Up, close and intimate with Mr Richard Olson US Ambassador to Pakistan
Mr Richard Olson was sworn in as Ambassador to Pakistan on September 24, 2012. Previously, he served as the Coordinating Director for Development and Economic Affairs at U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, from 2011 to 2012. Ambassador Olson also served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from 2008 to 2011. He is a member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister Counselor.
He graduated from Brown University in 1981, receiving an A.B. in Law and Society (Honors) and History.
Mr Olson has been awarded the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, the Secretary of State’s Award for Public Outreach, the State Department’s Superior Honor Award (three times), and the Secretary of Defense’s Exceptional Civilian Service Award (for his service in Iraq).
Mr Olson joined the U.S. Department of State in 1982. He has served in Mexico, Uganda, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, the UAE (where he served both in Abu Dhabi and Dubai) and in Najaf, Iraq. He was also Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
His Washington assignments include: State Department Operations Center (twice), NATO Desk, the Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs (twice, including as Director), and the Office of Iraqi Affairs, including as Director.
Jahangir’s World Times (JWT) approached His Excellency Richard Olson, the United States’ Ambassador to Pakistan, for an exclusive interview. The following are excerpts:
JWT: Excellency, Dr Tahirul Qadri led a ‘Long March’ to Islamabad at a time when Pakistan is looking forward to have a first-ever democratic transition. How would you comment on the present situation?
RO: We are looking forward to transition of power from one civilian authority to another civilian authority through a free and fair election. We are happy that the issue of ‘Long March’ was settled in a peaceful manner. The people also enjoyed the right to get assembled freely. The future of Pakistan lies in holding free, fair and transparent election. The people of Pakistan are to decide the future of their country through an election process. We are encouraged that the ‘Long March’ remained peaceful. We do not support any individual or any particular political party. We did not support Dr Tahirul Qadri. We only support democracy in Pakistan.
JWT: There is tension between Pakistan and India on the Line of Control (LoC). How do you feel about this region?
RO: We feel quite encouraged to note that ceasefire on the Line of Control is maintaining now. It is imperative for both Pakistan and India to work together to prevent incidents of violation of ceasefire on the Line of Control.
JWT: President Barack Obama has taken oath as President of the United States for his second term. Will his administration follow the same policy, or rethinking, back in Washington?
RO: The policy of the United States towards Pakistan will continue on the same lines as it has been in the past. We want to build up a strong partnership with Pakistan based on the common appreciation of our mutual interests and mutual respect. President Obama has a long-time vision for our relation with Pakistan.
JWT: When you talk of the continuity of the US policy, does that mean a continuity of the drone strikes?
RO: It is not a secret that there are many challenges in our relationship, especially in year 2011 onwards. I think there is a sense of partnership, a new sense of engagement since last summer. There have been high-level contacts between the two sides. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has been to Washington and President Zardari to New York. We also held meetings with different working groups, and they have been talking of cooperation in energy, education, economy and financial sectors. Our relationship is on a much more productive side. Our relationship is to take forward and put the relationship on solid levels. Whether it is a talk of drones or anything else, the broader question is of countering terrorism and extremism. Pakistan and the United States share the common objectives with regard to countering extremism. This is a part of our bilateral dialogue and we discuss many issues as how to move forward.
JWT: Following the Salala incident, the two countries held intensive talks. Do you think there are still some points of divergence?
RO: What is important is to identify the common interests between the two countries. We want to work together for economic partnership, solution to the energy problem etc. We have been cooperating in refurbishing the major energy sources. Through refurbishing, we are proud of having added 400MW of electricity last year to the national grid here.
JWT: We know the strategic dialogue is back on track and different working groups have been holding meetings. But certain promises made to Pakistan by the US still remain to be fulfilled. For instance, the aid promised under the Kerry Lugar Berman (KLB) law has not yet been given. Though this arrangement is under the US law, the inflow is not being maintained. Don’t you think it’s a slowdown policy?
RO: I don’t think it is a question of a slowdown. It is quite difficult to get assistance programme up in running in a short order. We are now reaching a level of maturity on the programme under the KLB law. That’s true that money is involved and we have not been able to do that as yet. However, we are working on it as to how to allow funds and spend them to fulfil our commitments that we have made in the past. I would say that you would see over the next six months various projects coming up in line under the KLB programme.
JWT: The Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (RoZs) was another major promise made by the United States. What is the progress on setting up the RoZs?
RO: The RoZs proved difficult to get support in the United States. What we want to do is to work in future towards a market access generally. There is always more market access available, especially for Pakistan’s textile producers. One of the things to do is to make Pakistan businessmen and entrepreneurs aware of the opportunities they can avail under the generalized market access in the United States.
JWT: How about the military assistance? Is it still suspended?
RO: We have very active dialogue with respect to security assistance. It is not a topic that I want to make comments on publicly because the subject is very sensitive. But I can say that we have engagements on this front and we do have an assistance programme going on.
JWT: With the pullout time-frame nearing, how is the perception in Washington in the post-withdrawal scenario? Your Excellency has also served in Afghanistan. May we know whether you are optimistic, or share pessimism about the future of Afghanistan?
RO: I am optimistic on the arrangements which have been put in place in regard to Afghanistan. I’ll not call or categorise it as a withdrawal. What is happening in the aftermath of December 2014 is a final transfer of security authorities from the ISAF to the Afghan security forces. We actually do not plan to disengage from Pakistan or with Pakistan. One of the important things that have driven the US policy for the last several years is the appreciation of what happened in 1989-90.
JWT: There are lot of apprehensions around that the US might ditch once again and abandon this region without appropriate settlement in Afghanistan?
RO: I wanted to talk about this. The US policy towards Afghanistan has been very conscious of this aspect. Both in Afghanistan and in the region, we have taken some concrete measures to address these issues. First, we have a strategic partnership with Afghanistan which regulates our relationship in the coming decade of transformation i.e. 2014 to 2024. The Bonn and Tokyo conferences pledged to provide funding to Afghanistan in the transition period. The Afghans have to determine their own political programme for transition as election is to be held in April 2014. So the situation today is very different from the one in 1990. In addition, we are in the process of negotiating a bilateral security agreement which will establish parameters under which the US forces might be able to stay after 2014, if so invited.
JWT: It means the US is just handing over security to the Afghan forces, but it would continue to be staying over inside Afghanistan?
RO: We are not interested in permanent bases in Afghanistan. Our only consideration is that there is a security assistance programme for Afghanistan in the post-2014. It will be a very limited set-up and mission. And for that too, the decision has to be made by Afghans and the US president. I do not want to prejudge. We are discussing the potential framework for such a presence. I think the overarching point is to be engaged extensively in a slightly different manner in the post-2014 scenario.
JWT: With reconciliation process inside Afghanistan, the United States wanted to hold a dialogue with the Haqqani Group. The US held the dialogue in Qatar but did not release the Taliban from Gitmo. Is there any clarity in Washington as to this very issue?
RO: With respect to the reconciliation, we welcome the recent visit by Afghan High Peace Council to Pakistan. It is a good omen that the two sides are talking and building confidence. What I would say on a broader perspective is that Pakistan is a part of the solution in Afghanistan. On the question of reconciliation, we welcome the role and effort made by Pakistan. With respect to the Haqqani network, our position is well known and we have concerns on the Haqqani network. We want to work together with the Pakistan government to continue to squeeze the Haqqani network. We see the Haqqani network as a threat to all as well as to the transition in 2014 and beyond.