Interview: Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri

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Interview: Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri

Pakistan’s former foreign minister on what is needed for peace on the subcontinent.

Interview: Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri
Credit: Robert D. Ward, U.S. Department of Defense

Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri was foreign minister of Pakistan for five years (November 2002 to November 2007) under President Pervez Musharraf regime. Significant progress was made towards peace between India and Pakistan during his tenure, including a step closer to a deal on Kashmir through back channel dialogues. Kasuri is currently chairman of the Kashmir committee in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.

Having witnessed the ups and downs in relations between India and Pakistan, Kasuri has written a book about his experience as a foreign minister and politician. Optimistic about peace in the region, Kasuri reveals to The Diplomat how close the two countries came to settling the Kashmir dispute and why they cannot afford another war.

How is your book different from the many others written on India-Pakistan relations and what is in store for readers?

All the books that have been written are either by diplomats or scholars from Pakistan. This book [to be published in February] is from the perspective of a foreign minister who did not just witness things but was part of them. So readers can expect things to be told differently and will have more clarity on aspects that I have touched upon. Moreover there will be some unpleasant things about both Pakistanis and Indians on why we are still not able to resolve our differences and some pleasant aspects on how far we reached in bridging our differences during 2003-2007. Then there are dedicated chapters on Pakistan politics and its army. There will be many astonishing revelations that my publisher has asked me not to comment on until the book is published.

What are those “unpleasant” things about India and Pakistan?

For Pakistan, my main point in that there are many Muslims countries like Iran, Turkey and Egypt that show us an example of how they can be good Muslims and be happy with their legacy. Why can’t we be happy with our legacy? By altering or falsifying parts of the history we are only hurting ourselves. Many people may not like this, but I strongly believe that is causing problems for the Pakistani psyche.

To Indians, there is a message that you may be five or six times bigger but India can not really achieve its potential unless there is peace in the neighborhood and peace with Pakistan particularly.

We have tried everything in the past, including wars, and have come close to conflict. Both countries are nuclear powers, equipped with ballistic and cruise missiles and have ever-growing fissile material. What else can we do? Nothing, I feel. On these points I have written in detail. So there is a message for Pakistanis and Indians and then there is a message of hope. It does not require a lot of time to bring peace. You just need a positive narrative.

Dialogue has been put off and firing across the Line of Control has intensified. India’s stand is that talks cannot take place with terror. From where do you draw your optimism that relations can be better?

At the Line of Control there was cease-fire for ten years staring from 2003 to 2013. Both countries must ask what has happened now. Simply saying Pakistan started this and we saying Indians started it will not solve the problem.

If the dialogue starts between two nations, elements opposed to these conversations will be weakened. If it doesn’t start, obviously these forces will be strengthened and it serves nobody’s interest. Throughout the world people had greater enmity than we have. France-Germany or Indonesia-Malaysia, look at the changes that have been brought about. Indonesia used to have a “crush Malaysia” campaign, at least we didn’t have that sort of thing.

My optimism comes from my own experience. When we experimented with peace, the result was a India-Pakistan cricket match. India won the Lahore test match and people gave it a standing ovation. There were young kids carrying Indian and Pakistani flags across the field. Before, that would have been unthinkable. So what I am trying to say to people is that when they claim that this hostility cannot be bridged, that is ridiculous. We human beings have compartments in our minds. If you shut one door and only let one idea flow in, they will acquire dominance but when you open both doors you will find equilibrium. My confidence is not simply based on my optimism; it is based on experience that in Lahore of all places, people can run with Indian and Pakistani flags and much more can be achieved.

How do you see the relations under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is perceived as more hawkish towards Pakistan?

After all Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was from the BJP and it was under him that the most progress was made. So it is not that you cannot free yourself from the past. When you are a growing power and the destiny of 1.3 billion people rests in your hands, you cannot afford to have instability domestically.

There are extremists in both countries. Unless such elements are controlled, no country, Pakistan or India, can make progress. It is bound to have a negative impact on the development and attitude of outsiders towards the nation and I don’t think India can afford it.

Do you feel Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going to take the India-Pakistan relationship forward even though they are low at the moment? 

He has few options. If he wishes to fulfill his mandate, then firing across the Line of Control, [not engaging in] dialogue and [playing the] blame game, these things are contradictions in terms. It may be difficult for Indians to see this but as an outsider I can observe that, if he doesn’t fulfill his promises, it will be bad for the entire region. Because poverty breeds lots of other things, extremism is just one product of that. I hope he fulfills his ambitions and that should make him control elements that are against the peace process.

Can there be talks without Kashmir or is it indispensible part of talks for Pakistan?

Is it like can you have talks without discussing terrorism, is it possible? What I am trying to say is don’t be afraid, we worked so hard – both Pakistan and India – through back channels. We tried to bring about resolution. You see Pakistan can’t change the status quo nor can India. Pakistan will not get what it wants and similarly India cannot get what it demands. Unfortunately, Kashmiris are not getting anything that they want. So the moral responsibility on Pakistan and India is to put this behind us and get on with life. We tried to develop a formula, which should be acceptable to at least 80 percent of population in both countries. And there will be details about it in my book on what we did and the background on how we did all that. When it is doable why are we running away from it? Kashmir is doable. People in Pakistan are ready.

India’s main concern with Pakistan is its handling of terror groups that are targeting India. Do you see any shift in Pakistan’s policy in this regard?

India needs to understand that Pakistan itself is a victim of terrorism. You can’t keep on going with rhetoric that terror groups operate from Pakistan when we are actually taking them to task. Our armed forces have been the biggest sufferer. In North Waziristan they are being attacked every day, there are attacks on army and naval headquarters. There is a massive operation going on in that area, which is not an easy thing to do. Our forces are dealing with each terror group firmly without [making] any distinction.

India’s willingness to play a major role in rebuilding Afghanistan has often seen protest from Pakistan? Has there been any change on this stand?

There is a reason why Pakistan is afraid of India’s role on its eastern borders. Right after the creation of Pakistan, Afghanistan challenged Pakistan’s membership of the United Nations on the basis of the Durand Line, as they did not accept the imperial borders. We were surprised that India was supporting them. India should have protected those borders as the largest country on the subcontinent. But in Pakistan there was a feeling that India was encouraging it and wanted to box us in on the North with an unfriendly government to Pakistan to the East. That was the reason.

That is why I always believe in changing the paradigm. Now, supposedly, we like to say that Pakistan is the link between South, Central and West Asia. But actually we link to nowhere unless we open the bridge. It is in Pakistan’s interest that the bridge is opened and it encourages India to trade. But that can only happen when Pakistani stops being suspicious of India and vice versa.

Pakistan is supportive of a stronger role for China in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led combat troops depart from the region. Is this Pakistan’s effort to gain more influence and say in Afghan affairs? 

The situation in Afghanistan impacted us since 1979, when the Soviets invaded. It destroyed Afghanistan but the next country [in terms of suffering] is Pakistan. It has changed our polity, economy and even our ecology. We don’t want a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan anymore. But for peace, Afghans must make peace with themselves. It is very important that the present Afghan government and Afghan Taliban enter into some sort of power-sharing structure. If the constitution of the country can be amended to give some power to the Afghan Taliban, some governors and ministers, it would be a very good idea.

We offered to facilitate the negotiations, as we thought we has some influence, which is exaggerated. The Afghan Taliban is not comfortable with Pakistan, especially after the North Waziristan operation.  Now China has offered to initiate the peace talks and it may be acceptable to all major stakeholders in the region. From a Pakistan perspective, there should be peace so that the useless war that has been going on for the past 36 years can come to an end.

Saurabh Sharma is a journalist working with a leading English daily in India, where he covers economic and social policies. He has previously worked in radio broadcasting, launched a news website and holds a deep interest in strategic affairs and India’s foreign policy.