Challenges: Kashmir, Afghanistan & Beyond

Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, Mr. Sohail Mahmood, talks in-depth about Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges at the start of 2020. In an exclusive discussion, he explains Pakistan’s balancing acts between the US and China on one hand and between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the other. He minces no words in describing the difficult situation that has emerged in South Asia because of the rash actions of the Modi government in occupied Jammu & Kashmir.

GVS sat down with the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan to understand Pakistan’s essential foreign policy issues & challenges. Here is the complete interview. 
GVS: What do you see as the key foreign policy issues that Pakistan needs to think about in 2020? What will be the biggest challenge; where do you see a breakthrough?

Sohail Mahmood: There is a full agenda to be pursued. The situation in Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IOJ&K) will continue to be the highest priority. Pakistan’s effort has been to sensitize the world community to the dire human rights and humanitarian situation there and the serious threat that India’s illegal and unilateral actions pose to peace and security.

Our intense, multi-dimensional, and sustained diplomatic campaign in this context will continue apace. On the Western side, the achievement of sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan is in our core national interest. Pakistan’s support for and facilitation of the US-Taliban peace talks has been a vital element in the international community’s efforts for a political settlement in Afghanistan.

As part of shared responsibility, Pakistan will continue to facilitate an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process. We have an all-weather strategic cooperative partnership with China, which we will continue to fortify further. CPEC is the most formidable illustration of this partnership, which will keep flourishing in 2020 and beyond. Pakistan’s cooperative ties with Russia have been deepening.

The leadership of Pakistan and Russia meets more frequently and consults on issues of common interest. The people of Pakistan would indeed look forward to welcoming President Putin. We also expect that Prime Minister Imran Khan would undertake a visit to Russia in 2020

We expect more high-level exchanges during 2020 and diversification of areas of bilateral collaboration. Forging closer ties with fraternal Muslim countries is an imperative enshrined in our Constitution. It has also been a cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy since its inception. The process of further strengthening these ties and investing them with greater economic content will be pursued.

The Prime Minister’s visit to Washington in July 2019 set a new tone in our relations with the US. Our endeavors for a broad-based, multi-faceted, and enduring partnership will continue in 2020. European countries have been Pakistan’s strong partners in diverse fields, including trade, investment, and economic development.

PM Imran Khan addresses the 74th UNGA session

We will endeavor to impart added vigor to our institutional linkages with the EU, as we will grapple with a post-Brexit Europe. An invigorated focus on the African Continent as part of ‘Engage Africa’ initiative will see us actively pursue economic diplomacy with an increasing number of partners in Africa. Diplomatic focus on Latin America will also increase.

Pakistan has always actively participated in multilateral initiatives. Several subjects, such as climate change, Islamophobia, illegal financial flows from corruption will remain a priority. At the same time, the traditional focus on human rights and peace and security issues will be maintained.

GVS: Given recent unusual comments about CPEC from State Department, how do you see Pakistan balancing its strategic relations with China with its long-standing relations with the US?

Sohail Mahmood: Inter-state relations are not, and should not be, cast in zero-sum equations. China is a close friend, neighbor, and reliable partner. Pakistan’s all-weather strategic cooperative partnership with China, grounded in mutual respect and shared interests, has withstood all vicissitudes of time and grown only stronger and deeper.

CPEC is a manifestation of this exemplary partnership and a transformational project from which both Pakistan and the region stand to benefit. Simultaneously, Pakistan has had a long-standing relationship with the United States, spanning more than seven decades. Our cooperation has been multi-faceted, covering diverse areas such as defence, trade, energy, agriculture, education, and so on.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech resonated because it came from the heart, and he spoke to the hearts. It was a statesman’s reminder to the world and the United Nations of their responsibilities in the face of the most inhuman treatment of a whole people, literally the caging of 8 million unarmed, innocent Kashmiris by over 900,000 Indian occupation forces

History has repeatedly shown that both the US and Pakistan, and indeed the world, have benefitted when the two countries have worked together. In the current phase, too, we believe a closer Pakistan-US relationship based on mutual respect, mutual understanding, and mutual interest is indispensable.

Pakistan’s desire to have close cooperation with both China and the US stems from the imperative to reinforce our economic development and foster regional peace, progress, and prosperity. We seek a positive synergy which we believe to be a stabilizing factor for the region.

GVS: During the 1960s-70s, Pakistan was instrumental in bringing Beijing close to Washington. Can Pakistan again help reduce Sino-US tensions?

Sohail Mahmood: That is precisely our point. History is witness that Pakistan’s role was the most pivotal in facilitating the Sino-US rapprochement at the height of the Cold War, which tilted the East-West balance decisively in favor of the “free world.” The new relationship between the two countries changed the world order.

An Indian soldier stands guard during curfew in Indian-Occupied Kashmir.

We believe, at this juncture, too, a symbiotic relationship between the US and China is what the world needs. Every effort must be made to prevent a drift towards another Cold War. Pakistan earlier played a part as a bridge between these two. We will remain constructively engaged with both of them in this phase as well.

GVS: West’s media has often criticized the lopsided trade relationship between Pakistan and China with the balance of trade totally in China’s favor (unlike the US and EU); will the new revised FTA between Pakistan and China help dispel the impression?

Sohail Mahmood: I would choose not to comment on the motivation of such reporting. Suffice it to say that, rather than singling out one relationship, the more prudent thing would be to look at China’s huge production capacity as well as China’s trade balances with the US and India. The picture will illustrate the realities.

That said, we endeavor to expand bilateral trade ties with China to the fullest potential. The revised Free Trade Agreement envisages greater access to the Chinese market. Our export sector must take full advantage of this opportunity.

GVS: Let’s move towards India and South Asia. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister was embarking on Umra in the night of August 4, literally 12 hours before the Indian actions of abrogating Articles 370 and 35-A; why was Pakistan’s Foreign Office unaware or oblivious of the challenges?

Sohail Mahmood: It is incorrect to suggest that anyone was “unaware.” Anticipating the Indian moves, the foreign minister addressed a letter to the president of the UN Security Council on August 1. The Foreign Minister also spoke to the OIC secretary-general on August 3.

Right-wing Hindu activists attack the 16th century Babri Masjid.

The National Security Committee met under the Prime Minister’s chairmanship on August 4 (over the weekend) to comprehensively deliberate on the issue. All these actions were taken before August 5, when India announced its illegal and unilateral measures seeking to alter the internationally recognized disputed status of occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IOJ&K) and change its demographic structure.

Kashmir is close to our hearts and never away from our minds. We monitor the situation in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir continuously, keep assessing the evolving situation, and appropriately craft our strategy and actions.

GVS: Most analysts fear that government led by BJP and RSS is working to change the demographic balance of the Muslim valley creating another human tragedy with implications for Pakistan. How do you intend to stop New Delhi from such a blatant act?

Sohail Mahmood: That indeed is the intent of the RSSBJP combine. We have underlined that peace and security in South Asia are under threat from a toxic mix of extremist ideology and hegemonic ambitions in India, where the adherents of Hindutva and Akhand Bharat have secured ascendency.

We have consistently underlined that seeking to change the demography in IOJ&K would violate the UN Security Council resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir and of the 4th Geneva Convention. As part of its intense diplomatic campaign, Pakistan has actively highlighted this dimension of the J&K dispute to the world community.

Read more: Kashmir, the bone of contention: Is there any solution to Indo-Pak border disputes?

For their part, the Kashmiris themselves are taking appropriate safeguards, as they fully recognize that if these nefarious designs are implemented, their identity would be altered. We will take every diplomatic, political, and legal step necessary in this regard.

GVS: After the strong words used across the world over Indian actions in Kashmir post-August 5, has the Foreign Office assessed what damage that this has actually caused India?

Sohail Mahmood: Pakistan’s response has been firm, sustained, and effective. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have been in the vanguard of the diplomatic campaign. Bilaterally, the diplomatic relations with India were downgraded, and bilateral trade was suspended.

Internationally, Pakistan has raised the issue at every forum, from the UN Security Council to UNGA to Human Rights Council to the OIC. We have taken it up at NAM, ECO, IPU, and so on. The UN Secretary General’s statements have validated Pakistan’s historical, political and legal position on Jammu and Kashmir dispute.

There is greater global awareness today of the ideological impulses and the majoritarian agenda driving India’s current behavior. India is facing international scrutiny and censure on Kashmir like never before

The Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has highlighted the ongoing atrocities in two successive reports in June 2018 and July 2019. There have been numerous, unprecedented hearings in the US House of Representatives. Draft resolutions have been tabled.

The UK, EU, and other parliaments have held hearings and debates. In a nutshell, Kashmir is internationalized as never before in recent decades; the Security Council is seized of the matter; the international human rights and civil society organizations are focused on the situation, and the international media are making efforts to expose the true extent of ongoing atrocities against the Kashmiris.

There is greater global awareness today of the ideological impulses and the majoritarian agenda driving India’s current behavior. India is facing international scrutiny and censure like never before.

GVS: Has Pakistan’s Kashmir focus shifted after the high point of PM Imran Khan’s much-celebrated speech in the UN General Assembly? Was the whole Pakistani system only working towards the address in the UN?

Sohail Mahmood: Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech resonated because it came from the heart, and he spoke to the hearts. It was a statesman’s reminder to the world and the United Nations of their responsibilities in the face of the most inhuman treatment of a whole people, literally the caging of 8 million unarmed, innocent Kashmiris by over 900,000 Indian occupation forces.

Since the UNGA speech, the ongoing campaign has moved apace – and the issue has been raised in OIC, IPU, and before many other international forums. The “Kashmir Black Day” was observed worldwide on October 27. The Prime Minister took up the issue during his visits to China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Geneva (at the Global Refugee Forum). Fruitful outcomes have been forthcoming from all these endeavors.

GVS: Will it be correct to understand that internal differences and political squabbles within Pakistan have removed the country’s focus on Kashmir from the high tempo we reached in September during the PM’s UN General Assembly speech? How Foreign Office as premier custodian of the nation’s regional and worldwide interests analyzes that? Should we have a system whereby the Foreign Office can advise political parties and media of national interests above party politics?

Sohail Mahmood: It is clear to everyone in the country that Kashmir is a national cause and, Alhamdulillah, the support for it has been unanimous across party-lines. We believe this is the underlying strength. The unanimous resolution of the Joint Session of Parliament presented a clear road-map.

The Kashmir Committee’s membership is bipartisan, and the support by all its members has been strong and unequivocal. The Parliamentary delegations participating in various meetings and international conferences have forcefully raised the Kashmir issue, regardless of the party affiliations. For his part, the Foreign Minister regularly briefs the relevant parliamentary committees, and also other members from the floor of both Houses of Parliament.

GVS: After its actions in Kashmir, in particular, the blockade and the horrific violations of HRs – what do you think of the tenability of India asking for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council? To what extent has this claim been undermined? How can Pakistan work with other countries such as Italy, who are taking a position against the whole concept of the P5 system, and given the increased number of countries in the world that want to increase the power of the General Assembly?

Sohail Mahmood: Ever since the Kashmir dispute arose, India never had any legally tenable case. The authenticity of the fraudulent “Instrument of Accession” was never independently verified. India took the matter to the United Nations. The Security Council did not validate India’s claim on the State of Jammu & Kashmir.

Rather, the Security Council adopted resolutions which granted the right of self-determination to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. To this day, these resolutions remain on the Council’s agenda, and Jammu & Kashmir continues to be recognized as a “disputed territory” by the UN. The Indian actions of August 5, 2019, have added to the list of illegalities conducted by that country, which work to undermine its “global aspirations” further.

Read more: Kashmir being used as a vote gathering ploy by Hindu Nationalists; Arundhati Roy

Historically, Pakistan has been firmly opposed to the creation of any new centers of power and privilege within the UN system. We, as part of a significant group of states, believe that doing so would be the very negation of the founding principle of the United Nations, which is sovereign equality of states.

Pakistan would continue to remain constructively engaged in seeking meaningful and result-oriented reform in the UN, which is in tune with the spirit of democracy and accountability, and consistent with the aspirations of all the peoples of the world.

GVS: How do you interpret the recent joint statement by Japan and India on Pakistan and terrorism (2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial meeting.) How do you intend to counter the increased number of countries that side with India on the global stage such as France – because these countries have increased economic trade worth billions of dollars with India, such as Rafael deal, and so on?

Sohail Mahmood: We have rejected the gratuitous and unwarranted reference to Pakistan in the India-Japan Joint Statement. Our concerns have been shared with our Japanese friends as well. It is essential that our partner countries take an objective and balanced view of the realities on the ground.

Any pronouncement on issues of peace and security in South Asia must address the unacceptable situation in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. More than ever before, public opinion is increasingly powerful today.

Whatever positions certain governments might take in light of their narrow considerations, it is also a fact that the media and international civil society have been highlighting the situation and squeezing the space for such governments. We also believe that countries that profess a commitment to higher ideals and values should take care not to appear self-contradictory on these situations owing to some corporate interests.

GVS: Not long ago, you were Pakistan’s point man in Delhi; now relations have been downgraded since Indian strikes in Balakot in February 2019, and Indian High Commissioner is sitting in Delhi. Modi Government’s blatant actions in Kashmir, increasing HR violations, and overall anti-Muslim climate generated by BJP (like the Citizenship Bill) have created new and unusual dynamics; where do you see India-Pakistan relations going?

Sohail Mahmood: The challenges in the relationship have undoubtedly been compounded. India’s continued belligerence and illegal actions have further vitiated the atmosphere.

India’s intensified ceasefire violations across the LoC, injuring and killing civilians including men, women, and children; frequent war-mongering rhetoric; and increase in military deployments keep the tensions heightened. No one should lose sight of the fact that here are two countries possessing strategic capabilities, and locked in a prolonged period of tensions, with no established mechanisms for crisis management, let alone conflict resolution.

There could be no other situation so fraught with uncertainties and severe risks for peace and security. Meanwhile, aside from India’s actions in Occupied Jammu & Kashmir, the Babri Masjid verdict and steps like NRC and CAA reflect reducing space for Muslims and other minorities.

The very basis of “secularism” in the Indian state is being questioned. The region cannot be immune from what is happening in India, including the aftermath of NRC and CAA. The negative trends discernible in India today have the potential to affect the entire neighborhood, not just one relationship harmfully.

GVS: What do you think is the main issue stopping better relations between Pakistan and the United States? Is it a growing divergence in interests due to a strategic dependence the US has on India against China? Or is it related to Afghanistan? Or is it more specific to Pakistan?

Sohail Mahmood: The two countries had witnessed a trust deficit in recent years. The desire for the restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan is common. The US pivot to Asia, and India, was seen as reflective of a “realignment” of sorts. In our view, it is imperative to resist the temptation of bloc politics and to avoid a relapse into a new era of the Cold War.

Every effort should be made to build a world where cooperation, and not confrontation, is the central dynamic. That said, the Pakistan-US relationship remains and will remain valuable in its own right. It has been mutually beneficial. Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Trump have interacted and communicated more frequently than in the past.

Read more: India maligns Kashmiri struggle with fabricated allegations

The task before the two sides is to minimize the divergences and maximize the areas of convergence. For our part, we remain committed to building a strong, cooperative, and broad-based relationship.

GVS: Pakistan worked hard for bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, but US actions demonstrate that it does not take much for Washington to abandon the process. What, in your analysis, is the real underlying US concern in Afghanistan? What are Taliban concerns?

Sohail Mahmood: Pakistan has long held the view, and gladly now, all sides appear to have realized that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. In this perspective, Pakistan has extended all possible support and facilitation for the Afghan peace and reconciliation process.

Similarly, our effort has been pivotal for the advancement of the US-Taliban talks. We are pleased with the resumption of negotiations after a temporary hiatus. In the next phases, it is for the warring parties to sit together and work out a solution. And it is for all Afghan parties to determine, among themselves, how they wish to steer Afghanistan forward on the path of long-term, sustainable peace.

We have, and will remain, with our Afghan brethren as they navigate their way through this complicated situation. Pakistan will continue to play a facilitative role as part of shared responsibility because a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan is in our national interest.

GVS: Given the US election year in 2020, do you think troop withdrawal will happen? There is a vast constituency in the US, and in Kabul and Delhi that is against complete or even partial troops withdrawal, will they prevail? What will enable the US to go ahead and remove all their troops? There is talk that even if they remove ground troops, they will leave behind air force stationed on the ground. How do you view this?

Sohail Mahmood: It would be imprudent to hazard a guess about the ultimate shape of the process, determined as it would be by the complex dynamics of a sovereign state. We hope that there will be a responsible and orderly process, one that helps sustain stability in a country ravaged by conflict and instability for over four decades.

Suffice it to say that there is considerable war-weariness all around. It is for the US and Afghanistan to determine the optimum configuration and the essential timelines. For Pakistan, it is Afghanistan’s stability that remains of paramount importance.

GVS: Do you see peace coming to Afghanistan once the US withdraws its forces? What will enable this?

Sohail Mahmood: There is indeed a real prospect of stability returning to Afghanistan. A regional consensus on the way forward, and keeping the “spoilers” at bay, would be imperative.

GVS: There is a continuing chatter of a budding Pakistan-Russia relationship for the past two years or more with military exercises and confidence-building measures – but we don’t see real progress on that front. Will President Putin visit Pakistan in 2020?

Sohail Mahmood: Pakistan-Russia relations are undergoing a transformation. There have been several notable developments. Pakistan is now a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which Russia is a leading member. Through assiduous efforts, some of the issues that impeded our bilateral trade and investment prospects have been resolved.

Challenges in Kashmir & Afghanistan

A 64-member Russian delegation visited Pakistan last month as part of the Pakistan-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission to explore the possibility of investments in a myriad of sectors. The leadership of Pakistan and Russia meets more frequently and consults on issues of common interest. The people of Pakistan would indeed look forward to welcoming President Putin. We also expect that Prime Minister Imran Khan would undertake a visit to Russia in 2020.

GVS: We have vital economic, strategic, and cultural links with the Middle East; how are we balancing Iran-Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Qatar vs. GCC on the other?

Sohail Mahmood: Pakistan has deep and abiding ties with the fraternal nations in the Middle East and the Gulf region. As a matter of principle, Pakistan does not take sides in disputes among Muslim countries.

Read more: Lord Nazir answers why international community ignores Kashmir tragedy

Historically, and even now, we endeavor to strengthen Islamic solidarity by facilitating relevant parties to resolve differences and conflicts through political and diplomatic means. This was the crux of the Prime Minister’s recent initiative. Pakistan’s endeavors in this context would continue.

Challenges in Kashmir & Afghanistan

GVS: Pakistani Americans thronging Capital One Arena in July had a huge impact; How can we proactively leverage our diaspora?

Sohail Mahmood: Pakistani diaspora is a valuable asset, and their contribution to Pakistan’s progress and prosperity is precious. They play a vital role in advancing our economic growth and development agenda. Facilitating the diaspora remains a high priority for the government.

Leveraging this critical resource requires embracing it, motivating it to work for national development, and keeping it on a single platform. We will continue to strengthen this linkage in every conceivable way.

GVS: Given our falling CSS results, how the Foreign Office intends to maintain its standards? Can we think of separate exams for Foreign Office, with its own emphasis on subjects (International Economics, Law, Trade, etc.) and professional backgrounds?

Sohail Mahmood: It is a singular honor and privilege to lead a Service that has historically been regarded highly for its professionalism. We have a rigorous nine-month training program at our Foreign Service Academy for probationer officers, besides the numerous training and capacity-building courses, our officers undergo in Pakistan and abroad.

Read more: Pakistan & Iran grow closer on Afghanistan, border management & Kashmir

In today’s fast transforming world, the need to reinvent is imperative for any professional and institution. In our new scheme of things, a significant effort is underway to re-orient towards economic diplomacy, and optimal utilization of the possibilities opened up by revolutionary technological advancements.

The question of holding a separate exam for FSP has been examined, and decisions will be taken, as appropriate. We will continue to improve the induction, training, and career planning processes according to the emerging imperatives. The core objective would continue to be to strengthen the Foreign Office as an institution advancing Pakistan’s national interests in the best possible manner.

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