Amid Rising Tensions: A Conversation with Pakistan’s Ambassador

In this March 23, 2019 photo, Pakistan's Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, center, watches a parade with Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and President Arif Alvi, in Islamabad, Pakistan.

AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

AA Font size + Print

In this March 23, 2019 photo, Pakistan's Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, center, watches a parade with Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, and President Arif Alvi, in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Asad Majeed Khan discusses the U.S. troop pullout in Afghanistan, the worsening situation in Kashmir, and efforts to fight extremism.

Pakistan today faces an increasingly complicated situation on its western border and a burgeoning political and military crisis with India to its east. In August, India took unilateral steps to police the disputed region of Kashmir, creating what many Western observers have described as a humanitarian disaster. To the west, Pakistan must negotiate a new relationship with Afghanistan as the United States pulls troops out of the region. And the country’s U.S. relationship has been awkward since September 2018, when the Pentagon decided Islamabad was doing too little against militant extremists and cancelled $300 million in aid.

Defense One sat down with Asad Majeed Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, to discuss these and other topics. Here is that conversation, lightly edited for clarity and space. Or listen to the extended version via Defense One Radio. 


Defense One: India and Pakistan officially bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir on Oct. 31. What’s Pakistan’s next move?

Khan:

What [Indian] Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi did on Aug. 5 is something that was basically in violation—if not the letter, at least the spirit—of the Indian constitution itself. It was a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and it was also a violation of all the bilateral agreements and understandings and declarations that the two countries have issued over the last, I would say 70 years…Article 370, which was actually a special provision in the Indian constitution, also was a way of recognizing that this is a disputed territory and that no side would basically unilaterally alter the status on the ground and that the finalist position of the state would take place in accordance with the wishes of the people of Kashmir.

So by basically bifurcating the occupied Jammu and Kashmir into three territories, which are to be directly managed by the center, at least two of them, India has also opened up this possibility because they also took back [their constitution’s] Article 35A, which now allows anyone to basically go into Kashmir and settle there, which is something that would change the demography of the state and then would impact whatever final disposition the residents and the subjects of the state of Kashmir would decide if this question were to be put to them, at some point in time.

Defense One:

So your view is that India is attempting to tilt the region’s demographics in its favor?

Khan:

In fact, what India has done is that they have actually annexed a disputed territory and made it a part of their union, which is actually a violation of their own commitments. It is a violation of international law and the Security Council resolutions. And they have done it without actually asking the people of Kashmir. And then that’s why now for over a hundred days, the valley is in a lockdown. They claim that they have partially lifted some of those restrictions, but they have not as yet allowed international observers to go in. They have not allowed international media to go in. They have not even allowed the mainstream leaders from India to go in. It’s like, someone, some day deciding here in Washington, D.C., that they want to split the state of New York into three constituent units.

They actually put an additional 200,000 troops in an area which already was the most militarized zone in the world, with around 700,000 troops there already. About 900,000 troops for a population of 8 to 9 million Kashmiris clearly speak of the fact that the Indian government knew that their actions are not going to go down well. And the fact that this has continued now for over a hundred days further confirms that people are not happy and they are in a state of civil disobedience in Kashmir.

Defense One:

Will Pakistan increase its own troop presence? 

Khan:

No, I think of course their motivation in bringing in those additional reinforcements is actually designed to incarcerate a whole population. For us, our deployments, which are obviously limited only to areas that are very close to the border, are designed to basically protect Pakistan against any possible or potential adventurism from across the border… 

We will not initiate anything. But if our territory or if our border is violated, we will be responding. So to basically summarize this, yes, we have to take measures to deal with the situation… But our deployment, first of all, would depend on what the situation is like on the Line of Control. And any expansion in that would basically be made by the field commanders based on their assessment and understanding of what the situation is like on the Line of Control and the border. But our deployments are in no way comparable to what India has done in terms of numbers, and in terms of their motivation.

Defense One:

It sounds like you are expecting to put more troops along the Line of Control for defensive reasons.

Khan:

I would not rule that out because, as I said, that this is a determination that the military command would make based on their own reckoning and assessment of the threat. But whether that has actually taken place, I don’t think that has taken place, but that there is a potential for that.

Defense One:

When Sardar Massoud Khan, president of Kashmir’s the Pakistan-administered region, was here, he said Pakistanis might perform civil disobedience, or even violence involving asymmetrical weapons, against Indian forces. What can Pakistan do to try to prevent this?

Khan:

I don’t know if you were able to see the statement that our prime minister issued saying that anyone crossing into Kashmir from Pakistan would be doing a disservice to the cause of Kashmir.

Pakistan has…taken a slew of measures to, basically, go after anyone seeking to use our territory against any other country — be it India, be it Afghanistan, or be it any other country…

So I can say to you … that there is absolutely no organized presence of any terrorist group in Pakistan today and we are going after whatever remnants are there. There is a national campaign going on. So to that extent… there is growing appreciation internationally also — and even in the United States — of the steps that we have taken and the steps that we are committed to do even in future also.

Defense One:

Critics say those steps are largely cosmetic.

Khan:

No, not at all. I think we have our challenges but those challenges are more on the economic side. I think on the security side what we have done in terms of dealing with anyone seeking to use our territory, we have taken across-the-board actions. We have taken measures that are certainly not cosmetic.

What we have done over the last couple of years is that we have integrated…our laws, the fiscal laws, the criminal laws, the civil law, all laws that are applicable [to counter terrorism]. And not just that, we have also built a fence on our border with Afghanistan just to address some of those concerns that you are alluding to. In fact, of late there has been actually more intelligence coming in from the other side. So we have fenced, almost…80% of the border.

Defense One:

You’ve put up a wall, as it were?

Khan:

Across Pakistan, look at the number of entities and number of individuals, entities proscribed, individuals arrested. These arrests are not under the so-called Maintenance Of Public Order Ordinance, you know. These arrests are under specific, clear charges, which would basically automatically lead to the prosecution of individuals who have been charged. So it is anything but cosmetic.

Then just look at Pakistan’s internal security situation. I mean, last year was the lowest number of terrorist incidents in 13 years. International cricket is going to come back. We will have our first test match after 2009. We had our National Cricket League also hold at least half of its matches in Pakistan. The UN has already declared Islamabad as a family station once again.

So all these developments are not taking place in a vacuum and are not a result of some cosmetic stuff… I think we have gone after all these groups who were using our territory for one or the other reason. And it’s not just that. I think even if you look at the measure, the very clear and unambiguous way in which our leadership has spoken against extremism, the boldness with which they have stood with the minorities on issues of concern to them, I think also speak of the new Pakistan and the changing trends in Pakistan.

Defense One:

What role will Pakistan play in Afghanistan’s security?

Khan:

We have done all that we could to facilitate the Afghan and U.S. negotiations. We fully support inter-Afghan dialogue because we firmly believe that there will not be sustainable peace unless all Afghans are able to get to a common understanding and a common end. It has to be a comprehensive peace. So that’s our hope. And our fear, of course, is that peace is not realized. So the perpetuation of conflict will have implications for Pakistan in many ways.

Defense One:

Are Pakistan and the United States discussing the idea of basing forces in Pakistan as they withdraw from Afghanistan?

Khan:

I think there are all kinds of ideas in circulation, but I can tell you that right now we are like most of the key players in the process, focused first of all on seeing that the conversations between the U.S. and Taliban are revived, that the inter-Afghan process of consultation also starts, because that’s going to be the most difficult and complicated part of it, you know? What happens after that and then what kind of presence, and I think that is something for the Afghans to decide. I think this will be something which will be part of those conversations that the inter-Afghan process is going to have.

Defense One:

Can you rule it out?

Khan:

No, I don’t think we have gotten to that point where we are engaged in these kind of conversations. But I can say this to you very clearly, that Pakistan would like to see the U.S. exit in a responsible way, that we are not in favor of precipitated withdrawal. And obviously the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is something for the Afghan people to decide. And that’s why we believe that it has also got to be a shared responsibility where every other country also contributes, because long term sustainability of the process would eventually depend on everyone conveying the same message to all the stakeholders in Afghanistan.

Defense One:

Is the situation in Kashmir drawing attention or forces away from the Afghan border?

Khan:

That is a scenario or a situation that obviously we would want to avoid. But even before we get to that point, I just take you back from where [Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan] started. And before even taking oath of office, what the prime minister said was that, “I want to have good relations with all my neighbors.”

Defense One:

What about information or cyber warfare, like the malware attack on a Indian nuclear power plant or disinformation flowing over social media from India into Pakistan?

Khan:

Well, this is a new form of warfare, which is taking place in different regions and between different countries…Obviously, this is a threat that we face from a country that is much bigger in size than us, a country that has far more resources and perhaps even more expertise in cyber. We are aware of these threats, and we are doing whatever is possible within our means and resources to combat those threats to the extent that we can.

Defense One:

How does the Pakistani government approach the threat?

Khan:

Our job is and should be to basically expose wherever the information is being manipulated, or fake news is being injected into the discourse. One [option] is to go out and create a parallel stream of fake news. I don’t think we are into that, but exposing and to the extent of identifying who is doing what is, that is at least what I would ideally like to do.

There are people who are better qualified than I am to share with you the specifics of how we are doing it. Technology has never been my strength, but I can say this to you that, yes. I think like most other countries, even here in the United States, we see this as a growing theater where we need to do more to protect our interests. There are more and more threats, the soft threats that are coming from this channel, also. There are people in Pakistan that are looking at it and drawing up appropriate strategies.

In closing:you spoke about the extremism and some of these groups that are using our territory and space…in Pakistan, such groups have always been on the fringe. They have never been part of the political mainstream because all the major political parties are more center. Slightly to the right of the center, slightly to the left of the center.

Our extreme right or extreme groups have never been part of the political mainstream; but in India, unfortunately right now, their fringe has become the mainstream. [India’s Bharatiya Janata Party] actually represents that. These actions one after the other, first what they did in Kashmir and which was partly motivated by their desire to get that one single state in the Indian union, which was a Muslim-majority state. By breaking it up they have basically taken away that title and that status that Kashmir had before. The kind of terminology that they are using is, basically, bringing their extremist fringe into the mainstream. That is going to be a long-term security threat for South Asia, because whatever happens in India, our own extremist groups draw oxygen from there.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne