Transcript: Interview with Pakistan’s foreign minister

Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, spoke at length to Farhan Bokhari, the FT’s Pakistan correspondent, on June 12, 2009 about a host of issues including relations with neighbouring India, the US, the fallout from the Pakistan Army’s recent fight against Taliban militants in the northern Swat valley, and the challenge of eliminating extremism from the country. Mr Qureshi spoke just hours after P. Chidambaram, India’s interior minister, announced the withdrawal of Indian military troops from the cities and towns of the part of Kashmir under Delhi’s control, prompting hopes for a new period of reconciliation. The interview was also held soon after a prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar was killed in a suicide attack on a day when 11 people were killed in two such attacks. Here are excerpts of Mr Qureshi’s interview with the Financial Times:

FT: You have seen a statement earlier today by the Indian interior minister where he has announced the withdrawal of Indian military troops from the cities and towns of Kashmir. Do you find that encouraging?

Shah Mahmood Qureshi: That is certainly encouraging. They (India) have said not just a phased withdrawal of troops. They have also said that they want to rely more on police and other law enforcement agencies besides the army. That is a positive step that will ease the situation within occupied Kashmir. That’s a welcome sign.

If you look at the statement of P. Chidambaram, if you look at the statement made by the Indian minister of external affairs, if you look at the [Indian] prime minister’s speech in “lok sabha” (India’s lower house of parliament) and the Indian presidential address to the new parliamentary year, I think there is a new realisation dawning even in the Indian leadership that engagement is better than disengagement and there is a realisation that Pakistan is facing a terrorist threat on a regular basis.

I am sure they are reading the newspapers and watching the television that we have suicide attacks and bombings and innocent citizens are dying. What happened to people in Peshawar the other day, what happened in Lahore and Nowshera today, it is a common challenge, it is a regional challenge and we will have to pool in our resources to overcome this challenge. That realisation is now coming and they (India) are getting out of that phase where they would say: Pakistan should stop this and Pakistan should stop that. It is not just Pakistan. What happened in Mumbai, we have condemned that. But the point is, what is happening in Pakistan [where terrorism is growing].

FT: On Mumbai, is there anything that Pakistan can do more to respond to India’s concerns?

SMQ: Pakistan has the right approach and the right attitude, which is we cannot permit our soil to be used for terrorism. We do not condone such activities. If there are non-state actors who get involved in something like this, then Pakistan as a responsible country should do what is required. We will and we are doing what should be done. We want to cooperate.

FT: Was there any evidence that has come to your notice so far that some of the non-state actors involved in Mumbai had links to Pakistan?

SMQ: There are indications towards that. But what we are telling them (India) is, one is evidence of this nature and the other is evidence that is legally tenable. What we are asking for is cooperation from India to provide us evidence which is legally tenable. If we take a case [to a court] in excitement to show progress and that case is not a watertight case and it boomerangs, then again our sincerity will be questioned. We do not want our sincerity questioned because we want to move ahead sincerely.

FT: What about the case of Hafiz Saeed? There was criticism from the Indians on this case of his release?

SMQ: There has been criticism from India, one has read about it. But the point is, courts are courts and courts are independent. They (India) themselves are a democracy and they themselves know how at times they can be helpless at court judgements. There have been landmark cases in India where the courts have made the government helpless.

FT: Is the Pakistani government going to appeal against this [case]?

SMQ: The indications [are] that the provincial Punjab government is thinking of an appeal against that decision.

FT: On relations with the US, the US house of representatives has approved a new aid package for Pakistan, committing $1.5bn in annual economic assistance. Are you satisfied with this step. Do you believe this is the most that the US can do is assisting Pakistan? Are there other options?

SMQ: What you have to understand is that the mood in the US has changed considerably for Pakistan. There is a greater realisation that the government and all stake holders in Pakistan are A) connected; B) on the same page; and C) want to move ahead against terrorism and against extremism. There is a feeling that Pakistan should be helped. That is why they have agreed to triple our economic assistance, they have agreed to provide us counter terrorism equipment which we had been asking for years and did not get, and they are also now actually advocating all over the world for Pakistan.

Look at the statements now made by General Petraeus, Secretary Clinton, Ambassador Holbrooke. Look at the way they have come out more than any other nation in the world today in helping your internally displaced people [from Swat]. I think the US is convinced that the political leadership in Pakistan has succeeded in evolving a consensus against terrorism and extremism, the military and the political leadership are working in harmony, the federal government and the provincial governments are on the same page and are working in harmony on this score. I think the tide has turned in the US and when we were in Washington for our second trilateral meeting [between the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan leaders] in the first week of May and the interactions we had besides the executive branch, with the legislators over there, I was convinced that the tide has turned for Pakistan in the US.

FT: On a broader question, Ambassador Holbrooke last week here in Islamabad in his public remarks said that he would try to talk to some of the Gulf Arab countries to get financial support for the displaced people from Pakistan’s Swat valley. Shouldn’t this be troubling for Pakistan given that Pakistan has had a long history of very close ties and it is now the US interceding or intervening?

SMQ: I don’t think they are interceding or interfering in any way. They perhaps realise more than others, what are the challenges Pakistan is facing. They are facing the same challenge in Afghanistan. This administration feels that one can not improve without the other. If Afghanistan has to improve, then things in Pakistan have to improve. When Pakistan improves it has a positive impact on Afghanistan. The stability of one is inextricably linked to the other. With this realisation they feel that they have a stake in the region, they have their troops here who are fighting and who are dying and who are being injured. Despite the financial crunch, they are pumping in billions of dollars in Afghanistan for security purposes, for reconstruction, for development. Their stakes are very high.

What they are doing is, they are trying to complement what we are doing. The other day I had invited GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) ambassadors to the foreign ministry for a briefing on the Swat operation and to give them an update on the internally displaced persons’ situation. The president of Pakistan has written to all the rulers of the GCC informing them of the situation. I personally handed all the letters over to their envoys in Islamabad. I had asked for an audience with their foreign ministers and their leadership so that I can go and update them on the situation, and I will.

I don’t think they [US] are interceding. They are trying to help in whatever way they can, but Pakistan has independent relations [with the GCC]. This morning I took the GCC ambassadors and ambassadors of muslim countries like Egypt to the latest IDP camp, which has over 100,000 people. We went around the camp, we went to the hospitals, we met children and we also saw the newly introduced cash disbursement program which the government has introduced which is completely automated and transparent. They [GCC Ambassadors to Islamabad] saw and examined from registration to actual cash being given and they were highly impressed the way things were going on. They have seen for themselves. The message I get from them is a very positive one.

FT: On Pakistan’s internal security, what more can the world do to help Pakistan and how do you intend using your position as foreign minister to reach out to the global community?

SMQ: The world has to realise that Pakistan is playing the role of a frontline state. Pakistani soldiers, officers and ordinary citizens are paying a heavy price, the ultimate price, they are paying an economic price for making the world more secure. They should help Pakistan, they should help different institutions of Pakistan, they need to help improve our counter terrorism capacity, they need to help us stabilise our economy, they need to help us provide relief, rehabilitation and undertake reconstruction in Swat and Malakand. Our initial estimates are that for rehabilitation and reconstruction we would require something like $2.5bn.

FT: If the world doesn’t come to Pakistan’s help, then what? What will be the consequences?

SMQ: Then we will have to do it. They are our people, it is our country, we are suffering, we will have to do it. When we do it with our own resources, obviously other areas will suffer because we’ll have to divert resources. This cannot be ignored. When we divert resources, our pace of growth and development will slow down somewhere, and I am sure that is not in everybody’s interest. With or without the world’s help, we have to do it. Certainly, world help will facilitate.

FT: But what could be the consequence if there isn’t enough global assistance. So far, it is only the US which has come forward with a commitment of $330m.

SMQ: Other countries are coming, Europeans are coming, we are going to Brussels on the 17th [of June]. We are talking of other areas [for economic and trade assistance]. The muslim world is being engaged. The world realises that if the menace [of Taliban-led militancy] is not controlled here, then where do you stop the buck.

FT: And where do you think it (the militancy) will go next?

SMQ: They (Islamic militants) have a global agenda, they have a regional agenda, they are not confined to Pakistan. They could go into the [Persian] Gulf, they could go into India, they can go anywhere. There is a collective interest and there has to be a collective realisation that this is not Pakistan’s problem. It’s a larger problem. Pakistan in fact is not a problem. Pakistan can be a solution to this problem.

FT: If money is diverted from the budget for the internally displaced persons from Swat and there is a consequent economic slowdown [in Pakistan], what do you believe will be the outcome?

SMQ: Obviously it will affect the economy. It will slow down our recovery. It will compromise our ability to fight militancy, obviously poverty levels will go up, obviously it will help the militants. If there is a economic downturn, who gains from that? Obviously the militants gain from that and the world loses.

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