Understanding Pakistan (with Sahar Khan)

Sahar Khan explains the history of Pakistan, & its’ relationship with the U.S., from its designation as independent from Great Britain in 1947.

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Sahar Khan explains the complicated history of Pakistan, and its’ relationship with the U.S., from its designation as an independent country from Great Britain in 1947.

Is a majority of Pakistan Muslim? What is the difference between a Sunni Muslim and a Shi’a Muslim? Do they get along? Are their other divisions between Muslims? What is the government structure of Pakistan? Did September 11th, 2001 change the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan? What military groups does Pakistan sponsor? Was the Taliban ever a political party?

Further Reading:

Libertarians Shouldn’t Accept the Case for Colonialism, written by Sahar Khan

Pakistan’s Youth: An Untapped Resource by Pakistan’s Political Parties, written by Sahar Khan

The Stalemate: Implications of Afghanistan’s Stalled Peace Process on U.S.–Pakistan Relations, written by Sahar Khan

Related Content:

America’s Authoritarian Alliances, Free Thoughts Podcast

Government, War, and Libertarianism, written by Justin Logan


00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:08 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Sahar Khan, a visiting research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department. She also spent much of her years, before ‘18, in Pakistan, which is the subject of today’s episode. So, welcome to Free Thoughts, Sahar.

00:23 Sahar Khan: Thank you for having me.

00:24 Trevor Burrus: So, I’d like to start with the general overview of Pakistan, because on the assumption that most Americans, including myself, don’t know a ton about it. Which, it’s good when we talk about nations that are important to our foreign policy that we know something about what the nations are like. So, first of all, when did it get its independence?

00:43 Sahar Khan: Pakistan gained its independence from British rule in 1947, which was the same time that India gained its independence. Before then, they were both collectively called the subcontinent or just India, and they were predominantly ruled by the British through the East India British company.

00:57 Trevor Burrus: And it’s majority Muslim. Actually, I think, substantial.

01:02 Sahar Khan: Yes.

01:02 Trevor Burrus: Yes.

01:03 Sahar Khan: So, 90% of the population is Muslim. And out of that 90%, I would say about 85% is Sunni Muslim and about 20% is Shi’a Muslim. And then it’s divided into various sects of Islam.

01:18 Aaron Ross Powell: For our listeners who don’t know, what’s the difference?

01:20 Sahar Khan: Oh, so the difference… That’s a good question. [chuckle] So, there’s of course like a theological difference that I won’t really… I don’t think I’m equipped to handle that. But basically, it dates back to prehistoric times where there was a division on the political rule of Islam and it’s related to prophet Muhammad and his Caliphs. And so, Shi’as believe that the first Caliph, after Prophet Muhammad’s death, should have been his son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, where as Sunnis believe it should have been his friend and mentor, Abu Bakr. It ended up being Hazrat Abu Bakr, and so that’s where the divide starts from. So, it dates… I mean, this is a really historic divide that plagues not just Pakistan but the whole region in South Asia and the Middle East.

02:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And so, do these groups in the context Pakistan, do they get along? Is this kind of Catholics and Protestants in the US who seem mostly happy to be around each other? Or does this end up looking more like, almost tribal differences that we see a lot in that part of the world?

02:27 Sahar Khan: So, yes, there’s always sort of I think… I think of it in terms of there’s always an official story, right? And then, there’s a non-official story. So, the official story is that, they don’t really get along that well. And the general consensus is that, if you’re not a Sunni Muslim, it would be very hard for you to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan or President or the Supreme Court Justice et cetera. But on a personal level, Shi’as and Sunnis get along and often, there are intermarriages also. But within Pakistan, it’s not just the Shi’a-Sunni divide. Even within the Sunnis and Shi’as there are a lot of divisions on ethnic lines, racial lines, linguistic lines. And so, people tend to marry based on that, but they have all sorts of business relationships as well. But yeah, there’s definitely a tension there, especially when you think about it in official terms.

03:19 Trevor Burrus: In terms of… So, the way the culture ranges across the country, I don’t know how… It’s a hard question to answer. I think you gave us an idea. I always try and explain to people that you go into a country and you say, “Oh, it’s all Pakistan”. But if you know something, you can talk about Ohio it’s like, “Well, it’s all Ohio. They’re all the same. In the South Ohio, they’re much more like Southerners. And the North Ohio, they’re much more like Michigan or Mid-Westerners”. And these are important differences if you ever, do say, invade Ohio or have international relationships with Ohio. So, in terms of Pakistan in the north on the Afghani border versus the south, what are the kind of differences we see? Or East or west too?

03:57 Sahar Khan: Oh, they’re definitely similar differences. And so, one predominant difference is people from Karachi. I’m from Karachi. And people from Lahore, which is in Punjab, always say that, “Oh, there’s a huge difference between Karachi and Lahore.” And the food is different, the people are different, the sense of humor is different, all of that. But, that is sort of… I always think of it more as a joke, because when people do immigrate, they always say that they’re from Pakistan. And then maybe the second sentence would be that we’re from different provinces, or different cities within the provinces. But when it comes to the tribal regions especially, that’s a little different. And that mainly stems from… Some of it is rooted in history. And some of it is because how the Pakistani state has treated the Pashtun population that dominates the tribal areas of Pakistan. So historically, the tribal areas have had a very good relationship with Afghanistan.

04:50 Sahar Khan: And when partition was going to happen in 1947, the Afghani rulers thought that the tribal areas would go to them and would not become part of Pakistan. But the British who were dividing the subcontinent didn’t do that. So, that sort of created a tension, a territorial tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan along the border called the Durand Line that’s been established since 1893. Now since then, Pakistan has also become very sensitive. Since its independence, it’s become very sensitive to any kind of secessionist movements or any kind of groups of people who advocate for certain rights. And so, the Pashtuns have generally… They’re not till, I would say this year, they were not a province. They were just Federally Administered Tribal Areas and that’s what FATA stands for really. And so, their argument was that they were never really part of Pakistan, so a lot of rules don’t apply to them. And over the past 10 years, they have been subjected to a really brutal counter-insurgency campaign that’s really created a lot of tensions within Pashtun population and other populations within the country.

05:55 Trevor Burrus: Do you think… Is the Pashtun population, would many of them say they have more in common with people on the other side of the Afghanistan border than they do with southern Pakistan?

06:05 Sahar Khan: I think they would, because they are a lot more tribal than say those in other provinces, especially in Sindh and Punjab. And tribes exist all over Pakistan but their tribal system is a little different. They take a little more pride in it and it’s ruled by this code called Pashtunwali, which is just applied to the Pashtun tribes. And that’s very similar to the tribes that exist in Afghanistan. But I think now, a lot of Pashtuns would say that they are Pakistani because they’re third or fourth generation Pakistanis. They’ve never been a part of Afghanistan. And so actually, the current Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, just last week said that he would give Pakistani citizenship to Pashtun tribes and Baloch tribes, in a way to sort of increase citizenship of the country.

06:53 Aaron Ross Powell: Speaking of the Prime Minister, what is the governing structure of Pakistan look like?

06:58 Sahar Khan: Sure, so it’s a federally provincial system. At least that’s what it’s officially called. [chuckle] So basically, there’s a federal government and there are four provinces, Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And it also has a tribal area that has now been incorporated into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And then the other area is called Gilgit-Baltistan that are not a province, but the federal rules apply to them. And then it has, it’s a parliamentary system, so it has a lower house called the National Assembly and an upper house called the Senate, and it has its judiciary which is their high courts in each province and Islamabad which is the capital has its own high court, and then there’s a Supreme Court of Pakistan.

07:46 Trevor Burrus: Now, getting into the US-Pakistan relations, in your paper, you kind of started at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but stuff happened before, but I guess that’s a pretty big moment when the Soviets invade Afghanistan. And then is that… Did something big change there between the US and Pakistan at that point.

08:07 Sahar Khan: Well, I think, yeah. I think the Cold War is sort of a pivotal moment, I think, in world history that really dominates still a lot of countries’ narratives and political structures and their strategies, and Pakistan is not any different. So there was certainly like a change within the US-Pakistan relationship after the Cold War and did even during the Cold War. But before I talk about the US-Pakistan relationship post Cold War, I think it’s also important to understand that Pakistan and the United States have always had a relationship since Pakistan was created in 1947. Within a month of its creation, the United States had reached out to Pakistan and recognized it as a sovereign country, and it became a member of the United Nations. They have more or less always had an economic relation where the United States has always given Pakistan economic aid, which I think a lot of Cato scholars [chuckle] would argue is not always good, but that’s sort of formulated their relationship.

09:03 Sahar Khan: And I think another important thing to know about the US-Pakistan relationship is that Pakistan played a really crucial role in normalizing relationships between the United States and China in 1972. In fact, and this is kind of a fun fact, my great uncle was the Pakistani Ambassador to China at the time and he was friends with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. And so he arranged for Kissinger to come to Pakistan and then travel to China where… Which paved the way for President Nixon to go. So Pakistan has been an ally, I would say, to some extent, and the current tensions are dominated still by Cold War happenings, but before the Cold War, the two countries did have a relationship.

09:44 Aaron Ross Powell: And how did 9/11 change our relationship in the global war on terror?

09:52 Sahar Khan: So 9/11, I think, is one of those things that it’s unfortunate how it has negatively changed a lot of US’ relationship with other countries. With respect to Pakistan, I think the Bush administration had an almost binary approach, which was either you are with us or against us. There’s no gray area, right? And so Pakistan, considering its economic ties with the United States, considering that Afghanistan is its neighbor, and somewhat troubled neighbor, but it still wants to be friends with Afghanistan because that has India to its East which it does not get along with. So, considering all of that, Pakistan, who was ruled by military dictator, Pervez Musharraf at the time, basically took the United States’ side. But even though there was official rhetorical support, there’s been evidence now that it wasn’t always material support that Pakistan lent to the United States.

10:47 Sahar Khan: So, for example, when the US invasion to Afghanistan started, President Bush allowed President Musharraf to take out Pakistanis that were operating in Afghanistan, in official capacitor and official capacity. But if there were Pakistani citizens in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, the US said, Pakistan could take them out. So Pakistan did take out its citizens but also took out top leaders of the Taliban who eventually also became some leaders of the Haqqani Network and other groups. And so Pakistan wasn’t always forthcoming in its involvement.

11:20 Trevor Burrus: For the Taliban which I think came in to Afghanistan in ‘96, is that correct? Or some… But Pakistan supported the Taliban government.

11:30 Sahar Khan: Yes, yes.

11:33 Trevor Burrus: Was that just as a strategic… For stability in the region or were they allied somewhat with the more fundamentalist aims of Taliban?

11:41 Sahar Khan: Oh, so, that’s a great question. I think, so, before we talk about the Taliban, you sort of have to go back to the Cold War. So during the Cold War, the United States had partnered up with Pakistan who was ruled under another military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, at the time. And the goal was that in order to stop communism from rising in Afghanistan, the United States would arm anticommunist groups, and that group became the Mujahideen which are called rebels. Their sort of translation from Arabic is those people who conduct jihad and jihad basically translates into a political struggle. In this case the jihad was against the Soviet invasion because they were oppressors and they were external actors. So, all of that aside, the US basically gave Pakistan money. The Pakistani military aided the United States, especially the Intelligence Agency of Pakistan called the ISI or the Inter-Services Agency. So they had a partnership where they helped the Mujahideen flourish. Now after the Cold War ended, the United States essentially exited from the region and Pakistan was left with neighboring Afghanistan that was experiencing its own civil war. And it was run by these militant actors, these Mujahideen who are now unemployed and so some of them became the Taliban. And so when the Taliban did rule Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. And Pakistan who was ruled under a democratic leader, Benazir Bhutto at the time.

13:09 Sahar Khan: I think she made a strategic calculation to side with the Taliban because her thought was that if Pakistan actually supports the Taliban which is Pashtun dominated, then it would help Pakistan’s own Pashtun population and make them think that the Pakistani government is not targeting Pashtuns, that we are all friends and we can get along even though Pakistan recognizes the Durand Line that I mentioned earlier, and Afghanistan doesn’t. So her calculus was just like, “We should support the Taliban.” And Pakistan was one of the three countries that recognized the Taliban. The other two were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

13:48 Aaron Ross Powell: In general, this might have shifted over time, but how… I guess how fundamentalist is the government of Pakistan? Do they… So there’s a difference between what they can get away with and what a democratically elicit system can do versus what they would want. So I guess, how kind of Islamically conservative to fundamentalist is it generally?

14:14 Sahar Khan: So, that’s a tricky question. [chuckle] So I would say, and I think that the general consensus is that Pakistan is a democratic system with Islamic leanings. So what do I mean by that exactly? Basically, the constitution of Pakistan has stated that the official religion of the state is Islam. But we also have to know, recognize that Islam is not just based on a single version it has a variety of versions. And so there is a disagreement on which version should be applied to Pakistan. So the Constitution has sort of tried to address some of those concerns. One is to declare the official religion which is Islam. The second is Article: 260 of the Pakistani constitution defines who a Muslim is. And so, a Muslim, according to the Pakistani constitution, is one person who believes in the unity and oneness of God or Allah. And who also believes in the finality of the prophethood, which means that prophet Muhammad is the last prophet. And anybody who does not agree with this is a non-Muslim. So this has sort of created an issue with regards to the Ahmadi community, which is a community that exists in Pakistan that believes in the oneness of God but that criticizes the finality of the prophethood.

15:32 Sahar Khan: They don’t believe that prophet Muhammad was the last prophet. So according to Pakistan’s constitution, they are not Muslim. And I think Pakistan’s constitution…

15:39 Trevor Burrus: And what does that… Does that mean that they lose certain rights or?

15:42 Sahar Khan: Yes.

15:43 Trevor Burrus: Yes, okay.

15:43 Sahar Khan: So it means that they cannot hold official positions, they are not allowed to practice their faith freely. And if you are Ahmadi, you are persecuted. And a lot of Ahmadis have actually sought refuge and political asylum within the United States. So there’s that element when it comes to… When you think about the spectrum of the political system of Pakistan. So I think in that way it’s a very, very conservative fundamentalist system. Another way that to think about it is also that Pakistan considering its call to independence. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, essentially used Islam as a slogan for Indian Muslims saying that Pakistan would be a country where they would not be subjected to a Hindu majority rule. That they would be able to profess and practice their faith as they could be, and this would be for any Muslims. And he, himself was not a Sunni Muslim. He was actually an Ismaili Muslim, which is a sect of Shia Islam. And in today’s language, he would be considered very liberal. He drank, he ate pork, his wife was not Muslim, et cetera. But he is sort of revered as the leader of this now almost Sunni state.

17:00 Sahar Khan: And so I think basically whether or not Pakistan is really conservative or really fundamentalist it’s hard to determine, because it depends on who you ask. But I think when it comes to an institutional understanding this separation of church and state or religion and state is very, very small.

17:20 Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned India and I’m curious every now and then in the news we hear something about how India and Pakistan might go to war. And everyone kind of freaks out about it for a little bit, and then it seems to go away. So, what’s going on there?


17:36 Trevor Burrus: A thousand words or less yeah. [chuckle]

17:39 Sahar Khan: So India and Pakistan have gone to war, first of all, they’ve gone to war three times, right? So in 1948, right after they were independent… They had been independent for like a year, or less than a year. They fought a war for Kashmir, which is a mountainous territory that’s been under dispute since independence and continues to be run as a police state by the Indian Government. And Pakistan believed that it should have been part of Pakistan. So there’s been a territorial dispute there. Pakistan and India fought in 1965 as well. And then 1971 actually, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. So just a backdrop, when 1947 Pakistan became independent, it had two wings. East Pakistan which is now Bangladesh and West Pakistan which is modern day Pakistan. Now West Pakistan had a huge problem with Bengalis. They felt that they were too secular and that they were influenced by Hinduism too much and even though Mujibur Rahman had won the general election of 1970, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who became the Prime Minister eventually, contested that and that resulted in a civil war and the breaking of the country.

18:48 Sahar Khan: And India actually helped the freedom fighters of Bangladesh. So Pakistan also has that. They hold that against India. And then there was a nuclear standoff in 1998 called The Kargil Conflict. So both countries now have nuclear weapons. Pakistan became a nuclear power in 1998, and I think it was a combination of hot-headedness and miscalculation that these both countries almost went to nuclear war. That was 1998, so it has been 20 years. And there usually is always some firing on the Line of Control, which is the border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. And any time that happens, there’s this talk of these two countries will go to war. Personally, I don’t think that they will. I think the nuclear deterrent works really well in this case. Also, I don’t think both countries can afford to go to war. And personally, I don’t think India is really that interested in going to war with Pakistan.

19:45 Trevor Burrus: Now since 9/11, as we said, changed a bunch of things. America has had different relationships with Pakistan in different ways. Recently, Trump has criticized, I guess not recently, but a few months ago, criticized Pakistan for not adequately, I guess, quelling the fundamentalist groups that they support. And in your paper, you explain that they do actually support these groups. So what are the groups that they support and how do they do that?

20:20 Sahar Khan: There are a lot of groups operating within Pakistan, and one feature to know about these groups is they almost operate like an alphabet soup. So while the Pakistani government might ban a group officially, it will regroup under a different name. So considering that reality in that context, I would say that there are four groups that Pakistan predominantly sponsors. Two operate in Afghanistan; the Afghan Taliban or what we just simply call the Taliban, and their militant wing called the Haqqani Network. Now, often in Washington DC, when we talk about the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, we think of them as two different groups, but they’re actually a lot more closely aligned than we would like to think. The Haqqani Network is, I would say, the militant side of the Taliban. Not that the Taliban are some sort of flower-holding apologists, right?

21:09 Trevor Burrus: Mr. Rogers. Yes, yep.


21:10 Sahar Khan: But in that context, they’re even more militant and they’re in charge of hunting operations in Afghanistan. And they have not conducted every attack within Afghanistan, but the major ones which have created some of the major civilian casualties have been done by the Haqqani Network. The other two groups that Pakistan predominantly sponsors or supports are Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Now, both of these groups are Kashmiri separatists groups or insurgent groups that attack Indian forces in Indian-administered Kashmir. So Kashmir, like I had mentioned before, is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. One-third of it is under Pakistan’s control; two-thirds of it is under India controlled. So when I say Indian-administered Kashmir, I’m talking about the two-thirds that’s under Indian rule.

22:02 Sahar Khan: So these are the four groups that Pakistan predominantly sponsors. And by sponsors, I mean that they give them aid, ammunitions, training, safe havens. They turn a blind-eye, like Pakistani authorities turn a blind-eye to their criminal activities. A lot of terrorist groups engage in criminal activities for financial reasons. A lot of them have fake passports, fake ID cards that, essentially, Pakistani local authorities sort of, either it’s a capacity issue or not, but they get away with a lot.

22:36 Trevor Burrus: I’m gonna ask you what I think is probably a stupid question here, but it’s something that has always confused me. So the Taliban was, at one point, the government of Afghanistan. Would you call it a party at that point? Was that kind of what it was, a political party?

22:52 Sahar Khan: It wasn’t… That’s actually a great question, ‘cause it wasn’t a political…

22:56 Trevor Burrus: Oh, that one… I have a dumber one coming up, but that’s the first one, yeah.


23:00 Sahar Khan: Well, that was a good question. So the Taliban, in the 1990s, I wouldn’t call them a political party, because I think we have a very specific understanding of what a political party is. A political party is supposed to represent, ideally, supposed to represent the people, and it’s supposed to participate in elections and have some sort of legitimacy from the public. I don’t think the Taliban necessarily had that, especially in the 1990s, because Afghanistan in the 1990s was involved in a civil war. This is post-Cold War, a country that had already experienced at that point about 20 years of war. The institutions were completely eroded. Hardly any hospitals or schools or roads existed. So these were basically militants who overtook, and it was through sheer material power that they could. There was nobody else who could contest their power. So when they said, “We’re the government of Afghanistan,” they were the government of Afghanistan.

24:00 Sahar Khan: But the Taliban has now since evolved. And I would say that when we currently talk about the Taliban, especially as the Trump administration is sort of thinking of negotiating with them or thinking of talking with them, they might start looking more like a political party. And in that way, I mean that even though the Taliban don’t view the Afghan government as legitimate and they have not agreed to participate in elections just yet, they do say that they wanna be part of the political system, to some extent. And they do agree with the Afghani government that the Islamic State that has now sort of… It’s like a new militant organization in the region, that the Taliban is against them. So I think the Taliban is trying to evolve into a political party. But my sense is that if you call them a political party, they’re gonna get really mad and think that this is a western concept that’s being applied to them, and therefore, is problematic.

24:58 Aaron Ross Powell: Now, what’s the dumb question?


25:00 Trevor Burrus: I’ve always wondered this about… So you say Taliban leaves, and then now the Taliban controls or holds this area, but the members of the Taliban, I feel like it’s like being a member of MENSA or something. There’s just a bunch of people, some of them say they’re a member of the Taliban, and they are in this area, and if they… I don’t think there’s a… It’s not like the Kiwanis Club and they all meet down there. If you wanted to contact the Taliban or one of these other groups you mentioned, do they have an extremely formal organizational structure or is it just a bunch of people in an area who have some adherence to different groups, and when they say, “Hey, we’re gonna go do an attack,” they get them together and attack, but that makes them very amorphous and difficult to deal with. I’ve always wondered how official are these groups and how do you have relationships with them in that way?

25:51 Sahar Khan: The Taliban is very official, I would say in the spectrum of groups that exist in the area, the Taliban actually has a political office in Doha, Qatar. That was established under the Obama administration, and one of the reasons was so that negotiations could take place, because the Afghan government didn’t want Taliban’s office to be in Afghanistan. Because obviously, they’re fighting against the Afghan government, the government felt like that wasn’t the best place. And so the Obama administration had asked various countries, “Would you host the Taliban? And it’s not a territorial thing, it’s just literally a place where we can meet and have negotiations.” And so that’s where Qatar came into play, and the Taliban opened the office in Doha, which still exists. And in fact, Ambassador Alice Wells, who was the assistant secretary of South and Central Asia, met Taliban officials in July in Doha, in their office.

26:44 Trevor Burrus: So it is like the Kiwanis Club or going down to the [26:46] ____.


26:48 Sahar Khan: Sort of, yeah. But…

26:48 Trevor Burrus: Okay, okay.

26:49 Sahar Khan: So Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is another group I mentioned, that conducts attacks on Indian forces and Indian-administered Kashmir, they don’t have like a Doha office. So the way LET or Lashkar-e-Taiba operates is it has various wings. So it has a welfare wing called The Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is a welfare organization that operates openly in Pakistan. In fact, it has one of the largest ambulances, ambulance network in Pakistan, and this also talks about how the Pakistani State doesn’t really have capacity and how certain militant groups fill the gaps that states have. So Jamaat-ud-Dawa addresses that. Another wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba is a political party that it recently formed, whose name I can’t remember, but… [chuckle]

27:36 Trevor Burrus: That’s okay.

27:38 Sahar Khan: But it contested these elections. So all of these militant groups, there’s no one uniform organizational structure that they follow. A lot of their structure depends on how much money they have, and how secure they feel in their surroundings. I also mentioned the Haqqani Network, which is closely aligned with the Taliban. So the Haqqani Network is actually very decentralized. And in fact, there’s a lot of disagreement on exactly how many people are in the Haqqani Network. The range is from 4000 to 15,000. It’s a huge range of operatives. And then there’s a disagreement of who they are. Some of them might be accountants who just don’t fight, but deal with the operational side. Some of them are the guy who presses the remote control of a bomb. So there’s a lot of disagreement on who’s who, and what the numbers are. But I think in all of these groups operating within the region, the Taliban, I would say, would be the most official one because of their Doha office and because of just the importance they have for the US War in Afghanistan.

28:45 Aaron Ross Powell: How did the US’ relationship with Pakistan change from the Bush administration to the Obama administration?

28:54 Sahar Khan: It didn’t really change all that much. I think the thing that Democrats and Republicans have in common, though I think they don’t like technology, it is foreign policy, especially when it comes to South Asia. The Bush administration, of course, that’s when 9/11 happened, and so had made a partnership with Pakistan and gave them a lot of aid, but then also cut some aid. The Obama Administration did the same thing. They started off somewhat okay, and then Pakistan did something that the United States didn’t like, and the Obama administration said, “Okay, we’re gonna cut certain funds.” Either the federal military funding, which is like a grant program that the United States gives to various countries so they can buy their defense equipment, or coalition support funds, which is part of the Department of Defense to… It’s like a reimbursement program, if the US uses a particular country’s military base. So sometimes, the United States will say, “We’re gonna cut the coalition support fund, or we’re gonna cut the federal military fund and… Because you keep supporting the Haqqani Network.” And then things sort of ease up, and then things are back to normal and aid programs are reinstated and stuff like that.

30:06 Sahar Khan: So I don’t think there’s been much of a difference. The rhetoric has been different. I think Obama was a little more no-nonsense with Pakistan, and I think that he cut a lot more aid than the Bush administration did. And I think the Obama administration was a lot more open to having direct talks with the Taliban, which is something that the Pakistani government didn’t like. Because just considering what I had said earlier about Pakistan and Taliban’s relationship, Pakistan has sort of taken a bet on the Taliban. And so they very much view the Taliban as their ally. And oftentimes, you’ll hear the United States say, “Pakistan needs to leverage its relationship with the Taliban.” And so Pakistan feels like if the US wants to talk to the Taliban, they should do it through them. And the Obama administration was basically like, “No, we’re gonna do it directly. And now they have an office in Doha, so we’re gonna go to Doha.” So I think that created a tension that perhaps the Pakistanis didn’t see coming.

31:08 Trevor Burrus: What about the assassination of Osama bin Laden? That was a pretty crazy thing, when we flew at least two helicopters into a sovereign state’s area without telling them, correct? Which says… Does that say something about the relationships between Pakistan and America, that we… Do we think that if we told them, they might tip off Osama bin Laden, and so we basically invaded a country’s sovereign area to kill this guy?

31:35 Sahar Khan: Yeah. There’s still disagreement. Pakistan official maintains that it did not know about the US raid.

31:41 Trevor Burrus: And this was not… This is like the suburbs of Islamabad?

31:44 Sahar Khan: Yeah. So I would say… Abbottabad is not really the suburbs, though there are people who live in Abbottabad and commute to Islamabad.

31:51 Trevor Burrus: Could you compare it to some place in Washington DC metro area?

31:54 Sahar Khan: Sure. I would say it’s like…

31:57 Trevor Burrus: Like Fairfax? Or…

31:58 Sahar Khan: Like Leesburg…

32:00 Trevor Burrus: Okay, okay. So getting out there.

32:00 Sahar Khan: And DC.

32:01 Trevor Burrus: Okay.

32:01 Sahar Khan: Right? Though…


32:03 Aaron Ross Powell: That does nothing for most of our listeners.

32:04 Trevor Burrus: Yes, but they can pull up Google Maps right now, it’s fine.


32:08 Sahar Khan: So I would say it’s kind of like almost a two-hour commute.

32:10 Trevor Burrus: Okay.

32:11 Sahar Khan: So generally, you ideally would not want to be doing a two-hour commute one-way. So Abbottabad is its own city. It’s a sort of a mid-level city. I’ve been there, and the food is really good. It’s beautiful, mountainous, and sort of a quiet small town. So it made sense that Osama bin Laden was there, to be honest. Because if you’re not from Abbottabad, then you have no reason to visit. You just don’t go to Abbottabad. So I guess in that way it’s kind of like Ohio.


32:41 Sahar Khan: But basically… So yeah, Abbottabad is a small, small town. So the Pakistani government maintains that it did not know about the raid, and that the US absolutely violated its sovereignty. Now, myself and many other skeptical Pakistanis believe that that’s not true, for several reasons. The first reason is that the Pakistani lacks… The Pakistani government, and even the military, to some extent, lack capacity in a lot of areas, but the one thing that they do not lack capacity in is defending their territory. This is a country that has experienced a civil war, and that lost one-third of its territory. It does not take kindly to anyone who wants to come in and take anybody away. If they wanna take somebody away, it has to be them.

33:28 Sahar Khan: So my sense is that the Pakistani military knew, and the Pakistani military probably said, “Okay, fine. You take him out, because it’s better that you do it than we do it.” And also, this also gets Pakistan plausible deniability. Saying, “Look, we didn’t know. And we are a victim of terrorism, too.” That said, Pakistan has lost 22,000 civilians since 9/11, so it’s not… Pakistan is not wrong when it says that it’s a victim of terrorism, and Al-Qaeda attacks, and other militant groups’ attacks. Because while Pakistan does sponsor some militant groups, it doesn’t sponsor a lot of militant groups that attack Pakistani civilians and the State. So it gave the Pakistani military and civilian leadership some plausible deniability. But in order to investigate this… So Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2009, and then Asif Ali Zardari…

34:19 Trevor Burrus: Was it 2011? I thought it was… Anyway, I can’t remember.

34:21 Sahar Khan: Oh, it must be 2011. Sorry.

34:22 Trevor Burrus: Okay. We’ll figure it out.

34:25 Sahar Khan: It’s all a blur now.

34:25 Trevor Burrus: Keep going.


34:26 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, it’s all a blur.

34:27 Sahar Khan: But, yeah, so when Osama bin Laden was killed, basically, Pakistan was under the leadership of a democratically elected government, Asif Ali Zardari. And Zardari basically said that he conducted an investigation, or he asked the government to conduct an investigation on the killing and the raid and what happened. And that report is a 700-page report called the Abbottabad Commission. It has not been publicly released. Some pages were, that Al Jazeera English reported on. And the report basically said that the military and local law enforcement agencies were complicit, and they knew about Osama bin Laden, but they didn’t tell the government about it.

35:10 Trevor Burrus: So that… Just to bring up the question and kinda going back to some of Aaron’s previous questions about how conservative or fundamentalist is Pakistan. Would it be an issue for the government to give up Osama bin Laden, because a lot of people there might support him, or generally be in favor of Al-Qaeda or at least terrorist activities against the United States? And therefore, maybe they kind of went on the side and said, “You guys do this, we didn’t know.” Would that… Is there enough fundamentalist issue in Pakistan that that would be a question?

35:41 Sahar Khan: Well, I think when it came to Osama bin Laden, I think a lot of Pakistanis felt like the reason why Pakistan is in a bad state right now, and it is a victim of terrorism, and why so many civilians have died, is because of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. So I don’t think a lot of Pakistanis would have a problem with its government handing over Osama bin Laden, had they known or what it was. That said, I think even though everybody uses Islam as a political tool, very little of this actually has to do with Islam and how it’s practiced. Pakistan’s support of militant groups is a political leveraging tool. Pakistan is not the only country that supports militant non-state actors. China, Russia, India, the United States, a bunch of others have done it, so Pakistan is not unique in that way.

36:28 Sahar Khan: It just so happens that these groups also say that they want an Islamic state, or that they are fighting for Islam, which has become problematic for Pakistan, considering its own history with Islam and how Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder, had argued that this is a place for Muslims, where they can practice their faith easily. So I think there’s a lot of confusion that goes on in terms of support, and I think oftentimes the government certainly uses Islam as a political tool. But I think when it comes to militant groups, it’s… They might say that it’s related to Islam, and that they’re religiously aligned, but my sense is it’s more of a strategic thing rather than a religious thing.

37:11 Trevor Burrus: And ultimately you are very skeptical that anything America can do. Is that we’ve had, withheld funding, we’ve had do all this stuff, threaten them over, Twitter all this stuff to stop funding these and supporting these groups that ultimately it’s both misconceiving what Pakistan’s relationship with those groups are, and why they do it, and the kind of power that we have over them. Can you elaborate little bit more on that?

37:35 Sahar Khan: Yeah, sure, so I think first of all, I think the United States often gets itself in trouble when it tries to change state behavior.

37:41 Trevor Burrus: Yes.

37:41 Sahar Khan: Right? The United States can’t change another state’s behavior because every state has its own strategic calculus. Now Pakistan is not any different. So that said, if the United States cuts military and security aid, I think that’s fine, because at a certain point, the United States needs to evaluate what is it getting out of the money that it’s paying. And if it feels like Pakistan is not doing its end of the deal they have every right to cut aid. The problem becomes when the Trump administration says that it’s gonna cut the coalition support fund because Pakistan continues to sponsor militant groups, I think that’s where they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Because cutting the coalition support fund or any other kind of military or security aid is not gonna stop Pakistan from supporting the Taliban, because of the relationship that they have. That also said, I think there is a great deal of confusion in Washington, when it comes to developing an Afghan strategy. So we have a camp in DC, which I think has been really prominent over the past several years, that’s always advocated for US troops to remain in Afghanistan, till Afghanistan becomes a stable democracy or a stable government.

38:52 Sahar Khan: Now when that happens, how long that’ll be, no one seems to know or nobody wants to predict. Now over the years another camp has also been sort of developing which is, “Well, US troops shouldn’t remain there, the way they are, they can just remain there to train the Afghan National Security Forces.” So in a very specialized capacity and that would help increase the capacity of the Afghan government to eventually become a stable democracy et cetera, et cetera. Again, there’s no end date to that. And now we have a third group which I think Cato scholars belong to is that you should withdraw because US has no control over the evolution of Afghani institutions or the construction of Afghani institutions. And technically they shouldn’t because they’re not Afghani. So considering this confusion in the US policy towards Afghanistan this confusion I think, bleeds into the US-Pakistan relationship, which has its own host of issues. But just when you think about it in the context of Afghanistan, I think Pakistan feels that the US is not consistent because even just recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pakistan, Labor Day weekend. This was his first official visit to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi who were just selected in July.

40:06 Sahar Khan: So before his visit, Pompeo announced that they’re gonna cut coalition support funds and the reason is because Pakistan continues to support the Taliban. Yet, a month ago in July, the United States had said we would like Pakistan to facilitate talks with the Taliban. So I feel like these are really different messages. You cannot invite Taliban to the negotiating table, and then slap them there. And that’s essentially how Pakistan views the US messaging. So unfortunately, in the Afghanistan realm, I don’t think that there is an easy solution. The only thing I recommend and this is something I write in the paper, is that the Trump administration should stop trying to convince Pakistan that militant sponsorship, it shouldn’t do it. This is something that Pakistan calculates and Pakistan will have to figure out on its own, based on its own interest, not only with the United States but also regional countries as well, India, China, et cetera. And the second thing is, I think the United States has relationships with all sorts of countries [chuckle] that with questionable ideals and questionable human rights records.

41:14 Sahar Khan: And so, why can’t it have a productive relationship with Pakistan? It’s not as bad as a lot of countries. And they do have a shared interest which is stabilizing Afghanistan. Now, that might mean different things for both countries, but ultimately I think what it means is that the US at some point, would like to withdraw from Afghanistan and Pakistan would like that too. I think the terms are going to be different and there’ll be some debate on that really, but I think that’s something that they can agree on.

41:43 Aaron Ross Powell: As the relationship between the two countries, exists right now, outside of the financial aid that the United States gives to Pakistan in these various ways that you mentioned, what is Pakistan getting out of the relationship with us because it sounds… From what you described it sounds like it’s pretty frustrating and we’ve got concerns and they’ve got concerns, but I guess so outside of money, what’s in it for them?

42:08 Sahar Khan: That’s a great question. I think Pakistan, at the end of the day it’s a struggling country, it’s still a developing country. It’s currently experiencing a youth bulge, which is 60% of its population is between the ages of 15 and 29 and Pakistan doesn’t have jobs for them. And so one thing that I think Pakistan gets out of the United States is that the United States is huge and a lot of Pakistanis wanna come to America. Sure there’s some anti-Americanism. A lot of people over the world are critical of US policies in some shape and form, but the United States host one of the largest Pakistani diasporas in the country and Pakistanis want to come to the US. They line outside the Embassy and the consulate. They know a lot about America, American football and American basketball stuff I know nothing about, but [chuckle] a lot Pakistanis…

43:06 Aaron Ross Powell: Do the Pakistanis have a favorite football team?

43:08 Sahar Khan: I don’t know.

43:09 Trevor Burrus: You wanna mention the Patriots, don’t you?

43:12 Aaron Ross Powell: I don’t know, I’m just curious.


43:13 Trevor Burrus: They’re much more cricket people.

43:14 Sahar Khan: Yeah. I feel like that might be… That might add to the stress of…

43:18 Trevor Burrus: Yes.

43:19 Sahar Khan: US-Pakistan relations, [chuckle] so I’m just not gonna answer that football question, but I think generally Pakistanis, they believe in the American Dream. America is a country where you can come and you can work hard and you can have a better life based on merit and unfortunately that does not exist in Pakistan. So I think one thing that the Pakistani government perhaps gets out of it is that a lot of its population wants to come to the US and is able to come to the US through legal means, student visas, tourist visas, professional visas, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera and actually the current government, Imran Khan’s government, this is the first time he’s Prime Minister, it’s only been a month, but before he became Prime Minister, he has had a huge philanthropic role. So he’s created a huge cancer hospital in the country and universities et cetera, which actually made him fundraise abroad, especially in the US, UK, Australia. So he’s really a lot more plugged in to the diaspora than say other political leaders were.

44:21 Sahar Khan: In fact, this Sunday at the Pakistan Embassy, the foreign minister was there and he invited a great deal of prominent diaspora Pakistanis to talk about what kind of change do they wanna see as a way to engage the diaspora with Pakistani policies and officials. And so I think the sense is that for Pakistan, this is a place where Pakistanis can live, can earn well and potentially send money back home, which essentially helps the Pakistani economy because people have family there and siblings there and stuff like that. So I’ll say that’s one level that helps Pakistan’s relationship.

44:58 Sahar Khan: I think the other is… The United States is a global power. I mean we can argue about the liberal world order and the US power in absolute or relative terms, but the thing is it’s still a major power, the country, right? And having the United States as a friend ultimately helps you when it comes to getting loans from the International Monetary Fund or when it comes to backing you up on any political agenda in the United Nations or when it just comes to supporting you in regional disputes and so I think Pakistan views the US relationship favorably. They just would like the United States to side with them a lot more than the US has.

45:37 Trevor Burrus: So it seems that as we talked about Bush, post 9/11 world, Bush, Obama and now Trump have all threatened, tried to get Pakistan to change its behaviour towards especially funding these groups and nothing has really changed. Sometimes they take the money, sometimes they give it back. Trump’s doing it again. Do you see anything? So that seems to be the same. Everyone’s afraid that Trump was gonna be so different, he’s doing the same thing that Obama and Bush did. Do you see anything else really different happening here or just the kind of the same thing will happen, there will be threats, Pakistan won’t change and relations between Pakistan and America will be generally okay, which I think is a good way of describing it or does Trump present some sort of difficulties that are gonna be new?

46:20 Sahar Khan: I think in the Pakistani calculus, Trump is certainly a surprise, but that said, I don’t think that there will be much of a change and there might be a change only if Pakistan is able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table in a way where the Taliban not only has direct talks with the United States, which it’s been wanting to do and actually asked to do this year, but if Pakistan is also able to have talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and able to convince them that they should participate in the Afghani parliamentary elections, which are going to be later this fall, I think that might bring about a positive change in the US, Pakistan relationship, but I think the relationship won’t change if the United States keeps thinking that it can convince Pakistan that sponsoring militant groups is not in its interest.


47:22 S4: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes and if you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.