Talat Masood is a former three-star lieutenant general with the Pakistani Army. First as a military officer, and later as a political commentator, he has been active in Pakistani defense circles since almost the time of Independence, serving in the army from 1950 until 1990.
He has been active in everything from the military industrial complex to participating in two of Pakistan’s wars with India. He is a former visiting fellow of the Stimson Center.
In your opinion what has been the impact of the election of Donald Trump for U.S.-Pakistan relations?
The relationship has certainly changed a great deal. It is now a different relationship than it was before President Trump’s election, and it is important for Pakistan to improve its relations with the United States and to stabilise the relationship — with some understanding of the sensitivities of the present era.
When you refer to sensitive issues at present what are they in your opinion?
The Trump administration cut some military funding to Pakistan last year but, Pakistan has continued to ask for U.S. support on such projects as its 2,600-kilometre border wall with Afghanistan. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship will not be based on assistance and aid going forward. The fact is that despite that change in policy America will remain important to Pakistan and will remain one of our largest trading partners.
What other areas do you see as important?
There are other important aspects in the relationship between our two countries — beyond just defense. For example, thousands of Pakistanis have studied in the United States or continue to study in the United States. For Pakistan, continued trade in and access to American technology is also essential. America is a superpower so it is critical for Pakistan to maintain good relations with Washington going forward regardless of what America decides to do in Afghanistan.
Historically, Pakistan and China have been very close friends. Do you think that will impede U.S.-China ties given the current trade war between China and the United States?
By no means [Pakistan-China ties] should be considered a liability in Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. Despite the need to maintain good relationships with our neighbours like India and China, Pakistan has repeatedly been trying to improve relations with all sides. You know there was a time that the U.S. saw Pakistan’s ties with China, with whom we share a border, as beneficial. Pakistan during the Nixon administration played an essential channel through which the United States could contact China.
Henry Kissinger made his famed secret trip to China from Pakistan. For Pakistan, the relationship with America has to be a win-win relationship. Pakistan’s ties to China are not an impediment, and there is no conflict with interest despite the global environment. I think there are those in the United States who perceive that.
In recent weeks U.S. negotiations with Taliban representatives appear to have made a minor breakthrough. What role do you see for Pakistan as the U.S. withdraws?
Pakistan is going to play a key role in the future stabilization of the region and in counter-terrorism efforts regardless of the future U.S. role in the region. Pakistan is trying to squeeze as much as possible from the Haqqani network and other terrorist groups. Pakistan wants stability in Afghanistan. No other country is affected adversely by the situation in Afghanistan than Pakistan — considering that there is a large number of refugees in this country from Afghanistan.
In my view, the current situation is a great opportunity and to remove apprehensions regarding Pakistan [because] Pakistan is taking a hard line against terrorist groups like the Haqqani network. Pakistan has unfortunately seen everything regarding Afghanistan through the Indian prism. However, the fact is that the reemergence of terrorism or instability in Afghanistan will have an inverse impact on Pakistan.
How does this differ from the view of the American government?
We have to look at this problem in a very a holistic way and look more broadly at the question of stability in Afghanistan, not through one single prism – which led us to support the Taliban in the past. The primary concern of the Pakistani government has traditionally been that that the Afghan government would not be to close to India.
Do you think that policy has been successful?
Unfortunately, this policy has resulted in strongly anti-Pakistani factions in Afghan intelligence and military. Amongst Tajiks and Pashtuns – it’s not an ethical issue. This is the price we pay.
The Taliban aside, the border between the two countries or the Durand Line is another sore point. Today, Pakistan is trying to build a border fence along the Durand Line. Isn’t that similar to the Trump administration’s border wall plan for the U.S.-Mexican border?
I think they are quite different, the two walls, in the sense that the Afghans are welcome to come and go. We host many Afghan refugees. All that Pakistan wants to achieve through erecting a wall is to make sure people enter the country through proper channels. However, I am not sure if it will serve the purpose for which it was built, and there could be ways for smugglers and terrorists to still get past this obstacle if they are determined.