The Outgoing US Ambassador to Pakistan New US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan
On October 15, 2015, the Obama administration appointed Mr Richard G. Olson, the outgoing US ambassador to Pakistan, as the next US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr Olson will take charge of his new designation on 17th of November 2015, the time when his term as Ambassador to Pakistan ends. During his tenure in Pakistan, Mr Olson played a proactive role in improving Pakistan-United States relations. In an exclusive conversation with Jahangir’s World Times (JWT), Mr Olson shared his views on diverse matters related to US and Pakistan and its neighbouring countries.
Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): Now that you are about to complete your tenure in Pakistan, where in your opinion the relationship between Pakistan and the United States stands at present?
Richard Olson (RO): First of all, I would like to thank you for inviting me. Actually, Pak-US bilateral relationship is moving in the right direction. During last three years, both countries have worked hard to strengthen this relationship and to infuse a new spirit in our strategic dialogue as well. We kept on encouraging American Companies to invest here in Pakistan. US Secretary of Commerce, Mr Penny Pritzker, also visited Pakistan in March to launch the first-ever US-Pakistan Economic Partnership Week.
Overall, I believe the relationship has seen a lot of improvement. Anti-US sentiments in Pakistan are also diminishing, though gradually.
JWT: What is the reason behind diminishing anti-US sentiments in Pakistan?
RO: Both the governments have worked to drive the bilateral relationship in the positive direction. Though there were many ups and downs in the past, at present, both are making all possible efforts to strengthen this relationship. The most important reason of decline in anti-US sentiments is that people here in Pakistan generally believe that the US had been meddling in internal affairs of Pakistan including political ones. To dispel this perception, I stayed away from interfering in country’s internal matters. For instance, during 2013 elections, I decided to meet the politicians as little as possible. Although some people tried to drag us in such matters, we did not do that and declined any such request.
JWT: You assumed charge as an ambassador back in 2012 when the incidents of Osama bin Laden’s death, Salala check-post attack and Raymond Davis episode were hampering the Pak-US relations. How everything fared for you?
RO: I believe both countries realized in 2012 that they have to bury the past and move forward in order to improve our relationship. At the highest level, it was decided to keep an eye on common interests i.e. promoting peace in Afghanistan, eliminating terrorism, a peaceful and prosperous Pakistan, etc. Then, strategic dialogue was also carried out.
JWT: Haqqani Network was also a big issue at that time. Secretary Hilary Clinton, during her last visit to Pakistan, kept pushing Pakistan on this issue. Has the matter been resolved now?
RO: We appreciate the Government of Pakistan’s policy of ending distinction between good and bad Taliban. There must be complete execution of that policy. Pakistan has many achievements in war against terrorism. And yes, special emphasis has been on non-state actors that pose severe challenge to the stability of Pakistan
JWT: It will be gross injustice if I don’t mention Pakistan Army’s sacrifices in Shawal operation. You also had a special interest in that. Now, Operation Zarb-e-Azb has also entered its second year, what are your impressions about these?
RO: We welcome this. I mean, we appreciate the efforts made by Pakistan’s government, army and the people at large in clearing the North Waziristan area. This is the issue on which we have been in dialogue with Pakistan since many years.
In fact, the operation has eliminated many non-state actors that were the reason behind threat to Afghanistan. I am saying this because Pak-Afghan relationship is very crucial for the whole region. Since assuming power, Afghan President Dr Ashraf Ghani has made serious efforts to improve this relationship and his endeavours have been reciprocated well from Pakistani side. I think, establishing amicable relations with Afghanistan has long been a great desire of Pakistan. To me, it’s the right time for both countries to remove the irritants in their bilateral relations.
JWT: Recently when Pak-Afghan relations started to improve, Dr Ashraf Ghani alleged that “Pakistan has started unannounced war against Afghanistan”. Do you think it’s true?
RO: President Ghani has definitely given some positive answer after that and has taken encouraging steps. I think, it’s a very critical time and that Pakistan must come forward to make the most of this opportunity.
JWT: Though it is good omen for Pak-Afghan relationship, I am recalling Klemens Metternich who said, “When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold.” Same is the case with Afghanistan in the context of Asia. Do you feel that Afghanistan is heading toward stability?
RO: I think Pakistan can be instrumental to peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan. The latter has been fighting against those terrorists on its territory against whom Pakistan is now fighting on its own soil. Pakistan’s role is very pivotal for assistance in such efforts as well as for the promotion of trade and economic activities in Afghanistan
JWT: During his visit to Afghanistan in May, Pakistan’s Prime Minister condemned Taliban activities in presence of Pakistan’s Army Chief. Are recent statements from political and military leadership of Pakistan are a good omen for peace and stability in Afghanistan?
RO: Surely, I hope so. The recent statements condemning Afghan Taliban activities are highly encouraging. And this thinking that enemies of Afghanistan are enemies of Pakistan is also a welcome development
JWT: The world has termed the Afghan reconciliation process very significant. Has there been any success in this regard?
RO: America, as a policy, has always supported reconciliation process. We believe the solution to Afghan challenges lies in political settlement, not military action alone. That’s why we acknowledge that Pakistan’s role in this regard is of higher importance. Both governments hold similar views. The real challenge is that Afghan Taliban are not ready to come on table for talks. We all are trying to overcome this challenge.
JWT: Now can I deduce from your assertions that only Pakistan has the ability to bring Taliban to the negotiating table?
RO: I would again say that Pakistan’s role is very important. Let’s not delve into depths of diplomacy. You think that it’s a serious issue. We also take it as an established fact that Pakistan is playing a very positive role in this regard.
JWT: With regard to Pakistan’s prosperity, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being termed as a game-changer. How does the United States see this project?
RO: The US government absolutely encourages investment in Pakistan so that the country’s economy may be strengthened. We have provided Pakistan with five billion dollars grant during the last six years. Moreover, China and the United States have same views on this matter. Both countries welcome the economic progress and local trade cooperation. We have been advocating the concept of Silk Route since long. China too is developing its plans like Silk Route Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Route. The companies of both countries can definitely compete. Some elements want to see enmity between the US and China on this issue. But, regarding Pakistan, I don’t think so.
JWT: Unless Pakistan and India come to terms, there will be no increase in bilateral contacts and improvement in relations. Moreover, Indian premier Narendra Modi blatantly admitted his country’s involvement in the dismemberment of Pakistan. Indian defence minister also issued such statements that could never be suitable for improving relations. How do you see all that?
RO: We want Pak-India relations to grow as it is in the best interest of the region. We believe that there should be more and more trade between both countries. According to local trade, South Asia is considered the continent of keeping lowest relations. In this region, there are great opportunities of trade not only for Pakistan and India but also for Afghan and Central Asia. Politically we want dialogue between Pakistan and India. And all obstacles to this could be removed through silent diplomacy.
JWT: BBC, the most trustworthy media outlet in the world, has recently said that Indian agency RAW is funding a certain political party in Pakistan. Won’t this increase hostilities?
RO: Everyone should realize that wars in the subcontinent must end now. This has caused huge destruction between the countries of the subcontinent. This must end now.