Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi may have serious differences with United States President Donald Trump, who recently tweeted that “the United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion (Dh121.37 billion) in aid ... and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit”. Between sessions at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Abbasi spoke about the poor state of US-Pakistan relations.
Edited excerpts follow:
QUESTION: President Trump says Pakistan serves up “lies and deceit” to the United States. His administration has cut off significant security assistance to Pakistan. What is your response to that?
SHAHID KHAQAN ABBASSI: Pakistan and the United States have had a very strong relationship, but in the last 15 years, it has kind of gone downhill. Adding a whole new dimension is this tweet. The US government put out a policy statement last August, basically [saying] there are certain issues the US wants Pakistan to address: Sanctuaries for people who cross the border to attack Afghanistan ...
Who attack US soldiers in Afghanistan?
Who attack Afghanistan.
The US administration says that you are giving them places to hide.
That is what the policy didn’t clearly say, but it hinted at. And the tweet built upon that. We provided our own response to the policy statement. We obviously did not respond to the tweet because we feel it does not constitute official policy of the US.
How is it not official policy if it comes from the president?
It has to come through an official document or an official meeting to constitute official policy, in our opinion. Because if you say that Pakistan was given money, then let us have accounting. There has been minimal [US] aid to Pakistan in the last 15 years or so.
After September 11, when the then US president [George W.] Bush called the then Pakistan president [Pervez] Musharraf and the latter immediately promised full and unconditional support to the US, we have been supporting the US effort in Afghanistan. Even today, Pakistan is fighting the largest war on terror in the world. We have 200,000 troops fighting a war against terror today on the western border. We have lost 6,500 troops. We have defeated the same enemy that the rest of the world failed to defeat in Afghanistan, on the same terrain, with our own resources.
But hasn’t President Trump cut off quite a bit of aid to Pakistan in the past year?
There is no economic aid. There is a coalition support fund, which basically reimburses Pakistan for the expenses that are made in support of US forces in Afghanistan.
But it is being reported that aid to Pakistan has been cut.
What aid has been cut when there is no aid?
Security assistance was minimal. There were some military sales — we bought some F-16 fighters, which we did not receive. All that it has done is degrade our ability to fight the terrorists. On the ground, the reality is that in the last year, 29 suicide bombers crossed over from Afghanistan into Pakistan and attacked our installations. The deputy chair of the Senate — his convoy was attacked, and 22 people were killed.
So do you have a response to President Trump’s tweet?
My response is simple: The ground realities do not support what President Trump is saying. We are committed to fighting the war against terror. There are no two ways about it. We have assisted the US forces and will continue to assist them. There have been more than 1.1 million overflights within our airspace — US aircraft going to Afghanistan and fighting the war there. There have been millions of tonnes of equipment and cargo going there. There has not been a single instance where if actual intelligence has been provided [to us], it has not been acted upon.
Was the relationship interrupted by the raid on Osama Bin Laden, since Pakistan was not informed of the raid in advance?
Yes, Pakistan’s sovereignty was affected. There was a big cry in the public that this is not acceptable. Nobody disputed that Osama was a wanted criminal, but Pakistan should have been informed.
In the US, it was widely believed that Pakistan was hiding Bin Laden because he was in Abbottabad, where you have a military training academy.
It is a very large town. So it is not that he was being hidden. Intelligence was provided to the US, and if they had given it to us, we would have taken the same action.
Has Pakistan’s relationship to China grown closer since the US appears to be distancing itself?
Our relationship with China is 70 years old. We have military and economic cooperation and now we have the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is the most visible part of the initiative that China has taken. It is a growing relationship.
China is investing $62 billion, right?
Yes. And it will be much more than that. It is not a gift; it is a package of financial assistance to build projects. Cooperation with US companies continues on a secondary level.
There are rumours that the Pakistani army was involved in the ouster of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. What do you say about that?
I am from Nawaz Sharif’s party — we have worked together for more than 30 years. The Supreme Court made a decision that is questionable, but there is no recourse, because it is a Supreme Court decision.
Weren’t two out of five people on the committee investigating the former prime minister members of military intelligence?
The committee was formed by the Supreme Court. There were two military intelligence people on it.
That is very dubious for a democracy, isn’t it?
It is the Supreme Court’s decision — it is the highest forum in the country. Of course, it raised doubts about the decision. But the decision got implemented. Within minutes, the government was dissolved, and a new government was elected within three days, and democracy continues in the country.
So you don’t think democracy is threatened by the army?
The Supreme Court took a decision that can be questioned, but it is a decision with no recourse.
What do you want your future in politics to be after the next election? Will you run again in the July elections?
I will run again.
Do you like being prime minister?
I like the challenge. It is the pinnacle of parliamentary politics, there is no doubt about it. I have certain priorities in life.
What are your priorities?
Basically to pursue quality education for our people.
Your country was a crucial US ally in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. Then when it ended, the US put sanctions on Pakistan and cut off aid.
This has been a relationship that has not been one of trust or stability. It kept changing with the presidents and the Congresses. Post-9/11, George W. Bush was amazed that Pakistan would provide unconditional support with one phone call, but we did. But the quid pro quo is poor, in my opinion. Even today, we continue to provide the US with air and ground logistics for Afghanistan without any contract or payment. US equipment goes through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
Isn’t that going to be affected by Trump’s statements?
No. That will continue. Because we believe that helps in the war against terror. It helps bring stability to Pakistan, so we support that effort. We have taken our territory back. We have destroyed the sanctuaries.
You are saying there are no sanctuaries in Pakistan?
There are no sanctuaries in Pakistan. If someone provides us with a location, we take action against that.
You are the country closest to the situation in Afghanistan. How do you see the situation resolving itself?
The reality is that most of the area that borders Pakistan is controlled by the Taliban. The government has minimal control there. There is a 2,000-plus-kilometre border with Afghanistan. I can tell you that in 700 of those kilometres there is not a single Afghan soldier or a post. Drug trafficking is at the highest level we have seen in 50 years. They cross over the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan. We have now started fencing the border on our side. We are spending billions of dollars fencing the border.
Are you trying to keep the drugs out?
We are trying to keep the drugs out, the terrorists out. It is a fluid border: 60 to 70 thousand undocumented people cross the border every day.
Didn’t the US just announce that they are re-engaging in Afghanistan and sending troops there?
War is not a solution in Afghanistan. The Afghans have to sit down and resolve their problems.
But the Taliban controls how much of Afghanistan?
The Taliban controls the belt that borders Pakistan. I have heard estimates of up to 38 per cent of the country. The government rule is very minimal — the government is weak. The armed forces are weak.
What is the point of the US re-engaging there?
That is up to the US to answer.
Could it be another Vietnam?
Yes, if you continue. It was a Vietnam for the Soviets. It was a Vietnam 150 years back when the British Empire sent troops. The only solution is to engage and get them to sit down at the table and resolve their own problems and bring peace to the country. Pakistan and the US should help facilitate that peace.
What are your thoughts on the chances for the recent US troop commitment in Syria?
I would not comment on that. It is a very fluid situation in Syria. I am not sure what the US troops will do. The only positive thing is that Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] has been controlled, but now Daesh is coming up in Afghanistan.
What would your message to Trump be?
My message would be to look at Pakistan’s viewpoint. The reality of Pakistan is very different from the perception he has. Pakistan is a US ally. It is a partner against the same enemy, which is terror.
— Washington Post
Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor for the Washington Post.