An Update on Pakistan, with Ahmed Rashid

Oct 5, 2018

Acclaimed journalist Ahmed Rashid discusses Pakistan's new populist prime minister, Imran Khan, whom he considers woefully unprepared. He also examines Pakistan's debt-ridden economy and Pakistan's complex relationships with China, India, the U.S., Afghanistan, and the Taliban. "I think the key thing to understand is the need to follow Afghanistan," he says. "Whatever happens in Pakistan will depend on what happens in Afghanistan."

JOANNE MYERS: Welcome to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs here at the Council.

In a few minutes I'll be speaking with acclaimed journalist Ahmed Rashid. Ahmed is one of South Asia's most-respected journalists and the author of numerous books and articles, including the instant best-seller Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.

Ahmed is based in Lahore, Pakistan, and doesn't come to New York very often, so when he does he is very much in demand. I'm very grateful that he has accepted my invitation to talk about what is happening in Pakistan as news from there seems very rare these days.

Thank you, Ahmed, for being here.

AHMED RASHID: Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: This past summer Pakistan, like the United States earlier, elected a nonconventional politician, Imran Khan. From what I've read, Mr. Khan ran a populist campaign directed at the nation's disenchanted middle class. He has drawn comparisons with another upstart celebrity-turned-politician, U.S. President Donald Trump.

Do you think Imran Khan has the political acumen to govern a deeply divided nation? As you know, he has been criticized as relying more on style than substance.

AHMED RASHID: I think that's a very true assessment because I think one of the problems he has had is that he has come into government very unprepared. I think it was well known that he would win the elections three or four months ago. He was helped by the army. There was a great deal of rigging which was done by the army and the judiciary. He did not put together a team or a bunch of ideas. He talks about building a new Pakistan, but he has very little substance to that as to what he means by a new Pakistan.

For example, just now at the United Nations General Assembly, the foreign minister was here, and he was not able to really set out a new direction for Pakistan's foreign policy, which is in itself a very big issue for the international community because we continue to harbor Taliban and extremist groups and things like that.

I think the bottom line is Imran came in very unprepared. He remains very unprepared. People say that he is committing a blunder a day and then retracting. What that means is making some mistake in the morning, and by the evening that measure which he has announced has been retracted. There is a lot of uncertainty and confusion still in Pakistan.

JOANNE MYERS: There is a lot at stake for sure. It's a nuclear-armed country with more than 193 million people. It's a nation saddled with a faltering economy. Could you talk about the economy and its relationship with China and how they're going forward and building this road? Will they become indebted?

AHMED RASHID: The last government piled up an enormous debt. The balance of payments deficit is around $16-20 billion, which is just huge for a low-income country like Pakistan.

Pakistan now has a choice. The government now has a choice of either going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) looking for a bailout or looking for a bailout from friendly countries, which are not many. In fact, there are only two, Saudi Arabia and China. I don't think these countries can deliver that kind of money to Pakistan, and Pakistan will have to go to the IMF, which will come with, of course, conditionalities.

The real problem is that there is no money. There is an ambitious program which is wanted by the government, although they have not announced anything, and China has become the leading partner in this One Belt, One Road, Silk Road project that they have which crosses the whole of Asia. But there is increasing division, I think both in the cabinet and in the public, about what China's role is. For example, we have had one of Imran Khan's advisors told the Financial Times recently that we should reconsider our commitment to One Road. The Chinese have offered $60 billion worth of infrastructure development—roads, bridges, power stations—


AHMED RASHID: —railways, ports. But it's all loans, so you're piling up $60 billion worth of more debt, and how are you going to pay that? As I said, we're a low-income country. Our tax system is totally corrupt and shot through. We don't raise that kind of money at all.

So now there is a lot of questioning by Pakistani businessmen and even people inside Imran's own cabinet that we should be reconsidering this whole Chinese package because it's just piling in more debt.

JOANNE MYERS: Just like in Malaysia, where they stopped the projects going forward. At this point, how far along the road are the Chinese?

AHMED RASHID: There has been already about $8-10 billion spent on road-building. I hope that will turn out to be productive, but there are a lot of other things that the Chinese want to build where the profits will—there is not much of a profit in roads, but in power stations and other things.

The Chinese are bringing in old machinery. They're bringing in their own labor force. They're not hiring Pakistanis, which is exactly what they did in Sri Lanka when they built that port in the south of Sri Lanka and in parts of Africa where they've been. They don't tend to hire local people and then train them up so that you are left with a technical workforce which is local. Instead, they bring in Chinese. Many of them in Pakistan are reported to be convicts from Chinese jails who are giving a kind of remission if they go and do hard labor in countries like Pakistan.

There is now a rising suspicion about what China is up to. It's a very close friend of Pakistan, and of course the army defends China implicitly because now that there are U.S. sanctions on Pakistan the Chinese have become the main arms supplier.

JOANNE MYERS: You just brought up the military, so let me ask: What role do you see the military playing under Khan? They supported him.

AHMED RASHID: They supported him, and essentially they bought him into power. At the moment if I was sitting in the hot seat of the military, I would probably be quite disappointed as to his performance. It hasn't been top quality.

But the military certainly has preferences. They do not want the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, back again under any circumstances. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail for corruption, and they want him to stay in jail.

The other major party, which is the Pakistan Peoples Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, now led by her son, is relegated to one province in the country. It doesn't have a national standing anymore, but certainly the army wants to keep them out of power. So they're left with Imran Khan. They have to deal with him, and they have to obviously improve his performance.

JOANNE MYERS: People have called this a "soft coup." Do you think if he doesn't meet their expectations that they will try again to overthrow him and bring back Sharif, for example?

AHMED RASHID: It's a question of if he crosses the army in any way, either on foreign policy, which is very dear to the army, policy on Afghanistan, toward India, toward the Americans. The army is very hostile to the Americans right now. If he crosses the army in any major way as Nawaz Sharif did—who wanted to open relations with India, he wanted to end the civil war in Afghanistan, he wanted to clamp down on fundamentalists, which were secretly backed by the army—then we could see another upheaval in the country.

But certainly for the time being, the next year or two, I think we will be trying out Imran to see if he can deliver.

JOANNE MYERS: You mentioned the United States and the military's relationship. At some point Khan will have to engage with U.S. leadership. He was a harsh critic of Washington during the campaign. How do you think this will all play out?

AHMED RASHID: It's difficult to say. The foreign minister insists that on his trip to New York and Washington he has mended ties again with the Americans, but I don't think it's so easy. Remember, the American government itself is very divided. There are different points of view from the White House to the State Department and all the rest of it.

But I think the key factor is Afghanistan. The Americans want to get out of Afghanistan. They want a peace deal with the Taliban. They want to see the Afghan government made secure or relatively secure, and they want an end to the war and the fighting.

One of the insistences of the Americans is that Pakistan, which has harbored a lot of the Taliban and their leaders, should now help deliver the Taliban to the peace table. So far it seems that the Americans for the last one year have not been satisfied with Pakistan's professed willingness to do this.

So we are left in a kind of limbo. The fighting continues, the war continues, peace efforts continue but without much result. How Imran is going to deal with this, is he going to insist upon a peace settlement and tell the army to back off and get rid of these Taliban? I don't see him doing that in the near future.

JOANNE MYERS: He's an ethnic Pashtun, correct?

AHMED RASHID: He likes to believe he's an ethnic Pashtun, but actually he comes from a clan who are the Niazis, who straddle the border between Punjab and the Pashtun belt. Many of them speak Pashto and they speak Panjabi also, which makes them bilingual and, if you like, bi-ethnic. But the Pashtuns do not consider them as true Pashtuns.

JOANNE MYERS: So that will not be a help for him if he is trying to—

AHMED RASHID: No, it won't. He would like to believe that it would because he has written books about how "I am a Pashtun and this is my tradition." He's much in love with a lot of the tribal traditions of the Pashtun tribes, which has irked a lot of people, especially women, because of his attitude, his gender narrative. He likes the system of justice that the tribes have, which is fairly primitive. It's a very controversial issue, but I don't think, frankly, any claims to being a good Pashtun is going to help him.

JOANNE MYERS: Trump has also made overtures to India to come in and work toward resolving the crisis in Afghanistan, and this is an affront to Pakistan, so what is the—

AHMED RASHID: Exactly. This is one of the reasons why the Pakistanis have not been obliging the Americans in Afghanistan because if Trump's idea is to bring India in to play a major role in Afghanistan—India, by the way, has already contributed something like $2 billion to reconstruction in Afghanistan. But the Afghans are not silly. They understand fully well that if they befriend India too much, they make an enemy of Pakistan.

Trump's goal has been met with antagonism by Pakistan but also nervousness by India, because India doesn't want to get involved in Afghanistan. It doesn't want to play a political or military role in Afghanistan, and it realizes that if it does so it will permanently antagonize Pakistan. But Trump has leapt into this big vacuum without thinking of the consequences of what this means to everyone else.

JOANNE MYERS: We've touched upon the economy and we've touched upon the military. What about the security threats from domestic terrorist organizations within Pakistan?

AHMED RASHID: That is of course another issue which is very dangerous, and they continue. Again, the military says they've wiped out all terrorism, but every month we get a major terrorist attack killing 20, 30, or 40 people. Many of these Pakistani extremist groups are holed up in Afghanistan, where they are living side by side with al-Qaeda and some of the Central Asian militant groups, and of course the Afghan Taliban are hosting them.

There is this real dichotomy, where on the one hand Pakistan is sympathetic to the Afghan Taliban leadership and is helping them stay on in Pakistan. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan are helping Pakistan's enemies, in other words, the so-called "Pakistani extremists." It's a very complicated picture, which frankly we need to change our policy, and we're not doing that.

JOANNE MYERS: Under Imran Khan's leadership, what does the future of Pakistan look like, or is there a future that we can—

AHMED RASHID: I think it's early days yet. Maybe I'm being a bit unfair on him, but it's early days yet. We have to see what he does with some of these major issues. Is he going to go to the IMF to deal with the debt problem? How is he going to tackle China? How is he going to tackle extremism in the country, which is increasingly being criticized by the Americans and the Europeans because Pakistanis have been responsible for launching attacks in Europe and even the United States? We have to see how he deals with these problems, and if his cabinet is going to perform. At the moment, as I said it seems to be a blunder a day, and he needs to play a more decisive role in making the cabinet decision making more coherent.

JOANNE MYERS: Now that we've touched on what I think are three major issues, is there anything else that you feel that you would like our listeners to know about what's happening in Pakistan today?

AHMED RASHID: I think the key thing to understand is the need to follow Afghanistan. Whatever happens in Pakistan will depend on what happens in Afghanistan. If there is a peace settlement, if the Americans pull out, and there is an end to the civil war in Afghanistan, I think that will help Pakistan enormously, and of course Afghanistan, the whole region in fact.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you see that happening—I know you don't like predictions, neither do I—within the next few years or in the immediate future?

AHMED RASHID: I think there is a general state of tiredness now within the Taliban. I think many Taliban want to see an end to the war and some kind of coalition government and a peace settlement, and I think that would be acceptable to many Afghans, even though the Taliban laws, etc., which they might try to impose, would be very detrimental to Afghan urban society. But people are desperate to see an end to the war.

JOANNE MYERS: When you say "people," are you talking about Afghans or Pakistanis?

AHMED RASHID: Afghans and Pakistanis.

JOANNE MYERS: If history is any indication, governing will not be easy. Ahmed Rashid, thank you so much for coming by today. We hope you don't stay away as long before your next visit. Thank you.

AHMED RASHID: Thank you.

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