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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

‘Pakistan sixth largest country in the world cannot be ignored by the US’: GVS exclusive interview with Robin Raphel

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Robin Lynn Raphel is an American former diplomat, Ambassador, CIA analyst and an expert on Pakistan affairs. Until November 2, 2014, she served as a coordinator for non-military assistance to Pakistan, carrying on the work of the late Richard Holbrooke, whose AfPak team she joined in 2009. In 1993, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton as the nation’s first Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, a newly created position at the time designed to assist the U.S. government in managing an increasingly complex region. She later served as U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia from November 7, 1997, to August 6, 2000, during Clinton’s second term in office.

In the 2000s, Raphel held a number of South Asia-related diplomatic positions. She retired from the State Department in 2005 after 30 years of service but returned in 2009 as a senior adviser on Pakistan under then-Secretary

of State Hillary Clinton. Najma Minhas, Managing Editor, Global Village Space (GVS), currently in Washington, took the opportunity to sit down with Robin Lynn Raphel and discuss what she thought about the US-Pakistan relations.

Najma: Robin, as a diplomat for almost 40 years, do you think the art of diplomacy has changed over the years?

Robin: I wouldn’t say the art of diplomacy has changed, but certainly the practice probably has. When I started out in the diplomatic service, diplomats went off to a posting and pretty much stayed there for two years and then got a short break in between. The kind of communication we (diplomats) had was much more formal than it is today. We would write ‘cables’ that were cleared around the embassy with various officers and signed off by the Ambassador so they were very well thought out as compared to emails today which is much more informal.

Najma: Are diplomats now redundant because of the whole NSA surveillance technology, the CIA or any Intelligence Agency in the world who wants to, can actually hear what people are talking about. They can listen sitting in their offices in the USA for example and decide okay this is what’s being said and this is what it means.

Robin: Well I think that doesn’t mean you don’t need diplomats. There have always been ways of gathering intelligence, eavesdropping to what people say, throughout history. But what’s important to recognize is just because you hear what people say, doesn’t mean you understand the context and the larger picture.

I think you’re quite right that it is thought, particularly by some of the intelligence collecting agencies, that they’ve got all the information, so why do you need someone on the ground actually interacting face to face. But the problem is it’s only a small piece of the puzzle when you hear what people are saying to one another.

There are other considerations, other conversations that they’re having, other pieces of background information that you need to factor in to actually understand more broadly what’s going on in a country or what policies are likely to come out. More importantly from the point of view of the diplomat is how you influence people.

For example, during the first Gulf War, President Bush and James Baker, his Secretary of State, worked very hard to build a coalition and that was based on personal relationships that they had built over many years. Those are the sorts of things you need more than the information you get from listening surreptitiously to other people’s conversations.

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Najma: You first went to Pakistan in 1975, with your husband Arnold Rafel, Mr. Zulfikar Bhutto would have been prime minister at the time. What was Pakistani politics like? Was there a sense in the air that tensions were rising?

Robin: Not that much. But things did get tense in 76 and of course, you know in 77 when the coup happened. I remember distinctly that it was being said that everybody was going to the hills to cool off for a few months and then there’d be another election. But then, of course, Mr. Bhutto was arrested and tried and finally executed in the dead of night.

Najma: A lot of Pakistanis have a conspiracy theory that the Americans were behind that as well. In 1973 when Bhutto helped to create the OIC and the petroleum prices went up after OPEC was set up, he alluded in his book, that if something happens to me the Americans will be behind it.

Robin: As you know, there are so many conspiracy theories about American involvement and so many people who live in difficult places leave notes saying, “Ah! if something happens to me it’s this one or that one that’s to blame.” I mean it’s not that we’ve never been involved in government/personnel change throughout our history, but I don’t believe this was one of them.


Najma: How would you categorize the US-Pakistan relationship during the mid to late seventies before and after the Afghan war?

Robin: Well you know we had a very active Assistance Program, which is where I was working at the time, at the US aid mission in Pakistan. During those years we met a lot of people, moved around the country, it was a normal bilateral relationship, not without its issues, but Pakistan had a lot of promise as a developing country at that time. Both for the region and for itself. It was on a growth path, was feeding itself and there were active assistance programs not just ours but also with the World Bank.

The construction of the Tarbela dam was underway. The country showed a lot of promise of development in the 1970s. Which did to some degree get detracted because of the Afghanistan/soviet war and Pakistan’s crucial involvement in it.

The relationship between the two has gone through periods of closeness particularly during the Cold War, when obviously we were concerned about the Soviet Union and Pakistan cooperated with us during the first Afghan war and in the treaty arrangements. But after the Afghan war, there was a period of estrangement and then of course 9/11, when President Musharraf pledged to help us and he did help us out with al-Qaeda and so on and now relations are strained, that’s no secret.

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Najma: So you think that’s just part of a cycle and they’re going to improve?

Robin: Look you know I’ve long held the view that Pakistan is an important country for the United States. It’s strategically located, it’s big, has the sixth largest army in the world, has enormous economic potential, particularly on the agricultural side, also minerals, educated population, English speaking, located between South Asia and the Middle East and borders China and Iran.


Najma: Are there enough people in Washington who hold a similar view?

Robin: At the moment, I would say probably not, but I know and you asked me whether that will change and I think once the course is clear for Afghanistan it will. I think we all need to figure out the way forward in Afghanistan. I mean that’s the blockage right now. While I myself don’t think single issue foreign policy is a good approach but right now we’re focused very much on the counter-terrorism side and very frustrated with the Haqqani network still being sheltered in Pakistan.

Najma: Recently at the Aspen seminar you mentioned that a lack of clarity in Washington’s policies was the reason why Pakistan was not breaking its links with the Haqqani network. What exactly did you mean?

Robin: What I meant was that in order for Pakistan to stop hedging, like all of Afghanistan’s neighbor’s, Iran, Central Asia and Russia, everyone’s hedging because they don’t know what the future holds. American policy is still very unclear. There has been a policy review going on for more than six months and coming to a final decision as people have been promising us a decision then it just doesn’t happen.

President Trump made it very clear during his campaign that he didn’t really understand what we were doing in Afghanistan and I think what he meant was it’s not that he didn’t understand why we went there in the first place, but why 16 years later we were still there. I don’t think that he has been satisfied with the kinds of answers and strategies that have been put forward.

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Najma: It’s a question that I think a lot of people in the region are asking and not just President Trump: why is the U.S. in Afghanistan, 16 years later when there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

Robin: Well I think we’re there for the same reason which made us invade Afghanistan but we haven’t adjusted to the changing circumstances.

Najma: Al Qaeda is now very weak and OBL is dead and those are the two reasons enunciated by Bush for going into Afghanistan and the whole of the world gave him their support but they’re not there any longer.

Robin: People are kind of coming around and appreciating this slowly but surely. But it’s hard because, in the very early stages of this whole operation, we [US] conflated the Taliban with al Qaeda. Now more and more research is coming out that considers what was the real relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. It’s pretty clear that the Taliban were hosting these people and getting a certain amount of money from them and so on, but they didn’t know what they were planning there.

Najma: Are you saying that the Taliban were ‘babes in the wood’?

Robin: I’m saying there are strong indications that they didn’t have a clue about the 9/11 attacks, so they didn’t quite understand what they were getting in for.  A lot of the research and interviews with people suggests that once the Taliban figured out, that they wanted to surrender and just go home to their villages and so on, it wasn’t possible because we had already launched a coalition and gone to war. So I think part of the problem now is we’re fighting an indigenous force [Taliban] and not al Qaeda who wasn’t an indigenous force and neither is ISIS.

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Najma: Recently Senator McCain came out with an Afghan strategy which amongst other things, suggested that US soldiers would be allowed to go in and get the Taliban as well as al Qaeda and Haqqani network. He doesn’t seem to be thinking that the Taliban is a local insurgent force that you shouldn’t tamper with.

Robin: I think the whole problem is nobody’s been reassessing what the real threat is, we are pretty much on automatic pilot. With all due respect to Senator McCain and I haven’t read all of what he said, he seems to be not challenging the fundamental premise that we need to win and I would say that we really need to rethink whether the Taliban or at least all of the Taliban is the enemy that we should be fighting.

Najma: On a lighter note, do you think this is almost like a men’s issue. The anecdotal example of a man in a car, refusing to ask someone if he gets lost or stop the car to reassess. Do you think this is what’s happening, this is macho men who’ve gone into a war and you know they have to come out on top.

Robin: Well they want to win, but I would argue that the women in the military forces want to win as well. But I have personally observed over the years [men] with the issue of maps and being unwilling to ask directions. I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s the whole establishment not reassessing what the real threat is. There is a threat from remnants of al Qaeda, there’s a threat now it seems from ISIS. I don’t know how many ISIS fighters are there; some people say not so many, other people say more than you think, but to me, it’s only natural that ISIS will move into ungoverned spaces.

Najma: You have always advocated that the U.S. needs to encourage reconciliation through sitting down and talking with the Taliban why do you believe it’s going to work?

Robin: I think the fundamental point here, which I and others believe, is that the Taliban is an indigenous group. They are Afghan, they have support in Afghan society, for a number of reasons in part because they are Pushtoon and because Pushtoon society is conservative. But in large part, because the governance just isn’t there. The government whether it is structural or because of the security situation, has not been able to deliver to the average Afghan outside of Kabul.

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Najma: Would you recommend to President Trump to take out the US forces?

Robin: No not at all. Certainly, he should not do anything precipitous. We were having a discussion the other day, at one of the innumerable think-tank sessions here in this town, and it’s easy to conclude, the American forces should just leave.  My own view is that if we leave, we would leave a vacuum and a certain amount of chaos which would be filled by ISIS and other terrorist groups.

Najma: The U.S. doesn’t seem to be working with any of the regional players who have many similar concerns as the U.S. have including restricting ISIS, controlling the narcotic trades and so on.

Robin: Well number one, we are working with China. As you know there was this quadrilateral effort, which may still be revived between Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, to try and push political talks. On Iran, we are not likely to work with them.

Najma: Okay, so on the Indian point, where does India fit into Afghanistan? I mean why the U.S. pushes so much to have India within these talks when India is not a bordering country.

Robin: We haven’t pushed to have India in the reconciliation talks. I prefer to call it the political track and what I’ve been advocating recently is we need to activate and prioritize the political track that doesn’t mean there is no military track. India, as you know, has had a long-standing relationship with Afghanistan and after 9/11 it was a very easy opportunity for them to get back into Afghanistan.

They had always supported the Northern Alliance group and so it was very natural for them to step in and we at the time you know were welcoming all people coming in to help out. Help out with the reconstruction effort and so on. I am not sure it was a deliberate effort on our part.

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Najma: But now do you think it’s more a part of US strategy. I mean given the strategic relationship that India and the U.S. are developing with regard to China, in particular and the Pacific Ocean, do you think this has become part of that?

Robin: I wouldn’t say that. The more important strategic part for us here is the China part of the equation. It really is and I think you know we could find a way to move towards a political settlement. It doesn’t need to involve India and we’re perfectly well aware that the much more important partner that ultimately matters is Pakistan in this case.

Najma:  Right-wing analysts like General Hameed Gul always said that the US will only have a temporary relationship with Pakistan.

Robin: Well you know I think this whole transactional versus strategic relationship division is a bit of a red herring. I mean a country’s relationship with other countries is always based on their own self-interest ultimately. But part of that self-interest is having relationships that you’ve developed over time, so when there’s an emergency or something, you can quickly rely on a country with whom you’ve had a long well-established relationship.

The most common one that we talk about here is with the UK but there are others too. That’s part of the way a country should operate in the world and sometimes you have more of a coincidence of interest, sometimes you don’t, but to repeat Pakistan is a player in the world and with its 200 million people, six largest army in the world with nuclear weapons, I think Pakistan is an important country and a key ally of United States. It is very much in our interest to have a workable relationship with it.

Najma: What would you specifically tell Pakistanis to work on as a country to improve and deepen its relationships with the US?

Robin: Well you know what I would say to Pakistan. Pakistan needs to set its house in order both politically and economically make necessary reforms. Pakistan sort of fell behind because of the wars in Afghanistan. The promise of the 1970s sort of stopped short and has never really taken off.

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Najma: How do you perceive recent current political events that have taken place?

Robin: I think there is some good news in the sense that even after the prime minister was disqualified, very quickly, another competent person was put in his place and things seem to be moving on and not collapsing and I think that’s very good. I know there’s a lot of controversy about the Court’s decision and you know I don’t have an opinion on that.


Najma:  Do you think democracy is threatened right now in Pakistan?

Robin: I don’t think democracy in Pakistan is under threat. The transfer of power in Pakistan from one Prime Minister to another is an indication of the fact that at least for now, democracy in Pakistan is safe and evolving which is a good sign.