WASHINGTON — Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi says that his country has paid “an enormous price” for being the United States’ main ally in South Asia for the last 50 years.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution, a political-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., Qureshi said Pakistan had been a “steady partner” in challenges faced by the United States since World War II and remained so today.
“If the Cold War was the central struggle of the 20th century, the fight against terrorism and fanaticism has become the defining struggle of new millennium,” Qureshi said. “And in this historic struggle, Pakistan and the United States are once again in the trenches together.”
Qureshi is in Washington this week leading a Pakistani delegation of government ministers in the third round of the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, a series of broad discussions aimed at expanding relations between the two countries beyond the war against Islamist insurgents.
Thirteen working groups focusing on topics from energy to agriculture, water to women’s rights, began meeting on October 20 for three days of talks between U.S. and Pakistani government representatives.
The foreign minister’s speech at Brookings was his first public remarks in Washington during this trip and followed a White House meeting with President Barack Obama that he characterized as “tremendously satisfying.”
What Goes Around…
But if anyone in the audience thought that positive remark was setting the tone for the rest of the speech, they were wrong. Qureshi described the devastating effect that the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan had on Pakistan — it “converted our peaceful country into a society infested with Kalashnikovs, heroin, and sectarianism,” he said — and then took off at least one of his diplomatic gloves.
“When the Soviets were defeated and left Afghanistan, the United States quickly packed its bags, leaving us to deal with networks that all of us had jointly created,” Qureshi said. “This was the beginning of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.”
With that, the Pakistani foreign minister appeared to lay blame for the nest of terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan the United States has been trying to defeat for nearly a decade squarely at the feet of — the United States.
But he was on his way to making a much larger point. Tying Washington’s foreign policy over the decades to the current “vicious and inhuman terrorist campaign” that he said has claimed the lives of thousands of Pakistanis simply established the baseline for the case he went on to make, which was that to accomplish its goals in Afghanistan and the wider region, the United States needs Islamabad like never before.
“Our commitment to the fight against terrorism and extremism is real and demonstratable. The democratic government has spent immense political capital in converting public opinion in favor of the struggle. A national consensus that was earlier lacking,” Qureshi said. “As a result, today, for the people of Pakistan, this is our war. Pakistan has walked the talk and is standing up for the peace and security of the region — in fact, the whole world.”
The foreign minister noted that the stakes have never been higher in the two countries’ relationship. What he didn’t note — and didn’t have to — is that this gives Pakistan a degree of leverage with the United States it has never had before.
Underwater, Under Siege
And it comes as Pakistan is facing what is possibly the most difficult moment in its 63-year history.
“This is a moment of a unique crisis of confidence for Pakistan. A vicious and inhuman terrorist campaign has killed thousands of our people. Long-neglected social and economic problems threaten our national structure. The international recession has badly hurt for investments and markets for our products,” Qureshi said. “And on top of it all, over the last three months, Pakistan has been faced with the greatest floods in modern history.”
The devastating floods that swamped an area of Pakistan the size of Italy this August and caused an estimated $9.7 billion in damage dealt the country a colossal blow when it was already on its knees.
Qureshi praised the resilience and “indomitable spirit” of the Pakistani people, and thanked the United States on their behalf for being the largest donor of aid and assistance. And he said Islamabad hoped that Washington would continue to help the country recover and rebuild.
A moment later, however, he reminded the audience that “an overwhelming number of Pakistanis do not consider America a friend” and feel “used and exploited.” The United States’ longtime support of General Pervez Musharraf, who seized the presidency in a bloodless coup in 1999, is seen as having damaged the country’s democratic traditions.
What was helping to ease that animosity, he said, was the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, as Pakistanis start to see the effects of the United States’ five-year, $7.5 billion nonmilitary aid package.
More aid is needed for flood-recovery efforts, the foreign minister added, but his message on economic matters emphasized that Pakistan is not seeking charity from the United States. He urged Congress to pass a free-trade agreement with his country.
“Let me be clear: We do not seek dependency, we seek economic viability. We need trade, not just aid,” Qureshi said. “We need the United States to open up its markets to our products, like the European Union has resolved to do, so that our factories can create jobs for our people and give young Pakistanis hope for their future.”
Economic issues are on the agenda in this week’s working group meetings, but the issues getting the most attention in Washington concern the counterinsurgency effort being waged by U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, and more and more, in Pakistan via drones strikes and unwelcome cross-border incursions by NATO helicopters.
This third round of strategic dialogue comes as tensions between Islamabad and Washington are running high following the deaths of two Pakistani border guards by NATO helicopters, Pakistan’s temporary closure of a NATO supply-line border crossing in apparent retaliation, an increase in unmanned U.S. drone attacks, and Washington’s criticism of Pakistan’s unwillingness to pursue terrorists in its North Waziristan region.
The Obama administration is eager to demonstrate progress in its Afghan war strategy ahead of a scheduled December review that will evaluate the effectiveness of U.S. policy and whether the stated plan of beginning a troop withdrawal next summer is viable. The White House announced on October 20 that Obama would travel to Pakistan next year, in his first visit to the country since taking office.
Before Obama met with the Pakistani delegation, the president and his national security team met to discuss the need to increase pressure on the safe havens in northwestern Pakistan.
A White House statement said Obama and Pakistani officials — who included Qureshi and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani — agreed on the “importance of cooperating toward a peaceful and stable outcome” in the Afghan war.
Obama’s national security team also discussed Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, which the United States supports.
Earlier in the day, a State Department spokesman said the strategic partnership meetings would include discussions on “ways in which Pakistan can be a part” of the reconciliation effort.
Qureshi is set to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on October 22.