Pakistan has nothing to lose from break-up with US – ex-PM

Pakistan is key to the fragile balance of power in southeast Asia and the Middle East. But with elections coming up, will the country stay internally stable and be able to help the region deal with its issues? We talked about this with the former prime minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Shaukat Aziz, it’s a great pleasure to have you as our guest one more time. Good to meet you in person finally.

Shaukat Aziz: Thank you very much.

SS: So, lot’s to talk about. Many things are going on in your country. Elections are coming up, soon the country will have a new Prime Minister. You’ve been finance minister, you’ve been Prime Minister - has anyone sought your council? Maybe asked you for advice?

SA: Well, you know, one of the government’s functions is the privilege of talking to anybody and asking people what they think, but the core decision making is made by the Chief Executive and the Cabinet. That continued when I was in office. That’s what we did too. But if you bump into somebody or if you know somebody you can get another view. However, one thing in Pakistan is very significant - the press is totally free, and they go to all segments of society to get views, and those views are next morning in front of you. So it is not a closed shop at all. So you could be President, you could be Prime Minister and you’ll get feedback all the time. When I was in government I used to go through the press very often - criticism, critics and suggestions is what I viewed. I think, what is more important is knowing what you want to do, knowing what you believe in, knowing what your principles are, and what your major priorities are. I spent a lot of time in that, publicly sharing them over the media events, physical meetings with groups of people. Every day my schedule would have 10 to 15 meetings. So people ask: “When do you do the thinking?” That’s a good question.     

SS: It’s a constant pressure.

SA: Absolutely.

SS: But did you ever think of coming back to the Pakistani politics actively? I mean, you did great stuff for the country’s economy...

SA: No. I’m not a politician, I’m a technocrat. That’s why to some extent my working style was very different. 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. Since I was elected at a constituency, I fought the election, almost got killed in that process, as you know, and so on and so forth. So, it was a unique sector, which was tailor-made for that time.  

SS: I want to take some of your views, maybe suggestions on what’s going to happen after the election. I spoke to Imran Khan not long ago. He struck me as someone very charismatic, but also very smart, and someone who knows what he’s talking about.

SA: Sure.

SS: What do you think of his chances of becoming the Prime Minister? Would he be the right person for your country?

SA: I think, whoever wins the vote at the ballot box would be the right person. If you believe in democracy and in responsibility and ability of people to express their views the leader they will elect has to be the Chief Executive of the country. He has collected a good team of people. As you know, one person cannot run all the affairs of the state. And the other parties too. We have three main parties and a lot of other important parties who have religious leanings, who have other geographic connections in certain parts of the country. And I think, all leaders will have to present their views to the public. The public is much more politically conscious today than it ever was. Then again I give credit to the media. If you look at the penetration of media in the country it has gone up exponentially which is very positive. In terms of principal parties, the current party which is the PMLN, it has a big footprint, I’m sure, they will be active, and incumbency can be a plus and a minus, time will tell. Then you have People’s Party. They have the following too. Then you have PTI which is Mr. Imran Khan’s party, the youth are more attracted to a party like that. They have their own province, which is a very good thing. I think, this whole concept of political parties running provinces first and then going to a national level is a healthy concept because you get to understand the organs of the state and what makes things happen and what makes things not happen. So I think, they’ve experienced now what they never did. People’s Party has run the federal government and the provincial government of Sindh, and PLMN has run Punjab province and, of course, on the national level they’ve been active. So all these components of the state have their own dynamics and their own approach to handle that. To say “this party will come” or “that party will come” for me, living abroad, not breathing the air everyday would be unfair. But I’m pretty confident that the electoral process will be quite transparent. And again media is very important everyday, you can’t stop them.

SS: When I spoke to him except for the internal Pakistani problems, we also touched upon whatever is going on right now between Pakistan and America, the fact that America is accusing Pakistan of sponsoring terrorist groups and maybe thinking of putting Pakistan temporary on the terrorism-sponsor list, also cutting aid to Pakistan, all of that. So he said to me, maybe American sanctions will hurt the country, but following the American line will hurt Pakistan in the long-run even more. What do you think?

SA: I think, the history of Pakistan-U.S. relations can go back to the days when Pakistan was formed. As you may not know, we’ve had the privilege of being the most allied ally of the United States. CENTO, SEATO and many other alliances promoted by the West and United States in particular - we were members of them. We also have the privilege of being one of the most sanctioned ally of that group of countries. So, “ally” sounds contradictory. It is contradictory. And this shows that Pakistan will do what is in its national interests. It will not just go with the wind one way or another. And if it means disagreeing with a friend or some other stakeholders, if that what national interest desires that will be done. You cannot always be agreeing on every issue. I feel very confident that our press is free, it plays a pretty active role, the Parliament is active, the debates, etc. - it forms and influences the public opinion. So all those factors being there, the executive which is the government in question, can then decide what suites the national interest. As regards U.S.-Pakistan relations, I think, Pakistan as a country has shown to the U.S. that when they really needed help after the Afghan situation reached the stage needed to be managed Pakistan sacrificed a lot. We gave them bases, we gave them lots of lives…

SS: They still want you to fight the war in Afghanistan. And it’s costing Pakistan a lot of money.

SA: The remnants of that whole action is Pakistan alone. Our people are dying, our infrastructure is affected…

SS: ...your money is spent…

SA: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think, this is where dialogue is needed. And now U.S. has a new government. I haven’t had experience with the Trump administration. But with President Bush and his team I thought they were very balanced and very reasonable. And I’m sure that the current government will also be the same way. But we have to make our case.   

SS: So, if you don’t mind I would like to touch upon a few points of U.S.-Pakistani relations…

SA: Certainly.

SS: Pakistan has recently imposed travel restrictions on U.S. diplomats and that’s as an answer to the U.S. travel restrictions against diplomats working in Washington. Do you think it’s just a diplomatic tit-for-tat or is it a sign of a wider crisis between U.S. and Pakistan?

SA: No. This was started by the State Department of the United States. And this is a standard norm with Pakistan or any other country that if somebody puts restrictions on your diplomats you at least will have the same restrictions on them in the host country. This should never happen because once you accredited a diplomat to work within the confines of the country by the security location where nobody is allowed you should have reciprocity and allow them to function. There’s no point for them in coming to the country and being a diplomat if they can travel to a certain area or after a certain time. So I’m against these rules. I see what’s going on. It’s really Pakistan’s decision to apply the same restrictions. I think, it’s correct in a sense that it’s reciprocal. Nobody can say: “Why are you not allowing our people to go wherever they want to go and you shouldn’t go anywhere”. And I think, the very essence of diplomacy is contact and connectivity. And if you can’t get that you’re a reaching a sub-optimal level in your diplomatic interactions. So it doesn’t help either side. There are no winners and losers in this game. It’s a win-win or lose-lose.  

SS: You said U.S.-Pakistani relations were always complicated. At the same time, just recently the State Department has called Pakistan an ally in the war on terror, that’s after all the things I mentioned: U.S. wants to put Pakistan on the temporary terrorism-sponsor list, cutting aid, this diplomatic spat. It’s almost like it’s sending mixed signals to Pakistan. How should Pakistan interpret this?

SA: I think, Pakistan should raise the ante even more. My personal advice to the leadership and the foreign minister is to raise the issue publicly and more actively in the press. You see, the United States is a very open society.  And we must get to all of the stakeholders through media, through one-on-one interactions etc. The U.S. culture doesn’t mind if you are open and blunt and they are not shy. They have seen all the issues. And neither our people are shy. So I think, we should be more articulate and more open about it. Use the media, use civil society groups. U.S. is a very open society. So you can go to many think tanks and tell your view, explain it and sort of filter through it all. You can go to the press, which is different than think tanks. You can go to other civil society groups who may or may not have influence. This is how you get closer to the country and send your point across. Every country must know the stakeholders in the other country they want to interact with and know what is the best key to open that door. That’s what diplomacy is all about. So I think, Pakistan is doing it, but they can probably do more.

SS: Mr. Aziz, China is another huge topic. It has promised to invest 57 billion dollars in Pakistan. It has already become number one arms seller to the country and it has initiated trilateral talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan. To my view, this kind of help never comes for free - there are always strings attached. What do you think, what would Pakistan have to do in return?

SA: I have been closely involved in Pakistan-China activity in my 8 years in government, first as finance minister for four years, than as Prime Minister. And as a professional coming from the financial sector (I didn’t get involved for any personal gain or benefit, I always get involved for my country’s benefit), I found them very professional, very understanding of our situation. So in my experience I’m still active and I visit China regularly, I can look you in the eye and say that there’s no sinister or hidden agenda on either side on the One Belt One Road. Why would you complain if you are living in the house here in this beautiful city of St. Petersburg, and someone will want to build a highway connecting that city to the rest of the country or even another country? Why would you complain? And obviously you’ll pay the money back because a lot of it is just funded by loans. But if you’ve been wanting to do that, the developing country’s resources can be difficult to come by. So here you have a way to improve domestic travel for your people. And if you build roads, dams and water storages, why would I complain? No. It’s fashionable to find sinister objectives in any good things happening to our country. People say: “Watch out, what’s the agenda?” The agenda is peace, progress and prosperity. That’s all.

SS: Ok, you’re a true technocrat, I agree. You’re being very technical about things. But I do want to talk more in geopolitical terms. If what you’re saying is true and there are really no strings attached that brings the chances of Pakistan and China being even closer as friends, as an alliance, even more. So if that alliance happens do you feel, like, we will see Islamabad breaking away completely from Washington?

SA: No. I was just coming to that. But I’m glad you interrupted me. None of this is directed against the third country. Not just Washington, there are many stakeholders there. All we’re doing is for our own good. If somebody can come and convince me that you’re adding thousands megawatts of power by building a dam and that will have some ulterior motive against your neighbouring countries, be it India, Iran, etc., I would be the first to say that’s not the case. So if I’m getting better roads, better infrastructure, better connectivity, better digitisation there is nothing technocrat or geopolitical about this. That’s simply your friends wanting you to be more stable and stronger, and that’s how you make alliances. Not alliances in a formal way…

SS: Sometimes you’re asked to choose or to be more loyal to someone…

SA: No. They are also selling their goods. A lot of the aid is tied. US Aid, Chinese Aid - they sell their materials to you. And frankly, if I need a generation capability, and if a particular country is giving me export credit - China also does it, Russia is also giving us loans when they build a steel mill in Karachi, the Soviet Union at that time built our first steel mill with a loan and we paid, because I was in the finance, I knew exactly what was going on. So the point is - we tend to look for hidden agendas. And my view is that the agendas are all open. Of course, if a particular country gives you a couple of billion dollars to build infrastructure, their clout in the country increases. But they are also selling their goods. They are also generating goodwill. And to me in the ecosystem you build for diplomacy all these things add to the brand of the relationships between the two countries.

SS: So, then there’s also Iran and the Iran deal is on the verge of collapse, the United States is actually threatening to slap sanctions against anyone who continues to do business with Iran. Pakistan has boosted trade and cooperation with Iran lately, the costly gas pipeline is in plans. Do you think, all of that can be in jeopardy now? Do you think Pakistan will still continue doing business with Iran regardless of American threats to sanction countries doing business with Iran?

SA: Sure.

SS: So you wouldn’t care about America asking countries to stop this?

SA: If there are sanctions from the UN or America, we would then have a dialogue with them and see what the sanctions are, are we contributing in the process of looking at sanctions, are we by not following them doing something which is harming somebody. I would say, no. We have to buy that commodity from some place. So we buy it from our neighbour. And each case is different in the nature of sanctions. Sanction is a loose word. A type of sanctions imposed gets very technical. Obviously if there’s a UN resolution saying “you can’t do something”, then we can’t do something. But if it’s bilateral the flexibility is very much there. 

SS: And obviously the peace in Afghanistan is a never ending topic for Pakistan. A negotiated peace in Afghanistan seems like what the Afghans themselves are supporting. When you’re talking about the U.S.-Pakistani relations you’re being extremely diplomatic, other Pakistani politicians are much less. They seem to think that maybe the relationship between the two countries is on the verge. So if there’s a collapse in the relationship between these two countries can there be a consolidated peace process involving all actors in this war?

SA: I don’t know what other people say. But I can tell you what I say. I have a pretty good understanding of the U.S. also having lived there, worked there for a U.S. bank for thirty years. The U.S. has its point of view, but I think we can do business with the U.S. I think there are many ways to build that relationship. The key to the good financial management in today’s environment is having options to have different avenues to get to the same objectives. And U.S. is not the only option. It’s an important option and we’ve always said we want close relations and we want to increase our linkages with them. But if it doesn’t meet our national interest, nobody can authorise it to be done. So I think, to have a general view that ending of U.S.-Pakistani ties will hurt Pakistan isn’t true. There’s a lot of stuff we can do. We’ve had relations. As I said, we were the most allied ally of the U.S. and then we became the most sanctioned ally of the U.S.  And even in this environment we were buying and selling goods to each other. People were going, travelling, everything was normal. However, dealing with the U.S. is a very complex relationship. So it has to be managed accordingly and you can’t run away from that. If somebody’s giving you aid and they have certain rules and regulations, either you agree with them or you go somewhere else.

SS: The United States would argue that the main stumbling point between America and Pakistan is Pakistan’s alleged help to the extremist groups like the Afghan Taliban. Your former boss Musharraf admitted to it as well. Many other Pakistani politicians, the press has admitted to it. The general argument is that “we support the Taliban in Afghanistan because we don’t want India to go into Afghanistan”. So let’s assume that’s true, and Pakistan is arming the Afghan Taliban, is there no better way to deal with India than supporting a terrorist group?

SA: No, I think, look, Taliban has nothing to do with India. So if anyone else mentions that to you, please tell them to talk to me. Pakistan’s sole objective on the Taliban, Afghanistan actually more than the Taliban, is to have peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan will be the biggest beneficiary of a peaceful, strong, vibrant Afghanistan. We will be the biggest loser if Afghanistan is weak, if Afghanistan has a lot of terrorist activity and other things happen. Who will be the biggest loser? We will be. This thing is very contagious. Terrorists don’t recognise borders. We should get away from this mindset. This line that “they have a problem, we don’t”, no… This thing blows like…

SS: So you disagree with Musharraf when he admits that Pakistan finances...

SA: On his Pakistani statement? Everybody is entitled to their views. But it depends on the context of the statement. I’ve read several statements, not this particular one. It is that we sacrificed a lot for them. And then when mujahedins, as they are being called, were being trained in Pakistan to go to fight and to liberate the country, we were part of the whole effort with the United States and others. That’s well-known to your country too. They knew exactly what was going on. So we don’t go out of the blue and say: “Ok, guys, let’s collect weapons here, we’re going to train you”. No, it has to suit our national interest also.

SS: So when Americans are accusing Pakistan of sponsoring terrorists, and I know that Pakistan is actually fighting a real war against terrorism at home, against its own homegrown Taliban...

SA: Absolutely! ...which is a fallout of what happened in Afghanistan.

SS: It is weird to me. Once again, I’m not getting it out of nowhere, I’m stating things that politicians from your country are saying…

SA: No, I’ve read a lot of what you’re saying. 

SS: And former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif acknowledged that Pakistan is actually supporting and using other extremist groups for operations - he was talking about the terrorist attack in Mumbai - and he’s not the first one to admit to that …

SA: It has nothing to do only with Afghanistan. I’ve read all of them.

SS: No, we’re talking about financing terrorist groups. So to me it’s just weird how a country can be fighting a real war on terror on its own territory and then also be financing terrorist groups outside and this has to do with India…

SA: And I think, there’s enough evidence that India is also supporting terrorist groups in Pakistan. So, I don’t know what came first and what came second, but if that happens then both countries will become part of the solution and part of the problem. And that’s what you’re seeing. If you see press reports in isolation you may not really get to all of it. But no country in their right mind will support terrorism, particularly Pakistan which has been a major victim. And it’s not just in one area, it’s all through the country because the citizens are free to travel. So we’re fighting terrorism with all resources at our disposal. We believe that the solution to the crisis in Afghanistan is not through terrorism, it should be through economic development, good governance, and it applies to Pakistan also. If we create jobs, open opportunities for people, give them hope, terrorism will come down. It has come down in Pakistan but isn’t completely eliminated.

SS: Thank you so much for this interview. I hope we’ll meet again and good luck with everything.

SA: Thank you.