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Former Envoy Offers A Candid Appraisal Of U.S.-Pakistan Ties

Richard G. Olson (file photo)
Richard G. Olson (file photo)

Career diplomat Richard G. Olson knows the inner workings of his country’s complex relations with Pakistan. He served as U.S. envoy from 2012 to 2015 and worked as the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department from 2015 to 2016. In an interview with Radio Mashaal, he weighs in on whether there is hope for salvaging the now-troubled relations between the two countries.

RFE/RL: What forced Washington to suspend military assistance to anti-terror war ally Pakistan? What steps are next?

Richard Olson: This is an issue which has been developing for a very long time, probably for the last 17 years that the United States has been involved in Afghanistan. When I was the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, that was the main topic of my discussion with Pakistan. So there should not really be any surprise this year.

The United States has always found Pakistan’s support, specifically the establishment’s support, for the Taliban and Haqqanis, to be completely inconsistent with its stated position of the alliance with the United States. It is difficult for taxpayers and Congress to understand why the assistance should continue when Pakistan is supporting people who are killing our soldiers and our allies.

The Trump administration has taken a tougher line, especially in public. It is not, frankly, all that different than the line taken in the latter stages of the Obama administration. It is really up to Pakistan to choose whether it wants a relationship with the United States over a relationship with the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

RFF/RL: What will happen if Pakistan does not comply?

Olson: We have a lot of history in the relationship, and I don’t want to overstate. Obviously, at the level of people to people, there is a great deal of sympathy and understanding [from] Pakistan as a nation and people who come here -- especially young people for colleges and universities and people who come here from Pakistan as immigrants. There is a large Pakistani-American diaspora; many of them are professionals, doctors, and very successful in this country.

But at the level of policy, we have a problem. Pakistan has, frankly, relatively few defenders in the Washington policy environment. It is hard to explain why Pakistan would have chosen the Taliban and the Haqqanis over friendship with the United States. And the fact that this has not always been carried out in the most transparent way -- the support of the Haqqanis and the Taliban has been carried out by the establishment in a secretive way -- leads to the charge of duplicity. Many Washington policymakers feel there is an element of deceitfulness as the president tweeted at the beginning of the year.

RFE/RL: That gives credence to the voices in Washington asking for Pakistan to be declared a state sponsor of terrorism. What if that happens and Pakistan still does not change its policy?

Olson: As someone who spent time in Pakistan … and considers [himself] a friend of Pakistan, we think this is in Pakistan’s long-term interests to break its relationship with these militant outfits.

They all tend to work together, and it is difficult to distinguish between good and bad militants. It sometimes has been the practice, at least with Pakistani policy. And all these groups have ultimately worked together and against the Pakistani state and the Pakistani interests. I would hope Pakistan would see it as in its own interests to end its relationship with the Taliban and the Haqqanis, and for that matter with Lashkar-e-Tayeba and the other militant groups which can only embroil Pakistan in wars and cause its foreign policy to be in the hands of some very radical individuals.

RFE/RL: There is a debate going on whether to use ‘carrots’ or ‘sticks’ to persuade Pakistan to change its behavior. In your analysis, what would work well?

Olson: I don’t like the terms “carrots” and “sticks.” Carrots and sticks are used with donkeys, not with people and other countries. So, let’s be clear that I reject that terminology. If I were running the policy right now, I would say that there should be some high level of engagement between the two countries. The dialogue should be private and discreet.

But the United States should make it clear that Pakistan take the actions we think are in its (own) interest but also in our interests. That will open the way to a much more positive relationship. Many things are possible; the resumption of assistance would be one. But that’s not possible when there is support for militant groups that are undermining us in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Pakistan’s policymakers often mention concerns about India’s role in Afghanistan. Did the United States ever take into consideration some of the concerns that Pakistan believes to be genuine?

Olson: I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. And I do think Pakistani concerns about Indian involvement are somewhat overstated. India is a donor to Afghanistan that provides some assistance -- small-scale development assistance. It is large for India, but it is not huge on a global scale. That is certainly not that significant [compared] to what has been provided by the Western countries. It maintains a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, but it is nowhere near what is sometimes perceived to be the case in Pakistan. I think they have four consulates and an embassy, not 20 or 30 consulates as sometimes alleged. It is more potential relations rather than a massively developed relationship between India and Afghanistan.

Pakistan should see this as an opportunity because there is no question that Pakistan has a much greater ability just in the normal course of events to affect developments with Afghanistan to make sure to safeguard it: Afghanistan is a landlocked country, and all of its trade goes through Pakistan. There is much more to be obtained by Pakistan taking a cooperative approach to Afghanistan and developing a sense of partnership, which will naturally result in having a stronger position than India [in Afghanistan].

RFE/RL: Could that prove a gateway to the resolution of some longstanding disputes between India and Pakistan, as well?

Olson: One would love to see the resolution of one of the most dangerous potential conflicts in the world, and I would certainly agree with that. In any case, it would be good to remove Afghanistan as a potential theater of conflict between India and Pakistan.

RFE/RL: As a former ambassador to Pakistan and special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, what future do you see for the region in the next few years?

Olson: It is a region that has enormous potential if it can get past some of the divisions that exist now. The region has enormous potential for economic growth: India is growing very strongly; Pakistan is doing reasonably well. And Afghanistan is doing much better than it has in the course of probably the last 20 to 30 years. All of these countries have young, growing, increasingly educated populations that are connected to the outside world in a way that has not been possible until now. And if these countries were to take advantage and bulge into use of dividends, rather than a burden, the future would be bright. That depends on getting past the enmities that have divided the countries up until now.

RFE/RL: What would be the U.S. approach toward Pakistan’s civilian authorities if relations go from bad to worse?

Olson: It has been longstanding policy to support a democratic Pakistan and engage with the civilian authorities. The complication here is just being very careful that the governments in Pakistan -- the ones I dealt with and their predecessors -- have tended to hand the Afghanistan portfolio to the military and the establishment to manage, which means the U.S. government has to deal with the establishment on these issues.

The best hope for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States is that they need to pursue some kind of political settlement, an Afghan-led political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that leads to peaceful resolution of the conflict that has been raging for the past 40 years. That is the real hope for the region.