Former ambassador to the United States Ali Jahangir Siddiqui, who served in Washington from May-Dec 2018 ─ a period when Pak-US ties went from cold to frigid ─ spoke to Dawn about the complexities in relations between the two countries, the challenges he faced as an envoy, and whether Pakistan can contribute to normalcy in Afghanistan.
Siddiqui, who left Washington yesterday, told Dawn that he could have been more effectual serving a full three-year term, but maintained that he had contributed to an improvement in bilateral ties during his short seven-month tenure.
Q: How did America’s demand for Pakistan to do more impact bilateral ties?
Siddiqui: I cannot say whether they recognise that it was an unfair demand i.e. Pakistan had done a lot at a great cost to herself. But it is clear that the US South Asia strategy was not successful.
I think that Pakistan has gained from standing its ground. Of course, in the interim, there was a lot of pressure on the relationship but we sustained it.
Q: What do you believe is preventing Pak-US relations from taking off?
Siddiqui: The lack of clarity on both sides. Pakistan has not had broad-based strategic dialogue with the US for a long time and that has held things back.
But when we did have the strategic dialogue in the Obama years, that was precisely when the relationship was worsening rapidly. So, the problem is deeper than a structured engagement.
There is mistrust on both sides that needs to be unwound and that will take effort, whereby the leadership on both sides needs to be engaged by their respective diplomats and historical issues are discussed, and we clear and put the last 20 years of history behind us.
Q: The common perception is that both sides fail to understand each other. Instead of talking to each other, do they talk across each other?
Siddiqui: I don’t think this perception is correct. The bureaucracies on both sides are sophisticated. But the US political system has much more influence in its bureaucracy compared to ours ─ many US bureaucrats at the Assistant Secretary and higher levels are political appointees. So there is a strong political dimension in their system, which means that the direction that the US President wants is where the system goes.
Both sides have an understanding of each other and of their own historical positions. It is true that both sides don’t spend enough time understanding where the other is coming from and frequently miss the considerations and pressures the other side has to manage. From our foreign policy perspective, I would say that I observed that since we are busy dealing with short term issues and crises, there is limited long term policy planning at least vis a vis the US.
For example, an answer to the question ‘Where do we want the Pak-US relationship to be in 15 years?’ will dictate whether the next generations of our students will study in the US, whether our scientists will collaborate with US scientific institutions, whether our economy will have significant linkages to the US economy etc. The answer vis-a-vis China is clear, but with the US it is not so.
Q: Can Pakistan help create a semblance of normalcy in Afghanistan as the Americans demand?
Siddiqui: There is a lot of focus on Pakistan here but we have already done everything we can. We used every ounce of security and diplomatic goodwill we had to get all parties to the table.
The outcome of these talks will be determined by the Americans and the Afghan people, not Pakistan.
The Americans understand that and we are facilitating the process as best we can because not only is peace in Afghanistan a noble goal but Pakistan has been the second-worst sufferer in this conflict and we want a peaceful Afghanistan.
Q: Pakistanis often say that they want trade, not aid. Are they serious about it?
Siddiqui: I sometimes think that our policy planners missed something here. Trade not aid is quite dated, by some decades. The adage about teaching a man to fish, instead of giving him fish has been replaced by teaching a man to change fishing!
In the same way, trade not aid is no longer applicable. There is a role for aid, there is a role for trade, but with all the evolution in technology and other change in the world, we need to look for something new. Perhaps technology, not trade. Although I would repeat that trade and aid are both relevant.
Q: Pakistanis often boast about their strategic location, arguing that they cannot be ignored because of this. Was this strategic location an asset for you or an obstacle?
Siddiqui: Saying we have a strategic location, like saying we have a young population, is taking a one-sided position on what is a fact. A one-sided position, while correct on its own, ignores the disadvantages. A youthful population also means a struggle to get them employed while a strategic location means geopolitical complexity.
So, I dealt with our strategic location as a fact. Sometimes there were advantages and other times there was complexity. But all complexity is an opportunity to clear matters. For example, we were caught up in the US-China competition as a result of our strategic location, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and closeness to China.
There were statements made both on Capitol Hill and by the US administration that money Pakistan may get from the International Monetary Fund may end up repaying China but we have been successful in explaining to all US departments of government and this is not how IMF and our loans to China are structured.
Having dealt with this complexity due to our strategic location, we have created a better understanding of Pakistan and our positions with these stakeholders.
Q: Do you think your performance would have been better if you had a full term? Would you like to return with a full term?
Siddiqui: Of course. Diplomatic results are a function of skills and time. If I had three years rather than seven months, we would have achieved 10 times the results.
I’m not being simplistic as its not linear. It takes time to build relationships and access and, in the end, Washington, like Islamabad is a small town. There are a few hundred relevant people in leadership and they are split between the White House, Congress, departments of government, the security establishment, business, scientific establishment etc.
We have lost a lot of ground over the last two decades and more hard work and time are what is needed to regain it.
As for me, I haven’t given much thought to returning if ever offered. I spent 18 months in government between Islamabad and Washington at great personal cost in terms of opportunity, family life etc. My wife Saira has been a pillar of support both in going along with my transition to government and in her capacity as the wife of an ambassador, particularly in Washington where the spouse has a major role in diplomacy. So, it would have to be a ‘team-decision’!