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Top Pakistani Officials Talk Foreign Policy
The Washington Diplomat / November 2007

By Larry Luxner

Pakistan's most serious challenge is the scourge of terrorism and extremism, and in that regard, this Muslim nation of 160 million is working closely with the United States. But beyond that, the bilateral relationship doesn't appear to be very deep.

That's the view of Zamir Akram, foreign policy adviser to the prime minister of Pakistan. Both Akram and the country's foreign secretary, Riaz Mohammed Khan, spoke to separate Washington audiences in early October amid increasing U.S. criticism that Islamabad has failed to contain extremist Islamic elements within its own borders and along its dangerous frontier with Afghanistan.

In a wide-ranging speech to 60 students and others at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies, Akram outlined his country's foreign policy with regard to the United States, Afghanistan, India, China, Russia and the European Union.

"During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, our relationship with the USSR was mired in deep distrust," he said. "We had a policy jointly pursued with the United States to build up the capacity of the Afghans and their jihad against the Soviet Union. But once the Soviets were defeated, the West essentially walked away from Afghanistan and left it to fester. We cannot divorce ourselves from responsibility for what happened."

At the same time, said Akram, Muslim societies also need to address their own internal issues of freedom of choice, economic development, empowerment of women. "This whole approach has been articulated by President Musharraf and his policy of enlightenment and moderation," he said.

Yet Akram pointed to external factors such as the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli struggle which he said have infuriated many of the world's one billion Muslims — including tens of millions of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"If you want to deal with the problem of terrorism, then you have to deal with its root causes. The military is essential, but we also need to find solutions, and it's no surprise what those causes are. They lie in the sense of frustration, anger and deprivation that exists among large numbers of Muslims, particularly the Middle East. We especially need a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is acceptable to all the parties concerned. Unless we remove this cause of anger and frustration, we will not be able to make progress in the long term."

Akram insisted that "the overwhelming majority of people in Pakistan are moderate Muslims," and that even "the Islamic parties which are not extremists or involved in violent activities — and which are part of the political mainstream — have not received more than 8% or 10% of the vote. The powers of the state are strong and unchallengeable. The fanatics have remained beyond the pale."

Closer to home, Akram suggested that resolving the perennial Kashmir issue would go a long way toward reducing tensions between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers.

"We are not opposed to the U.S. building close relations with India, but the relationship should not be at Pakistan's expense," he said. "If you pursue a particular policy, there must be an even-handed approach. If it impinges on us, then of course we will have an interest, and the nuclear issue impinges gravely on us."

In fact, one of Pakistan's biggest worries is that if the United States and other countries provide India with fissile material — uranium and plutonium — for its reactors under a policy recently approved by the Bush administration, "India will then be free to use its own fissile material for its weapons programs, and its ability to produce nuclear warheads will increase substantially."

In the meantime, Akram said both the United States and Pakistan need to "give more substance" to the bilateral relationship.

"So far, our real area of cooperation has been in the war against terror. In other areas, movement has been fairly slow, if at all. We need to speed this up. This is essentially what's going to make it a long-term, credible relationship."

Akram said three areas in which the United States and Pakistan can cooperate are trade, technology transfer and education.

"Unfortunately, the media unfairly says Pakistan is providing safe haven for terrorists," he said. "The truth of the matter is, nobody knows where these people are. If we did, there would be no hesitation on our part to go after them."

On the same afternoon Akram lectured to the students at Johns Hopkins, Pakistan's foreign secretary, Riaz Mohammed Khan, spoke only a few blocks away, at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Khan stressed the need for a "strong, sustained, strategic relationship" between Washington and Islamabad.

"The history of terrorism goes back about 30 years, but now there is a convergence and cooperation between us and the United States to counter this dangerous phenomenon," he said. "Both sides want this relationship to go beyond the fight against terrorism."

Conceding that the relationship "has had its ups and downs, and has gone through phases of weakness that have been hurtful to us," Khan told his audience that everyone has a stake in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and reconciliation among its people.

"That is the heart of the problem. Trade would make a critical and most vital difference to the people in those areas," he said. "Do something for Afghanistan. It is the key in success to countering terrorism."

Khan added that he sees one lesson to be drawn from Pakistan's experience with the Taliban in the 1980s: "There is no simple solution. You can't just send the military and think everything will be alright. It has to be a more comprehensive approach, which means economic and social development. People want quick solutions, but nothing can be done overnight."

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