The Washington Diplomat / September 2006
By Larry Luxner
Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's new ambassador in Washington, has a difficult task ahead of him: to improve relations with the United States while dispelling the notion that his country is one of the world's biggest breeding ground for al-Qaeda terrorists.
The day we caught up with Durrani, Pakistan and its longtime rival India were engaged in a bitter game of diplomatic tit-for-tat — following allegations that a high-ranking Indian diplomat stationed in Pakistan was engaged in espionage.
"The Indian diplomat was meeting his contact and was caught red-handed by our security people. They got hold of him, took him to the Foreign Office, called the Indian Embasy and handed him over," Durrani explained. "We did not want to do a big media thing about it, but rather keep it under wraps. Eventually, the Indian government picked up one of our officers and expelled him."
Nevertheless, Durrani says Pakistan's relations with its huge neighbor are actually improving over time.
"We have had about 60 years of hostility, and we've had a number of wars and near-wars. So one can't expect that suddenly the grass becomes green and the sun shines. That happens only in movies," he told the Diplomat. "In real life, when you address these issues, there are hiccups and bumps in the road, but I think a positive direction has been set in the relationship, and we will be able to surmount these problems."
Durrani, 65 and the father of three, has been ambassador for only three months. Born in the village of Abbotabad in Pakistan's remote Frontier Province, Durrani is a career army officer. He graduated from the Pakistan Military Academy in 1961 and served in various command and instructional appointments, including that of Pakistan's defense and military attaché in Washington (1977-82), military secretary to the president of Pakistan (1983-86) and chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board (1992-98).
Durrani also advised the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London from 2001 to 2004. After retiring from the Pakistani Army, he was actively involved in the peace efforts between Pakistan and India.
As part of a process sponsored by the United Nations, he worked with former senior officials from the United States, Russia and Iran to find a peaceful settlement to the Afghan crisis.
In addition, Durrani is the author of several books and studies, including "India and Pakistan: The Cost of Conflict and the Benefits of Peace," and "Pakistan's Security Imperatives: Year 2000 and Beyond."
Despite what most Americans may think, Durrani says "there's a lot of sentiment and warm feelings towards the United States" in his country.
"What people admire the most about the U.S. is its open society, the way it's a melitng pot. All kinds of cultures and religions co-exist. This is what people think of the United States, even though they may not agree with certain policies."
An estimated 500,000 people of Pakistani descent live in the United States, with around 35% of them in the New York metro area, according to a recent New York Times article. Chicago has fewer than 100,000, while other significant clusters exist in California, Texas and Washington, D.C.
Durrani spoke to the Diplomat at Pakistan's gleaming new $17 million embassy on International Drive, which was inaugurated three years ago, covers four floors and houses over 100 staffers.
"I think our relationship with the United States is very sound, and expanding," he said. "It does not mean that if the U.S. has good relations with India, they have bad relations with Pakistan. People sometimes put a hyphen between the two, but there is no such thing. We move at our own pace, with our own philosophy."
He added: "I don't think there are any serious bones of contention [between the two countries]. We are talking more of flesh and less of bones."
Yet Durrani chafes at the idea that Pakistan is a breeding ground for al-Qaeda terrorists.
"Pakistan has done more to counter terrorism than anybody in this world. We have launched our full might to defeat extremism and terrorism. We have over 80,000 troops working in border regions with Afghanistan doing counter-terrorist operations. Our cooperation with the U.S. is a model in the area of operations and intelligence-sharing. I think this has been acknowledged by almost anybody who knows sufficiently about the relationship," says Durrani.
"Of course, there a lot of people on the fringes who say Pakistan needs to do more. My answer to that is, everybody needs to do more. And we will continue doing it, not only to help the United States but to help Pakistan as well. It is in our national interest to defeat the extremist forces."
That bilateral relationship was thrust into the global spotlight in mid-August with the revelation of a frightening al-Qaeda plot to destroy transatlantic jetliners bound for the United States using liquid explosives.
"The foiling of the plot was a good example of cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. We helped in apprehending the potential terorists who were planning to blow up airplanes in midair," said an embassy spokesman. "This is part of Pakistan's commitment to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and Pakistan is an active member of the coalition in the war on terror."
At least 30 people were arrested in both Pakistan and Great Britain in connection with the plot, affecting global air travel immediately and resulting in much stiffer regulations on what passengers may and may not bring in their carry-on baggage.
However, the spokesman angrily denied suggestions money donated for Pakistani earthquake relief was somehow diverted to the terrorist network.
"This is a deliberate attempt by some in the media to malign Pakistan and cast a shadow on its war against terror," he said. "The money which we received for the rehabilitation for earthhquake victims has been spent in a transparent manner, so this allegation is absolutely baseless."
With nearly 150 million, Pakistan is the world's sixth-most populated country in the world, after China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Nigeria. It remains a desperately poor country, though its per-capita income of $700 a year is higher than that of India.
"When there is poverty and lack of education, intolerance steps in. We are taking steps to reduce poverty, but it can only be reduced if the government increases productivity."
The ambassador said that what the regime of President Pervez Musharraf has accomplished "hasn't been done in ages."
"We had a GDP growth of 6% last year. There's a trickle-down effect, so this doesn't means that in five years the poorest will become well-off," he said. "The general impression is that India is doing well, but the number of poor people in India is greater than the total population of Pakistan."
Since 1989, tens of thousands of people have died in a Muslim uprising in divided Kashmir, 12 million of whose 15 million inhabitants profess Islam. India accuses Pakistan of fomenting the violence; Pakistan labels the rebellion a "legitimate freedom struggle" but denies aiding the rebels.
The countries fought two of their three wars over Kashmir and came dangerously close to a fourth in 2002. Since then, however, New Delhi and Islamabad have engaged in confidence-building measures such as reopening air, rail and road links, and finally restoring full diplomatic relations in December 2003.
Last month's horrific bombing attack in Mumbai did little to improve that relationship. The series of train explosions, which took place over an 11-minute span on July 11, killed 207 people and injured over 700. A terrorist group demanding Kashmiri independence claimed responsibility for the carnage.
"Our government went out of its way to say it was a dastardly act," said Durrani. "The people who did it are not friends of India nor of Pakistan, and certainly not the friends of peace. So we hope neither country will fall victim to such pressure tactics."
Durrani added: "I hate to say it, but there has not been any meaningful movement towards a resolution. But there have been meaningful steps to soften the environment. There's been an exchange of political leaders [from India to Pakistan and vice-versa], and routes have opened between the two Kashmirs."
At the same time, Durrani does not perceive any tilt in U.S. policy towards India.
"They have given up the tilt business," he joked. "We are two independent countries, and the U.S. has bilateral relations with them. I think the United States can play a useful role in the peace process beween India and Pakistan because India's leadership has great faith in America."
Both countries have tested nuclear weapons, leading many experts to warn that South Asia's arms race could spin out of control. Following nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, the Clinton administration imposed a U.S. ban on weapons sales to the arch-enemies. But the ban was lifted in the wake of Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan.
"Pakistan is not happy with the nuclear deal the U.S. has recently signed with India," said Durrani. "We were worried that maybe if this deal goes through, India's fast-breeding reactors are producing plutonium, and we're worried that if the fuels requirement is met by the U.S. and other countries, this will be diverted into the weapons program."
A major concern of the U.S. is the damage done by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the developer of Pakistan's so-called "Islamic bomb."
According to a CIA report since made public, Khan's transactions with North Korea are traced to the early 1990's, when Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan's prime minister, and the clandestine relationship between the two countries is portrayed as rapidly accelerating between 1998 and 2002.
The report concluded that North Korea probably received a package needed to produce uranium-based nuclear bombs very similar to the kind the Khan network sold to Libya for more than $60 million — including nuclear fuel, centrifuges and one or more warhead designs. Many of these components, the report suggests, were transported to Pyongyang on Pakistani military cargo planes, suggesting government involvement at the highest levels.
"Khan was involved in a nuclear weapons program. Today he is an embarrassment for us, because he sold the family jewels," Durrani admitted. "We are embarrassed by it, no doubt, but we have moved on since then, and have taken steps in collaboration with international agencies so that our country can become a model of counter-proliferation."
He added: "We want to live down that embarrassment, and the only way to do that is to go three steps beyond that."
For the moment, Khan is under house arrest, nothing more.
"We've done nothing dramatic with him, because Mr. Khan was a hero to the Pakistani people, the father of the nuclear bomb — a savior — so the government has decided not to hang him upside down from a tree, but just to lock him up."