In this Idea Exchange moderated by Praveen Swami of The Indian Express, former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid M Kasuri talks of Track II diplomacy and the Wagah attack. This session was held before the Peshawar school attack
Why Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri
THE former pakistan foreign minister is part of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party that has been protesting against the Nawaz Sharif government and is seen as one of the reasons for the unsettled new regime. Kasuri is also among the few big Pakistani names propagating Track II diplomacy with India in the face of a great deal of scepticism, and one who remains optimistic about progress in ties under the Modi government despite recent setbacks. His grandfather had participated in the Khilafat Movement along with Mahatma Gandhi.
Praveen Swami: Best known as the brains behind Pervez Musharraf’s government, Mr Kasuri has been a key actor in finding some sort of a resolution to the Kashmir dispute. He is with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party right now. What can you tell us about the churning in Pakistan?
Let me tell you why I am here, and then I’ll leave the rest to you. I am here to promote peace between Pakistan and India, particularly at a time when official dialogue is not on. When we invited you, things were much better, and now they are much worse. I have been involved for more than 20-25 years in the peace process, much before I became the foreign minister. When my book comes out, I plan to say unpleasant things to Pakistanis and Indians. The idea is to promote discussion and to make us realise that Pakistan or India cannot wish away the other. As your wise prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said, you can choose your friends but you cannot change your geography.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: There is a great deal of scepticism about Track-II politics. How are you persisting with this process in the face of such negativity?
This cynicism is not simply in India. When I had just taken over as foreign minister, an Indian delegation of MPs, journalists and civil society activists was visiting Islamabad. I was advised not to meet them but I not only backed the delegation, I insisted they meet the President and the PM.
I used to interact with the Indian media directly and took the risk of getting misquoted because that was the only way I could get to the people of India. By talking at Hyderabad House with my counterpart, nothing would come out except a spin the next day in Pakistani and Indian papers.
Once, I was in Washington, addressing a think tank. Things were going on beautifully between India and Pakistan then. When I was addressing them, they asked me about Kashmir… Two hours later I was told about the serial bombing in Mumbai. At another think tank, the first thing I said was, “I commiserate, it’s a disaster”. But what did the ministry of external affairs in Delhi, because of misreporting by somebody in Washington, say? That “foreign minister Kasuri says that as long as Kashmir is there, this will continue to happen”. I thought nothing that would appear in Pakistani papers would have an impact, so I talked to some of the top media people in India. I had myself interviewed and the Indian media corrected itself within 24 hours.
You cannot get anywhere by relying only on official channels. Pakistan and India have excellent diplomats who spend their entire lives on commas, fullstops, paragraphs. I remember at a conference, Indians were trying their best to get a paragraph deleted on terrorism and liberation movements, and equally persistent Pakistani officers wanted it included. I am not running down foreign service officials, they are trained for that. But there is a world beyond commas and fullstops, when you have to get to the heart of the matter.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: You have worked with Pervez Musharraf and Imran Khan. What is common between them?
I worked with Musharraf not when he took over as chief of the army, but after the elections. There is a big difference. There’s a joke in Pakistan that first the military generals take over and then they try to become great democrats. That’s when their fall starts. His (Musharraf) first three years were very good till he was compelled, as Ayub Khan was, to try to pander to public opinion. And when you do that, it does not work out.
I was foreign minister under Musharraf after the elections and maximum progress took place (then). Politicians in Pakistan have a much lesser threshold of tolerance as far as arguments are concerned. When I argued with PM Nawaz Sharif on the 15th amendment to the Constitution, called the Shariat Bill, the only way I could make my point was by resigning in a stormy meeting. With Musharraf, I used to disagree on many things.
I think it is not fair to ask for differences between Musharraf and Imran Khan. With Imran, I have had occasions to disagree. The one place I agree entirely with Imran Khan is on India. I am chairman of the Kashmir Committee and on that I have had no difference with him.
Rakesh Sinha: How do you explain an incident like the Wagah bombing? How much of a concern is it inside Pakistan?
Thank you for asking this question. Because unless Indians understand that Pakistan itself is a victim of terrorism, you won’t be able to empathise. Because you always see Pakistan as the territory from which all terrorism is operated. Now, of course, Islamic State (ISIS) has taken over by leaps and bounds. And we are nowhere in sight. In fact, al-Qaeda is now fighting for survival. They have even declared an Indian as their head for South Asia because they fear such great competition from the ISIS for that space for Islamic Khilafat… So, when you talk of Wagah, let me take you to the attack on (the Pakistan) GHQ (General Headquarters), to the attack on the naval headquarters, to the fact that the North Waziristan operation (Operation Zarb-e-Azb) has been on and army jawans are embracing martyrdom on a daily basis and killing many more.
Wagah was a terrible incident, but we have been facing this for a long time. Our intelligence agencies, our security forces have all faced major attacks by terrorists. There is an international agenda of global jihadists who feel that all rulers in the Islamic states are pawns of the Americans and that they are a hurdle in the creation of an Islamic Khilafat.
Ironically, the Khilafat Movement in India, which Mahatma Gandhi also participated in, was very different because Muslims were not radicalised then the way they have been after American interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria. Wherever they (Americans) have gone, they end up radicalising the local Muslims. I don’t know if they do it on purpose or it is an accidental byproduct.
So, the Khilafat Movement, in which my grandfather took part along with Gandhi, was a positive movement, hoping to bring Hindus and Muslims together in the struggle against British rule. The Khilafat was also once vested in Ottoman Turkey, which had a great degree of tolerance. The modern-day khilafats only look at a broad idea of Muslims being one ummah but forget that only those khilafats lasted which included everybody—Christians, Jews or whoever—in the empire. In the Mughal Empire, the most successful was Akbar. And the decline started when people became less tolerant.
So, Wagah is very important but it’s just one latest incident. We have been at the receiving end now for many, many years. I record this as almost an existential threat. And that is why, the Pakistani army has taken them on in no uncertain terms. And even if you don’t wish to accept what the Pakistani army says, even the Americans have now started saying that the action in North Waziristan is targeting all sorts of terrorists and not a particular group.
Abantika GHosh: Do you think PM Narendra Modi can take the Kashmir issue ahead?
Oh yes, on anything. When I sent the draft of my book to my publisher, at that time, Mr Modi had won and become PM. There were a lot of stories appearing in the Indian media that he’s not a Vajpayee. I thought that he has been a successful chief minister and he would like to focus on development, which is what he said. When I was foreign minister, there were soldiers eyeball to eyeball. But we didn’t have militarisation of nuclear weapons to the extent we now have. Both countries have stockpiled fissile materials in an unbelievable manner; both have sophisticated delivery systems—not just ballistic missiles, but also cruise missiles. Both have a second-strike capability. So, if war at that time was unthinkable, only a mad man can now think of a war between the two countries.
But of course, the Foreign Secretary talks were cancelled following the meeting of the Pakistan High Commissioner with the Hurriyat leaders. Pakistanis said we always knew this would happen. So, I had to write a paragraph in my book to bring it up to date and I have not changed my opinion. Every Indian leader I have privately spoken to has said, ‘Let’s make history’. How can Modi be an exception to that? Let’s hope for the best.
Seema Chishti: You said wherever America goes, it radicalises local Muslim populations. Does Pakistan now look back with regret to a close alliance with America over the decades? Is that the reason Pakistan is facing so much trouble now?
One of the first chapters in my book is called Pakistan’s security dilemma. And I trace it from Liaquat Ali Khan’s visit to Washington rather than to Moscow. The reason I have given for that is our relationship with India—a much bigger country. Pakistan didn’t have anything at that time, except our defence forces, which were also much smaller then than what India had. And, some leaders at that time had made statements that Pakistan might not last.
The founding fathers were not blessed with hindsight. They were fighting for the survival of a newborn state. So, put yourself in their shoes.
They thought they could get help from the rightist states. In Pakistan, even at that time, I remember in my father’s household—he belonged to the little band of Progressives and Leftists—the overwhelming opinion was that we should have gone to Moscow. Now, of course, people fully realise the consequences of Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s decision to support the United States in the manner that it has caused havoc.
Seema Chishti: Is there a degree of regret about the Zia-ul-Haq years?
There was a general feeling that when General Zia-ul-Haq had assumed power, he was isolated internationally, particularly after hanging Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. But then came the Soviet invasion and he became the darling of the West. Nowadays, there is a feeling that we have paid a very big price for that.
Monojit Majumdar: Did you or your party expect some kind of an army intervention in the Azadi March stand-off?
Let me tell you what I meant when I say that the army had an opportunity. If Asif Ali Zardari had restored the Chief Justice after coming in, he would not have faced the problems he did. He had his two prime ministers sacked by the judiciary. Pakistani judiciary, civil society and media are very powerful. A feeling is developing that if the parliament doesn’t assert, the Azadi March will become meaningless. All powers will be taken over by the media and judiciary.
Pakistan isn’t an easy country to explain. Even the military is summoned by the chief justice. There’s always an intricate balance in
society. It’s not like the media gives an order and everyone goes around saying, yes. Yes, once the commander-in-chief makes up his mind, the idea of discipline comes in. There’s also collective discussion among the four commanders. In my opinion, they had opportunities, and if you ask any visiting Pakistani journalist, they’ll tell you they had but they didn’t utilise these opportunities.
Now Imran Khan, if you ask me, why the hell would he want the military to take over? In fact, he thinks he’s the next PM. Once the military takes over, everything changes. Politicians take advantage of situations. Imran Khan, we assume, was taking advantage of a political situation. I don’t think he’ll want a military takeover. There’ll be very little in it for a politician.
Praveen Swami: Do you have any idea whether the India-Pakistan back channels can be revived again?
I’m in no position to give any advice to Modi. But I’ll say one thing. For Pakistan-India progress, it’s vital Modi singles out who he entirely trusts. (That person) doesn’t have to be a scholar or great diplomat, he should just have common sense and Modi’s trust. He shouldn’t spill the beans after retirement.
So, once he has that person, the back channel can go on. My experience says that you can move so rapidly. We say, we can’t accept it. India says we can’t accept it. When the back channel people are talking in the morning, they’ll say something, by the evening, they’ll have a decision. They’ll just bypass all bureaucratic hurdles. The immediate person is very important, whoever the top decision maker is. The back channel would help greatly, and some people are speculating on names.
Seema Chishti: You’ve been fairly critical of the bureaucracy. In the backdrop of the failed Agra summit, is there something missing when Indians and Pakistanis are talking?
There are some very good diplomats in the foreign office. But they are cynical of Track II, they think it doesn’t contribute in any meaningful way. I think it does. We had a summit meeting in Agra, where Pervez Musharraf, who was clearly a decision-maker and a military and political representative at that time, met Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Despite the discovery of the ayah who had raised Musharraf and the Nehar Wali Haveli and the media going into raptures over the return of prodigal son Musharraf, the summit failed. Why? No homework had been done.
And that is why the back channel we worked on will never fail. Statesmen can’t reinvent the wheel. They can only put a new tag. What do they do? Paragraph 9 will become paragraph 5, 3 will be 2 and they’ll put their own new tag. Because there’s no other way to do it.
Praveen Swami: We see the ceasefire, on which this whole peace process was predicated in 2002-2003, fraying at the edges in the last few months. Do you believe India and Pakistan have enough mitigation measures to prevent a crisis from escalating, particularly because you said there are now miniaturised, easily deployable nuclear weapons as well as cruise missiles which will come into play? One of the scenarios people have talked about is a large terrorist attack in Delhi provoking missile strikes. Do we have an adequate mechanism for this, and if not what should we have?
Despite 20,000 war heads in the possession of the US and 20,000 in the possession of the Soviet Union, they were able to erect some sort of an architecture that prevented them from going to war. We did start that at our time, pre-notification on missiles. We had made some suggestions to Indians (on) the threat of accidental firing, but not cruise missiles, because we had secretly developed ours which the Indians didn’t know. The Indians at the time thought they were one up, and why the hell should Pakistan go for cruise missiles. But now both have demonstrated and I think they should be brought under the ambit and we need that architecture desperately. And for that, we need experts from both Pakistan and India to sit down and develop that architecture. Otherwise, it’s going to be very scary indeed.
Transcribed by Sarah Hafeez, Sumegha Gulati & Aniruddha Ghosal