In an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman, Pakistani Ambassador to Turkey Sardar Tariq Azizuddin said there are actors, stakeholders and players in the region who are keen to see a destabilized Pakistan embroiled in chaos and instability.
“Is it a state or a group of states funding, backing these criminal elements to destabilize both Pakistan and Afghanistan [and] to deny security to this area?” he asked, underlining that security is the foundation of development and prosperity. “With insecurity and instability, prosperity is put on the backburner, development is put on the backburner and the people, the general, ordinary people, suffer immensely on account of that,” he added.
The veteran diplomat acknowledged that his country has been through difficult times in recent months and lashed out at sensational media reports exaggerating the account of what was happening in Pakistan. Instead, he stressed, people should look into the root of the problem. “What is the source of their [Taliban] funding, and what is the source of their weapon supply? Nobody either talks about it or wants to talk about it or focus on it,” he said.
Talking about criticism that the Pakistani government was slow to react to the increasing threat the Taliban posed to the nuclear power, the ambassador said he found these allegations baseless and that they don't hold any water. He emphasized the fact that Pakistan was not an occupying force in its own territory, noting, “Any militant criminal anti-state activity taking place inside Pakistan does not call for an instant military reaction.”
Azizuddin rather described the process leading to the major offensive as sorting out what is going on. “We were trying to analyze the causes for this behavior and trying to negotiate with them to stop this behavior, to find out what they need. Are there some demands they would like to have?” he said. He further stressed that all peaceful methods for resolving issues were meticulously evaluated and every option to prevent violence was exercised.
When push came to shove, however, the Pakistani government resigned itself to the fact that all options for peaceful civilian negotiations had failed and ordered the armed forces to launch an offensive against the Taliban forces. “The state took a conscious decision like ‘enough is enough.' They had to authorize the security forces to snuff out this activity before it spread like a disease,” he said, adding that the military offensive was employed as a last resort.
According to the ambassador, the operation was successful. “The armed forces secured the main areas and are mopping up some elements on the fringes,” he explained. He said the security forces have already allowed displaced people to go back to their homes -- a sign that these areas had been cleared of the Taliban.
Azizuddin, who himself served six years in the army, said the operation was difficult yet successful. It was widely reported that the Taliban used the civilian population as human shields and forced them to stay in their homes rather than evacuate, hoping that it would prevent Pakistan's army from taking decisive action against the militant group. “We were very conscious of the fact these criminals were using the civilian population as human shields, hiding among them, looting and plundering them, robbing them, taking their young sons, saying one of your sons has to come and join us in the Taliban,” he explained.
“So the state had to ensure that what is generally called collateral damage did not occur. If it did, it had to be reduced to an absolute minimum so that a new chapter didn't open in which Pakistan's security forces were then accused, like the world generally likes to, of genocide or of a massacre or whatever,” he said.
The Pakistani diplomat also defended his government's position in forcing the civilian population to vacate battle zones. More than 2 million people were displaced by fighting that broke out between the army and Taliban militants in the country's northwest in April. “I think that was an acceptable price to pay rather than have 1 million people killed in the crossfire,” Azizuddin said.
The ambassador seems to be happy with the result of the offensive as it answered concerns over the ability of the Pakistani government and its armed forces. “While the world picked up on a lot of noise about the insurgence's being 100 kilometers away from Islamabad and that Pakistan's assets would fall into their hands, the army has put all those speculations to an end and has killed most of the insurgents. Some of them have run away into Afghanistan from where they came, and the leadership has been largely eliminated. The Swat, Burner and Malakan districts are now ready to take back their own people who were displaced to stay out of harm's way when the security operations started against the criminals.”
The public went along with government orders to evacuate battle zones, protecting themselves and giving the security forces freedom of movement in going after the Taliban. But the price was very high. The Taliban deliberately damaged homes, punishing those who had fled to safety. The government has repeatedly called for help in repairing the infrastructure and sustaining and feeding the internally displaced people being sheltered in tent cities. Many, however, have found refuge in the homes of their relatives and friends. The United Nations has called on international donors to respond more quickly to a $543 million aid pledge they made in May. A ministerial meeting of friends of democratic Pakistan is due to be held in İstanbul on Sept. 1 and will be opened by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.
Not Taliban but criminals
Throughout the interview, the ambassador carefully avoided using the term Taliban but rather described them as “criminals.” He says the term Taliban was a Hollywood-style invention and was improperly used. Taliban means young students trained in religious schools -- often referred to as madrasahs. “I used the word criminals because Taliban is the word for students in our language and students of jihad. He can't use that title to give himself some kind of religious sanctity that cannot be violated. Anybody who picks up arms against his own state is an enemy of the state, and he's a criminal of the worst kind, a criminal who is involved in treason and therefore deserving of punishment in any constitution,” he explained.
In fact, the Taliban is a younger version of the Afghan mujahideen who fought the Soviet invasion during the '80s. They were not allowed to join the battle because of their age and involvement with their studies. By the time the Soviet invasion was over, these Taliban had nothing to do. They saw their elders betray the country, plunging Afghanistan into internal strife and looting and plundering the country's assets. “They [mujahideen] decimated their country, turning it into a land which had no structures of state within it. They had reduced their country to a non-state. So the Taliban, who had now grown up, revolted against the mujahideen government and violently took power in around late 1994,” he said, adding that they then ruled the country with a brutal regime until they were dislodged by US-led Western forces in October-November 2001.
Azizuddin cautions that the Taliban is now acting out of vengeance. “Having been violently thrown out and having been trained to inflict violence as the best thing they knew, they waged war against Western forces,” he said. “The same disease was caught in the borders of Pakistan for the simple reason that the border areas on the Pakistan side were used as a launching pad against the Red Army's occupation of Afghanistan before. So this area had generated many militants ready to take up arms against foreign forces.”
The fact that US and NATO forces are giving the Taliban a hard time inside Afghanistan is pushing more and more militants over to Pakistani areas. “It has aggravated the situation in our country,” Azizuddin said.
When asked how many Taliban militants were coming in from Afghanistan, the Pakistani ambassador said about 50 percent were crossing the border to instigate violence in Pakistan. “For years, we were accused of sending criminals across the border into Afghanistan. The reality has come to the fore now. There were Afghan Taliban who fled from the US and Western forces in Afghanistan and entered Pakistan as refugees,” he explained.
He argued that the invasion of Afghanistan by the US and Western powers has contributed to the creation of the situation in Pakistan. “There is an ethnic similarity with the Pashtuns who live on the other side of the border with Afghanistan. Ethnically they are the same people. Any germs of negativity that one side may carry can pass on to the other side as well,” he said.
He rejected, however, that national attributes are blurred across the border. “There is a strong sense of belonging to Pakistan among Pashtuns living in Pakistani territory,” he said, adding that the division is quite clear. “Attempts are sometimes made to fudge this clear distinction,” he added.
Appreciating Turkish help
The ambassador expressed his appreciation of the help his country has received from Turkey. “I would like, as a representative of Pakistan here in Turkey, to thank once again the government and the people of Turkey for their generosity, for their kindness and for their assistance at the right time to help us overcome that difficult period. … It only strengthened our friendship, cemented it in concrete. Our relationship... has been further strengthened by this action,” he said.
Azizuddin believes the relationship with Turkey is not simply based on goodwill. “If it has no substance, it either shrinks or disappears. The Pakistan-Turkey relationship has substance,” he said. When asked whether he is satisfied with its current level, however, he says no. “We are going to set ourselves new goals because there is the potential and there is a willingness to interact with each other and there is a very large measure of goodwill there. So all the ingredients are in place,” he explained.
The trade volume between Pakistan and Turkey stood at $700 million last year, and the target was set to achieve the $1 billion mark this year. Azizuddin is happy that the two countries are engaged in cooperation at every level from culture to education and from economy to diplomacy. He says there are 14 Turkish-Pakistani schools operating in his country. “Not only are they extremely good schools, they also offer scholarships abroad as well. Part of the plan is that these schools will pick the best from each school and prepare them for graduate and postgraduate education here in Turkey with their entire expenses paid by the school,” he said.
The Turkish-Pakistan Parliamentary Friendship Group in Ankara is the largest friendship group in Parliament. They enjoy a 350-strong membership and have received applications from 500 deputies, which would make it an almost unmanageable group. The chairman of the group, Burhan Kayatürk, had to set the limit at 350. The ambassador regrets that he has not met all the deputies in friendship group simply because it is so large. The same is true of the Pakistani Parliament; the friendship group with Turkey is also large. The speaker of the national assembly is also the president of the Pakistan-Turkey friendship group in the Pakistani Parliament, which shows the kind of importance Pakistan attaches to its friendship with Turkey, Azizuddin said.
Turkey mediated between Pakistan and Afghanistan
Pakistani Ambassador to Turkey Sardar Tariq Azizuddin appreciates the role Turkey has taken between Afghanistan and Pakistan and says it will serve to help bring stability and security to the region. He categorically denies that Pakistan will be at war with Afghanistan.
He said blame and accusations went back and forth between the two countries four to five years ago but remained rhetorical. He lamented that the exchange was blown out of proportion by the international media. “Turkey helped calm that down and offered trilateral summit meetings to institutionalize the dialogue,” he said. The first meeting was an exploratory one, followed by the second one in December 2008 in İstanbul, which resulted in a substantive cooperation program.
The third trilateral summit was organized in Ankara two months ago and chiefs of the armed forces and intelligence were also brought on board. Then the dialogue process moved to the next level. “We brought the parliamentarians together. The first meeting was, of course, held in Turkey. The next meeting is planned to be held in Islamabad sometime in September or October, and the third meeting will be held in Kabul. I think that as they complete this round that will also become institutionalized and part of the trilateral process,” he explained.