Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister, met Al Jazeera's Ghida Fakhry on a recent trip to Washington.
|Qureshi: Pakistan does not
want its sovereignty violated [AFP]
He discussed his country's increasingly strained relations with neighbouring Afghanistan, ties with the US and the potential UN investigation into the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Ghida Fakhry: There have been mounting tensions in Pakistan's tribal regions. A convoy was attacked and 15 Pakistani military personnel were killed. The Taliban in Pakistan say that they want you to release some of their men that were detained a few days ago by Pakistani authorities – are you willing to negotiate with them? What is the position of your government?
Shah Mahmood Qureshi: Our position has been consistent that we will not negotiate with terrorists. The negotiations that we've had in the past and that we're having right now are with tribal elders.
The idea is to wean them away from the extremist element. But we will not negotiate with terrorists.
The incident that you are referring to today negates many pundits here in Washington who've been predicting that the Pakistani army and Pakistan's new democratic government has gone soft on terrorists. Here Pakistani soldiers have lost lives and we are carrying on the fight against extremism and terrorism.
Since you have come to power in February you have struck agreements with Taliban leaders in Pakistan while the US and Afghanistan have both sharply criticised those policies saying that in essence, it gives Taliban fighters the latitude to cross the border into Pakistan. They have a point, do they not?
They have a point, but we have a point as well. Our point is that the military option is not the only option. Our strategy has to be a more comprehensive strategy. That is why our strategy is a multi-pronged strategy. We believe in political engagement. We believe in socio-economic development and when necessary, we would use force as well.
You call it political engagement, some may call it appeasement. The top Taliban leader, Bitola Moussoud, has suspended talks with the government and this policy seems to have failed. Is it time to shift strategies?
It is not appeasement. You are talking to a position of strength and when they would violate the agreement we will take action.
But have they not already violated the agreement? Have they not crossed the border many times? The fighters from the Taliban?
Every border crossing is not a hostile border crossing. Please understand there are about 40,000 border crossings on a daily basis.
There are about 20,000 vehicles that go to and from Afghanistan on a daily basis. Every person crossing the border is not linked to terrorists. They are normal people, tribes, divided families. Let's not forget there are over two million Afghans living in Pakistan.
"Everybody living in the tribal areas is not a terrorist"
Shah Mahmood Qureshi
The US says the government is giving them safe haven. Is that a fair way of looking at it?
We are not giving them a safe haven. That's not the idea. We are trying to bifurcate between that population living in the tribal area that wants a peaceful life, and that segment of the population that have taken up arms for a purpose, and are extremists.
So what we are saying is don't lump everyone together. Everybody living in the tribal areas is not a terrorist and you have got to distinguish between the terrorists and the ordinary citizens that want a better future.
There has been a close relationship between President Pervez Musharraf and the US since 9/11. Now it seems to be a little more complicated. Last month, 11 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a US air raid in Afghanistan and more recently there was an incident in which eight Pakistani soldiers where killed. When does it become too much?
They [the US] are of the view that it was not by design. That is why we have set up a joint investigation team that's investigating into the matter in order to find out what exactly happened.
Is this a breach of your sovereignty? Have you told your counterpart Condoleezza Rice that you are unhappy with what is going on? That you need an apology?
We are certainly unhappy with the intrusions. We do not want Pakistani soil and sovereignty to be violated. Yes. And we have categorically said that.
Is the US treating you as a respected partner?
The US needs us as much as we need the US. It's a common war, it's a common fight. We have a common enemy and we have a common approach in dealing with that. So in any relationship the element of respect has to be there.
|Qureshi says the Pakistani military is winning the fight against al-Qaeda [AFP]
How concerned are you that as the US election draws into its active phase that there may be what's called a "hot pursuit", that there may be some kind of military action taken by the US to go into Pakistan and go after al-Qaeda elements?
The pressure is going to be there and the rhetoric is going to be there. But if they want a long-term ally then they have to be sensitive to our opinion as well.
But the US also seems to be losing patience with your inability to take action. To rein in those militants, make sure they don't cross into Afghanistan and destabilise the situation there. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, recently said that you are not doing enough.
I think they should also recognise the successes that we have made. They should also realise the people that we have apprehended. Serious high-value targets that we have reprehended.
We have got al-Qaeda on the run. To a great extent we have broken many networks in Pakistan and we have banned many organisations in Pakistan.
What they need to concentrate on, in my opinion, is Afghanistan.
The internal situation in Afghanistan is being overlooked and the impact it is having on the cross-border movement has to be considered.
I say that having met a lot of people in Paris. They were there discussing Afghanistan, pledging for Afghanistan. I was there the other day for the [UN] Security Council where there was a debate taking place on Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan should acknowledge there have been serious failings on their side"
Shah Mahmood Qureshi
So the concerns of an internal problem, an internal crisis within Afghanistan should not be, cannot be overlooked.
In Afghanistan, that is precisely the point they make, that it is down to Pakistan and the kind of agreements it has reached with some of these tribal leaders as you call them, that allows them so easily to cross the border and disrupt the situation there.
Let's presume that's correct for the sake of discussion. This intrusion can affect the south. It cannot affect the north, the west, and the east. You have seen a 25 per cent increase in those areas that were peaceful earlier on. And that cannot be blamed on Pakistan.
It is very easy to pass the buck. It has to be ownership. What we are not shy of is, if there is a failing on our part we are willing to look at things and improve upon our strategy.
Afghanistan should acknowledge that there have been serious failings on their side and they need to improve an effort, they need to improve the Afghan government on their side.
What do you think is the reason behind this recent spike in tensions between the two of you?
Afghanistan is about to hold elections. You have to satisfy the local population and the government in Afghanistan will be accounted for. And they are looking, perhaps, for scapegoats.
Why not try to facilitate a dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government, if you have the contacts?
We have no contacts with them. We have a hands-off policy. There's been speculation for some years that Osama bin Laden may be in Pakistan. Your government has often denied this claim, but how can you be sure that he is not in your country [the US]?
If he is not in Pakistan, where would he be? He would be in Afghanistan?
The whole world wants to know where he is.
Can you say with certainty that he is not in Pakistan?
I cannot say with certainty, but I will say that if we have sufficient information, the government of Pakistan will take action.
|A UN commission may investigate the killing of Benazir Bhutto [EPA]
So what does that say about the US inability to have that actionable intelligence, are they trying hard enough to find Osama bin Laden, or is he some kind of convenient tool perhaps for the so-called war on terrorism?
I cannot answer that.
It seems that the UN commission looking into Benazir Bhutto's killing will go ahead. How hopeful are you that this will actually make any difference, that the perpetrators of this crime will actually be brought to justice?
That's our desire and we do our utmost to give all possible support to the mission so they come to some sort of a conclusion and we can bring people to justice.
Do you actually think this will happen? You can take what happened in Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Four years on, and three commissioners later, very little has been done. Why do you think a commission mandated by the secretary-general can make a difference?
We have learnt from that experience and the way we are designing our investigation reflects that.
Going to the UN, doesn't that undercut your national principles, your sovereignty, because in a way you are giving the message that your own judiciary is unable to look into this issue?
No, the point is that it is the decision of the people. It is a decision that has been expressed by a unanimous resolution of parliament.
Each and every political party, government and opposition have supported this resolution because the people of Pakistan want a body which is neutral, impartial, and has credibility for this investigation.
You share a long border with Iran, which tested missiles recently. How concerned are you with this? Are you concerned at all about Iran's nuclear programme?
The test that took place the other day has no implications for Pakistan. It's a test that's carried out time and again.
We want Iran to act responsibly. Iran has been saying that their right to peaceful use of nuclear technology should not be denied because they are signatories to the NPT, and we recognise that right. But we would dissuade Iran and would urge them to show concern to international concerns.
Do you think Iran is a threat to regional security?
No, we do not think that, but there are some who do and we want Iran to address their concerns.
Are you concerned that the US or Israel may strike at Iran's nuclear facilities?
I hope not, because if they do, it will destabilise the entire region and things can spin out of control.
What would be your reaction, would it affect your military co-operation with the US?
I hope we do not have to think that far.