, but it is not directed against any other country, it is a bilateral relationship, and we are trying to create a win-win between the two countries. It does have its moments, but fact is that both countries want peace in the region, they want development in the region and they want the scourge of terrorism to be eliminated.

SS: Pakistan's former President Musharraf admitted that Pakistan intelligence worked with the Afghan Taliban, the group they were supposed to be fighting as American allies in the U.S.-led war on terror. Can you blame the U.S. for not trusting Pakistan after that?

SA: When Afghanistan was invaded by foreign troops, the people of Pakistan joined a global coalition to resist that. In that process, obviously, we got very close to the Taliban and helped them to achieve their objectives - and eventually they did, and eventually Afghanistan's independence was restored and they are now back to normal. So, these ups and downs have happened due to the geopolitical moves and military activity in the region. However, today, there are more areas where Pakistan and the U.S. agree than they disagree. For two sovereign countries it is only natural that you may not agree with everybody on every issue. You have to protect your national interests and the U.S. has to protect their national interests. In terms of Pakistan, we are very clear that we want a peaceful country, we want a peaceful region, we will not allow foreign forces to come in and be with on our soil, on a permanent basis or something. We want to guard our sovereignty very carefully, and at the same time, you know, the U.S. is a big country, they are big economic partners of us, they are big investors and they also help our military in getting new equipment and training and what have you. So, it's a multi-faceted relationship, and that's why I said that it's complex. And it can be sometimes very transactional - it can be transactional and it has to move more to the strategic area that being just transactional.

SS: Your country, Pakistan, can boast the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, and it's the only country that is pursuing increasingly small, tactical-sized nuclear weapons. The Pakistani army insists that the nuclear weapons are only meant to counter the Indian threat. Does arming itself with tactical nukes means Pakistan is actually ready to use them in hypothetical war with India?

SA: No, the tactical nuclear weapons are defensive weapon, and it is not the offensive weapon, it is there to protect our sovereignty, it is there to protect ourselves in situations which arise where we feel there's no other option. It is a guarantee of peace. Whenever you have the ability to protect yourself, any other country trying to harm you or take away your territory will think twice before doing it, and that is why they are weapons of peace, they are not weapons to attack anybody. The tactical nuclear weapons, if that is what you're referring to, are strictly there to protect our own situation under a certain doctrine, which widely known to everybody, and that is what we have in order to make sure that peace is maintained. Peace is achieved through strength, not weakness and that is what we believe in, and that is what we have provided for.

SS: Thank you so much for interview, mr. Aziz. We've been talking to Shaukat Aziz, 15th PM of Pakistan, discussing Pakistan's entanglements with extremism and the ways to counter the terrorist threat menacing the country. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.