Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, is on a public diplomacy tour of the United States, arguing that the Obama administration will lose credibility if it pulls back in its war against the Afghanistan insurgency. Qureshi insists Pakistan's democratically elected government and its security establishment, which is often accused of links to extremists, are committed to fighting militants in their own country. But the nation wants the U.S. to provide more military resources to do the job.
Qureshi spoke with Times Foreign Editor Bruce Wallace about the prospects for lowering regional tensions with India, about allegations that the Afghan Taliban is establishing itself in the Pakistani city of Quetta, and about the timetable for a government offensive against extremists in the South Waziristan region.
So much of the debate here is about what to do in Afghanistan, but the foundation of the regional strategic problem is the Indian-Pakistani relationship. Is there any movement toward improving that since the Mumbai attacks?
There's a realization on both sides that dialogue is the only way forward. Any other option would be mutually destructive, suicidal. Now, the Mumbai attack was a hiccup.
But what I have tried to convey to the Indians is: Who has benefited from Mumbai? I bid you, not us. The real beneficiary is that element that does not want normalization. By disengaging from each other, we are falling into the trap of that very element that wants us disengaged. The only way we can defeat their designs is to have a continuous engagement and resume that dialogue.
That will have a positive impact in South Asia. If you want Pakistan focused more on the [threat from Afghanistan in the] west, then we have to feel more secure on the east. There is a linkage there.
Are you suspicious of India's motives in building up its commercial and political presence in Afghanistan?
They have to justify their interest. They do not share a border with Afghanistan, whereas we do. So the level of engagement has to be commensurate with that. If there is no massive [Indian] reconstruction [in Afghanistan], if there are not long queues in Delhi waiting for visas to travel to Kabul, why do you have such a large presence in Afghanistan? At times it concerns us.
American security officials allege that the Afghan Taliban has moved into Quetta, from where it is running the Afghan insurgency.
We've been hearing about this for years now. Who all are the Quetta shura [governing council]? The names have been passed on to us, we did due diligence, and we have come to the conclusion that some of them have died, and some have left Pakistan. So OK, if you have concern with the Quetta shura, talk about it. We are friends. We are allies. Let's not suspect each other. Let's trust each other.
The question is: Why are you doubting us, when we're willing to work with you? Do you think we want a presence of Taliban in Quetta? What do we gain out of that? We are not helping our case by doing that.
We need to build more trust. I think in the last year or so, we have successfully built that trust to a great extent. Today there is more confidence in the American political and military leadership, vis-a-vis the political and military leadership of Pakistan. But we need to get more.
One of the other things Americans were looking at was to quickly move militarily against militants in South Waziristan after the killing of [Pakistani Taliban leader] Baitullah Mahsud. And you've been reluctant to do that.
Have we said no? No. We are willing to move into Waziristan. The question is: When do we move into Waziristan? Leave the timing to us, because we understand the country. We understand the local situation. Let the military leadership of Pakistan decide the pace and the timing. We are one with you on the objectives. You should know what we are doing and why we are doing this.
What is the Pakistani logic?
Resources! As simple as that. We cannot stretch ourselves thin. We learned from your experience. What have you done in the south [of Afghanistan]? The U.S. has moved into those provinces, and cleared [the Taliban] out. And once they left, [the Taliban] came again. Our strategy today is more effective because after clearing out the Swat Valley, we have decided to stay there. We decided to have a continuing military presence until we have enough civilian structures to ensure law and order there. And we already have moved into the tribal belt. We can continue to move on.
Gen. [Stanley]McChrystal's report to President Obama alludes again to fears that the ISI [Pakistan's intelligence service] may still be aiding extremists. Is it not accurate, perhaps, to say what we have is elements of the security establishment in Pakistan continuing to have strategic links to extremist groups?
Today you have two gentlemen in office [Army Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha] who understand and have a good control of the ISI. And they are in agreement with what the political leadership is doing. So, make up your minds if you want ISI as a foe or a friend. If you want the ISI to be a friend, then stop beating them all the time. Acknowledge the positive that they've done. Obviously there's room for improvement, and we are willing to hear suggestions. But the military leadership of the ISI? You couldn't have asked for better people than what you have now. And if you can't take advantage of this, then. . . .
So this is a window of opportunity for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship?
You have a great window of opportunity. You have today in the military leadership, the right people. You have the right people at the political leadership. We have converted [our] public opinion [against the Taliban]. This is the right time to move forward. We are ready. Are you?