The Future of Pakistan: A Conversation with Simon Shercliff and Hassan Abbas

| Oct. 30, 2009

Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani government official and senior advisor to Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center, recently spoke to Simon Shercliff, First Secretary Foreign Security and Policy for the British Embassy, about the future of Pakistan. Their conversation touched on a range of topics, including the militants' recent attacks on the Pakistani military, Pakistan's relationship with India, Pakistan-UK relations, and U.S. aid to Pakistan.


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Read the transcript:

Dr. Hassan Abbas: I am Hassan Abbas, I am a senior advisor to Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, working on issues of nuclear proliferation and religious extremism in Pakistan. I am also a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society, where I am working on South Asian issues.

Simon Shercliff: Thanks Hassan. I'm Simon Shercliff from the British Embassy in Washington, at the moment responsible for Afghanistan/Pakistan as one issue, and Iran as another. I've come up here for a couple of days at Harvard to pick the brains of people like Hassan on those two subjects.

So Hassan, thank you very much indeed for agreeing to meet me here today. We've been talking about some of the enduring thorny problems that exist in that part of the world, but I want to get your view of the strategic nexis between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. First of all, where you see the major pressure points on all three countries, and secondly, where you see a solution come out of that?

The British government is very keen on trying to encourage some form of warming of the relationship between India and Pakistan such that a long term strategic discussion over the future of Kashmir and other areas of the region can be addressed. Steve Coll's piece in The New Yorker a few months back outlined the sort of thing that could potentially be on the table for that.

Dr. Hassan Abbas: It can work out, if Pakistan is given this message, very clearly by the rest of the world, by the British and US — who are playing a very important role. Pakistan's current policy, whether it's political leadership or aid to the military, is with the United States or the United Kingdom — they have a lot of influence. The perception there is that there is an effort not to say anything India may not like. That subject is not open for discussion.

The kind of attacks that we have seen on the military, not only in FATA but now in the military heartland, they think their own efforts of going against the militants, which have not been very successful, which have in many cases were delayed, like in Swat. If the military had taken action in 2007 or 2008, the problems we saw in 2009 would not have even occurred. Despite that [Pakistan is] now more successful going after militants, why is this success not recognized as it should be?

Simon Shercliff: Well, I agree with you on that.  We do recognize the great efforts and strides that the Pakistani military has made in those particular areas. Linked to that, there's been another issue of interest in recent days, that perhaps is a bit of a sideshow here. Why all the fuss over the Kerry-Lugar bill?

Dr. Hassan Abbas: Yes, that's very interesting. I think this debate was ongoing for the last two years. The first draft of the bill was put forth by Senator Biden, and I think it was very good. The government of Pakistan — there's a division within the government of Pakistan on that issue — but the government had reached the conclusion that everything is fine. And then military, in an unprecedented fashion, shared their opinion with the people of Pakistan in a public statement, and that then galvanized many hawks in the media. Some of the Pakistan military has ruled the country for a long time; they have important constituencies, among the intellectuals, among the media. All of those constituencies rose in protest. Then the religious political and extremism parties, all those who are against this comparatively progressive coalition of PPP, MQM, AMP — they thought this was the best opportunity.

Having said that, I think some of the provisions in the Kerry-Lugar bill could most certainly have been framed in a better way. The larger purpose of the bill was to reach out to the larger population in Pakistan and say, 'We want to support hospitals. Schools.' It was a wonderful idea...

Simon Shercliff: To build the longterm relationship.

Dr. Hassan Abbas: Exactly.

Simon Shercliff: And to move away from the notion that America, Britain as well are a bunch of quitters who are in it for their own interest.

Dr. Hassan Abbas: ...And always supports military. And so this has been a change, and the political purpose was supported. All the more reason, and I am convinced, for these sensitivities in Pakistan to have been addressed. I'm not sure if the bill was shown to five or ten people not part of the government, who can give an independent opinion and say that 'Yes, this will create an issue.' Perhaps no one was reading the crisis in Pakistan as a transition to democracy that is slow. That gave an opportunity for people with other grudges [to speak up]. For the United States, giving this money when there are other economic challenges, other burdens to the taxpayers, is a big commitment. If it is not helping the United States get a good win, or win hearts and minds as they say, then it was counter-productive.

It is resolved today. Senator Kerry has clearly said the bill was not meant to micromanage Pakistan, it is not infringing on Pakistan's sovereignty, and this statement should be seen as part of the bill. So it has been resolved.

Simon Shercliff: I agree. It seems like a bit of a sideshow, because the main event is clear, as you say. It's about reframing the relationship between the US and Pakistan. And we in the British government are going to try to do the same thing.

We've got a very similar long term aid commitment to Pakistan. Now, it's worth a lot less than the US government, but we've committed around about $1 billion dollars between 2009–2012 to go via largely Pakistani official channels and support Pakistan people across the country.

It's just this very simple reframing of the relationship, we hope turning us into being perceived as a reliable, trusted long term friend and ally.

Dr. Hassan Abbas: When I was in Pakistan recently, there was a lot of appreciation within the law enforcement agencies for British help. In the federal investigation agency — giving them tools and technology. Also, the news that Britain will help Pakistan with a MI-5 type of organization — this support for a national counter-terrorism authority will be a really great step.

My view is that military is not going to go in Pakistan and fight in South Multan. Ultimately, this whole fight against militants and its fate will be decided by whether Pakistan's police and law enforcement are capable.

And I think there's a long history there. People in Pakistan cherish their relationship with Britain. Their first destination when they go on an international tour is London, and afterwards they think about New York or somewhere else. That old, strong relationship should be benefited from.

Simon Shercliff: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. In that context, Friends of Democratic Pakistan met at Heads of Government level in the New York General Assembly. By all accounts, this was a good, warm meeting. The statement that the Heads of Government put together is full of the sort of language we've been discussing — that points towards long term, political relationships, not dominated by military.

One of the core tenets of it, and one that the British Government was keen on pushing, which came out of the bilateral contacts we had at senior levels within the Pakistani government, is the idea of a longer-term, more strategic look from within the Pakistani authorities, not just the military, at combating extremism. Obviously  extremism is dominated by the FATA and elsewhere, but the principle is key: a long term, whole of government, look at trying to cap extremism involves education reform, building roads and hospitals, as well as law enforcement, as well as good governance. I just wondered whether you had any views on the likelihood of such a strategy appearing and what sort of thing we in the West might do to help that.

Dr. Hassan Abbas: I think help for Pakistan, in terms of developing their capacity for good governance, is central. It is just so crucial, and can be done at various levels. For instance, with regard to bureaucracy, the trend is that whenever bureaucrats from Pakistan are invited to meetings in Britain or the United States or other countries. Normally, the top people are picked, who are five years from retirement, and who are at times more interested in going for a shopping spree than any training. This should be changed. Police should be given scholarships and training facilities. Forensic sciences and the capacity within the police to conduct forensic science. It's these kinds of things which convey to the ordinary people that it's not the socio-political elite that are benefitting from the relationship with the US and the UK.

There is no better aid recipient than education. I always say to people, if a hospital was built instead of an F-16 or nuclear submarine, a big hospital or library in the center of a city, which helps ordinary people, will be a symbol of friendship much stronger than military help.

Simon Shercliff: I could not agree more. I think that makes an awful lot of sense, and is a very nice place to end as well. Thanks, Hassan.

Dr. Hassan Abbas: Thank you very much.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Abbas, Hassan and Simon Shercliff. “The Future of Pakistan: A Conversation with Simon Shercliff and Hassan Abbas.” News, , October 30, 2009.