From flying a plane to steering a country: Pakistan’s PM Khakan Abbasi

Irshad Salim — Back in October 2015, I met then Energy Minister Khakan Abbasi in his Islamabad chamber. We shared the usual “how are you’s, etc.” and left with the impression that I probably met by chance one of the few emerging techno-professional-politicians. One thing kept reminding me though: Abbasi’s cool and poker-faced grin. Fast-forward, he’s now no ordinary man with his stubble beard and his signature Pakistani dress.

So, deciphering his sit-in as Pakistani premier with the Arab News team and addressing the most complex matters telegraphically is an algorithm itself for the discerning eyes but may fly past the ordinary as a Frisbee.

According to him, the days of Pakistan depending on the US to meet its military and other requirements are over, nor will the country seek IMF bailout if needed. And, “injecting India into the Pakistan-US relationship will not help resolve anything, especially in Afghanistan”.

Abbasi is now the newly-elected Pakistani Prime Minister having replaced  Nawaz Sharif and was as candid but insightful in his interview with the Arab News as he was in October 2015, and comes as Trump sends lieutenants to Pakistan with tough message.

Abbasi, who’s also a pilot, was not skydiving (his favorite sport) or playing to the gallery– his reflect underlined the contours of Islamabad’s “worst-case-scenario” stance on the fast-emerging geopolitics and geoeconomic in the region which so happens to place Pakistan as the center of gravity– not Afghanistan or for that matter nor India or the two together, with US backing.

Abbasi’s post-it response came after the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement after his meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif in Washington on Wednesday that he “believed the United States had a reliable partner in Pakistan.”

Tillerson also expressed concerns about the future of Pakistan’s government, stressing that Washington wanted a stable civilian government in Islamabad– a concern first shared by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in their quarterly reports– these lending institutions are heavily influenced by Washington’s foreign policy and global security concerns.

The current partisan tussle for power in Islamabad is likely to go on well into next year.

Abbasi however said his government had no intentions of seeking financial assistance if needed from the IMF. “There has been a decline in the (foreign) reserves but hopefully “we expect to resolve that issue within our resources and not have to resort to the IMF. I don’t think the IMF program is something that we intend to pursue,” Abbasi said amid speculations that Pakistan may need another bailout from the lending institution that gave funds back in 2013 when Nawaz Sharif got elected as the Prime Minister.

The Trump administration has withheld reimbursement to Pakistan of millions of dollars from the coalition support fund established to cover costs for providing logistics and other supports to stakeholders in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Abbasi said: “Any sanctions or restraints… put on our systems only degrades our efforts to fight terror, and it affects the whole equation in this region.”

“If one source dries up, we have no option but to go to another source. It may cost more, it may consume more resources, but we have to fight that war…”

“We have major US weapons systems in our military, but we’ve also diversified. We have Chinese and European systems. Recently, for the first time we inducted Russian attack helicopters.”

“The bottom line is… today we have a common objective: To destroy terror and bring peace to Afghanistan.”

China, Russia, and Iran– are all stakeholders for peace in Afghanistan and the region. Trump has added India into the equation being the US’s defense and strategic partner– but much to the discomfort of Pakistan for well-known reasons.

Pakistan remains the biggest affected holistically.

“Nobody has fought a bigger war on terror than we have, with our own resources. Even the most conservative economic estimates of Pakistan’s losses are over $120 billion. It has been a very difficult war, but our army has performed very well.”

“We’re partners in the war on terror, and that’s what we emphasized to everybody we met there (at the UNGA) that nobody wants peace in Afghanistan more than Pakistan.”

Pakistan wants an “equal relationship or partnership with the US, like every other nation.”

“It wishes to work with the US “to resolve regional” and “global issues… ranging from the economy to nuclear” matters.

“Pakistan wants peace in Afghanistan via a solution that “is owned and led by the Afghans.”

“We don’t believe that injecting India into the Pakistan-US relationship will help resolve anything, especially in Afghanistan, where we don’t see any role for India. India has a relationship with the US. That is between them and the US.”

Pakistan blames Afghan government for failing to create sustainable space for peace to evolve within its territory and close to the Pak-Afghan border.

“The reality today is that much of the area bordering Pakistan is controlled by the Taliban. The people we’re fighting in Pakistan today, their sanctuaries are in Afghanistan, their leadership is living there, the planning is done there, the logistical bases are there, and they regularly cross the border and attack our installations.”

“We’re fencing our border… Whatever happens in Afghanistan affects us. Whatever happens here affects them.” It’s also affecting regional players China, Russia, Iran and the Central Asian states with large Muslim population.

Given the ground realities– both good and not so good, Pakistan and China have gotten very close. They call each other “All Weather Friends.” China calls the two “Iron Brothers.”

US-educated Electrical Engineer Abbasi therefore was not wrong when he rejected suggestions that large investments would give China undue influence in Pakistan. It’s economy is seeing an upswing– a record five domestic companies appeared on Forbes Best Under A Billion list this year.

“(CPEC is) a massive investment… It’s really a game changer and it will have multiplier effect. It will attract more investment, it will attract more projects. So, it’s really something that we feel will pay very high dividends for Pakistan.”

“It’s a two-way relationship,” he said. “They have equity investments here but mostly it is debt or loans of some kind and it is basically focused on certain areas. We do not view it as a threat of any kind.”

How Pakistan will pay back the huge loans?

Abbasi said: “Pakistan’s economy has the capacity to repay those loans. They have been targeted very carefully and the economic dividends will pay for more than the loans are worth. So, it’s an economic relationship in that sense.”

The China-Pakistan energy-cum-economic corridor (now called CPEC) was signed off by the “iron brothers” as far back as in 2006 when the US was still dug in deep militarily in Afghanistan. Things have changed since then.

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