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In conversation with Hina Rabbani Khar

The country’s youngest and only woman foreign minister discusses the region and our ties with India and the US

By Mehr Tarar |
PUBLISHED October 31, 2021

In February 2011, Member of National Assembly Hina Rabbani Khar was appointed the 26th foreign minister of Pakistan in the Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) government. Khar, then 33, was the youngest person to serve as Pakistan’s foreign minister. The appointment also made her the first and so far, the only female foreign minister of Pakistan. The three-time MNA Khar has also served as Minister of State for Economic Affairs and Minister of State for Finance.

Khar as foreign minister focused on building and strengthening Pakistan’s relations with its neighbours, giving a ‘Regional Pivot’ to Pakistan’s foreign policy: “Normalisation of trade relations with India; a policy of reaching out to all political parties and ethnicities in Afghanistan; an active role in an Afghan-led and Afghan owned process of reconciliation; and cementing of ties with Iran in a difficult time of increasing economic sanctions.”

I have always found the charismatic Khar to be articulate, composed, dignified—some of the most important qualities for the highest office of foreign office. To me as a woman in a patriarchal Pakistan, her achievements symbolise the best of Pakistan’s empowerment of its female politicians.

I asked three ambassadors—one serving, two retired—about their assessment of Khar’s work as Foreign Minister from February 2011-March 2013 in PPP’s governmental term, (2008-2013) during one of the most precarious and complex periods of Pakistan’s history in terms of its relations with the US, the countries in the region, and the world in general.

The first ambassador was succinct: “Quite good.”

The second ambassador said: “I worked closely with her [Khar]. She can be counted as one of the best Foreign Ministers we have had. Clear headed, mature, hardworking, and someone who understands the nuances of foreign policies. During her tenure, we never faced a situation where we had to retract or clarify a statement given by her. [She] would always come up with innovative ideas. [She] was taken seriously by her interlocutors and remains well respected in the international circuit.”

The third ambassador stated: “She [Khar] was one of our best foreign ministers. Her formidable strengths were her clarity of vision and the indefatigable energy to realise Pakistan’s diplomatic objectives. Indubitably, she did full justice to the very demanding portfolio.”

I asked the former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar a few questions:


MT: What are your thoughts on the state of play in Pakistan-US relations?

HRK: It goes without saying that the US will continue to be an important force not only within the region but in the overall world order. Pakistan-US relations have suffered from becoming a by-product of whatever has happened in Afghanistan post 9-11, and that obviously has been a big problem in the last decade and a half. Pakistan, I think, now needs to concentrate on trying to get back on the bilateral track, which is reasonable and realistic in its expectations of the US. And the same goes for the US.

Hopefully, the US will resist the temptation of continuing to blame Pakistan for many of the wrongs that took place in Afghanistan. I fear that as the situation in Afghanistan may not stabilise any time soon, the US and many other western powers will once again be encouraged to put the blame on what is considered to be Pakistan’s role.


MT: Do you see any prospect of a Pakistan-India thaw?

HRK: The simple answer is no. I don’t see any possible thaw in the Pakistan-India relations, and the reason for that is very simple: India under Modi is persistently going on the track that is extremist in nature and un-secular, and on which India and its leaders currently feel that they gain by propagating hatred, mistrust, and extreme antagonistic words and behaviour against Pakistan. When a country feels that its in its interest to be antagonistic towards another country, and if a leader feels that it is in his public interest to propagate antagonistic behaviour and feelings toward another country, the chance of a real thaw that leads to some real gains is clearly very low.

Yes, a thaw was visible when we saw peace on the LoC. That means that tension has reduced considerably, but will we be able to normalise [our relations], I would not say that. I would also say that perhaps for the first time in my 44 years I’m seriously concerned about another escalation of a level that we previously saw, and like any other time we do not know where that escalation ladder can lead us. In the last many decades I think we have been living in the most dangerous times when it comes to the subcontinental rivalry.


MT: Are today’s Taliban actually different from the old ones?

HRK: I don’t know, really. I mean, I refuse to believe that somebody saying they are different makes them different. As the drama of August 15 unfolded in front of our eyes, many of us—I think almost the entire world, including the Taliban themselves—could not believe what was happening, and the pace at which it was happening. Immediately after that we heard some very encouraging words. Even at that time, I kept saying to whoever asked that I would be waiting for the Taliban to walk the talk because the talk looked pretty good.

They talked about an inclusive government that is open to everyone, and takes care of the minorities, education for women on all levels, women given the opportunity to pursue their careers. Now when you see the first few weeks of the Taliban regime, I think the world has not helped by ensuring that the Taliban don’t have access to their own country’s reserves, as that doesn’t give them a fair chance to be able to even have a modicum of order within Afghanistan, and therefore becoming a security threat for its neighbours.

Having said that, I’m particularly concerned that the [option of] education for girls, even the young ones, is not there yet. I’m particularly concerned that many professional women are being denied the chance to work. And I’m particularly concerned about a general lack of space for cultural and other events. I feel very strongly that in the absence of an inclusive government—currently, Taliban are calling it an interim government—in the medium or long run, we might see a situation that is similar to what we experienced many decades ago, which is a reversion to a civil war-like situation.


MT: Can Pakistan be a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

HRK: I remember we worked very hard on this [Pakistan and its ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran] when PPP was in government, and I was in the foreign ministry. We took a very strong stance that Pakistan has strong ties with both the countries. With Saudi Arabia we have had long strategic relations, and Iran also happens to be the country that is exceptionally important to us. We put its importance back on track by saying Iran’s our neighbour.

Pakistan’s stance is equally positive and friendly towards both the countries. It is in our interest to pursue good, brotherly, strong relations based on mutual trust and respect with both the countries. We said that we would not be part of this game of making a choice and that we would strive to strengthen relations with both countries at the same time.

Pakistan should stop looking to act as a bridge between different countries, as a solver of problems of different countries, and as a giver of goodies to different countries. Pakistan has to concentrate inward to strengthen itself to be in a position to be able to play any of those roles with more credibility. Right now, Pakistan’s interests should be more local; they should be entirely concentrated on making Pakistan an independent country that is able to make its economic, political, and diplomatic choices on its own terms.


MT: If you were the foreign minister, would you have done anything differently?

HRK: I think I would have done everything differently! The reason for that is simple. I think a foreign minister’s job, and for that matter, anyone’s job in the foreign ministry, requires less talk and more action. I think we have to be very careful with our choice of words. I think we have to be very careful when and with whom those words are used.

I have a serious problem with many people in the Pakistani government right now becoming spokespersons for the Taliban. I have a serious problem with Pakistan for not stating to the world Pakistan’s concerns on the security situation that is currently becoming a challenge for us because of what has happened in Afghanistan, about Pakistan not making a stronger case of how irresponsible the exit of the western forces from Afghanistan was, and how that has had repercussions for the entire region that we may have a very long time trying to get out of.

I would never talk about the Pakistani prime minister not receiving a call or even the need for a call. I think diplomacy needs to be conducted less aggressively and much more maturely. And we have to be very, very careful with our choice of words. Speak less and do more.