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“The U.S. has a huge footprint, but a short memory."

Pakistani Ambassador Khan meets with Fletcher students and Dean Rachel Kyte to discuss the complex U.S.-Pakistani relationship and why Pakistan today is full of opportunities.

The country of Pakistan has a long relationship with The Fletcher School. In its first ten years after independence, young Pakistani foreign service officers were sent for training at Fletcher. “My dream was always to come to Fletcher. Unfortunately, the foreign service no longer sent junior diplomats to the school when I entered the service. This is why it’s so special for me to be here today,” Ambassador Khan told a group of students at a recent roundtable meeting on campus.

Ambassador Khan, a career foreign service officer, dedicated the majority of his career to understanding the United States and working on Pakistani-U.S. relations. His first role was as the desk officer for the U.S.; before becoming the country’s Ambassador in Washington just over a year ago, he served as Pakistan’s Director for the Americas and at the Mission to the U.N. in New York. Ambassador Khan said that having occupied virtually every single position in his ministry dealing with the U.S. has allowed him to absorb the complexity of the relationship between the two countries. 

“The time of an ambassador in Washington is always shaped by the incumbent [U.S. President], and even for somebody who knows the lay of the land, there is never a dull moment.” Describing his current assignment as a “roller coaster ride,” Ambassador Khan explained how social media is a challenge for classical diplomacy. “Twitter marginalizes diplomats, as diplomacy is conducted over your head and institutions cannot respond at the same speed.” The Ambassador encouraged students to think about the role of diplomacy today and what professionals can do to mitigate harm. 

The relationship between the two countries is deep, according to Ambassador Khan. The U.S. is Pakistan’s largest export destination and third largest remittance provider. There are over one million Pakistani-Americans living in the U.S., many of them in influential positions. He sees great opportunities for closer economic ties, as Pakistan is the fourth largest English-speaking country and visitors to Pakistan can get on-arrival work visas. Additionally, he added jokingly, virtually all Pakistani influential decision-makers are graduates from U.S. universities. The Ambassador recounted how Pakistan has historically been a crucial partner for the U.S., facilitating Henry Kissinger’s opening to China under President Richard Nixon, for example.

Ambassador Khan discusses U.S.-Pakistan relations with Fletcher students, faculty and Dean Kyte.

Fifty years after having brought the two countries together, Pakistan finds itself in a more uncomfortable spot. As it maintains close relationships with both the U.S. and China, the current trade war between those two countries has more than just economic consequences. “Attempts to resurrect the ghosts of the Cold War are not the wisest, because we cannot go back to hard alliances in a world of globalization,” Ambassador Khan said, adding that it would not be advantageous for either China or the U.S. to put other countries in situations where they needed to choose between one the two great powers. 

When pushed by Dean Rachel Kyte on the question of whether Washington understands Pakistan, Ambassador Khan explained that Pakistan is, too often, seen only in relationship to Afghanistan and the security situation in the region. “Our relationship is defined by the ups and downs there,” he continued, describing how Pakistan bore the brunt of the deteriorating security situation ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979. “The U.S. has a huge footprint, but a short memory. That is a challenge for a country living in a tough neighborhood.” Asked by a student on what he thought the greatest strain on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is, he replied, “Lack of trust.” However, he stated that “We cannot live with each other, but we also cannot live without each other.”

The Ambassador elaborated on why Pakistan is an important player by pointing out its strategic geographic position as the bridge between Central Asia, the Middle East and the two most populous countries on earth, India and China. This bridging function has also enabled Pakistan to play an important role in multilateral negotiations. 

It was in the 2007 Bali Climate Change Conference that Ambassador Khan and Dean Kyte’s paths first crossed, when he served as the ministerial coordinator of the G77. In relation to climate change, he explained that Pakistan is simultaneously affected by a crisis of abundance  and scarcity. While floods wash away land in one part of the country, as they did in 2003 when 2% of GDP was wiped away in catastrophic floods, other areas can suffer severe droughts.  Pakistan is particularly vulnerable to climate change, which intensifies threats by making extreme weather events more likely.

The current situation in Kashmir was also raised on multiple occasions in the course of the conversation. “What is happening in Kashmir is unfortunate, but what is happening in India is even more unfortunate. India is a country defined by its plurality and diversity. What is being done now to influence attitudes towards Muslims and towards Pakistan is deeply concerning. There are 300 to 400 million people affected in India. This could develop into another Rohingya crisis,” the Ambassador stated. In this light, he assessed President Trump’s willingness to mediate on the question of Kashmir in a positive light. “The offer tells us three things: That the U.S. sees it as a dispute, that it believes that it carries wider peace and security implications, and that the U.S. recognizes its historic role in relation to the dispute and is willing to help.” 

The Ambassador was also pushed on another sensitive subject, the influence the Pakistani military has on foreign policy-making. He explained that he does not know “where exactly the foreign policy assembly line is.” He elaborated that the local context always defines policy-making and that the military had to play an important role because of the difficult internal and external security situation. The Ambassador also argued that foreign policy is not exclusively formulated in Pakistan’s foreign ministry, no different to the situation in the U.S., he claimed, where he believes the country’s military exercises just as much power over foreign policy. 

Bringing the lively discussion to a close, Dean Kyte took the opportunity to note the importance of bringing practitioners to campus to engage in these intimate group discussions with students. “It is the proud heritage of The Fletcher School to understand the twists and turns of diplomacy,” Dean Kyte said, before turning to Ambassador Khan, “Thank you for coming to The Fletcher School to share your perspective. Please come back often; you have a home here.” 

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