As the newly appointed Afghan envoy to Pakistan, Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal is hopeful that his training as an economist will come in handy in convincing Islamabad to pursue its national interest in creating a friendly, peaceful, and stable Afghanistan.
The former Afghan finance minister is confident he can fix Kabul's historically fraught relations with Islamabad by convincing Pakistani policymakers of the merits of helping end the Afghan conflict and doing away with blame game over supporting each other's rebels -- an issue that often poisons the relationship between the two neighbours.
RFE/RL: Islamabad and Kabul are engaged in a polemical exchange after Pakistan claimed that the January 20 attack on Bacha Khan University in northwest Pakistan, in which more than 20 civilians were killed, was orchestrated by militants based in Afghanistan. How will you resolve such issues?
Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal: No doubt it is a challenging job. The blame game that exists between the two countries represents distrust. My first and foremost objective after accepting this job is to seek ways to diffuse that atmosphere of mistrust. We can never expect progress in talks with Pakistan while under this pressure.
In relation to the Bacha Khan University attack, I believe Pakistanis understand that neither is it in Afghanistan's interest, nor does the Afghan government have the ability to support such terrorist acts on their soil. The University is named after Bacha Khan, a towering figure who attracts more respect from Afghans than Pakistanis. His tomb is in [the eastern Afghan city of] Jalalabad. He died in Pakistan but wanted to be buried in Afghanistan, so attacking or insulting an institution named after such a figure is beyond understanding and comprehension for any Afghan – no matter what ideology or objectives he might have.
RFE/RL: Islamabad claims that Pakistani Taliban militants are based in the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, and Nangarhar, and that the Afghan government is not acting against them and has failed to prevent them from staging cross-border attacks. How would you respond to these claims?
Zakhilwal: Since Pakistan launched a military offensive [in the Waziristan tribal region] against the Taliban in June 2014, they crossed into Afghanistan and now stretch from Kunar [in the east] to Zabul [in the south]. But the militants are based in remote regions, which the Afghan government doesn't control. Most of these places are controlled by militants. In fact, [militant sanctuaries] are the reason we pressure Pakistan not to support such setups because they will ultimately cause instability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
RFE/RL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said recently that, if peace talks with the Taliban do not resume by spring, the conflict in Afghanistan will intensify. After assuming charge in Islamabad on February 1, will you pressure Pakistan to jumpstart the reconciliation process with the Taliban?
Zakhilwal: Pressuring [Pakistan] won't do anything. Convincing them will bring results. We will convince Islamabad by arguing that a peaceful, stable and independent Afghanistan is in its interest. Afghanistan has neither posed a threat to Pakistan in the past, nor can it do so in future. I speak the language of reason, I have the ability to convince and persuade them. I will tell them – I will not seek their mercy and sympathy because mercy has no place in [issues of] national interest – that your national interests are protected in a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: You talked about eliminating the trust deficit in bilateral relations with Islamabad, but do you really trust Pakistan? If yes, to what extent? Or do you plan to build trust once you arrive in Islamabad?
Zakhilwal: We will build trust. When you want to build trust, you have to begin from a point of mutual interest. I believe that there are strong arguments to convince Pakistan that it must support peace in Afghanistan to preserve its interests.
All of this requires reasoning and discussions, and it requires us to provide evidence and arguments to convince them. I am not going to Pakistan only as an ambassador, I am going as the special representative of the Afghan president with his trust and authority. So I will not only engage in diplomacy but will have authority [to take certain steps] as well. I think it will be challenging and difficult but not impossible to take steps in the near future to strengthen bilateral relations.