In conversation with Ambassador Zamir Akram: Where is our initiative? | Pakistan Today

In conversation with Ambassador Zamir Akram: Where is our initiative?

Pakistan is not going to accept Indian hegemony over this region

At a time when Pakistan is in need of astute diplomacy, to say the least, to deal with its many foreign policy challenges, DNA turns to a veteran career diplomat to make sense of what is to come. Top of the list is America, of course, with trademark Trump bravado bearing down on Islamabad like rarely before. Then there’s Modi’s India, always tightening the screws on Pakistan; be it directly, through its influence in Afghanistan, or leveraging its Kulbhushan Jadhavs. And the more we try to mend fences with Afghanistan, the worse the bilateral equation, and subsequently the deal with America, becomes.

Ambassador Zamir Akram has been a shining star of Pakistan’s foreign service since he joined almost forty years ago in 1978. In addition to serving as director general for South Asia, director for Afghanistan and selection officer for the former Soviet Union, his foreign postings include crucial capitals like Geneva, Moscow, Delhi and Washington.

As they say in the service, ‘he’s been around’. Talking with DNA, he delves into Pakistan’s foreign policy problems, the dynamics of the relationship with America, the levers of powers that Washington is turning now, etc. He also explains, in detail, just how and why power dynamics are adjusting not just regionally, but globally.

Question: How do you see this evolving Pakistan-US diplomatic standoff on South Asia policy? How real, in your view, is the threat and how do you assess the response of Pakistan?

Zamir Akram: First of all, we need to understand Pakistan’s strategic interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Since partition, Pakistan has been concerned about India’s use of Afghan territory against Pakistan’s security interests. If you go back to the old days, this Pashtunistan bogie, questioning of the border by the Afghan government, close links between Indian and Afghan leaders since those times, has always been a security concern for Pakistan. This is easy to understand by looking at the geo-politics of the region. Pakistan has a hostile neighbour in India on its east and it cannot afford a hostile neighbour to its west in Afghanistan. Since then, our effort has been to ensure that we are not caught in a two-front situation between two hostile countries i.e. India and Afghanistan.

In the current environment, this security challenge has now become a reality. That’s why Pakistan has to find a way to solve the Afghan situation which is consistent with its security interests. You know that ever since the US intervention in Afghanistan, the Indians have been very active in that country.

Their intelligence agencies have a major presence across Afghanistan, particularly in the areas bordering Pakistan. And these are now creating terrorist violence in Pakistan, through the use of TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) sanctuaries and the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies are working together to achieve this objective.

So that is the threat which is now a reality we are facing today.

Now coming to Mr Donald Trump’s policy on South Asia, which is really inviting India to play an even a bigger role than the one they have been playing in Afghanistan. This policy will not encourage Pakistan to be helpful to the pursuit of what Mr Trump determines the US interests are in Afghanistan.

Because if the American approach is to push the Indians into a greater role not only in Afghanistan but also in South Asia, then there is a problem: For him, for us and for Indians because Pakistan is not going to accept Indian hegemony over this region. So that’s the background.

Now coming back to Afghanistan. The Americans have been here for the past 16-17 years and they have failed to defeat the Taliban and they have failed to find a military solution, and for this failure they blame Pakistan.

The fact of the matter is that the Afghans are fighting for themselves, not for Pakistan. The Taliban are fighting to remove the American occupation from their country. So this kind of argument that if Pakistan did not support the Taliban, then Taliban would be defeated is utter nonsense.

The only way to resolve Afghanistan is to accept the reality that the Taliban are a force to be reckoned with, that they are a group with which negotiations is the only way to find a political solution. This also raises another question: what is America’s real objective in Afghanistan?

It seems to me from the speech by Donald Trump that he is pursuing a never ending war in Afghanistan.

Because the idea of having some dialogue with the Taliban at some point in the future when the Taliban would accept a solution on American terms is an unrealistic expectation, as the last 15-16 years have demonstrated. And Americans know that. though they are blaming Pakistan, they can’t win. So an outright victory may not be their objective.

Their objective may be to keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan so that they can continue to keep their presence there in order to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth as Mr Trump has also indicated. Also, from there they can keep a watch over Pakistan’s nuclear assets and from there they can not only interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs but also in the internal affairs of China, Iran and to some extent Russia as well.

Afghanistan is a strategically located country from where they can have access to this entire region. And if that is the American objective then we are going to see a never-ending war.

Unless, the international community and particularly the regional powers like China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran work together to promote a settlement in Afghanistan which basically cuts out the Americans and also the Indians.

And by the way, the Indian also have the same American objective to keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan in order to continue to undermine Pakistan’s security interests.

Q: How do you see the Pakistani response? While the American policy has been hawkish, Pakistan’s policy has mostly been reactive with no innovation, reform and no flexibility at all. Do you believe the Pakistani response has been adequate?

ZA: I agree that Pakistan’s foreign policy has been mostly reactive and we have not really followed through on any unilateral, bilateral, trilateral initiatives in the region with seriousness. One point that demonstrates this fact is that we have no special representative in Afghanistan. For a long time, we even did not have a foreign minister. So we have been basically relying on the US to determine the direction and then moving with them in that direction.

But at the same time, we have been trying to protect our interests, which has brought us to a point where we have a major divergence between our interests and those of the United States. I think this is a failure of our policy to convey not only to the US administration but also to the American public and the world community, about our interests, limitations and red lines in Afghanistan.

We have been using frankly outdated talking points where we seem to have been locked into a situation that we even can’t see what new options are there for us to pick. Yes, we have been a part of the Russia, China initiative — but that is a Russian initiative. Where is our initiative?

So we need to be more active on this issue, especially now. Because now, to my understanding, the American option doesn’t exist. I don’t think that the Americans are interested in a political settlement. So we have to find a settlement ourselves.

There are two options that we can proceed with. One is an immediate short-term tactical level option. We have to reach out to the Americans — all centers of power and society — like the Congress, the media, think-tanks, to explain the rationale of our policy and why inviting India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan is unacceptable for Pakistan.

There is also a need to reach out to the Muslim world as well as major countries like Russia, China, Iran and Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia. They all understand our concerns and our sacrifices against terrorism. So it’s not that we are isolated. We have the ability to outreach and explain our position.

Number two is that we need to involve and invoke the international machinery — the United Nations — and we need to nail this lie about the presence of Taliban, Haqqani network, etc, on Pakistani soil.

I would recommend that we ask the UN to play a monitoring role to verify whether there are such sanctuaries on Pakistani soil; and at the same time, where are the TTP and ISIS sanctuaries in Afghanistan. This monitoring needs to be done simultaneously not just in Pakistan but in Afghanistan too.

I also would like to refer to a recent statement by DG ISPR saying that we are ready to take American teams to wherever they want to go and inspect themselves whether there are sanctuaries of Haqqanis. I would ask that this same facility should also be offered by Afghans and Americans to allow Pakistani teams to go where we think the TTP and other terrorist sanctuaries are inside Afghanistan. This should not be a unilateral measure.

We should also ask the United Nations to become more involved and push and promote an Afghan settlement. This should be done in concert with other countries who want a settlement in Afghanistan like China, Russia, Iran, etc.

One more step is to take drastic measures that ensure that the Pakistan,-Afghanistan border is no more so porous. I know it is impossible to completely seal the border given the terrain but through various means such as fencing, electronic surveillance, search lights and even selective mining of some areas, cross border movement can be greatly reduced.

Over the longer term, we need to push for a peace initiative in Afghanistan by involving like-minded countries which are interested in Afghan peace. Even if a peace initiative doesn’t emerge, at least it would expose the mala-fide intentions of the Americans in Afghanistan.

Is there a solution in Afghanistan? Yes. If there is a genuine desire to fine one, I think there can be a solution if everybody is ready to accept the ground realities. Since neither side has been able to achieve a complete victory, neither the Afghan Taliban nor the Afghan government, the ground realities need to be turned into a power sharing agreement between them.

So that’s the only workable solution that I can see in Afghanistan. What cannot be won on the battlefield cannot be won on a negotiating table too. There has to be a compromise.

Q: Do you feel Pakistan’s foreign policy is flawed and we are in a diplomatic logjam? Successive diplomatic conflicts, like the recent rift between two senior bureaucrats going public with personal attacks against each-other, suggest that there is a dire need to reform the bureaucratic structures and their functioning. Your thoughts, please?

ZA: I don’t think it’s fair to blame only the foreign service or the foreign office for the failed foreign policy. In every country, foreign policy is a result of the inter-agency process and the final responsibility lies with the politically elected leadership. And they are the ones who proceed with the final decision on such matters.

I know many instances where the leadership from the top has been lacking. So I won’t hold the foreign office exclusively responsible for this failure. But I do think that the foreign office should be more proactive, it should be more assertive. I think we have been playing on the back-foot all the time and our opponents don’t respect that.

And especially bullies like the United States and India don’t respect that.

To put it bluntly, we need to act as a nuclear weapon state that we are. We have already demonstrated that where our critical interests lie, we have stood firm like our nuclear policy. On this we have not conceded an inch and ultimately the US had to accept the fact that we are a nuclear weapon state.

So we should act with confidence and responsibility of such a country.

There are also extraneous factors which are beyond our control. For instance, the growing rivalry between the United States and China, which has brought the US and India into a close embrace because US wants India to act as a counterweight to China and in order to contain it. So that has worked in favour of India and this is where we have no control. That’s a given reality of geopolitics.

But this situation also provides us an opportunity — the opportunity we have now with CPEC would not have grown if we did not have this Indo-US strategic partnership. So we have challenges but we have opportunities as well and we need to exploit these opportunities to our advantage.

Q: Since long, the military has been blamed for influencing and manipulating our foreign policy. Critics say the military lacks innovation and, due to its inflexible attitude, we have failed time and again in reforming our foreign policy. What is your take on it?

ZA: I don’t agree with the premise of this question. I think that the military’s role has been there but Pakistan is not an exception. As I said earlier every government seeks inputs from various power centers and Pakistan is no exception. Just like the United States, India or any other country, the inputs in Pakistan are from the armed forces, the intelligence community, the finance ministry — all are very important.

So what we need to learn to do is to ensure that we all are on the same page.

Just take the example of United States when Mr Obama was in the White House, his special envoy on Afghanistan was endeavouring for a political solution in Afghanistan. But the same time, the Pentagon and the CIA were pulling for a military solution. And this is what they are still doing.

So the bottom line is that we should all be on the same page and there should be no gap between the policies various stakeholders are proposing to pursue.

Q: In your view do you think that India’s threat is a real one or is it a figment of imagination by our military elite? Why, in your view, our political elite has time and again failed in framing an innovative and futuristic policy on regional and international issues?

ZA: I think the threat from India is real and obvious. What proof do we need except our dealing with them right from the beginning — from 1947? When repeated efforts by governments in Pakistan to find solutions to disputes have been spurned.

So it is not lack of trying to find a solution to resolve issues. The problem is that Indians only want solution of issues on their terms. And I am telling you from my experience of being a part of several rounds of Pakistan, India talks in which Pakistan’s suggestions for reasonable solutions based on compromise were rejected.

One good example is the Siachen dispute where we have come close to a solution on two occasions following understandings between the leaderships of the two sides on how to solve the problem. But Indians on both occasions backed off due to dictates of the Indian military.

So we don’t seek enmity with India but we also need to be realistic about India. We have to understand what India’s ambition is. Indian ambition is to be an international or at least regional superpower. It wants countries in its neighbourhood to fall in line with its dictates. Now they may succeed in doing this with smaller countries but they cannot afford to do this with Pakistan. And that’s the root of the problem between India and Pakistan. They don’t want to accept working with Pakistan as an equal partner.

Kashmir is a dispute for which there can be a solution. It has to be based on the wishes of the Kashmiri people. India must be prepared to accept such a solution.

I think that at the heart of the problem between India and Pakistan is that India sees itself as a regional superpower and it believes that everyone should fall in line. But with Pakistan it’s not going to happen.

Mian Abrar

The writer heads Pakistan Today's Islamabad Bureau. He has a special focus on counter-terrorism and inter-state relations in Asia, Asia Pacific and South East Asia regions. He can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Sun said:

    As usual, just bluster. India is already the regional power in South Asia and is set to become one of the major international powers whether Pakistan or China likes it or not. what can Pakistan do? More of the same, i.e nurturing more snakes in the vain hope that they will only attack India. Actually the snakes eventually will only bite back the nurturers and the world will also attack the nurturers. Looks like a bleak future for the next few years for Pakistan.

  2. Jag said:

    Such a shame, a career diplomat holding such outdated views.
    India with nearly 20% of the world population, cannot be ignored by the world. It is the fastest growing economy and in the next 25 years be a major player.
    Pakistan is already percieved as a terrorist sponsoring state. Financially, it is close to becoming a failed state. Its got a bloated punjabi army, which continues to mess in the affairs of the state.
    Make peace with India, open borders, start trade, crush the terrorist organisations, forget Kashmir, dismantle the punjabi bloated army.

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