Hina Rabbani Khar served as Pakistan’s foreign minister from 2011 to 2013. She urged Islamabad to revive their administration’s foreign policy approach of maintaining good relations with neighboring countries. She recommended that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s administration appoint a foreign minister and assert its control over foreign policy decision-making in the face of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment.
RFE/RL: Many analysts in Pakistan believe Islamabad should have not participated in the recent Heart of Asia conference in India. They argue the Pakistani delegation was not given due respect and was bombarded with accusations. What is your opinion on this?
Hina Rabbani Khar: The Heart of Asia conference was about Afghanistan. Pakistan attending the conference was to support peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region. However, in my opinion, the government should have lowered the representation. They could have sent, you know, someone of a secretary or undersecretary level [bureaucrat] rather than sending the adviser [to Pakistan Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs] Sartaj Aziz.
RFE/RL: As was evident at this conference, Afghanistan continue to accuse Pakistan of harboring the Haqqani network and the Taliban’s Quetta Shura for terror in Afghanistan. How can they overcome this trust deficit?
Khar: That is the most disheartening thing to see. It causes me personal grief because we had literally poised Pakistan within the region. When I was foreign minister, we tried to concentrate on relations closer to home. And I, as well as my prime minister at that time, have categorically said that Kabul is the most important capital for Pakistan. We invested a great deal of energy and effort to make Kabul as the most important capital for us. As foreign minister of Pakistan, I visited Kabul three times in two years. In contrast, I visited Washington only once. It was because we thought Kabul is more important.
What this government has been able to do is let the opportunity that came with President Ashraf Ghani go by. We lost that window of opportunity that opened when Ghani came into power. He gave Pakistan a pretty reasonable deal. He offered pretty much everything that Pakistan was asking for. I do not know the internal dynamics of the current government to be able to say what they should do to make amends, but I can say for sure that this government has not been able to sustain its relationship with Afghanistan, India, and Iran.
RFE/RL: As a former diplomat, do you have any advice for Pakistan and Afghanistan to improve relations, especially in light of the fact that President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will soon assume office in the United States?
Khar: As far as the change in presidency of the United States is concerned, I do not think much will change between Islamabad and Washington. The key to stability of this region, economic growth, and the connectivity of this region certainly depends on what is going to happen in Afghanistan.
If there is no peace in Afghanistan and this conflict continues, Pakistan will continue to suffer. So I would say that whatever we can do to assist our Afghan brothers is something we should be doing. My advice to both governments would be that Pakistan should take Afghanistan more seriously than it has. For the Afghan government, I think they should focus on trying to find strategic and logical solutions to problems rather than pointing fingers at its neighbor.
RFE/RL: There have been a lot of questions over Pakistan’s foreign policy, including talk of Pakistan being isolated in the region as the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) conference originally planned for November in Islamabad was canceled. Why is Pakistan’s foreign policy failing?
Khar: I think the foreign policy has been very lax. You know it is personal relationship oriented. I think the state of Pakistan is washed out because of this carelessness toward foreign policy management. Stark proof of this is that an institution like the Foreign Office of Pakistan goes without a political leader even today. The government has not bothered to appoint a foreign minister [for nearly four years].
RFE/RL: But it is widely believed that Pakistani foreign policy is run by the military establishment. So when foreign policy failures happen, who is to blame: the army or the civilian government?
Khar: This is a problem. I can tell you with full confidence that foreign policy is within the domain of the civilian government to direct the policy of the government of Pakistan. Well, civil-military relationship management obviously remains an issue in Pakistan. But to be fair, over here the government is at fault and not the establishment. The reason is simple: If the government leaves a hole, somebody has to fill it. By not appointing a foreign minister, the government has itself created that space. The responsibility of the management and dynamics of foreign policy falls on the government. If the government does not take this seriously, of course other entities will play its role.